Big, bold perennial blooms stand out in the garden

June 12, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Big and bold, the way they do things in Texas, is the attitude toward perennial gardening JoAnn Walla brought with her when she and her husband moved from College Station, Texas, to Lexington, Ky., almost four years ago.

Never mind that Ms. Walla had never seen or heard of most standard perennials, not even peonies.

In a home greenhouse, she had raised more than 400 varieties of cactus. But "we never tried to garden or have flowers outside. It was too hot and too dry," she said. "By July, the temperatures would be 110 to 113. Everything just burned up."

Maybe Ms. Walla arrived in the Bluegrass with a pent-up desire to garden.

Certainly she was encouraged by Kentucky's rain and milder summers.

After three years, her perennial border is a stunning success, a brilliant swath of hot pinks, reds and purples.

Woven throughout are purple bearded iris, columbine, lupines, sweet rocket, larkspur, Canterbury bells, campanula and dianthus.

Take a closer look and you can pick out the familiar foliage of other favorites yet to bloom: coral bells, nigella, coreopsis, purple coneflower, hemerocallis, garden phlox, shasta daisies, yarrow, tansy and hardy asters.

Three years ago, when she designed the garden, "I kept asking Walter, are you sure this is big enough. He kept saying, are you sure you want it this big?" she said.

The bed is 200 feet long and 6- to 8-feet wide. It sweeps across the center of the backyard of their 2-acre lot in the shape of a giant "L."

Her husband scraped off sod with a shovel, unaware that he could rent machines that cut and roll the sod. "We did a lot of things the hard way," Ms. Walla said.

The entire bed was raised 36 inches with a mixture of top soil and horse manure.

Enough is enough

When asked how much soil they wanted delivered, "Walter said start bringing it and we'll let you know when it's enough," Ms. Walla recalled.

Nine dump truckloads later, the Wallas decided, "Enough."

The soil is mounded the length of the long bed, sloping down the sides. The mounding assures good drainage and makes the garden more attractive than if it were flat.

The next major challenge was to decide what to grow and how to grow it. She relied heavily on extension-service publications on perennials, and on specific flowers such as iris, tulips, and roses.

"I also got a lot of information from seed catalogs like Burpee, Stokes and Park Seed. I turned to the section on perennials. They have a paragraph on each flower that gives you the height, the color, when it will bloom and whether to start it in seed flats or direct sow it in the ground," Ms. Walla said.

Yet nothing beats hands-on experience.

By May 1, Ms. Walla had 11 flats of perennial seedlings ready to transplant.

She grew almost everything from seed. "It's a challenge. If you like to garden, it's exciting to start things from seed and see them grow," she said. Not to mention the money saved from not buying perennials from a garden center.

Even with her research, Ms. Walla was not exactly sure what grew short or what grew tall.

"Everything you see here has been moved at least one time," Ms. Walla said.

Factors of success

The success of the perennial bed can be attributed to three factors: sturdy seedlings; rich, loose soil; and full sun.

Already many plants including digitalis, dianthus, garden phlox and lupines have been divided, at least once, and shared with friends.

Wire cages made from concrete-reinforcing wire are placed over most plants to keep them from flopping over in rain storms or when blooms become too heavy.

As if her perennials weren't enough, Ms. Walla has a cutting bed of statice, gomphrena, straw flowers, celosia, and love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus). She dries the flowers and makes wreaths that she sells.

Here are some growing tips from Ms. Walla:

* Start with good, loose soil in a location that enjoys full sun.

* Remove seed pods from cleome, nigella and other plants that reseed too aggressively.

* Let other things you want to spread go to seed, like columbine, forget-me-nots, hollyhocks and lupine.

* Mulch beds generously to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

* In the fall, let plants die down and don't remove old foliage until mid-March. This gives protection to tender shoots emerging in the spring.

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