Question Pops Up Annually

THE REAL DIRT

March 20, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

It's a perennial problem I face annually: perennials or annuals?

Should I raise flowers that return year after year, or those that bloom one season and die? Do I want the same pretty faces each summer, or new ones that change regularly?

Should I make my bed once in a lifetime, or redo it every spring?

Tough questions, all. Yet relevant ones as homeowners re-evaluate their gardening priorities each year.

Perennials are hardy, predictable plants that survive cold winters to reappear each spring. Peonies, sedums and phlox are perennials. Though slow-growing, they add stability to flower beds.

Annuals -- petunias, impatiens and zinnias -- are fast-blooming but short-lived plants that make the most of fleeting fame. Here today, compost tomorrow. But while they're here, wow.

Perennials or annuals? Long-range security or immediate gratification? My friend Ralph, who's grown both perennials and annuals, says it's like choosing between marriage and a mistress.

Which plants are easily maintained and least expensive to grow? Which ones are best for you?

Annuals are dirt cheap, but the plants must be purchased each year. Not so the perennials, whose longevity offsets their initial cost.

Annuals are available for a few frenzied weeks in spring, when homeowners hurry to garden centers and grab the best-looking coleus and geraniums. Buying perennials is no problem: Most plants are available through autumn. And they are sold in pots large enough to maintain the plants for several weeks, unlike the tiny containers in which annuals are squashed.

Many gardeners enjoy the satisfaction of raising their own annuals from seed; any child can grow marigolds. Perennials, however, seldom breed true from seed and are reproduced vegetatively, by dividing mature plants. Dividing perennials is a snap; all you need is a sharp knife. However, the procedure can keep plants from flowering for a year.

Annuals are shallow feeders and more vulnerable to drought than perennials, whose roots go much deeper. But their shallow roots make annuals more receptive to container gardening, such as tubs and window boxes.

Most annuals bloom all summer, while perennials flower but a few weeks -- usually while you're away on vacation. Still, careful planning can produce a multifaceted perennial garden that is always in bloom. Creating such a bed is no easy task, says Barbara Damrosch in her book "The Garden Primer":

"Planning such a [perennial] garden is like conducting an orchestra that won't sit still. By the time the violins show up, the flutes are breaking for lunch. When you finally get the trumpets' attention, the oboes have wandered off."

Perennials can be invasive pests, taking over whole gardens in time. Mint, black-eyed Susans and lamb's-ears will do this, unless checked routinely. Annuals are benign in this respect; they are too short-lived to cause trouble.

Perennials offer a greater selection for home gardeners, who have thousands of hybrids from which to choose. However, the plants may take years to reach maturity. Peonies planted this spring may not bloom before 1996.

Sometimes the line between annuals and perennials becomes fuzzy. Annuals may act like perennial wannabes: Some flowers reseed themselves, popping up the following spring in all the wrong places. Once I sowed snapdragons, which performed unscheduled encores for the next three summers. This was OK; I like snapdragons. But it vexes folks who want a new garden each year, to have an old plant return to haunt them.

Similarly, perennials require annual attention. Never mind what the clerk in the garden center said: There are no carefree plants. Low maintenance, maybe. But perennials have routine needs, too, including weeding, fertilizing, staking, mulching, watering, pinching, thinning and dividing. Not to mention regular bug checks.

Come winter, the vigil continues. Mulching plants protects their roots from temperature fluctuations that can lead them to heave right out of the ground. Perennials should also be checked for wet feet and soil erosion caused by heavy rains or melting snow.

But the effort is rewarded when the first green shoots poke tentatively through the bleak dark soil.

Perennials or annuals? It's a tough call. Each has its merits.

My flower bed runs beside a split-rail fence. Maybe I'll straddle that fence, and plant both.

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