Some perennials can age gracefully

Stages of growth make plants interesting, if not always pretty

In The Garden

October 31, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While annuals look the same -- only more so -- as they progress through summer, perennials change over the course of a seasonal life. This is one big reason to plant them in the first place.

"It's the changes -- from the first folding out of the leaves to the blooms, then the seed heads and the last fall color -- that make them exciting," says Paul Babikow, owner of Babikow Greenhouses, a wholesale grower in Rosedale.

Yet not all stages of growth are attractive on all perennials. Some start out as ugly ducklings. Others go through a gawky adolescence -- all stalks and floppy leaves. Still more degenerate toward the end into scraggly stems and increasingly sparse foliage. But some perennials -- like some people -- sail through their seasonal life cycles without ever passing through an awkward stage. Of course, as with families, not every member of a species manages this forever-dapper look.

"Some ferns look terrible in fall, but some turn a nice bronzy color that lasts into winter," observes Lydia Kimball, landscape architect with Mahan Rykiel Associates in Baltimore. "And some, like Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), are evergreen and look great year-round."

Graceful aging is variety specific. For example, in general, toad lilies develop unkempt clusters of brown leaves at their bases even before they bloom. But the toad lily Tricyrtis 'Sinonome' maintains its green foliage, flowers in early October and keeps blooming -- and looking great -- until it's felled by killing frost. Cranesbill geraniums like 'Johnson's Blue' often get leggy and collapse in our summer heat. But G. x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo,' which opens rose-blushed white flowers in late May, holds up the whole summer -- usually with bloom -- then turns blood red in fall.

"Geranium 'Rozanne' stays beautiful from spring right on through to hard frost and doesn't flop," says Muffin Evander, owner of Cultivated Designs, a container design firm in Baltimore.

Many of the herbaceous perennials that pull off this never-a-hair-out-of-place thing are natives. Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Lamb's ears (Stachys lanata), ground covering wild gingers (Asarum), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) and Snakeroot (Cimicifuga) all offer a number of ever-good varieties.

"Cimicifuga racemosa 'Bru-nette' is wonderfully long-lived and reliable with dark deep mahogany foliage," says Babikow. "It doesn't flower until late July but the flowers last and its fragrance permeates the whole garden all fall."

While staying power is a scattershot affair among many perennials,virtually all the ornamental grasses look fabulous start to finish. They send up thickets of reedy foliage beginning in late March here in Maryland, grow more beautiful as the season progresses and finally give up somewhere the following February when their whispering-dry foliage and inflorescences (plumey seed heads) are shorn.

Kimball says she especially likes Japanese blood grass -- Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' ('Red Baron') -- "because it's striking red in fall," and switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal). "It's big -- 4 to 5 feet tall -- with bluish foliage and late summer seed plumes tipped in copper."

Succulents, too, with their water-retentive leaves and stems, tend toward flawless seasonal transitions. Sedum 'Autumn Joy,' which remains like a soldier at its post even once its flower heads dry, looks great in a winter garden. Ground-covering S. kamtschaticum 'Variegatum' with scalloped, deep green leaves variegated with purple and cream, S. spurium 'Bronze Carpet' whose green leaves age to bronze, and S. spurium 'Red Carpet,' which remains deep burgundy all year, can help anchor a mixed border for three seasons. Bergenia 'Winterglow' is practically a four-season plant. Its begonia-like leaves turn from kelly green in summer to ruby red in fall and winter. Additionally, the plant is covered with fuschia-pink bloom in spring.

"You get four wonderful weeks of bloom under almost any circumstances," says Bill Boonstra, owner of Bluestone Perennials in Madison, Ohio. "And if it's in a happy place, you'll get seven weeks in glorious flower and sometimes it reblooms in fall."

Virtues of top performers

Plants that remain beautiful throughout their seasonal lives have several things in common:

First, leaves keep their color and shape with little or no die-back. For example, Heuchera var. diversifolia 'Palace Purple' is the Dick Clark of perennials and needs a mere touch-up when growth begins in the new gardening year.

Second, they are low-maintenance -- no grooming -- like false aster, Kalimeris pinnatifida. "It's like a tiny, delicate mum," says Evander. "But it's a total no-brainer in the border. No dead-heading, no bugs or diseases, long-blooming, it looks great all the time."

Third, they are resistant to drought but also stand up to well to extended rain. And finally, they don't need staking.

"Artemisia lactiflora 'Guizhou' has towering white plumes 4 feet high that just keep going," notes Babikow. "But the stems are really sturdy."


Bluestone Perennials

7211 Middle Ridge Rd.

Madison, OH 44057


www.bluestoneperennials. com

Bluemount Nursery

2103 Bluemount Rd.

Monkton, MD 21111


Babikow Greenhouses

7838 Babikow Rd.

Rosedale, MD 21237


Kingstown Farm, Home, and Garden Center

7121 Church Hill Rd.

Chestertown, MD 21620


Homestead Gardens

643 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035


www.homesteadgardens. com

Sun Nurseries

14790 Bushy Park Road

Woodbine, MD 21797


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