For many a practical Key Peninsula gardener, this is the time to focus on the vegetable garden —planting seeds, nurturing starts — but this is also a time when the more fanciful aspects of gardening can make life just a little better. And perennials can literally be both front and center.
Unlike annuals, which last for only a year, perennials live for at least three years and may thrive for more than 10. Some die back completely until a seemingly miraculous reincarnation the following season, and some continue to grow and change above ground all year long. The possibilities are endless.
Garden designers Taylor Reed and Cheryl Painter think of perennials as the bones and structure of the garden. “They may cost more up front, but you come out ahead in the long run. They add color and texture to the garden through all seasons and brighten up the grayest of days. Plus, life is busy, and it’s nice to know you don’t have to redo your garden every year,” Reed said.
Claudia Loy, who advised many gardeners when she owned Sunnycrest Nursery, thinks of perennials as the understory of a garden, with trees and shrubs forming the backbone. “They are an investment that pays off year-round,” she said.
“In the spring you see them come to life again, then they flower and then you can enjoy the foliage. If you plan right, there is always something there.”
Ann Lovejoy, a gardener and writer who lives on Bainbridge Island, wrote in her book “American Mixed Border,” “For me, a garden is not something to have but something to do. My relationship with my garden, like that with my husband and my children, is ongoing. Gardens are never finished but always in the making.”
Leila Luginbill, who moved to her mother’s old house in Home with her husband when they retired, embodies that philosophy. The site has history. Her grandmother, Leila Edmonds, one of four daughters of George and Sylvia Allen, who helped found Home, had once lived next door. Luginbill remembers visiting her and working in the vegetable garden, bordered by a field of ubiquitous blackberries. Her parents built their house when they moved from Indiana after retirement. Luginbill and her husband, both teachers, lived in Rocky Bay until they moved to Home 10 years ago. Her mother loved the yard and was known for her garden. Luginbill has now made it her own, with some original plants still thriving, new beds and adjustments in plantings as water flow has made some of the yard boggier.
“Perennials are the way to go. Their blooms can be fleeting. They come up, bloom, and die back. But then the next year, there they are again,” Luginbill said. She is inspired by the innumerable plant catalogs she gets, but also visits nurseries and farmers markets to see what is blooming. She will fall in love with a plant and then figure out a place to put it. “Shop in all seasons,” she said.
Everyone has favorites. Reed and Painter love to incorporate ericas and callunas — both are heathers — into their plans. Peonies, they say, can be a low-maintenance substitute for roses. Hellebores announce that spring is coming, alliums are at their peak in the summer, and echinaceas will last through the fall. Loy loves hostas and hydrangeas, which both do well in our climate.
With so much to choose from, where does a gardener start? Lovejoy recommends looking at gardens in the neighborhood for inspiration. “Just knock on the door or leave a note if you see something you really like,” she said. And using a local independent nursery can help assure that what you purchase will thrive in your location. Loy recommends visiting botanical gardens, especially the Bellevue Botanical Garden and Heronswood in Kingston.
And, says Lovejoy, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Perennials can always be dug up and moved. And if a plant dies, “It’s not the worst thing that can happen.”
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