Pacific Northwest | January 11, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 11, home
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Perennial Impatience
Weary of our fussy flowers' demands, we seek solutions
Maintenance-heavy perennials like these Aster novae-angliae 'Alma Potschke' burn gardeners out with their need for pinching, staking and frequent dividing.
The long, hot summer of '03 finished off my infatuation with perennials. While the shrubs and trees in my garden mostly kept their good looks despite months of drought, the perennials slumped and crisped; some bloomed only briefly. All survived but looked so tatty I wasn't sure it was worth the trouble or the water bill.

I'm afraid much of this is my own fault, because our moderate weather usually gives plenty of wiggle room to plant in less than ideal conditions. I love to have plenty of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) to cut for bouquets, so I've curbed its invasive tendencies by planting it at the top of a dry slope rather than in the wetter soil it would prefer. But this summer, the poor plants collapsed. More frequent dividing would have helped — a fact made all too apparent when spreaders like asters and even crocosmia flopped far too soon.
Illustration Now In Bloom
The white, pink-tinged bark of birch trees is more spectacular once the leaves drop in autumn. The silvery bleached trunks stand out brilliantly on dark winter days, especially when planted in small groves for maximum impact. Betula albo-sinensis has especially beautiful bark that glows pinkish brown to shades of copper, covered with chalky white bloom. The river birch, Betula nigra, tolerates wet soil and has flaky cinnamon-toned bark; the paper birch, B. papyrifera, has creamy white bark that peels off in papery layers.
Are these once-loved plants now driving me crazy because I'm getting older — or lazy? I decided to see if the experts are as out of patience with perennials as I am.

"I wouldn't say we're tired of perennials," says Glenn Withey of the Withey Price design team. "But there are many of them we don't use anymore." A while ago, they began to "veer off" into trees and shrubs, and the perennials they still do use "have to behave and perform."

Tropical-meister Ben Hammontree notes that perennials are like people. "They need the right diet, to live in the right place, even exercise, by that I mean dividing. I find I'm using more shrubs and other exotic plants that can take the Northwest weather without so much fuss." Still, he couldn't help mention he was going to try a delphinium patch again next year. "So sometimes I still take on a task of torture, which makes the garden fun."

Designer Linda Plato has been ripping out the fussier perennials and hardy geraniums that wickedly self-sow. But of favorites like hellebores and rudbeckia, she says, "What can you do? They're ironclad."

Dan Borroff has noticed no one seems to be asking for perennial-laden English-cottage gardens anymore. Known for environmentally sensitive design, he appreciates perennials for their ability to adapt to microclimates and the vicissitudes of specific sites.

I decided to go farther afield for allies in disenchantment and consulted Tom Fischer, my editor at Horticulture magazine, who lives and gardens in Boston.

"Shrubs and bulbs do seem to be getting more attention these days," he says, "but since they were relatively neglected, it just seems to be a righting of the balance." He sees a shift away from border perennials like phlox and some of the asters that take so much maintenance. "I think we're finally waking up to the fact that perennials don't need to be ghettoized, but can be tucked in almost anywhere as long as you take the time to learn what conditions they need." For his part, Fischer admits, "I'd rather die than give up my German delphiniums."

What about the whole European influence? Clare Foster, editor of the award-winning magazine Gardens Illustrated, e-mailed her answer from London: "I'm not sure gardeners over here are feeling tired of perennials. A naturalistic style of plantings is still very much 'in,' a spinoff from the perennial and grasses movement that originated in Holland." However, she wonders about the effect of England's popular TV garden-makeover shows where plants play second to hardscaping. "People want perfectly decorated spaces without the hard work, and if this means a few well-placed shrubs that need no looking after, then so much the better!"

Seattle designer Virginia Hand sums up by saying, "Maybe I'm a slow learner, but I'm not ready to give up on perennials yet." Perhaps it's because she and I share a birthday that she knows me well enough to add, "Come on, Val, I know I'll find you at the nurseries cruising the perennial sections next year, too!"

She's probably right, but I swear I'm not buying any delphiniums.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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