Myths of the Perennial Garden Debunked

Some of the most beautiful images ever to grace the covers of gardening books and magazines are of impeccably maintained, abundant, sweeping perennial gardens. We look at these images and dream. If only someday I won the lottery or I had a staff of gardeners, I could have a garden like this. There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding perennial gardens. You don’t need a staff of gardeners or have to win the lottery to have a beautiful perennial garden. Many myths surrounding perennial gardens are untrue.

Residential Perennial Garden

As Landscape Architects, we use the perennial garden as a tool in our design palette. As with any tool, it has its pros and cons. There are times and places to use a perennial garden and times and places when the design can be over forced and does not flow with the design or property. As with any design, it is important to place the right design elements or plantings, in the right place to encourage the long-term success of the individual plant and overall design of the garden.

Perennial garden mixture of shrubs, roses and bulbs.
The Rockefeller Garden by Beatrix Farrand

Many people believe that a perennial garden must contain only perennials. This is a misconception, many very successful garden designers throughout history, such as Gertrude Jekyll and Beatrix Farrand, created perennial gardens with a mixture of perennials, shrubs, roses and bulbs. More contemporary designers, add ornamental grasses to their perennial gardens to create year round interest, scale and rhythm.  There are no hard set rules about what you can or can’t put into your garden. As a rule of thumb, if a garden is mostly perennials, then it can be considered a perennial garden.Many people believe perennial gardens are hard to maintain. As with any landscape element you want to have look its best, a minimum level of maintenance is required to keep a perennial border looking good. Occasional weeding, to remove weeds and seedlings, must happen during the growing season, as is the case with any garden or shrub border. Most perennials require very little maintenance or upkeep once established.

Perennials planted along the edge of a lawn or interspersed in the natural landscape will provide seasonal interest

Some perennials may need to occasionally be cutting back, staked, dead-headed or divided. Depending on your zone, some tender perennials may need winter protection; they can be covered with leaves, additional mulch or evergreen boughs. However, these are easy to avoid if you don’t want the added care. If you desire a more low maintenance perennial garden, then it is best to utilize the easier to maintain plants that will thrive in a broad range of conditions. Some of the easiest low care perennials are peonies, daylilies, catmint and hostas. These easy growers will generally provide years of enjoyment in the garden with very little work.

A perrenial garden along a terrace wall can be an attractive element to view from the terrace

Many people believe that perennials require no care and many people believe that they can plant them and let the plants take care of themselves. There are just as many people who believe that perennials require too much care and are hard to maintain, as there are people who believe that you can just plant them and forget them. Perennials are like most plants, in that you cannot just stick them in the ground and expect success without some minimum amount of attention. At a minimum, they need to be weeded, occasionally divided, watered, fertilized, and occasionally pruned or staked. Plants need to have water during drought conditions and newly planted perennials need water to become established. Once established, most perennials adapt well to local conditions. As with any type of garden bed, weeding needs to be done on a regular basis to control unwanted species from overrunning the perennials. The plants once established should only need minimal fertilizing to correct soil deficiencies; this can usually be accomplished while mulching the beds. Some perennials occasionally need to be divided as they thrive and fill in, like German bearded iris, coreopsis, ornamental grasses and summer phlox. The benefit of this is you will have more plants for your garden. Others like delphiniums and peonies need to be staked during flowering so that rains or winds do not crush them to the ground and obscure the flowers.

Irises with a backdrop of a stone wall can be very simple to grow


Many people confuse perennials and annuals. Perennials are plants that regrow from their roots every year after a dormant period in the winter months. Annuals are seasonal and need to be replanted every season. Depending on the hardiness of the different varieties or species, all true perennials will rebloom every year in the Northeastern U.S. Some perennials are tender perennials, depending on the zone you are in and the may not over winter. Be sure to check the USDA’s plant hardiness zone map to determine what zone you are in and to confirm that the plant you are buying will survive in your zone.

It is a common misconception that perennial gardens are messy. Some perennial beds are very abundant and can have an unkempt look to them. Perennial beds take some care to keep them looking neat, but perennials as a whole, are looser and more open growing, so they may look messy to some. Not all perennial borders can be the immaculate matching stalwarts seen in formal gardens in England. Since perennials are not pruned like hedges, they have a more open, flowing appearance. It is a style and taste issue some people like the look and some people don’t.

Some types of perennials can be left through the winter to provide interest.
Some types of perennials can be left through the winter to provide seasonal interest.  The seed heads of Coneflower and Black Eyed Susans also provide food for wildlife

Many people believe that if they have a perennial garden they will have nothing but an unattractive mulch bed full of dead plants all winter long.  It is true that in the winter most perennials should be cut to the ground to remove dead or spent flower heads, so the bed will only look empty, not ugly. However, some types of perennials, such as Sedums, Black Eyed Susans and Cone Flower, can be left though the winter to provide winter interest, since they have nice form, good dried flower heads or look good covered with snow. The seed heads will also attract birds and wildlife to your garden. Ornamental grasses, which should only be cut down in the spring, create a striking silhouette in the winter months.

Part of the joy of gardening comes from trying new things and finding unusual plant combinations.
Ornamental Grasses can be left all winter and cut back in early spring providing winter interest.

It is a common misconception that it is impossible to create a pleasing design with perennials. Anyone can create a pleasing perennial garden whether it be a neophyte or an expert. The secret is to put in a garden what fits well with the property, is sized correctly and is in a proper location (sun vs. shade) for the style of garden you desire. Neophytes may have to hire professional to help in designing that special perennial garden. Next, if you choose plants that are suited to the site, they will survive and thrive with less maintenance. One of the beauties of perennial gardens is that the plants are smaller, so if something doesn’t work it can be swapped out without much fuss. Part of the joy of gardening comes from trying new things and finding unusual plant combinations.

All flowering plants, such as trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials will attract insects like bees or moths during flowering periods, but perennials as a group do not invite more insects than any other types of plants. If you are concerned about bees or other flying insects, it is important to place plants that are more prone to attract the nuisance insects away from gathering spots like pools, terraces or outdoor kitchen areas. Perennials are not known to attract other pests like rabbits, gophers, mice or squirrels any more than other types of plantings.

Not all perennials require full sun. There are many beautiful shade-loving perennials that prefer dappled shade or full shade.
Not all perennials require full sun. There are many beautiful shade-loving perennials that prefer dappled shade or full shade.

Many people believe that perennial gardens require full sun to thrive.  Not all perennials require full sun. There are many beautiful shade loving perennials that prefer dappled shade or full shade, such as Coral bells (Heuchera), Foam Flower (Tiarella), Ferns, Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra) and Lily-of-the Valley.  However, there are a wider variety of perennials that do prefer or require full sun. To create a successful perennial garden for your property it is important that you understand the site and growing conditions (how much sun, how much shade, part shade) and incorporate plants that fit with the site.’I can’t have a formal garden with perennials’ is a common misconception. Perennials

and perennial gardens can be incorporated into almost any style of planting. Many perennial gardens are part of naturalistic designed plantings, but they can also be incorporated into more formal landscapes. Boxwood hedges interplanted with a variety of colorful blooming perennials can be seen in parterre gardens. A more casual informal planting style can be incorporated into almost any property. A perennial border that wraps around the edge of a lawn, with sinuous lines or in cottage-garden style borders, that flow between hard-edged garden beds, hedges or lawns, are great compliments to any garden.

Many people believe the garden will only look good in the summer. There are a wide variety of perennials that bloom at all other times of the growing season both before and after the summer blooming period. It is easy to select spring and fall blooming varieties to create a perennial garden with a longer blooming season, so that the garden will look good longer.  Most individual perennials have a limited bloom period so it is important to create a design which incorporates many plants that spread out the bloom period. This can also be an opportunity to design seasonal garden rooms, such as a spring garden or fall garden with concentrated bloom times to create a big effect.


Black Berry Lilly - Belamcanda Chinensis
Black Berry Lilly – Belamcanda Chinensis – The blooms of this lovely perennial each only last one day.
I will have blooms all summer long is a common belief among new gardeners when thinking about perennials. Unlike annual flowers, that most of us plant in our gardens or pots (petunias, impatiens, ageratum, etc.) most perennials have a distinct bloom periodthat can last from several days to several weeks. The flowers of Blackberry Lilly each lastonly one day and then die, but many flower buds allow the plant to bloom for several weeks. Whereas Coreopsis and some Daylilies will produce new flower buds and rebloom from June through frost creating a show all summer. Many Sedums have a flower head that will emerge in the summer, bloom for several weeks and then persist through the winter, changing from green to pink to grey. Creating an appealing design with a longer bloom period for the garden planting needs to include a variety of perennials that bloom from early spring to late fall.

Unlike most trees or shrubs, perennials have a life span measured in years not decades or centuries, perennials can live a few years to a dozen years. Often times, individual plants will die but spreading perennials that colonize an area, may persist for much longer. Some perennials will self seed and spread without any help from the gardener, allowing them to persist in the garden for much longer. As with most plants, the health of the plants is directly dependent on the site conditions, care and water. Given a minimal amount of care most perennials will provide years of consistent blooms in the garden.

Fern Glen

We can help you plan ahead to make your perennial garden a reality, call Rock Spring Design Group, LLC 203•268•6979 or email us at today for a free one hour consultation to start planning your upcoming landscape project.  Thank you for visiting our blog where we provide a fresh viewpoint with great information and insights on Landscape Architecture, site planning and the world of outdoor design.

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