Purchasing the Best Perennials

If you haven’t already, it won’t be long until you find yourself at your favorite garden center to choose some new perennials for your garden. Whether you are prepared with list in hand (and disciplined enough to stick to it) or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-gardening-pants sort of shopper, there are important questions to answer to be sure you are taking home the best perennials for your landscape.

Is the plant perennial in my area?

If you are at a local garden center, annuals and perennials are generally displayed separately, and labels should include hardiness information. Box stores may also have them separated and labeled, but their plants may have been grown by a southern grower. They may be reliably perennial there but not hardy enough to survive our more severe winters. A quick check on your smartphone should answer the question.

Is this the right perennial for my garden?

Be sure the plant is suitable for the sunlight your garden offers. Perennials that need full sun require direct sunlight for at least 7 or 8 hours. Perennials that prefer deep shade are for the darkest areas in your landscape. The parameters for part sun and part shade may differ a bit from garden center to garden center. The difference between them is often the time of day plants are exposed to the sun’s rays. Plants for part sun tolerate less than full sun but prefer the hot afternoon sun. Plants for part shade thrive in the gentle morning sun but need protection from it in the afternoon, or they grow beautifully in filtered light all day.

Just as a square peg won’t fit in a round hole, a plant meant for sun shouldn’t be planted in shade. It may survive in part shade, but its stems may flop or it might not bloom. In full sun, the leaves of a perennial longing for shade will bleach out or burn.

The same goes for a perennial’s soil requirements. Lucky for gardeners, most perennials are reasonably adaptable to our soils if they have been amended with organic matter and they are not very wet or very dry. A quick read of the plant’s label should reveal less-forgiving perennials.

Is the perennial healthy?

Do a quick visual examination of the plant. It should be bushy, well-branched and have strong stems. The foliage color should be bright and rich. A plant should fill the pot unless you are purchasing a perennial just waking from winter dormancy. In that case, there should be lots of new growth popping through the soil.

Examine the roots, too. First, check the bottom of the pot. A few roots poking through drainage holes is fine, but too many indicate the plant may be root-bound. Next, remove the plant from its pot. Yup, I said it. Turn the plant upside down and gently tap the bottom. The soil and root mass should pop out easily. The roots should be lightly-colored and fill, or almost fill, the pot.

When should I put the perennial back on the bench?

Avoid leggy perennials and plants with wilting or yellowing foliage. Plants with distorted, discolored or speckled leaves, holes or spots on foliage or webbing on the undersides of leaves are all reasons to leave them on the benches.

I run from plants with weeds in the pots. I already have enough in my garden without bringing more home. And I always examine the roots of a plant before I purchase it. If I don’t see roots and the soil starts to crumble away, the plant is not sufficiently rooted in and back on the bench it goes. Perennials with pots so congested with roots there is little space left for soil should also be returned to the benches.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Gardeners are willing to accept less than perfection if they discover a perennial they have been hunting for a long time. We know some TLC will go a long way.

Purchase healthy perennials, plant them in the spots they prefer and nurture them while they establish in your landscape. They will reward you with foliage and flowers for years to come.

I’m off to Austin, Texas to meet up with some of my garden blogger friends. We’ll be spending a few days visiting some awesome private and public gardens and, of course, stopping at some area garden centers, too. I can’t wait to share these gardens with you when I get back.

Garden with me!

2 thoughts on “Purchasing the Best Perennials

  1. Diana, I usually look for a perennial that has 2 or 3 plants in it. Many times you will find that true with daylilies or hostas. In fact I picked up a hosta today with a companion in the pot.

    1. That’s a great tip for experienced gardeners who are unafraid to divide. You get two or more plants for the price of one!

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