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Christopher Lloyd knows perennials as well as anyone else alive. Now available in paperback, this book represents the fruit of Lloyd's lifetime study of perennials. Genus by genus, he sets down everything he has learned, thought, seen, tried, liked, or regretted about them, individually or in combination. He is formidably knowledgeable, iconoclastic, opinionated, and always entertaining. Here, meticulously recorded, are his expert opinions about numerous varieties of flowering garden plants, from Acanthus to ...
Christopher Lloyd knows perennials as well as anyone else alive. Now available in paperback, this book represents the fruit of Lloyd's lifetime study of perennials. Genus by genus, he sets down everything he has learned, thought, seen, tried, liked, or regretted about them, individually or in combination. He is formidably knowledgeable, iconoclastic, opinionated, and always entertaining. Here, meticulously recorded, are his expert opinions about numerous varieties of flowering garden plants, from Acanthus to Zigadenus, accompanied by spectacular photographs from Jonathan Buckley and others. Any gardener will find themselves opening this book time and again with pleasure and the frequent thought, "I MUST grow this one, too."
The main difference between this book and the all-embracing encyclopaedia lies in its offering not simply descriptions of plants, but personal assessments of them — their good points and their less good. All the plants included have come within my experience during a long life of gardening, and most I have grown myself at some time. Others, not suited to my conditions in Sussex, I know from other peoples' gardens. So for good or ill, here you have the voice of an individual rather than the omniscience of a faceless team of contributors. I am afraid that I will certainly have omitted some plants which you may want to look up. But then, we all need more than one work of reference, and I suppose that what I most hope for is that those who consult this tome may actually enjoy it. I love plants: at least that must be clear — perhaps even infectious.
What are perennials?
Taken literally, the word would refer to any plant that carries on living over a period of years as an individual. This would include shrubs and trees, which would clearly be unhelpful. We gardeners generally imply herbaceous perennials.
Herbaceous is a term that has had a long innings and the herbaceous border (not, as my one-time botany teacher told us, to be confused with the vegetarian lodger) has been a popular concept since Gertrude Jekyll's time at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — though she herself referred to her principal mixed border as just that, not as specifically herbaceous at all. But the word herbaceous is tiresome to add and hardly beautiful, so it has gradually been dropped. The word perennials, as now generally understood, refers to non-woody plants which live from year to year but disappear from sight at certain periods when the climate does not favour growth. In high latitudes, this will be in winter, the plants going into hibernation, but in warm temperate regions it is often during the intense heat and drought of summer; such plants aestivate. The majority of bulbs belong to this group. Bulbs, corms and tuberous-rooted plants should all be included within the definition of perennials.
Perennials, while ostensibly dormant, continue their existence beneath or at soil level, by some sort of fleshy, nutrient-storing organism. Annuals maintain themselves through their seeds, while the actual seed-producing plant dies at the end of the growing season. Shrubs and trees store much of their energy in sap-retaining woody tissue and in above-ground dormant growth buds.
But we define these categories for our own convenience. The plants themselves have been given no choice in the matter and often fail to conform. And so, in writing a work on perennials, the author has to make choices, where borderline cases arise. Should penstemons be included or not? I said no; they are woody. My editor said yes; they are treated very much as unquestioned perennials. To please him (and myself, as I like them) they have been included. But I have not included Echium, as he wished. E. plantagineum is an out-and-out annual; E. vulgare is an out-and-out biennial; E. fastuosum is an out-and-out shrub. The rest of those I know are monocarpic, dying after flowering but taking a few years to reach the flowering condition. One way or another, I have decided to displease my editor in this case and in a few others.
The point of perennials
By disappearing at the end of their growing season, perennials give us, as well as themselves, a rest. When they reappear, all their growth is fresh and pristine. Their response to spring (or, in some cases, to rain) changes from day to day and this is a source of excitement and joy to us. Evergreens in spring are looking their worst — thoroughly battered, in most cases, but the perennials escape all that and their reappearance in better times is proof of how wise (to be anthropomorphic) they were.
But a less obvious point that needs to be made is that the seasonal disappearance from view of perennials may give us the opportunity for a side-bet. The vacated surface area of ground is an invitation to make use of it, with plants which have a different season of rest. Thus we gain a succession and the garden totally changes its aspect through these different seasons.
A couple of examples are easily given. When the white Californian tree poppy, Romneya coulteri, which flowers in high summer, goes to rest in the autumn, we can cut it to the ground and interplant its fleshy roots with winter aconites, winter-flowering bulbous irises, crocuses, scillas — a range of winter- and early spring-flowering bulbous plants, in fact, which will flower for us in late winter but will have completed their growth cycle before the romneya stretches itself and makes ready for a new summer season. These bulbous plants, once given a start, will increase and carpet the area by their own efforts, none being required of us after the initiation of our bright idea.
Then consider the giant fennel, Ferula communis. That starts into growth before winter's end, in the British climate, or at winter's end, where winters are more severe. It unfolds voluptuous fans and platforms of huge but minutely divided leaves which are a feast in themselves, even in those years when no flowering stem shoots up to 3m/l0ft and opens stately umbels of tiny yellow flowers. When these excitements are at an end, the plant, in early summer, rapidly goes to rest for the next six months or more. Meantime, the gardener has worked the situation out to his best advantage. The mossy green platforms were interplanted, in the previous autumn, with tall, red tulips ('Halcro' is one of my favourites for the purpose), which will flower while the fennel is at its freshest. When these and the fennel have gone to rest, the space can be occupied for the rest of the summer and early autumn with annuals — for instance cosmos of your choice, sown in late spring. Thus, our garden economy has allowed us to grow two different perennials and one annual to give a succession of interest from the same piece of ground through the four seasons.
Perennials, at the cost of comparatively little effort, offer us the choice of an unlimited range of flower colour from which to choose and over a long season. The majority of those suited to border conditions flower in the warm months of the year when the temperature, at least for quite a slice of the day, encourages us to linger in the garden anyway. For it is pleasant to be able to consider the garden as a seasonal out-of-doors room.
Many perennials have handsome foliage and the particular value of this is in its generally being larger, bolder and more persistent than are most flowers. It is quite logical to think of many perennials in terms of foliage first, their flowers being a welcome, if short-term, bonus. Quite a large section of perennials die gracefully and leave us with sightly skeletons which it is a pleasure to allow to remain untouched through the winter months. If they become broken or bedraggled, it is easy enough to cut them down, especially when the sap has been withdrawn from their stems and most of their weight has been lost.
Flexibility and choice
The huge range of different perennials available to us might seem daunting, at first, but it is generally wise to choose those which will flourish in the conditions we can easily offer them without unremitting effort on our part. You might be entranced by a sparkling blue gentian seen on your holidays in the Alps, but, for a quiet life, it will be more sensible to retain that ideal setting and occasion in your mind's eye or to revisit it when opportunity allows, rather than try to grow it under totally alien garden conditions.
Himalayan poppies of the genus Meconopsis can be grown and flowered in the gardens of south-east England, but if you are not constantly serving their needs they will quickly disappear. Whereas, even 500 miles or so north, in Scotland, they will, given a good start in suitable soil and shelter from gale-force winds, grow like cabbages without undue effort on your part. They will be undeterred by winter frosts and will benefit from the generally cooler ambient air, whether the sun is shining or not. I have myself been surprised, in approaching the many genera discussed here, how large a number of them are naturally happier in Scotland than in my part of southern England. This should not so much be the cause of envy as of rejoicing, encouraging us to travel north at the best season, but to live gratefully in the south for much of the rest of the year.
There are, within our own garden boundaries, vital factors to be considered, possibly to be modified, of perennials' preference for sun or shade, for light soil or heavy, for dry conditions or water-retentive. The less modification that is necessary, the easier our lives will be. But some will generally be advisable. Bad drainage suits few plants. This may go along with heavy soil and that can be modified once and for all by the introduction of grit, which is generally ground up shingle or gravel, supplied by builders' merchants. Unduly light, easily drying soil can be modified by the addition of humus, which retains moisture and provides a well-aerated medium conducive to healthy root action.
When all such improvements have been taken account of, the fact remains that a great many perennials are extraordinarily tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. If a lover of shade and moist soil will grow healthily alongside an equally healthy sun- and free-drainage-lover, there is no moral issue that need detain us, seeing that the whole concept of gardening (as of man's proliferation over the face of the earth) is artificial anyway. The main question, after the plants' welfare, is whether they look pleasing together. Do they compose well? Gardening is an art form, albeit ephemeral. We should always be aware of the picture we are creating.
Perennials cannot be expected to be stars in every role. If wonderful for colour, they are likely to be weak on structure. By and large, the fact of their making all their growth in the short space of a few months means that their framework is flimsy. What about acanthus, you will say, immediately homing in on an obvious exception. Yes, but I only want a very limited amount of acanthus in my garden and there must be reasons for that, too. Their rectitude is overpowering (you must know people like that) and their dress is in appallingly good taste, with off-whites and murky purples.
With the permanence of their framework, there are shrubs (among which I include bamboos), which can supply this missing structure. And, given sensible selection, these shrubs will prevent a border from looking a desolate waste-land in winter (if you belong to the autumn-cut-down school for all your perennials).
Even at its peak, in high summer, an all-herbaceous border generally seems to be lacking in body. Swags of climbing roses, trained on supports, would work wonders.
Annuals and biennials also have a part to play which perennials cannot emulate. They are even more flexible and can be moved in and out over a large part of the year, so they are inestimable gap fillers. Again, the immediacy of their display, even if short-lived, has a gladness and charm that touch your heart. I would not dispense with annuals, nor biennials, in any border.
Look at a biennial Verbascum like V. olympicum, for instance. You can plant it in the autumn or you can depend on self-sowns, which will provide the unpremeditated joy of appearing in different places in different years. In June–July they will soar to 8ft, branching near the top to a symmetrical candelabrum of yellow blossom which lasts for many weeks. And yet this imposing plant is as suitable near the margin of a border as it is at its centre or back, because its habit is such as not to block your view. See-through and see-past plants are invaluable for precluding the stodginess of a border (most often seen in institutional gardens) that is carefully graded for height from back to front.
Self-sowers such as this, as teasels, forget-me-nots, purple orach (Atriplex hortensis, an annual) and Verbena bonariensis (which is perennial but short-lived), can create a running theme through your border and play a unifying role among otherwise disparate ingredients.
My message here is, go for the mixed border, where all types of plant are permissible if they seem to suit the circumstances. Segregation of different types of plant may make for simplicity and is easier to plan and visualise, but in the long run, a readiness to accept the widest range of plants will produce the most adult and original gardening results.
A few aspects I look out for choosing some perennials for border use in preference to others.
A long flowering season is an asset if the plant continues to look presentable all through it. Geums and herbaceous potentillas often start flowering in May and run on till late summer, but their habit becomes increasingly weedy, stemmy and diffuse. Sometimes this can be corrected by cutting the whole colony hard back in mid-season, as with the geranium 'A. T. Johnson'. Better still, however, is the hybrid geranium (cranesbill) 'Ann Folkard'. Its young foliage, in April, is an attractive shade of lime green and the leaves have a pleasingly jagged outline. It starts flowering in May — brightest purple, almost magenta, with a near-to-black 'eye'. Its shoots are of indefinite growth, ever increasing their range (you must provide either support in a vertical direction, or abundant horizontal space) and continuously making new flower buds so that its season lasts well into autumn. There are several other geraniums with this habit, where Geranium himalayense, by contrast, flowers for a couple of weeks in June but has nothing more on offer, apart from fresh foliage arising from the centre of the plant. That is admittedly better than nothing.
These cranesbills highlight another virtue in certain perennials, an intertwining habit which ignores gaps between plantings of different species but creates a tapestry effect, their growth and flowers appearing where not originally intended. Many violas and the less darkened pansies also have this capacity of intertwangling (to borrow a friend's coined description).
Equally, if a plant disappears from sight soon after flowering, like certain aroids (Arum creticum and Dracunculus vulgaris come to mind), you can take advantage of the vacated space by interplanting with an annual or bedding plant — begonias, for instance. The most tedious kind of perennial under border conditions where no falling off is wanted, is the kind that flowers in April or May, but is then a passenger, refusing to disappear from the scene, but a boring obstruction for the rest of the growing se.