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The Complete Book of Perennials

The Complete Book of Perennials

by Graham Rice

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Our timeless bestseller is the definitive reference and handson guide to selecting, planting, and cultivating perennials. More than 750 perennials are listed alphabetically; includes each plant's characteristics, key cultivating facts, and over 360 vivid color photographs.


Our timeless bestseller is the definitive reference and handson guide to selecting, planting, and cultivating perennials. More than 750 perennials are listed alphabetically; includes each plant's characteristics, key cultivating facts, and over 360 vivid color photographs.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This comprehensive volume promises more than it delivers to American gardeners who work in an enormous variety of climatic conditions. Rice, a British horticulturist, leads his readers through the culture and propagation stages of perennials, starting with the selection process, which includes how to choose a good supplier. Hundreds of color photos illustrate sections on planting styles, theme gardens, creating and redoing beds and borders and combining plantings. An illustrated directory of 750 varieties of perennials includes choice varieties within a species and is followed by a map of hardiness zones for the U.S. Aside from soil and light conditions, however, there is no reference in these entries to specific climate demands (including cold tolerance) required successfully to raise the listed perennials, implying that the plants can be successfully cultivated in any part of the country. Many require more specific conditions than the brief attention paid to light and soil conditions. The poppy Meconopsis, for example, a natural for the cool northern mountains, is tolerant of neither extreme heat nor lack of humidity. This handsome reference is, thus, significantly limited in its usefulness, especially to neophyte perennial gardeners. (May)
Subtitled, A Step-By-Step Guide to Designing, Planting, and Cultivating a Perennial Garden in Any Part of the Country. Color photos and drawings grace nearly every page (though some of the separations are a little flat), enhancing coverage of the basics of acquiring plants, planting, care and cultivation, pests and diseases, propagation, and planning various kinds of gardens. An illustrated plant directory comprises about 80 pages. Includes a map of hardiness zones, a glossary, and a directory of suppliers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Reader's Digest Association, Incorporated, The
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Chapter One


There are perennials to suit every garden, whatever the situation and climate. Perennials are among the most accommodating of plants. As long as their basic requirements are met, these plants usually repay a little care with much pleasure.

    Given the opportunity, perennials can provide pleasure for many years, but they are most likely to thrive when you start with strong, healthy plants. A weak or diseased plant is likely to languish, although careful nurturing may sometimes rescue it.

    Choosing plants to suit both the soils and situations into which they are to be planted is an important consideration. There is no doubt that it is always a gamble to buy a plant that appears attractive and to plant it where there happens to be an available space in the garden. Instead, first assess the site to determine its suitability for different perennials; then make improvements to help ensure that the plants grow well once they are planted. A plant in the wrong place will never thrive.

    Planting in the right manner and at the right time helps to give the perennials a healthy start. Giving careful attention in the first weeks after planting ensures that they acclimate well. But over the years they need regular attention. Weeds must not be allowed to smother them, and perennials also need to be watered, fed, deadheaded, staked, and, from time to time, revitalized. Like all plants, perennials can be vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases, and these must beprevented as far as possible or dealt with promptly when they appear. Some troubles affect a wide range of garden plants, others are more specific. But if left to multiply, the pests will weaken your plants and may kill them altogether.


Taking a serious interest in perennials is closely linked to the enjoyment of acquiring plants, which may be given by friends and neighbors or bought from mail-order catalogs or local garden centers. Often as interest grows and tastes develop, gardeners find that they become more exacting in their requirements and look to specialized nurseries and seed companies for the more unusual plants that are not generally available.


Taking cuttings from the gardens of family, friends and neighbors not only encourages the spread of good plants but preserves them too. An advantage of exchanging plants with neighbors, particularly for newcomers to gardening, is that if the plant is already thriving in the garden next door, it will probably thrive in yours. However, exchanging plants is not entirely without problems. For example, few plants respond well to being transplanted in full flower, so whether you are giving or receiving a plant, wait until its best propagation time (see Plant Directory).


A more serious problem concerns pests and diseases. There is no garden that is entirely free of pests, but that is no reason to import your neighbor's pests to add to your own. Keep a close watch on all new acquisitions, for even when no problems are apparent, insect eggs or fungus spores may be present. Be prepared to spray if a specific problem should arise.

Soil-borne problems. Some problems can be more insidious. Root-feeding insect pests such as vine weevil may be hidden in the soil, and spraying the plant's foliage will not destroy them. For those plants that are especially susceptible to these pests, wash the soil from the roots as soon as you return home. Primulas, heucheras, peonies and epimediums are particularly vulnerable to attack from vine weevil. There is also a lesser but still noteworthy danger of introducing soil-borne problems into your garden. Fungus diseases of vegetables or trees that are not present in your own garden may be in your neighbor's soil and could start an infection in your own. Pests such as eelworms, which attack fruit bushes, may be living in the soil around the roots of a columbine plant transplanted from a friend's fruit garden.


Perennial seeds are available from stores, garden centers, and nurseries, but often the choice of cultivars is poor. Mail-order seed catalogs offer the widest selection and extremely good value, since a large number of plants can be raised for the price of a single plant bought from the garden center or nursery.


Economy is the main reason for raising perennials from seed, and when planting a new garden this can be an especially important factor. But there are other advantages. Some species are available from seed companies in mixed colors, so a range can be raised from a single packet. Seed provides an economical way of filling beds and borders in a new garden. Then, as the garden fills up, you can discard the plants in colors that you find less attractive and allow those you prefer to spread. Many of the more recent perennial plant introductions into seed catalogs are specially bred for vigorous growth and often flower prolifically in their first year after sowing. They can thus serve as bedding plants in their first year and then continue to give many more years of pleasure. Some new introductions may be available only as seed in the first few years, before nurseries sell them. It is also true that some uncommon species, which are hard to find on sale as plants, may be found in seed catalogs. And, of course, from a seed catalog you can purchase by mail, avoiding time-consuming trips to nurseries.


In general, selections from seed catalogs most likely to be successful are those intended to be raised from seed. These types are often the most vigorous growers, the most prolific, and the most tolerant of less-than-perfect conditions. Examples include Achillea 'Summer Pastels,' Campanula carpatica 'Clips,' Coreopsis 'Early Sunrise,' Delphinium 'Southern Noblemen,' Echinacea 'White Swan,' Gaillardia 'Kobold,' Geum 'Lady Stratheden' and 'Mrs. Bradshaw,' Kniphofia 'Border Ballet,' Lobelia 'Compliment Scarlet,' Lupinus 'Gallery,' Salvia farinacea 'Porcelain' and 'Victoria,' also Salvia x sylvestris 'Blue Queen' (Blaukönigin) and 'Rose Queen,' and finally Sidacea 'Party Girl.'

    Unusual species not listed in nursery catalogs are also worth trying. Special consideration should also be given to plants that have received awards, and these are often mentioned in the catalog.


There are however some drawbacks to buying seed by mail. The seed of some plants, like hellebores, has a short life, so by the time it is sent out in the normal winter mail-order season it may have already deteriorated. The chances of raising a good crop of seedlings from such seed will be slim. Other plants, such as peonies, are difficult for home gardeners to germinate successfully, so these too may have to be excluded. Even when these difficult plants are listed in catalogs, they are best avoided until you have some experience of raising plants from seed.

    There is another problem that affects a much wider range of plants: when seed is collected from many of the very best perennials—the cultivars that are usually propagated by division—the offspring that are produced are rarely as good as the parent. The unpredictability of seed collected from these plants means that seed companies cannot state exactly what their seed will produce, so they tend not to list it at all. So for the very finest forms of Delphinium, Helleborus, Phlox, Aster, and Monarda, it pays to buy the actual plants. In general, avoid forms that require special facilities (such as heated propagators and cold frames), which you may not have, and those usually raised by division, as these will not come true from seed.


When ordering seed from mail-order catalogs, use the following rules to help the process flow smoothly.

    Send off for catalogs as soon as they are advertised, and try to place your order as soon as possible after the catalog arrives. The newest and best selections may sell out quickly. Keep a photocopy of your order in case of problems later.

    Check the figure given for the number of seeds in each packet before deciding how many packets you need. The seed content may vary from one cultivar to another: you may find that you need two packets of some cultivars to raise the number of plants you require, while just a single packet of another cultivar may contain enough seed to share with friends.

    If your order arrives incomplete, without any explanation, or if the seed has not arrived within the time stated in the catalog, contact the company promptly, sending them a copy of your order.

    If the seed arrives before the correct time for sowing, do not leave it in a hot kitchen or a damp basement until sowing time; it is best stored cool and dry. The most effective way to store seed is in a screw-top jar placed in the bottom of the refrigerator. Add a few crystals of silica gel to the jar to absorb excess moisture and help keep the seed fresh.


The first port of call for most gardeners buying plants is the local garden center, which has the great advantage of convenience and sometimes offers good prices. But, unfortunately, the range of plants available in garden centers is usually restricted to well-established and well-known types together with ones that are easy to propagate and thus relatively inexpensive. A high proportion of the perennials on sale in centers are seed-raised plants, so it may be difficult to find the best cultivars of lupines, delphiniums or hellebores, for example.

    Fortunately, an increasing number of larger garden centers now have an area devoted to special plants. The better-quality cultivars can often be found here, but these plants may also be more expensive or a little more difficult to grow than other perennials. They are often accompanied by detailed explanatory labels to help you choose and grow them well.


In recent years things have moved a stage further with the development of plant centers. Here the balance has shifted, and the plants take precedence over everything else. There are no watering cans, patio sets, spades, or sprays available. Apart from seed and perhaps books, these stores concentrate on plants. The result is a far wider range of cultivars, and it is often the selection of perennials that benefits most.


Perennials are not ideally suited to selling in garden centers. Contrary to the situation with shrubs, small perennials in the small pots in which they are so often sold may attempt to reach the same height as they would in the garden. As a result, the perennials become starved and top-heavy, and they may blow over and look bedraggled by flowering time. Fortunately, a trend toward growing them in larger pots is developing.

    The best approach is to buy perennials as strong, young plants in spring or fall and to plant them at once, before they fill their pots with tightly packed roots. Such plants are often presented in neat pots, sometimes topped with gravel and with a helpful color label. Choose those plants with the most growing points, as this is a sign of a potential rapid increase in size. Sometimes these plants will be in flower, but selecting a strong and bushy plant that is likely to grow vigorously in the future is more important than taking home a plant in flower. Plants that have been in their pots too long will have lost their lower leaves, have only a few small flowers struggling to open, and look generally tattered.

    Plants that are in good-sized pots and have been well cared for can look impressive, especially if they are displayed in a sheltered area, where they are not battered by wind. You can then see clearly how they grow and how they will look in the garden. Sometimes these more established plants can be unexpectedly good buys, for although they are more expensive, you may be able to split the plant into two pieces for planting—giving you two plants for the price of one.

    Before you buy, inspect all plants closely for pests and diseases, especially aphids, and examine the pots in case some of the stems have died off at soil level. Check that the roots, which may have grown through the drainage holes in the base of the pots, are not too well rooted into the gravel or sand on which the plant containers are standing.


There are two other ways in which perennials are sold in garden centers, as special promotions and as seed. Some new introductions are given a showy presentation with display boards, colored pots and labels, and a great deal of publicity. These lavish campaigns are usually reserved for particularly good new cultivars, although the plants may not be quite as good as the publicity leads us to believe. They are usually sold in larger-than-average pots and at premium prices, costing more than other high-quality perennials that are usually as good. Garden centers also sell seed, but the range of perennials they offer is usually restricted. A few rows on the seed racks are sometimes reserved for perennials, but a far wider choice is available in the mail-order seed catalogs (see p.16).


All over the country there are nurseries, often small family businesses, that specialize in perennial plants. Unlike garden centers, which buy their stock from wholesale nurseries, these small, specialized nurseries propagate most of their plants themselves and grow them until they are ready for sale. As a result, they have a more intimate knowledge of the plants they grow and usually stock a wide range of cultivars. Being specialists, they also have a deeper understanding of perennial plants in general. The standard of advice available in garden centers may be improving, but the staff at specialized nurseries will be familiar with a wider range of perennials and how to grow them successfully.


The success of a specialized nursery depends on two things: the choice of plants they grow and how well they grow their plants for sale. Specialists who know all about their plants are in a good position to select the best forms. They often raise new cultivars themselves and may have a network of contacts who bring them new plants to introduce. As these specialized nurseries tend to grow all or most of their plants themselves, they can also ensure that their plants are of good quality. They may stagger propagation so that different batches of the same cultivar are at their best at different times of the season, and if they sell out of a particular cultivar, they should know when the next batch will be ready.

    Another advantage of using specialized nurseries is that many of them have display gardens where mature specimens of the cultivars on sale can be viewed in a realistic garden situation. You can see firsthand the features and faults of the plants you may be tempted to purchase.

    The best specialized nurseries are very good indeed. Being a regular customer and getting to know the people who run the nursery will enhance your enjoyment of growing and buying plants; some enthusiasts for perennial plants buy only from specialists. Of course, there are some specialists who are not good, but you can often tell the good from the bad at first glance. Weeds are a bad sign. The problem with a weedy nursery is that even if the cultivars it has are well chosen, you will almost certainly be buying weeds or weed seeds along with the plants. And you may well buy other problems as well, for not only do weeds harbor pests and diseases that attack perennials, but they are also a sign of a careless attitude, which will probably affect other aspects of the nursery. There are other factors to consider. Is the staff helpful? Does the catalog have good descriptions and advice? Is the nursery organized logically? Are the sales beds laid out clearly? Are the plants well labeled?


When considering a visit to a specialized nursery, send for the catalog first. This will not only give the hours it is open, but will also provide directions and probably a map; many specialized nurseries are in rural areas and may be difficult to find. Often these nurseries allow you to order plants to collect when you visit, and as most also stock a small number of plants not listed in the catalog, these can be your focus when you arrive.

    When choosing plants do not always pick those in flower; bushy habit and the potential for flower in the future are more important. Check for pests, diseases, and weeds, and avoid plants whose roots have grown through the drainage holes and developed outside the pot.

    One problem that can arise when visiting specialized nurseries derives from the sheer number of selections available; newcomers to growing perennials may find it difficult to choose among, say, 15 different types of phlox. Always ask for advice; explain what you like and describe the situation and soil in your garden, and you will usually benefit from suggestions of which forms to try. You may also pick up some tips on how to grow them. Establishing a good relationship with a specialized nursery will ensure that you take home the right plants with the right advice—and if anything should go wrong, it will increase the chances of resolving difficulties amicably.


For many gardeners, especially those living in rural areas, buying live plants by mail order is the only way to obtain any but the most commonplace types. Postal and courier services give access to a huge range of plants from nurseries all over the country. There are two ways of using them. One way is to request catalogs from the nurseries and order plants directly from them (see p.234); the other is to respond to advertisements for plants in magazines.


Mail-order nurseries advertise themselves in gardening magazines and journals, or they may be mentioned in articles. But they vary in the quality of the plants they supply and the care with which they pack the plants, so a recommendation from a friend is worth a great deal. If you are interested in specific plant types, specialized journals and society bulletins are the most likely places to find appropriate advertisements. Many are smaller operations run by...


Excerpted from The Complete Book of Perennials by Graham Rice. Copyright © 1996 by Graham Rice. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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