With literally hundreds of choices, it can be overwhelming to decide which perennials to plant in your garden. Nancy J. Ondra takes the stressful guesswork out of perennial garden planning by offering 52 vibrant designs, each made up of only five plants. Ondra tailors each simple design to a specific set of growing conditions, with plenty of tips to help your planting mature. Enjoy gardens full of sun-drenched blooming flowers and shade-loving greenery for years to come.
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About the Author
Nancy J. Ondra, author of Container Theme Gardens, is a garden writer and editor as well as the former owner and operator of a small rare-plant nursery. She is the author or co-author of a dozen gardening books, including Foliage (winner of the 2008 Book Award from the American Horticultural Society), The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer (winner of a 2006 Silver Award from the Garden Writers Association), Five-Plant Gardens, The Perennial Care Manual, Fallscaping, and Grasses. She currently gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and blogs at www.hayefield.com.
Rob Cardillo has been photographing gardens, plants, and the people who tend them for more than 20 years. A former director of photography at Organic Gardening, he now works for publishers, horticultural suppliers, and landscape designers throughout the United States. Visit him at www.robcardillo.com.
Read an Excerpt
Why Five Plants?
When the gardening bug bites, you're left thinking of beautiful flowers and lush leaves, the thrill of going shopping to find the perfect plants, and the satisfaction of making your yard look great. After you've been gardening for a few years, you develop a sense of which plants look good and grow well together, and you don't need a plant-by-the-numbers plan to get great results. But when you're new to the process, starting with a manageable-sized space, a clear shopping list, and a simple-to-follow planting plan can make the difference between inspiring success and frustrating disappointment.
Enter Five-Plant Gardens. These plans I've created are collections of five different perennials (sometimes in multiple quantities of each plant), carefully chosen to complement each other and grow well together. It's enough variety to give you a good mix of flowers and foliage, heights and shapes, and seasons of interest, but not so much that the collection looks like a jumbled mess. It's also a manageable number of new plants to learn about at one time, as well as a limited amount of money to spend.
The perennials in these plans aren't the very newest, cutting-edge releases; instead, they're time-tested selections that are widely available and reasonably priced, and that have been proven to perform in a variety of climates and growing conditions. If you want to tweak the plans to suit your own taste, I've suggested alternatives, too, so you don't have to guess at which other plants might work.
Whichever plan and plants you start with, it's my hope that you'll have great success with your new perennial garden, and that it's the start of an enjoyable and rewarding new obsession for you.
Starting a Perennial Garden from the Ground Up
There are lots of great reasons to start any sort of flower garden: to add beauty to your yard, to enjoy months of colorful flowers, to attract birds and butterflies, to indulge your creative side, and to have a fun reason to get outside for fresh air and exercise. So, why choose to plant aperennial garden? Well, once you know the difference between an "annual" and a "perennial," it's easy to see the advantages.
Annual plants last through just one growing season. "True" annuals die once they complete their life cycle by flowering and producing seeds. Some true annuals include common flowers such as marigolds and zinnias. There are also plants sold as annuals that live for years in very warm climates but die when touched by frost or freezing temperatures, which are a yearly occurrence in most parts of the country. Examples here include begonias, coleus, and bedding geraniums (Pelargonium). Either way, most of us have to start over every year with annuals by sowing new seeds or buying new plants each spring.
Perennial plants sprout from their roots in spring, flower at some point, die back to their roots at the end of the growing season, and then repeat the cycle the following year. Many perennials can live for 3 to 5 years with hardly any attention, and some can last much longer. That means less work and worry on your part, and often less expense, too, because you don't need to deal with seeds or purchase new transplants and find time to get them planted every year.
That's not to say that annuals are bad, of course: they're just as pretty as perennials, and they give you the chance to experiment with new kinds and colors each year. But when life gets hectic, you can depend on a perennial garden to do its thing year after year with little help from you — and that's a big plus in anyone's book!
Exploring Your Options
So, you know you want a perennial garden; now, where's it going to go? Instead of grabbing a shovel and randomly digging up part of your lawn, consider playing off an existing feature in your yard. How about planting a small bed of perennials by your front door, or perhaps a border along the main path to your home, to add curb appeal and a welcoming touch? A border of perennials also makes a great alternative to boring shrubs in the strip of ground along the front of the house, or along the wall of a garage or shed. Consider surrounding your deck or patio with a planting of lush leaves and bountiful blooms. A garden could also be a good solution for a problem area, such as a hard-to- mow slope or a soggy spot in the yard.
Another option is to first think about what kind of garden you want, and then try to find the perfect spot for it. Maybe you'd like a garden filled with flowers in your favorite color, or one that's at its best during your favorite season. If you enjoy watching wild critters in your yard, a garden filled with perennials that attract seed- and bug-eating birds, hummingbirds, or butterflies can be a real delight.
This book includes 52 plans for simple perennial gardens in a variety of shapes and themes, about half for sites that are sunny to partly shady (with about 5 hours or more of direct sun a day) and half for those in partial to full shade (less than 5 hours of direct sun a day). Flip through the plans that suit your site, and you'll find dozens of ideas for inspiration.
Be a Smart Shopper
Each plan in this book includes a shopping list that tells you which perennials to buy and how many of each to get. The suggested quantities are based on plants growing in 2-quart pots (about 5 inches wide and deep) or 1-gallon pots (these are usually 6 to 7 inches wide and deep). Perennials of these sizes are usually reasonably priced and large enough to look nice the first year, though they may not fill the area completely until the second or third year.
To double check the plant quantities before you buy, try arranging the pots according to your chosen plan while you're still at the garden center. You might decide that you need a few more or a few less pots, depending on how large the actual plants are and how much you can afford to spend.
If you really want an "instant garden" effect, feel free to buy more of each plant and set them close together at planting time so they'll fill the area within a few weeks after planting. Keep in mind, however, that the garden might look overcrowded and messy in two or three months, and you'll probably have to take out some of the extra plants by the end of the first growing season. (You could use those extras to start a new garden, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.)
If you're working with a very limited budget, buy as many of the perennials as you can, then add some inexpensive annuals as fillers until you can afford the rest of the perennials. Or, wait for end-of-the-season sales and start your new garden in fall instead of spring.
Don't worry if you can't find the exact perennials specified for each plan; that's why each of the five plants in the shopping list comes with suggestions of other perennials that could work as replacements.
Let's Get Growing
You've got a plan; you've got the plants. Now it's time to dig in and get this garden started! If you're completely new to gardening, the prospect may seem a little daunting, but really, it isn't very complicated. And if you've had any sort of flower garden before, the basics of planting and caring for perennials will be easy for you.
Starting with the soil. When you're ready to start your garden, use stakes and string to mark the outline of the shape and size you've chosen. Use a sharp shovel or spade to cut around the outline. To remove existing grass and weeds, slip the blade of the tool into the soil as close to horizontal as you can to cut off the grass roots just below the soil surface. Use the chunks of sod you remove to patch holes in other parts of your lawn or to fill in low spots, or pile them in an out-of-the-way spot to decompose.
Once the grass is gone, spread a 1-inch-thick layer of chopped leaves, compost, or dehydrated manure over the area, and use a shovel or spading fork to loosen the top 8 inches or so of soil. Lift one shovelful or forkful at a time, turn the chunk of soil onto its side or flip it over completely as you drop it, and then use the blade of the tool to chop the chunk into smaller pieces. Pick out larger rocks; it's fine to leave small ones (those about 2 inches across or smaller). Once you've dug up the whole area, go over it once more to break up any remaining soil chunks, and then use a rake to level the surface. Avoid stepping on the loose soil; you don't want to pack it down again.
Planting your perennials. You can plant pretty much any time the ground isn't frozen or muddy-wet, though spring is generally prime time for planting, especially for perennials that bloom in summer and fall. Early to mid fall, when temperatures are mild and rainfall is fairly reliable, is another ideal planting time, particularly for perennials that bloom in spring to early summer.
To make sure the rootballs (the mass of roots and potting soil) of your perennials are thoroughly moist, lower each plant — pot and all — into a bucket of water and hold it down so the water covers the surface of the potting soil. Once bubbles stop rising to the top of the water (anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes, depending on how dry the soil is), remove the pot from the water and set it down somewhere to drain for a few minutes.
Set the watered pots out on the prepared soil according to the plan. Once you're happy with how they're arranged, plant them one at a time. Dig a hole that's about as deep as the rootball and a few inches wider, and remove the plant from its pot. If the pot is thin, you may only need to squeeze the sides with your fingers or hands. If that doesn't help to loosen the pot from the roots, lay the plant on its side and gently tap or roll the pot with your foot to help release the rootball. You should be able to slip off the pot by cradling the base of the plant and the top of the rootball with one hand and sliding off the pot with your other hand. If that doesn't work, don't tug on the leaves to get the plant out; instead, carefully slit the sides of the pot with a knife to get it off.
With your fingers, tickle all sides of the rootball to loosen any circling roots and knock off any loose growing medium. Set the rootball in the planting hole, and add or remove soil under the rootball so that the plant's crown (the point where the top joins the roots) is about even with the soil surface. Push the soil back around the roots to fill the hole, crumbling any remaining lumps with your hands and using moderate pressure to get good contact between the soil and the rootball. Unless you're expecting a steady rain right after you finish planting, water your new garden as soon as you get all of the plants in the ground.
Watering wisely. Water a newly planted perennial garden regularly (about once or twice a week, unless you get a soaking rain) through the rest of that growing season. After the first year, the garden should be fine for at least 2 weeks after a soaking rain, unless the weather is exceptionally hot or windy.
Instead of watering on a set schedule, let the plants or soil tell you when your garden needs water. If the plants wilt a bit in the afternoon but perk up in the evening, they can probably wait a day or so for water. If they're still wilted the next morning, though, water them as soon as possible. An even more reliable approach is to dig down 3 to 4 inches in one spot with a trowel. If the soil is dry down that far, it's a good idea to water as soon as possible. If only the top 1 to 2 inches are dry, replace the soil and check again in another spot in 2 or 3 days if no rain is due.
When you do water, the key is to water deeply: enough to soak the top 4 to 5 inches of soil. That sounds like a lot, but in small areas like these starter gardens, that'll probably take less than an hour. If you're using a sprinkler instead of watering by hand with a hose, check every 10 minutes or so to make sure that the water is soaking into the soil. If water is puddling on the soil surface or running off, turn off the sprinkler until the water soaks in, then turn it on again until the area has gotten a good soaking.
Managing mulches. Covering the soil between your perennials with some kind of mulch will go a long way in reducing watering chores. Mulches also help to insulate the soil from rapid temperature changes, which can interfere with root growth. They discourage weed seeds that are already in the soil from sprouting, and they make it easier to pull out any weeds that do poke through. Organic mulches — those derived from plants — such as chopped leaves, grass clippings, pine straw (needles), or shredded bark, have the extra benefit of adding organic matter to the soil as they decompose, building the fertility of your garden's soil over time.
Two inches is about the right thickness for an effective mulch layer. Mulch new gardens soon after planting. Organic mulches break down over time, so you'll probably need to add more each spring to keep the layer at the ideal thickness. Do your spring garden cleanup chores first; then spread the mulch. It's all right if the mulch touches the leaves and stems a little, but avoid piling it right against the leaves and stems.
Grooming your garden. A bit of attention every now and then through the season helps to keep your perennial garden looking great. Grooming is mostly a matter of removing the dead flowers (a process called deadheading), either individually or all at once. This makes the plants look tidier, prevents them from producing seed (which can lead to unwanted seedlings), and may encourage them to produce new flowers later in the season. Some perennials, though, produce seed heads that are very interesting, especially in fall and winter, so sometimes you may decide to skip summer deadheading. You'll find specific tips for what to cut and what to leave in place in the care calendar for each starter garden plan. Also, take a few minutes every few weeks to pull or dig out any weeds that pop up between your perennials.
After a few years, you may notice that some of your perennials are starting to crowd out their companions, or that they are gradually producing fewer flowers than they used to. In either case, it's a good idea to dig up those plants and divide them (ideally in early to mid spring, or in early fall). Use an old knife or a sharp spade or trowel to cut the clump into three or four pieces, making sure that each piece has some roots and some buds or top growth. Replant one of the pieces where the original clump was growing. Use the leftovers to start new gardens, or share them with friends.
At the end of the growing season, when frosts or freezes have nipped your plants and turned them brown, you have a choice to make: cut down the dead tops in mid to late fall or leave them in place for the winter. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Fall cleanup gives the garden a very tidy look for winter, and spring cleanup will take practically no time at all. If you leave the dead tops on through the winter, though, they help to protect the buds and roots from excessive cold and damaging freeze-and-thaw cycles. Dried stems and seed heads give you something to look at through the winter, and they provide a source of winter shelter and food for birds, too. The care calendar for each starter garden plan gives you some suggestions about how to handle fall cleanup for that particular garden, but really, the choice is yours. Perennials tend to be pretty sturdy plants, so chances are good that yours will be fine either way!
Excerpted from "Five-Plant Gardens"
Copyright © 2014 Nancy J. Ondra.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Why Five Plants?
Starting a Perennial Garden from the Ground Up
Five-Plant Gardens for Full Sun to Partial Shade
Bright White Garden - Stunning in Silver - Think Pink - Red All Over - Vision in Blue - Touch of Gold - Bold and Beautiful - Perennials in Pastel - Welcome Spring - Summer Spectacular - Autumn Abundance - Winter Wonderful - A Nonstop Garden - Beat the Heat - Wet and Wild - Amazing Rain Garden - Coping with Slopes - A Great Foundation - On the Edge - A Salt Solution - For the Birds - Hummingbird Heaven - Butterly Banquet - Don't Stop Here, Deer! - Fabulous Fragrance - Cut Flowers for Free - Miniature Meadow - Cottage Charm
Five-Plant Gardens for Partial to Full Shade
Just White for Shade - Silver Celebration - Thinking Pink - A Study in Blue - Say Hello to Yellow - Blooms for Shade - Pretty Pastels - Spring into Action - Summer Sanctuary - Fall Flowers & Foliage - Winter Delights - A Year-Round Garden - Color for Dry Shade - Wet-Site Wonders - A Rain Garden for Shade - Shady Slope Planting - Around the House - Elegant Edging - Salt in the Earth - Hummingbird Magnet - Deter the Deer - Perfumed Perennials - Backyard Flower Shop - Country Cottage Style
USDA Hardiness Zone Map
What People are Saying About This
“Nancy’s hands on approach to gardening makes it fool-proof for instant results. Her plant knowledge and eye for talent and color is unmatched in our industry. Finally we now have a practical how-to for creating a garden with sure bound success!”
"Five Plant Gardens is the newest and best version of any plant bible and Nancy is showing us the way. This book is great for beginner gardeners, landscape designers, nurseries, and average folks at home ready to bring some Curb Appeal to their yards."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A Fantastic book for beginners and seasoned gardeners alike Having read one of Nancy Ondra's previous books and love it, I was excited by this latest book, which covers my favorite type of plants - perennials. With "Five-Plant Gardens" Ondra has created a bible for anyone looking to work with perennial plants. You don't need the perfect light, soil, or moisture conditions because the 52 'recipes' the book guides you through getting the best results from any garden. Having read a couple other books on the subject, I was worried that Ondra's book would simply be a repeat of them. I couldn't have been more wrong. The content is excitingly unique and simple yet informative. Boiling down your focus to just five-plant gardens makes this growing season that much more exciting. In the words of the author, this "simply to follow planting plan can make the different between inspiring success and frustrating disappointment."
This is a very helpful reference for beginners (like myself) and provides great plans and information for non-beginners.