Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My Low-Maintenance Perennial Favorites

In the beginning of the summer, a couple of friends asked me for some plant recommendations for starting a new perennial garden in Fort Collins. I figure there's more people out there who wonder what proven performers they could use in their new or established gardens. So, I've come up with a short list of my favorite perennials from my low-maintenance, drought-resistant and clay-soiled Zone 5 garden. The list consists of plants that have proven to be dependable performers year after year, super low/no maintenance and just plain pretty. A few are only appropriate for Western, arid gardens, but others are great for the Midwest, too.

Pink Wild Penstemon  (Penstemon palmeri). Short-lived but oh-so-lovely, this tall, showy beaut only lasted two or three years and has now been retired from my garden. I'm not sure if it's truly short-lived or if my clay soil was just too much for it. I think it was probably the latter, as it needs really quick-draining, rocky soil to thrive. It blooms in late summer. I have it on this list because it had the most gorgeous flowers I've ever had in my garden; and the hummingbirds, sphinx moths, bees and butterflies all loved it. It's also very low maintenance and needs no water after it's been established.
2012 in my garden

I ordered mine from High Country Gardens
 Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus). These are native to the region, and I can always count on them to come back stronger than the year before. These are for Western gardens only, as they need dry conditions and strong sun to thrive. I also love them because they are a favorite for butterflies in our garden.
2012 with pink Penstemon Palmeri to upper left
2014. Salvia on left, Rocky Mountain Penstemon on right. Lady in background.

Swallowtail butterflies, sphinx moths, hummingbirds and bees love this dependable perennial

 Yarrow (Achillea spp.) of any kind grows and blooms vigorously all summer long. Some Yarrow is known to aggressively self-sow, so be sure to get one that doesn't if you want it to remain in one spot in the garden. I have two non-self-sowing kinds. A large, yellow "Moonshine" and more compact, white-flowered Greek Yarrow. White-flowered Yarrow can also be used as a medicinal herb. Yarrow makes a great cut flower and is so bright that it shines on moon-lit evenings.

I planted the Yarrow in 2012. Yellow flowers on right are Moonshine Yarrow, White-flowered Yarrow to left of them.

Two years later, it's thriving. Rocky Mountain Penstemon shoots up in between white and yellow Yarrow flowers 
Cut Yarrow flowers last a really long time in a vase and add a bright pop of color to bouquets

May Night Salvia (Salvia nemorosa). In my experience, Salvia does well anywhere. My dad had some (not sure which but it looked similar) in our garden in Northern Illinois and it did well there, too. I have May Night planted in the front yard in partial shade, as well as in the South-facing backyard in full sun. They all grow and bloom vigorously. They also self-sow moderately, and are always coated in friendly honey bees all summer long. Even when I'm dead-heading spent flowers (a must for Salvia), the bees have never bothered me. You'll notice that Salvia is a major player in my small landscaped area, where it's growing next to other favorite flowers.
nom nom nom. Bees loooove May Night Salvia

This Salvia has self-sowed to create a long string of plants. Pull out self-sowed seedlings if you prefer a  manicured look

Salvia is great for cut flowers, and is always a major player in my favorite vase all summer long
Jupiter's Beard (Centranthus ruber Coccineus) self-sows mildly and likes both full sun and part shade. It blooms from late spring through late summer with deep-red flowers. I wish I would have given it more of a front-and-center role in my landscape design, but you can still enjoy it if you look for it in the corner. I've learned from my newb design mistake! Jupiter's Beard does well in the Midwest, too, where it gets more water. I like it combined with Salvia, where the purple and red flowers, and dark-green and light-green foliage complement each other.

Salvia to left, Jupiter's Beard in Corner
Nobody puts Jupiter's Beard in the corner! Except silly ol' me
Deep-rooted Wild 4 O'Clock (Mirabilis multiflora) needs way more space than I planned for. It's taken up a big corner of my little wildflower area, but I still love it for its dependable summer-long color and extremely xeric (no)water needs. It is also deer- and rabbit-resistant. If you use it, make room for it! Also, my Midwesterner friends will not be able to use this one, as it only does well in the dry air and soil of the West.

Flowers open in the afternoon
Evening Primrose (Oenothera) is a new favorite for me. I'm pretty sure I have a Missouri Evening Primrose, aka Ozark Sundrop, but I can't be sure because I didn't buy it. My mother-in-law brought me some hardy flowers that had been divided from her landscape in Northern Illinois a couple of years back, and quite a few have done surprisingly well in the completely different conditions of my Xeric garden. Primrose is one of them. Now that I have it and have grown to love it, I'm noticing it in a lot of others gardens, too. That's proof enough for me that it's no fluke that it's thriving in my garden.
I've noticed that the Primrose spreads slowly, has pretty reddish-purple stems, buttery yellow flowers, really cool speckled sepals and blooms all summer long. Even the spent flowers look kinda cool, with an orange-y color tone. Oh, and they're super easy to deadhead, unlike Salvia. It's a true-blue surprise favorite for me and I'm so grateful my M.I.L. brought it all the way from IL to CO. 

Clear picture of newly opened flower with speckled sepals

reddish-purple stems visible in this photo

Iris can always be counted on for Spring color and beautiful, delicate blooms in the Midwest and the West. Plus, it spreads pretty easily, so you can transplant it into other areas after a few years. I don't know exactly what kind of Iris I have because it was one of the few plants that was already planted in our backyard when we moved in. I transplanted a few bulbs to a new area three years ago, and it has grown so well that it may be time to do that again.
Mine are planted in front of lilacs, and tend to bloom right after the lilacs have lost their color

If you are just getting your flower garden started, I highly recommend all of the perennials above. They have been low-maintenance, low-budget tested and approved over the past three years. I'm sure I'll have a bunch of new favorites to share with you next year. Let me know what your favorites are, especially if you think they might do well with little to no water!

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