Whether a new or experienced gardener, you may wish to grow a few
foolproof perennial flowers in your yard. Foolproof or easy care
perennials are not as fussy about soil or moisture conditions. Once
established, these thrive with minimal attention, so even if you
have a “brown thumb” you can successfully grow these
Familiar foolproof perennials are daylilies, peonies, and hosta.
But there are many others that grow well in northern Illinois and
southern Wisconsin gardens. The ones mentioned will not become invasive
in most gardens.
Columbine (Aquilegia) decorates the late spring and early
summer garden with uniquely shaped flowers on two to three feet
tall stems above the one foot by one foot mound of leaves. The divided
leaves give plants a ferny appearance. Flowers choices are solid
or bicolor in shades of blue, yellow, red, and white. Native plant
enthusiasts should grow Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis),
which is a combination of red and yellow. Columbine like partial
shade to full sun (but not hot baking sun.) They grow in ordinary
soil, as long as it is not too wet. Deadheading (cutting off dead
flowers) will extend the bloom period. Columbine spread by dropping
seed around established plants. An inoffensive habit, as far as
I’m concerned, because interesting hybrids can result.
Cushion Spurge (Euphorbia epithymoides ‘Polychroma’)
may be a little hard to find, but worth the hunt if you have a hot
dry location. Long-lasting bright yellow to chartreuse bracts surround
the tiny spring flowers. In fall the leaves turn red. The compact
18 by 18 inch plants are disease and insect free. A caution: euphorbias
produce a white milky sap that may irritate the skin, so it is a
good idea to wear gloves when working with this plant.
Leopard’s Bane (Doronicum orientale) produces bright
yellow daisy-like flowers in spring, when we don’t expect
to see daisies. The compact 2 by 2 foot plants have attractive toothed,
heart-shaped leaves. These are partial shade plants that perform
best in moist soil. Like many spring bloomers, leopard’s bane
dies back to the ground by the middle of summer.
Cranesbill (Geranium) is the true geranium. It is cold
hardy in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Do not confuse
this with the cold-tender red “geraniums” (really Pelargonium)
that many of us buy at the greenhouse every year. In early summer
numerous one-inch diameter flowers crown a low mound of finely dissected
leaves. Deadheading spent flowers encourages rebloom. A huge number
of cultivars are in shades of pink, purple, and white. Geraniums
are easy to grow in sun or part shade.
Blanketflower (Gaillardia x grandiflora) is perfect for
a sunny dry spot. It is heat, drought, and salt tolerant. Wet soil
will kill blanketflowers. The two feet by two feet plant has daisy-type
flowers with dark centers surrounded by red and yellow banded petals.
If the multicolor combination is too much for you, pure yellow and
pure orange varieties are available. Butterflies like this summer
Coralbells (Heuchera) are a garden favorite for their
beautiful leaves and flowers. Breeders have developed a variety
of burgundy, purple, green, and silver combinations in the maple-shaped
leaves. The “evergreen” leaves form compact 12 to 18
inch mounds. Coralbells are ideal for the front of the flowerbed.
The tiny bell shaped flowers (coral/pink or white) rise on stalks
above the foliage mound, but do not block the view of other flowers
in the bed.
Bigleaf Ligularia (Ligularia dentata) fills the need for
a late summer flower in the shade garden. This big (three feet by
four feet) robust plant likes moist to wet shade. Loose clusters
of yellow daisy-like flowers top the large leathery leaves.
Goldenrods (Solidago) deserve a place in the sun garden.
Their reputation as the cause of hayfever is misplaced. Bright yellow
native goldenrods bloom at the same time as the non-showy ragweed
and, therefore, are erroneously blamed for ragweed’s deeds.
The flower clusters form cones or starbursts. Goldenrods not only
attracts butterflies, but bloom from July through October. These
drought tolerant plants range in size from 12 inches to 48 inches
depending on cultivar.
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is another wonderful
late summer bloomer, but its silvery leaves are attractive throughout
the growing season. Its light blue blossoms are especially pleasing
with the yellows and oranges of many late summer flowers. Russian
sage gets large (three feet tall) and must be cut back in early
spring to control shape and size.
April - May 2004: Foolproof Perennials
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