University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone and Winnebago County Units

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Foolproof Perennials

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 flowers.

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 bloomer too.

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 | Plants, Septic and Failures | Can I Prune Now? | Selecting Trees

Past Issues

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