ONE of the greatest pleasures in spring as we walk through the garden, taking care to avoid compacting soggy-wet soil with our boots or the premature use of garden tools, is seeing the first shoots of perennials emerging. But there is always the nagging concern some of our favourites won’t return. Perennials can succumb for a variety of reasons. It might be due to a harsh winter, lack of proper siting, or in direct relation to a plant’s natural lifespan. Then again, all that may be needed is patience for the late-bloomers that wait sometimes until almost mid-June before appearing. Regardless, many gardeners will be in the market this spring for new additions to their perennial borders either to fill in space or for the sheer enjoyment of planting something different. While the trend continues toward tight, compact plants, the structure provided by varying heights in the middle and back of the border is a key element in any garden design. What makes vertical interest so important? The use of too many short or dwarf plants can cause a small garden to look even smaller or result in a garden design that lacks definition. In a recent interview, Owen Vanstone, co-owner of Vanstone Nurseries, a family-owned wholesale nursery in Carman, shared his suggestions for middle-of-the-border perennial selections beginning with an interesting recommendation: bearded iris. Bearded iris remains a very important group of garden perennials and Vanstone is offering a new collection. “Generally, iris varieties tend to be really early and very low-growing,” said Vanstone. The new collection ranges from 75 cm to 90 cm tall, with blooms appearing in May. Vanstone’s favourites include Spartan with outsized dark-as-night winered blooms and Devil’s Lake whose gigantic, prolific blooms are navy blue. If you currently grow some of the smaller varieties of iris in your garden, then including some of these later-blooming tall bearded varieties will extend their flowering period. The sword-shaped leaves add texture and vertical interest throughout the growing season. The use of Asclepias, or milkweed, in the garden, helps to attract butterflies that lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves. It is also an attractive, hardy perennial for the mid-border. “We’ve sold so many asclepias over the years and it’s really on the rise,” says Vanstone. Heights range from 60 cm to 100 cm and varieties are available in white, deep pink, orange, and golden yellow. Ice ballet with white vanilla-scented flowers and Soulmate with deep cherry-pink flowers are two new varieties that both grow to 100 cm or more, forming a tall, upright clump. Vanstone grows them in the trial garden at his nursery and says nothing seems to bother them. The bloom period is from June to August.
Echinacea, says Vanstone, may be a plant we are all too familiar with but there are some positive new developments in the genus. Cheyenne Spirit coneflower is a brilliantly coloured example that is showing a lot more hardiness than has been traditionally found in some of the yellow or orange Echinacea varieties. Vanstone says that with an impressive height of up to 100 cm, the mix of colour includes deep red, orange, purple, scarlet, cream, yellow, and white. “The form is compact and well branched and it flowers freely right from the first year,” adds Vanstone. It takes its time, though, waiting until later in the season before it begins to bloom. Vanstone cautions that Echinacea does not like its feet to stay wet. It needs moisture but shouldn’t be soggy going into winter or stay soggy all spring or it will suffer. Echinacea prefers leaner soil, too. If soil is too rich with compost, echinacea may not harden off as well as it should in time for the winter. Another later blooming perennial recommended by Vanstone is Blue Fortune anise hyssop. “It’s an easy-to-grow perennial,” said Vanstone, “that has the appeal of being a hardy, native prairie plant but also provides an exceptional display of lavender blue colour especially when it is planted as a mass display.” The bottlebrush flowers are supported by sturdy stems. Suited to the middle of the border, hyssop blooms for a long period and is a great colour source in late summer, blooming right up until the first frost. I grow it in my garden and love that it doesn’t flop over. To lend a more natural look to a planting scheme, consider planting mid-size perennials in groups of three and arrange them in a pattern such as a triangle shape rather than planting in a row. In a large garden, the same grouping and pattern can be repeated in another part of the landscape for continuity. What about the queen of the back border, delphiniums? Locally, delphiniums may be difficult to find due to a significant crop failure this year. One option may be to purchase them online through a specialty nursery such as Blossom Hill Nursery located just north of Peterborough, Ont. I met owners Joe and Hazel Cook last year when they were in town for the Canadian Peony Society’s annual show. Situated on a 23-acre farm, Blossom Hill (www.blossomhillnursery.com) sells field-grown peonies and delphiniums across Canada and the U.S. Hazel Cook says Blossom Hill does not grow the familiar Millenium series, which were bred in New Zealand
Pick your colour and your bee. Delphiniums come in a wide range of colours with either white or black centres called bees. Clusters of flowers overlap one another in tall
spikes for one of the most dramatic displays in the early summer garden. Hardy varieties do not require mulching. Cut stems to the ground in the fall.