Celebrate the Diversity of Perennials
Start reducing the size of your demanding lawn by filling up more garden space with a variety of flowering perennials – it is kinder to nature, your water bill, it’s far less maintenance and a great flower blessing for you. Here are four combinations to try out…
High Summer Boldness with Perennials
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’ (maiden grass) ‘Cabaret’ forms a dense clump over 1m tall and about 2m wide. Its slender, ribbon-shaped leaves have creamy white midriffs and very dark green edges. The reed-like flowering stems produce dark pink or coppery plumes in spring, which remain on the plant until late autumn, eventually fading to a creamy colour. Use it as a great accent plant – plant it in groups of 3 – 5 in the middle of a bed.
Bracteantha bracteata (straw flower) The straw flower or everlasting went out of fashion for a few years, but it is back with a vengeance with the ‘Mohave’ range, consisting of a variety of iridescent colours. It offers a mounding growth habit and flowers from spring to autumn. Use it as gap fillers in the foreground.
Salvia ‘Salmia’ ’Salmia’ ticks all the boxes – a long flowering period from mid-spring to autumn, grows anywhere, and bees and butterflies just love them. The ‘Salmia’ range is well-branching (which means masses of flowers), can reach a height of about 60cm, and is available in three strong colours: orange, pink and dark purple. Use it in great swathes in the middle of your bed.
Gaillardia x grandiflora (blanket flower) This is an old-fashioned, short-lived, tough perennial with daisy-like flowers in rich colours. It forms a slowly spreading mound to blanket an area and likes to self-seed, so you are unlikely to lose it from your garden.
Fact: Modern garden perennials are nothing but former veld flower species tamed into floriferous hybrids with better climate and disease resistance, and the power to attract all kinds of pollinators.
Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’ This frost-tender succulent is a fast grower to up to 40cm high, with a rounded, evergreen growth habit and large, heart-shaped, silvery white leaves with slight indentations on their margins. Short, dense hairs on the surfaces of the leaves feel velvety to the touch. It will have a short period of dormancy in winter. Use it as eye-catching foliage accents in the foreground, in groups of 3 – 5.
Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) Graceful arching stems that are powdery white, and lance-shaped willow-like leaves with silvery-white woolly undersides. New growth appears on the winter-bare stems in early spring (it is semi-deciduous, so sometimes bare) followed by the long sprays of small white flowers protected by their gorgeous, velvety purple calyces. This is a tough, wind-resistant perennial that blooms with vigour all through summer, reaching peak flower power in early autumn. Use these perennials in bold groups as a backdrop
Care for all: Full sun and low to medium water – about once or twice a week.
Tough Perennials for small borders
Limonium perezii (sea lavender or statice) Statice forms a rosette of large leathery leaves and year-round large clusters of blooms that are supported on stems up to 60cm tall. These bi-coloured flowers range between purple, blue and white and have a papery feel to the touch. The flowers last forever, hence the other common name, ‘everlasting’, and make excellent cut flowers both fresh and dried as they retain their colour and shape. Butterflies and bees are attracted to the flowers. Use it in large swathes.
Achillea millefolium (yarrow) Yarrows are interesting for their many uses: medicinal and culinary as well as an insect repellent and compost activator. Between the other perennials suggested for this combination, they would also supply lovely contrast with their delicate foliage textures and umbels of dainty flowers. Use it as a filler plant and as a companion for the other foreground perennials.
Coreopsis grandiflora (tickseed) If you are looking for a cheerful plant that is long-flowering, very low maintenance and drought-tolerant, go for coreopsis – a typical prairie plant that is irresistible to bees, butterflies and birds. The new ‘Uptick’ range is mildew resistant and has pretty two-tone flowers. Use it as a perfect border plant to complement the rest.
Helichrysum petiolare (silver bush everlasting). Grey velvety leaves are an indication of hardiness and endurance, but also an important colour as a foil for other plants in a perennial border. The helichrysum is a perfect choice with its spreading growth habit and honey-scented yellow flowers with creamy papery bracts in spring. Size 1 x 1m. Use it in bold background groups, where it is very effective.
Agapanthus hybrids. Thanks to intensive breeding, we can now plant agapanthus that are more compact than the old-fashioned species. No perennial bed should be without these beauties: try ‘Lapis Lazuli’, a free-flowering dwarf hybrid with 60cm long stems with intense blue flowers that appear intermittently in summer, or ‘Buccaneer’, with a medium size of about 30 x 30cm and dark blue flowers with deep purple veins from early to mid-summer. Use it in groups repeated through the garden, and don’t skimp as you will want some for the vase too.
Jacobaea maritima (silver ragwort). Previously known as Senecio cineraria or dusty miller, this perennial (sometimes treated as an annual) gives striking foliage texture and colour to mixed plantings. The small yellow flowers are not important but the silver-grey to nearly white and deeply incised leaves with their felt-like texture have always grabbed the hearts of gardeners. This is truly a tough one! Use it by planting it in groups in the mid-ground to add a colour accent between groups of green-leaved perennials.
Fact: Using combinations of different types of perennials discourages damaging insects and disease.
Care for all: This combination will work in hot and sunny places in any type of well-draining soil. It has low water requirements.
Perennials for where it’s shady and moist
Begonia x hybrida (winged begonia) The ’Dragon Wing’ range, which includes pink and red flowering cane-forming begonias, has become an iconic plant over the years. The growth habit is bushy and arching, with glossy green leaves and large, drooping flowers. Use it in numbers in the mid-ground for a beautiful colour contrast against green foliage.
Plectranthus ‘Lemon Lime’ (Swedish ivy) Just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be another colourful plectranthus on the scene, ‘Lemon Lime’ rocks up with its yellow-green foliage and burgundy stems. It is hailed as a trailing pot or hanging basket plant but is actually a great groundcover for shady spots too. Use it to add spots of bright lemon to the foreground.
Chlorophytum saundersiae ‘Starlight’ (weeping anthericum). Can you grow grass-like plants in light shade? Yes! ‘Starlight’ will grow happily in shade, where it will bring colour contrast and light with its variegated linear leaves. White star-shaped flowers on long drooping stems appear from summer to autumn or throughout the year. Use it in the middle ground where it will play a bright and airy role at a mature height of 75cm.
Heuchera hybrids (coral bells). Coral bells are available in many flower and foliage hues, and are loved as much as begonias and impatiens when it comes to shady areas. Heucheras have a good resistance to heat and moisture but can also tolerate dry conditions. Butterflies and birds love the nectar of the small flowers. Use it by dotting different hybrids around for a kaleidoscope of colours, or just use one hybrid as a groundcover in the foreground.
Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches) The leaves are dramatically large and glossy dark green, and the white flowers are protected by interesting, thorny bracts in shades of green, grey, purple and pink. The flowers are born in spring to mid-summer. This perennial can grow in sun or shade and forms clumps of about 1 – 2m high from underground tubers. Use it by giving it ample space to spread in the background, as this is an aggressive grower that tends to crowd out its other bed mates.
Fact: Let’s face it, most lawns battle to grow in partial shade (even though you can regularly over-seed existing lawn with mixes suitable for shade), so why not turn those areas into shady prairies with perennials?
Gomphostigma virgatum (river star) Plant this beautiful indigenous evergreen perennial, which can actually grow taller than 2m, in spots that receive a little more sun. This willowy plant has slender silvery-grey branches and fine leaves, and is very impressive when covered in small scented white flowers in summer. It is said that birds harvest the branches for nest building. Use it planted behind and between some bear’s breeches: close your eyes and imagine it!
Spring perennials in pink…
Gaura lindheimeri (angel wings) We love perennial filler plants that grow like weeds, are not fazed by heat and will not drink a dam dry, and gaura fills this spot. It provides bushy growth and delicate flower spikes that resemble butterflies and are full of sweet nectar, making them irresistible to wildlife. Gaura is fast-growing, tough and flowers repeatedly from spring to late autumn with a short dormancy in winter. Try the ‘Belleza’ range in pink, white and dark pink. Use it for mass planting, which gauras are perfect for. They would look great next to Shasta daisies.
Dianthus barbatus (sweet William). Sweet Williams have always been a favourite of the cut-flower gardener, and modern interspecific single-flowered sweet Williams were bred to be tough and heat resistant. ‘Dash’ has long, straight and strong stems holding balls of tightly packed blooms. This basal brancher needs no staking to accommodate its height of 50cm and spread of 35cm. ‘Rockin’ is a biennial that produces vivid, slightly scented flowers, and has good over-wintering skills. Use it planted in waves in the middle ground.
Digitalis purpurea (foxglove) Romantic and dramatic in bloom in soft pastel colours is ‘Camelot’. What sets this range of biennials apart from the rest is uniform growth and flower spikes on strong stems with large and scented flowers. The plants will bloom throughout summer as long as the spikes are regularly picked for the vase. Use them dotted repeatedly in groups between other plants, as the stems of foxgloves can grow as tall as 1 – 1.2m.
Fact: A garden planted with perennials will buzz with wildlife all summer long.
Leucanthemum ‘Daisy Mae’ (Shasta daisy). The Shasta daisy will emerge in spring, bloom all summer long, and will let you know autumn is due by asking for a good trimming back to go dormant in winter. The stems are sturdy and strong, and the pure white petals surrounding a sunny yellow centre will cheer up perennial beds. Use it planted in a great mass in the foreground of your bed.
Alstroemeria hybrids. Tall-growing (and dwarf) alstroemerias are available in a variety of colours and stripes, but our tried-and-tested favourites for a perennial border are to be found in the ‘Summer Paradise’ range, which will give you a great harvest of flowers for the garden and for the vase. Use them in bold groups in all the colours of this range, and take care to stake them a bit.
Liriope muscari ‘Evergreen Giant’ (lily turf) Without a doubt one of the most beautiful ‘ornamental grasses’ in the world (although it is actually a lily). These clump-forming plants with strap-like dark green leaves can reach a height of 90cm and a spread of 45cm, so they will make a strong statement in any perennial border. Spikes of lilac flowers on tall stems appear in summer and autumn, and are later followed by black berries. Cold and frost hardy. Use it for accent and mass planting as it stays pretty all year long.
Fact: Although there is value and beauty to every season of the year, it is spring that we long for and plan for the most. Use perennials to really make spring come alive in your garden.