The first gardening mistake I made when we moved to rural Vermont 17 years ago was thinking that perennials are something you plant once and enjoy forever.
Ohhhhhh no. Oh-ho-ho-no.
Well, in some cases it’s true—we’ve got peonies, for example, that came with the place and must be decades old—but the very fact that perennials stay in the ground makes them subject to seemingly endless variables, all exacerbated by the seemingly endless microclimates that characterize the region in general and our yard in particular.
I knew going in that some perennials, such as gladioli, are sensitive and must be brought indoors for the winter then reestablished in the spring. So I skipped those. I also knew that some perennials, such as most everything in the mint family, are invasive and must be either contained or planted where they can run amok. So I avoided those, too.
Then went on to plant my favorite species, since our well-established perennials represented a previous homeowner’s taste. Pretty much everything I put in failed within 1-3 years, while the established plants flourished. Huh?
I can divide or transplant the established perennials with shocking brutality and they just keep going like Energizer Bunnies, but my carefully selected, carefully tended new perennials just don’t last. Heck, I’m the only person I’ve ever met who can’t keep daffodils!
Even after I got smart and started planting only Zone 3–hardy specimens (learned from cataloguing everything established and finding that to be the common denominator), I still lose the new ones. Or else they shrink back in number to a few feeble survivors that keep returning enough to keep giving me false hope.
The experience has taught me a lot about the dominance of microclimates over zone maps, the difference between reproductive techniques, and perennial vs. diennial growth patterns. It also clarified the definition of “partial sunlight.” The thing that surprises me year after year, however, is the fact that some perennials move.
It’s a creepy thought that nags at me during the winter. While the land is frozen for months, somewhere below my feet there are tendrils reaching out, or seeds that fell over the summer, which will result in plants emerging somewhere other than where I put them. Thus I’ve had grape hyacinths and glory-of-the-snows pop up in the middle of the lawn. Thus I’ve had a crocus appear even though I never planted one. Thus the horseradish emerged in the woods 30 yards away from its calculated placement, the phlox choked out a complete garden, the lupines stepped sideways two feet, and the bee balm took over the compost pile.
These plants behave, in fact, like certain weeds. Heck, perennials are weeds, if you consider this definition: “What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it” (E. J. Salisbury, The Living Garden, 1935). In my yard, some perennials are invasive weeds—like the nightmare phlox, along with lilacs, anything in the rose family, and lily of the valley, which to me is as pernicious as grass. I have come to hate grass, which grows like a metastisizing cancer where you do not want it and refuses to grow where you do.
What this all adds up to is a three-part lesson: (1) Do thorough homework before you plant perennials. (2) Be prepared to monitor them closely and manage them regularly. (3) Make sure you put clumpers in the garden and movers somewhere they can spread.