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Long-lived perennials for your garden

By: Jim Childs
These dependable bloomers return to your garden year after year!

Add long-lived perennials to your garden

Perennial means that the same plant keeps coming back year after year. But how many years? Five? 10? 100? Indefinitely? While you probably know that perennials don’t live forever, there are some that thrive many more years than others — and most do it with minimal care. If you don’t have time to dig and divide every few years, the plants I’ll talk about here may be ideal for you. Most will even hold their own against a wave of weeds as well as pesky diseases and insects. However, a little care will give you much better rewards.

What is it that makes some perennials live so long? The peony, gas plant and baptisia have deep and fleshy roots that can see them through long periods of drought or competition from weeds. However, those same roots make these perennials tough to transplant.

Be patient with these long-lived perennials

Most of the long-lived plants here grow at a slower pace than other perennials. They take their time getting established, and when they’re young they just don’t look very impressive. Odds are that you may not find big specimens at the garden center. And when you do take one home and get it into the garden, it’ll most likely take a few years to establish new roots and start to bloom.

Another trait of many long-lived perennials is that they only bloom once a year. For example, even if you deadhead a peony or a poppy, it won’t bloom again. Perhaps that’s how these garden elders manage to live so long — they produce just one spectacular crop of blossoms and then take a well-deserved rest, conserving energy for next year’s show. While removing spent flowers is mostly a cosmetic procedure, it does keep the plant from wasting energy forming seeds. So deadheading will help grow a stronger root system.

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Lemon lily (Hemerocallis lilasphodelus)

OK, all daylilies can be long-lived. But in my opinion, this is one of the best. It’s one of the very first daylilies to bloom each spring and the lemony fragrance is wonderful.

Blooms Fragrant yellow in midspring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids)

Peonies don’t bloom long enough! But plant a few early, mid- and late cultivars and you’ll have more than a month of flowers. Check out our great tip about how to save peony blooms for later.

Blooms Shades of pink, red and white in spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained, rich Size 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 3 to 8

Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Once this delicate-looking perennial settles in, it’s there for the long haul. The flowers open white, hold for a week or more and fade to a soft brown. Cut the spent heads off if you like, but eventually they will disappear on their own.

Blooms Delicate white flower sprays in midspring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist Size 3 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 4 to 9

False indigo (Baptisia australis)

A North American native, false indigo has no serious pests and will grow care-free for years. And as with many of these long-lived plants, avoid moving it. For sturdy stems that rarely need staking, grow false indigo in full sun.

Blooms Blue in late spring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Red hot poker (Kniphofia hybrids)

While red hot poker likes moisture during the growing season, it won’t tolerate being wet in winter. So plant it in a sunny spot where the soil drains quickly. Even so, it’s a good idea to set the crown on a slight mound. It should be an inch or two higher than the surrounding bed.

Blooms Warm shades of red, orange and yellow in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 2 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale)

Oriental poppies come up in spring but completely disappear from view after they bloom. You’ll want to mark the spot and plant something nearby that will billow over the area to cover the gap.

Blooms Shades of orange, red, white, pink and bicolors in midspring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 2 to 9

Large yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum pubescens)

Large yellow lady’s slipper likes to have its roots kept moist, but not wet. To plant one, dig a hole 10 inches deep and as wide as the spread of the roots. Then partially fill it with a 2:2:1 mix of pea gravel, sand and potting soil (the kind similar to topsoil, not a soilless mix). Set the plant into the hole so the crown is less than ½ inch under the surface. Cover the roots with more of the mix and water them in.

Blooms Golden yellow in early spring Light 2 hours of morning sun or dappled shade all day long Soil Evenly moist but well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7

Gas plant (Dictamnus albus purpureus)

Yes, hold a lit match near an open flower on a warm, still evening and you’ll see a small flame. Because it’s slow to start in spring, many folks have dug out a gas plant thinking it was dead. So be sure to mark the spot with a tag as you’re planting.

Blooms Purple-pink or white in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Carolina lupine (Thermopsis villosa)

Even after the 6- to 12-inch-long flower spikes finish, there are almost no pests or diseases to ruin the look of the foliage. And in full sun this perennial won’t need staking.

Blooms Yellow spikes in late spring to early summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

This perennial butterfly host plant is fairly easy to start from seed. Direct sowing where you want the plants to grow often gives you a flowering plant faster than moving in a potted plant. Even as a seedling, it’s deep roots are tough to transplant. Be patient in spring; butterfly weed is slow to come up.

Blooms Clusters of orange tobright yellow in early to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

Lemon lily (Hemerocallis lilasphodelus)

OK, all daylilies can be long-lived. But in my opinion, this is one of the best. It’s one of the very first daylilies to bloom each spring and the lemony fragrance is wonderful.

Blooms Fragrant yellow in midspring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale)

Oriental poppies come up in spring but completely disappear from view after they bloom. You’ll want to mark the spot and plant something nearby that will billow over the area to cover the gap.

Blooms Shades of orange, red, white, pink and bicolors in midspring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 2 to 9

Peony (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids)

Peonies don’t bloom long enough! But plant a few early, mid- and late cultivars and you’ll have more than a month of flowers. Check out our great tip about how to save peony blooms for later.

Blooms Shades of pink, red and white in spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained, rich Size 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 3 to 8

Large yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum pubescens)

Large yellow lady’s slipper likes to have its roots kept moist, but not wet. To plant one, dig a hole 10 inches deep and as wide as the spread of the roots. Then partially fill it with a 2:2:1 mix of pea gravel, sand and potting soil (the kind similar to topsoil, not a soilless mix). Set the plant into the hole so the crown is less than ½ inch under the surface. Cover the roots with more of the mix and water them in.

Blooms Golden yellow in early spring Light 2 hours of morning sun or dappled shade all day long Soil Evenly moist but well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7

Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus)

Once this delicate-looking perennial settles in, it’s there for the long haul. The flowers open white, hold for a week or more and fade to a soft brown. Cut the spent heads off if you like, but eventually they will disappear on their own.

Blooms Delicate white flower sprays in midspring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist Size 3 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 4 to 9

Gas plant (Dictamnus albus purpureus)

Yes, hold a lit match near an open flower on a warm, still evening and you’ll see a small flame. Because it’s slow to start in spring, many folks have dug out a gas plant thinking it was dead. So be sure to mark the spot with a tag as you’re planting.

Blooms Purple-pink or white in spring Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

False indigo (Baptisia australis)

A North American native, false indigo has no serious pests and will grow care-free for years. And as with many of these long-lived plants, avoid moving it. For sturdy stems that rarely need staking, grow false indigo in full sun.

Blooms Blue in late spring Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Carolina lupine (Thermopsis villosa)

Even after the 6- to 12-inch-long flower spikes finish, there are almost no pests or diseases to ruin the look of the foliage. And in full sun this perennial won’t need staking.

Blooms Yellow spikes in late spring to early summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Red hot poker (Kniphofia hybrids)

While red hot poker likes moisture during the growing season, it won’t tolerate being wet in winter. So plant it in a sunny spot where the soil drains quickly. Even so, it’s a good idea to set the crown on a slight mound. It should be an inch or two higher than the surrounding bed.

Blooms Warm shades of red, orange and yellow in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 2 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

This perennial butterfly host plant is fairly easy to start from seed. Direct sowing where you want the plants to grow often gives you a flowering plant faster than moving in a potted plant. Even as a seedling, it’s deep roots are tough to transplant. Be patient in spring; butterfly weed is slow to come up.

Blooms Clusters of orange tobright yellow in early to midsummer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained to dry Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

Published: Feb. 20, 2020
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