Easy-to-Grow Perennials

While the calendar may say we’re stuck in the midst of winter, it’s never too early to begin planning for the spring growing season. Perennials are always a welcome addition to any garden because they’re a lasting investment: Pick the right plant and you can enjoy beautiful flowers and foliage for years to come.

But with so many perennials on the market, which ones should you choose? What if you’re facing less than ideal conditions in your garden? Do you have a border exposed to bright sunlight most of the day? What will grow in that shady, damp spot in the corner of your backyard? Luckily, there are perennials for all situations: here is a list of ten easy-to-grow perennials, five for sunny gardens and five for shade, that thrive in multiple hardiness zones across the country.

While an occasional dose of organic mulch is appreciated by most of these plants, they can thrive in some adverse conditions with just a little loving care. Of course, be aware of your soil conditions, your USDA hardiness zone, and any other peculiarities of your area, but chances are that you can grow something you find here. If you’re not sure which zone you live in, check http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html. Any of these popular plants will make a splash in your garden, so be sure to pick some up at your local nursery this spring!

SUN-LOVING PERENNIALS

  1. Peony (genus Paeonia): If you’re looking for beautiful blossoms that thrive in a sunny spot and will live for decades, look no further than the garden peony. These plants can outlive humans; some last up to and beyond a hundred years! Mid-spring bloomers, peonies can get to two or three feet tall and come in a veritable rainbow of colors, although many are in shades of red, pink, or white. In fact, there is a multitude of peony species with different types of petals, such as single, double, and semi-double. Peonies tend to flop over when they’re in full bloom and get top-heavy, so to avoid this problem and the need to stake them up, you may consider planting the single flowered varieties. To prolong the blooming time just deadhead old blossoms, and cut back the remaining foliage in late fall to assure a beautiful show the following spring. Peonies are hardy from zone 2 to zone 8. These plants are a favorite snack for ants, and while the bugs don’t harm them, they may annoy you when you cut the blooms to bring inside. Planting peonies in an airy spot exposed to a breeze can help this, as can a careful eye and a good rinsing of cut blooms. With just some easy maintenance steps, you can enjoy these sweet-smelling favorites for years on end!
  2. Yarrow (genus Achillea): Intriguing in shape and fragrant in aroma, yarrow makes a great addition to a sunny garden space. Their flat crowns of tiny blooms distinguish them from other flowers, and they’re available in a range of colors including yellow, pink, red, lavender, and white. Hardy from zones 2 to 9, yarrow looks great in borders because of its unique shape and scented flowers and foliage. While they look dainty, these plants are very tough and can thrive in all kinds of soils as long as there is good drainage. “Coronation Gold” and common yarrow are two popular species. With a blooming season from late spring to early fall, yarrow can attract butterflies and birds to your garden all summer long.
  3. Black-Eyed Susan (genus Rudbeckia): This American classic comes in many varieties, and while most are cheery and very hardy, two of the best species are Rudbeckia fulgida, the “Goldsturm” variety, and Rudbeckia hirta, the staple of the prairie. These bright yellow flowers with dark brown centers love full sun and well-drained soil. Naturally accustomed to the meadow environment, they can tolerate dryness and are resistant to pests of all kinds. Hardy to zone 4, these garden favorites can grow to a couple feet in height and bloom from midsummer into the fall, often until the first frost. With only some simple deadheading, you can enjoy Black-Eyed Susans for months each year. Their exuberant yellow petals will brighten any sunny garden and are sure to please!
  4. Salvia (genus Salvia): Spiky spires of salvia look dramatic in any garden, and I must admit, this plant is one of my personal favorites. While a kaleidoscope of colors is available, I love the way the purplish-blue varieties look against the whites, pinks, and yellows of other flowers. This is an enormous genus, so I will focus on two hardy, popular types, Violet Sage (Salvia nemorosa), and Blue Sage (Salvia azurea). Violet Sage begins blooming in early summer and with simple deadheading will last into early fall. Hardy from zones 4 to 9, this species prefers moderately moist soil. Blue Sage, meanwhile, is a little more susceptible to cold and thrives from zones 5 to 9. Also needing moderately moist soil with good drainage, Blue Sage blooms a little later than its violet cousin, flourishing from midsummer into fall. This variety doesn’t need deadheading, however. Both of these salvias are resistant to most pests and at the same time attractive to enjoyable garden wildlife such as butterflies and hummingbirds. For great color and texture in your sunny garden, salvias are a fabulous choice.
  5. Aster (genus Aster): Another huge genus, asters are cheerful, colorful flowers that brighten up the garden during its last days in late summer and fall. A popular and resilient species is the
    New England
    aster (Aster novae-angliae). Available in any color from blue or purple to hot pink, this fall classic thrives in well-drained soil in zones 3 to 9, and it is resistant to most insects. Mildew can develop in very humid conditions, so an airy, sunny spot is best for asters. Cultivars of the New England aster are often three or four feet tall, but shorter and taller varieties exist. A lovely companion for mums, these flowers say goodbye to the growing season with vigorous blooms and bright colors.

SHADE-LOVING PERENNIALS

  1. Bleeding Heart (genus Dicentra): With mournfully droopy, fernlike foliage and some of the most distinctive flowers ever seen, Bleeding Hearts are a dramatic and surprisingly easy-to-grow addition to a shade garden. The common Bleeding Heart, (Dicentra spectabilis), blooms from late spring into early summer and is known for its pink heart-shaped flowers that drip white petals from their centers. If your shade garden gets moderate sunlight, these plants will thrive as long as the soil is kept moist. Hardy from zones 3 to 9 and reaching a height of two to three feet, this shade garden classic has no major pest issues and can attract birds and butterflies.
  2. Merrybells (genus Uvularia): Also interestingly shaped and perfect for shady, moist soil are Merrybells, which have yellow flowers dangling from stems that seem to arch over from the weight of the blooms. Their long petals look as if they never finished unfurling, but their cheery yellow color looks great against the cool green foliage of other shade-loving plants. The species Uvularia grandiflora is the large-flowered variety of this plant, and it blooms from the middle of spring into summer, and thrives from zone 3 to zone 9. Like Bleeding Hearts, Merrybells have no serious pest problems and only need to be kept moist to last for years.
  3. Hosta (genus Hosta): No shade garden would be complete without these classics that boast beautiful, expansive foliage and shoots of graceful but small flowers in midsummer. There is a dizzying array of hostas available with all types of leaves, and they have a wide range of shade tolerance as well. Whether you’re confronted with partial or deep shade, there is a hosta that can thrive in your garden! Some cultivars have broad green leaves with white edges, some have gold hues, and others, such as the “Krossa Regal” variety, are bluish-green. Most of the flowers are either a pale purple or white. These shade stalwarts are hardy from zones 3 to 9, and only have one major pest concern: slugs and/or snails. To prevent damage from these slimy foes, put up a barrier of diatomaceous earth around the plants to keep the pests out, or simply leave a little beer in a bowl near them and these intruders will drown in a watery grave of hops and barley.
  4. Astilbe (genus Astilbe): The feathery texture and spiky shape of these beauties make them a fantastic component of a shade garden. Flowering from mid- to late summer through the fall, these plants thrive from zone 3 to zone 9, are available in a rainbow of colors, and love moist soil. The Chinese astilbe, Astilbe chinensis, is more tolerant of dry conditions than many other varieties, and it produces soft pink panicles of tiny flowers. These hardy favorites won’t need staking, and their foliage is just as lovely as their flowers. The delicate appearance of this plant belies its easy maintenance, so be sure to add it to your shade bed or border!
  5. Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum): OK, so this plant doesn’t flower but it’s so beautiful, especially when grown with any of the above mentioned shade lovers, that I felt I must include it. The rich green plumes of any ferns look fabulous in shade gardens, and the fronds of this beauty are tinged in shades of icy silver and grayish lavender, making it just as lovely as any flower. Hardy from zones 4 to 9, adaptable to many degrees of shadiness, and with few pest problems, this unique yet easy-to-care-for plant will give an exotic touch to any shady spot.

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