I am thrilled to be writing the garden column again for this superstar magazine! And what better way to kick off my column than by showcasing some fab perennials you can incorporate into your gardens this year.
Many know me as a passionate perennial plantaholic. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not choosey about what I allow in my garden. Plant real estate is extremely valuable in my quarter-acre village property. Similar to a picky grocery shopper who gently squeezes the peaches and taps the melons, I scrutinize potential ‘homeowners’ for low-maintenance, high eye-appeal qualities. Allow me to introduce a few of my Upper East Side plant residents.
Let’s start with two in the penthouse gang. Veronicastrum, commonly known as Culver’s Root, is a stately 4’ – 6’ beauty with a commanding presence. A native plant hardy to Zone 3, it fits well with today’s popular ‘green theme’. This no fuss, long-lived perennial does well in average to moist soils and prefers full to partial sun. Sandy, fast draining soils or extended dry periods can result in crispy edged leaves. Graceful, narrow flower spikes are white, pink or lavender and open from the top down starting in July. Attractive whorled leaves climb the stems at equal intervals making the foliage almost as interesting as the flowers. There are three flower colors to choose from: soft pink, white and lavender. Culver’s Root is an important nectar source for butterflies. Equally valuable is its bad taste to deer.
Another ‘reach for the sky’ perennial for full to part sun is Rudbeckia ‘Henry Eilers’. This Black-Eyed Susan has a strikingly different look than the more common ‘Goldsturm’. ‘Henry Eilers’ has skinny, yellow petals with fluted tips that are spaced widely apart. Masses of flowers dance atop 4’ – 5’ stems. Drought tolerant and deer resistant like its siblings, this butterfly magnet starts blooming slightly later than ‘Goldsturm’ and dazzles later into the fall.
Coneflowers (Echinacea) have long been popular with tough-love gardeners. But let’s move beyond the ho-hum mauves and whites. I will also not mention any of the genetically weak cultivars recently introduced to the market. Only the best earn a spot in my column. Add pop to your gardens with ‘Tomato Soup’ that sports warm, tomato-red flowers and reaches 32”. ‘Tiki Torch’ is another sizzler with brilliant dark orange flowers that don’t fade. ‘Milkshake’ cools things down with double white, pom-pom shaped flowers accented by drooping white petals. At 30’ – 36”, it was one of the top rated beauties at Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant evaluation trials. Finally, ‘Fatal Attraction’, at 26”, has seductive hot pinkish-red flowers with contrasting black stems. It’s impossible to say no to. All these coneflowers are hardy to zone 4; love full sun; bloom through the summer, and are distasteful to deer (but deer, like teenagers, will eat anything when hungry). Coneflowers thrive on lean, mean growing conditions. This makes sense when you consider they’re a prairie flower. Too much ‘love’ can spell death.
Fertile, regularly watered soil is their nemesis. Stop pampering coneflowers and simply look the other way. Skip the fertilizer. One of the best things I ever did for my coneflowers was to replace a section of dark, rich loam with sandy, pitiful soil. My coneflowers were in heaven. Go figure. I wish kids were as easy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t put daylilies on my hot property owner’s list. I favor the repeat blooming varieties. Not to offend anyone, but Stella De Oro is far overused. Yes, she gets accolades for being the first in this great series, but the ‘younger generations’ have surpassed her in beauty and performance. Especially noteworthy are the repeat bloomers in the Designer Daylily line. Designer Daylilies have been carefully selected based on their top performance, exceptional blooming, vibrant colors and vigorous, winter-hardy traits. Let’s take daylily ‘Sunday Gloves’, for example. This breathtaking specimen has pristine white blooms that are over 5” in size (compared to Stella’s 2 1/2”). Add to this a powerful fragrance and Stella is history. ‘Sunday Gloves’ has multiple buds per scape (stem) and reaches 27”. ‘Custard Candy’ is another magnificent repeat bloomer with soft, creamy yellow flowers and maroon markings. Masses of 4 ¼” blooms adorning compact 24” foliage make it simply delicious. ‘Going Bananas’ goes bonkers with its 4” soft yellow blooms that can number 10 – 15 per 22” tall scape (stem). And lastly, ‘Earlybird Cardinal’ has been reported to be the longest blooming of all repeat bloomers; starting in mid-June and pushing up new stems up to four times in a season. Watermelon red, 4” wide flowers reaching 21” tall. All daylilies do best in full to part sun, although they will still make you proud in dappled light or part shade.
Stepping into the shade, Heucherellas, commonly known as Foamy Bells, are becoming the rage. These are a cross between Coral bells (Heuchera) and Foam Flowers (Tiarella), hence Heucherella. The progeny has some of the best traits from both parents. ‘Golden Zebra’ has screaming red and yellow leaves. Grab your sunglasses! ‘Sweet Tea’ goes down smoothly with apricot-orange, cinnamon colored leaves that can create mounds up to 20”. One of the newest to hit the nursery shelves is ‘Solar Eclispe’. Chocolatey-red centers are rimmed with chartreuse margins. It pairs beautifully with ‘Solar Power’ that sports the reverse markings. Heucherellas are hardy to Zone 4 and do best in part sun (although they can handle full sun) to dappled shade. Most of the flowers are a non-descript, dirty white although ‘Burnished Bronze’ has pretty pink blooms atop shiny bronze foliage.
Staying on the dark side, Fern-leaved Bleeding Hearts are the ever-ready flower bunnies in shade. My nod goes to those in the ‘Heart’ series over ones like ‘Luxurient’ and ‘Zestful’. ‘King of Hearts’ (bright pink flowers); Ivory Hearts (white), ‘Candy Hearts’ (lighter pink) and ‘Burning Hearts’ (bright pink with white markings at the tip of each bloom) retain their ferny blue foliage better and produce more consistent blooms spring through fall. They thrive in part sun to shade and are hardy to Zone 3. Reaching between 8” – 12”, these front-of-the-border, deer-resistant workhorses do best in moisture-retentive soil that is not too wet or bone dry.
These are just a few prized perennials that will provide beauty and outstanding performance. Believe me, I do plenty of ‘kicking the tires’ before I drive away with prospects for my tough love, limited space display beds. Any of these are neat, no-fuss tenants that will more than pay their way in your gardens.
Kerry Ann Mendez is a garden designer, speaker, teacher and writer and the owner of Perennially Yours in Ballston Spa. Visi