By Pete Amyoony
In last week’s column, I discussed the late summer planting of trees and shrubs. This week I would like to encourage people who are thinking of adding more perennials to their collection. Local nurseries would be my first choice as most of their stock is hardy and suited to this valley. If you head South or even East or West on a shopping trip for perennials, you may come home with something that will not do well in our climate. Every year I hear from local folks who are so disappointed that their expensive tree or perennial didn’t make it through the first winter. When we check it in the books, it is usually rated for Zone 6 or 8 even though it was bought in Prince George or Edmonton.
The first thing to look for when buying perennials is the Zone rating. We seem to be able to grow most things that are rated from Zone 1 to Zone 3 or 4. If you have a very sheltered spot on your property and are willing to mulch and “baby” something, you may get away with something rated at Zone 5.
The hardest time of the year on perennials is the fall. If we get a real cold snap before the ground is covered with snow, the roots may freeze and die. This happened to many perennials and shrubs in some years past when it turned very cold in November and the ground was bare. Rose bushes and many plants that had been in perennial beds for years did not make it through the winter.
If you are just starting out with perennials, be sure to plant them in beds that have been worked well and have no competing perennial weeds such as quack grass or thistles. The roots of these weeds will grow right through the roots of your new plants and you will have one big mess! I could show you a few such beds around my place where I just “tucked” in a few perennials I couldn’t resist and planned to make a permanent bed for them “later”. The weeds won the battle.
For years, all the garden books told us to add lots of good manure and compost to the hole before planting trees, shrubs or perennials. Now the advice is to just loosen the soil around the hole but plant in the native soil. This encourages the roots to go in search of nutrients rather than remaining in the hole with all the manure and “free food”. The following spring, once the plants are established, then you can add compost and manure around the plant out to the “drip line”(the width of the leaves or branches).
For the first year, it is best to be a borderline fanatic about weeds in the new perennial bed. When the weeds have gotten away on me, I have been known to dig out all the plants and bushes and start again from square one. If you tend to be lax with your weeding, it may be best to try a small perennial bed for the first year.
I have found it best not to clean off the dead leaves and top growth in the fall as they are nature’s protection for the root against heavy freezing. If you can’t stand the sight of the messy bed, you might want to clean off the tops and mulch with shavings or straw to protect the root ball until the snow arrives.