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Perennial favourites

BIG BLOOMS – Itoh peonies

The bent leaves of the winter-crushed irises are showing green against the last heaps of snow in the garden. The tiniest bulb flowers are poking their heads out against a backdrop of grey/brown leaves. So it must be spring, but without question, this prolonged winter tries the soul of the gardener.

To brighten this drabbest of seasons, we searched the Internet and thumbed through seed catalogues looking for something green and blooming. We talked to experts as far away as Arizona, where presumably spring is never a problem. We also talked to local gardeners to hear about their favourite plants. Again and again those gardeners suggest the same thing, “Plant perennials!”

Perennials are the plants that endure the hardships of winter to grow and perhaps bloom again for many years. The catch is that most perennials have about a 10-day blooming period but the volunteer gardeners who tend the flowers in the St. Albert Botanic Park’s cottage garden manage to have colour from May to September.

“We generally have something blooming all summer,” said Margot McCune, who tends the 72-square-foot perennial garden along with Helen Forrest and Joyce Keltie.

The first things to bloom in this park are the purple irises, which in a good year, provide a spectacular backdrop to the bright orange Oriental poppies and the showy First Blush spurge.

“It just depends on the year. Last year the poppies and the irises bloomed together along with the spurge, which has bright, lime-green bracts and creamy-white flowers,” McCune said.

In late June the peonies begin to flower and some new Itoh hybrids are promising and exciting.

The first Itoh peonies were fiercely expensive and rare, costing many hundreds of dollars per plant. They were developed by the Japanese hybridizer Toichi Itoh. Itoh is said to have made 20,000 crosses before a succcessful plant was produced, hence the cost. Sadly Itoh died in 1956 without ever seeing an Itoh peony bloom.

“Itoh peonies are still more expensive than other peonies ($50 and up) but now there are so many new colours of Itoh peonies from yellow, to purple to orange,” said Stephen Raven, the perennial plant manager at Hole’s Greenhouses and Gardens.

Itoh peonies tend to have bigger blooms, Raven said, listing the yellow Yumi Itoh peony and the Bartzella Itoh peony as among his favourites.

Raven suggested that growing yellow peonies near purple clematis, including the extremely hardy Blue Angel clematis, provides an eye-catching late spring show in the garden.

For something new in the edible-perennial category, look for White-Soul strawberries. Unlike the familiar red strawberries, which spread by sending out runners, these tiny white berries spread underground.

“They take a few years to get established and bear fruit, but then they become prolific. The berries are tiny, and as close to a wild strawberry as you can get. They have an intense sweet flavour, which I think is sweeter than red strawberries,” said Stephen Scott of Terroir Seeds in Arizona.

The berries start out green and turn white when ripe, Scott said, adding that they are very hardy in cold climates but also grow in California, so they can take the heat too.

The many varieties of tall perennial grasses are becoming increasingly popular with gardeners because they look delicate in the wind. Most grow about a metre tall, and they are very drought tolerant and easy to grow.

“Try Karl Forester feather reed grass and combine it with Overdam, which has variegated leaves. It’s interesting as a backdrop at the back of the garden or else, when you plant three or five of them, as a see-through wave in front of the flowerbed,” said Tam Andersen of Prairie Gardens and Greenhouses.

Some perennials will produce multitudes of seeds and though they are beautiful, the ones that are not wanted need to be weeded out, McCune said.

“Native goldenrod is like that and some yarrows. Soapwort is fragrant and pink and we can hardly bring ourselves to throw it out sometimes, but it is a favourite too,” she said.

Another perennial in that category is gooseneck loosestrife, which has cream-coloured flowers.

“It’s not as invasive as purple loosestrife, which is a pest and needs to be removed, but gooseneck loosestrife still needs to be controlled. At the same time, it is very striking,” McCune said.

In late April, in a week when there was still snow in the forecast, it’s hard to think ahead to late August and the onset of fall. Nonetheless, when the garden is getting tired and you are getting bored, late blooming perennials such as the sedums, the fall asters and the tall and rangy Joe-Pye weed, will continue to provide a splash of colour.

“Joe-Pye weed, which is dramatic and fairly sturdy, will grow to shoulder height and produce pink flowers. It’s my favourite, every year,” Andersen said.

Susan Jones: Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.