Green Thumb Tip #11: The Perennial Philosophy

Peonies emerging from the warming earth.


Newbie gardeners so often fall for the trays of brightly flowering annuals each spring.  I know this, because I once did, too.  Who can resist the bright, harlequin colors of striped petunias, glowing marigolds, red New Guinea impatiens and perky geraniums?

In fact, we’re just home from Lowes.  It took all my will power to admire the tables laden with annual flats and keep right on going, without adopting a single one!


Redbud, a small native tree which fills the garden with flowers in earliest spring.


And I promise you, I will end buying a few annuals for pots and baskets before the last week of April.  But there is a better way to build a garden than bedding annual plants.


Narcissus “Thalia” form clumps as their bulbs multiply each year.


Back when, in another century, the fashion might have been to plant vast expanses of bright annuals in geometric figures in a large bed backed by a sedate hedge.  That works when you have a small army of gardeners on staff, a greenhouse of your own to raise those annuals, and plenty of time to work out the annual schemes.

It helps if your property is well fenced so that rogue rabbits and deer never find your tasty annual treats, too.


Hellebores bloom each winter, filling the garden with flowers for three or four months when little else is in bloom.  Deer and rabbits won’t bother them.  This is a young plant, and will eventually grow to 18″-24″ wide.


But we live, and garden, in a different world, don’t we?

Our reality includes limitations on our time, our energy, our purse, and maybe even on how much water we can invest in our garden during the hottest, driest months of summer.  Experienced gardeners learn to use plants which will return year after year, and largely take care of themselves.

It helps that most perennials not only grow larger each year, they also spread by some means or another.


Lamium roots at the leaf nodes, and makes a beautiful ground cover. It will bloom in a few weeks and provides a beautiful foliage back drop almost year round.


Perennials prove a wise investment of gardening dollars.  Purchased as small divisions or even bare root, most cost less than many annuals.  Some perennials even come as tiny starts in cell packs of 4, 6, or 8 in spring.  Once established, they can be divided again and again so your garden grows more lush and full each year.


Lilac shrubs fill the garden with fragrance when they bloom each spring. Some newer Lilacs will re-bloom sporadically during the summer.


Perennials include herbaceous plants, which may die back to the ground each winter; but they also include bulbs, tubers, ferns, herbs and flower producing shrubs. I take great joy in watching for favorite perennials to emerge from the earth each spring.  It is reassuring to see them return again and again; better each year.


Perennial Columbine will begin to bloom any day now. Its foliage will fill this spot all summer long.


I have heard from more than a few aging gardeners that they invest more in interesting trees or shrubs, and less in herbaceous perennials, with each passing year.  The upkeep year to year is easier.  You get more ‘bang’ for your ‘buck’ with a shrub producing hundreds of flowers each season.


Iris ‘Immortality’ with Comphrey. This is a re-blooming Iris, which often blooms again in August or September.


Some gardeners may be timid to plant perennials, because it is a little more complicated to plan for a full season of blooms.  Some perennials, like bearded Iris, may bloom only for a few weeks each year.  Once the Iris finish, what next?

I’ve actually seen charts showing the staggered bloom times of twenty or so perennials planted together in a bed.  Keeping track of color, size, habit and bloom time can seem overwhelming to a newbie gardener just getting acquainted with the world of perennials.


Siberian Iris bloom with Artemesia and Comphrey, both perennial herbs. 


It takes time to grow a good gardener.  We learn a little bit more with each passing season.   Our repertoire of plants increases through trial and error.  And our tastes evolve.


Azaleas fill our garden in April.


At some point, we realize that foliage is more important than flowers; and that the best gardens envelope us.  While annuals grow just a few inches tall, our trees, flowering shrubs and established perennials grow feet high, giving the garden a bit of drama and a lot of interesting structure.


Many perennials, like Canna lily and Ginger lily, will grow to six or seven feet tall in just a few weeks.


So go ahead a buy a few geraniums this spring to fill a pot by the front door.

But remember the perennial philosophy:  Buy it once, and then enjoy it for many years to come.


Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a favorite of nectar loving insects. A perennial, it is rarely touched by deer and grows more vigorous each year.


Woodland Gnome 2017



“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm

‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios




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Mistletoe shines so beautifully in our forest canopy on sunny days. 


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Evergreen, it catches the sunlight on clear days, and forms a beautiful lacy silhouette on cloudy ones.


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We never notice it during the long summer months when it is hidden by the leaves.  But once the trees are bare, I always watch for mistletoe colonizing trees along the way as we drive.


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One of the ancient Druid’s sacred plants, Mistletoe has been used in many ways through the ages.

It is one of the more unusual plants growing wild in our forests, feeding birds and providing cover for many different creatures.


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Read more about mistletoe here….


Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Ginger Lily

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Our Ginger Lilies began to bloom late yesterday afternoon.  Their perfume fills this area of the garden  with an aroma reminiscent of Easter lily or rich honeysuckle.

We’ve waited all summer for the pleasure of their blooming, and our stand of lilies is filled with buds, ready to burst open in the warmth of late summer.

Ginger Lilies grow from rhizomes.  These were a gift from a neighbor’s garden, and are hardy here in Zone 7.

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Many cultivars need warmer winters than Virginia offers, but these lilies  have survived and multiplied every year, creeping beyond their original bed.

These are called “Hardy White Butterfly Ginger Lily”,  Hedychium coronarium,  in the Plant Delights catalog, and grow to between 5′ and 6′ tall.

Aggressive growers, this stand of lily has grown thick and tall.  Like a field of corn, it offers a formidable barrier.  Make up your mind where you would like a permanent display before you plant the first tuber, because they aren’t easy to relocate once established.

The rhizomes are thick and tough.

I tried to dig out a few of these which were growing too far forward this spring, into the roses’ territory.  It was a tough job, and I didn’t get all of the sprouting rhizomes I should have dug.

You can dig enough to spread these around once established, but I would recommend a backhoe if you decide to reclaim the garden bed for other plants.


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But what a sweet problem to have!  These Ginger Lilies are one of our favorite flowers in the garden.

We are so appreciative to the neighbor who shared them with us.  We will enjoy a constant supply of white fragrant blossoms from now until a heavy frost.  These are one of the sweetest joys of late summer in our garden.


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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Pass Along Plants:  Ginger Lily (Forest Garden, 2013)

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