Thursday, March 18, 2021

In Search of the Perfect Perennial

Hellebore Helleborus sp. in my daughter's New Jersey garden.

My daughter sent me a picture of a lovely hellebore blooming in her garden. It illustrates perfectly the topic of this post: what makes a perfect perennial? Sydney Eddison in her book, Gardening for a Lifetime, lists six standards of good behavior for a perennial. Her sage advice was written a decade ago, but is valid still. Sydney says:

A perennial must ...
1. be truly perennial and return every year
2. be healthy 
3. have fortitude to endure cold winters (very important in the Poconos)
4. have superior, or at least good, foliage for most of the season
5. maintain a tidy habit, not flopping nor sprawling, and must remaining in reasonable bounds
6. resist predators, pests or diseases.
The hellebore meets all of the criteria. Mine aren't in bloom yet, as my garden is a couple of zones colder than my daughter's; I can't wait to see their lovely faces.
Hellebore Helleborus sp in my garden.


Other plants that exhibit the six attributes, in my opinion, are brunnera, sweet woodruff, pulmonaria, bleeding heart, and astilbe. All of these 'perfect' plants prefer shade; you will find them in my Serenity Garden and/or Woodland Walk.

The forget-me-not type flowers of Brunnera Macrophylia 'Jack Frost'

Sweet Woodruff Galium odoratum

Lungwort Pulmonaria  
Bleeding Heart Dicentra
Astilbe 'Maggie Daley'

Six full-sun plants that meet the criteria in my cottage garden are agastache, bearded iris, perennial geranium, yarrow 'The Pearl,' salvia, and crocosmia.
Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum is a magnet for bees.

Clockwise from top left: Perennial geranium 'Rozanne', Sage Salvia, Yarrow Achillia 'The Pearl', and Blue flag Iris versicolor

Mombretia Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

As for those plants that fail to meet the criteria, I follow Sydney Eddison's advice to look at each one and ask the hard question, “Have I the time and energy to give this plant what it needs? And if not, do I love it enough to give it what it needs anyway?” The answer is a resounding "Yes!" to the "do I love it enough?" question, when I think of some of my roses and my favorite daylilies. The roses are very fussy here, often failing to resist predators, pests or diseases, and struggling through the severe winters. Daylilies need constant attention during their blooming period, when I deadhead them daily to keep them tidy.  I made the decision to keep them both, at least for now.
David Austin Rose Rosa "Lichfield Angel"
Daylily Hemerocallis "Chicago Apache"


But some plants have had to go. One of them is the obedient plant (which, as you know, is NOT aptly named) ...

Obedient Plant Physostegia virginiana


I chose obedient plant because it is very "cottage-garden" looking. It rapidly took over a perennial border and crowded out everything else. I dig up as much as I can, but some persist -- usually a small clump each year that I can tolerate. The bees love it so.

The not-so-obedient obedient plant in the Abundance Garden.


I do agree with Sydney that shrubs are far less work. Why shrubs? Well, shrubs offer more value for less work, shrubs suitable for a border need little pruning, they supply strong structural forms, and they offer year-round interest. However, there are new varieties of perennials that, while formerly quite difficult to grow, have been bred to resist disease, etc. I just completed an assignment writing plant descriptions for a nursery's online catalog. I wrote descriptions for 60 plants, adding several to my wish list. Yes, it was a dangerous assignment. I have ordered some for a bed that I plan to install this year. I will discuss these new plant varieties in a future blog post.

One of the most popular talks that I give to community gardeners is called,  "Gardening Smarter Not Harder." In this program I included lots of labor-saving techniques. Find information on my website HERE

A true expert in the field of gardening smarter is Toni Galdone, a much more eminent speaker than me. I recommend you visit her beautiful blog, The Resistant Gardener. If  you are seeking ways to make your gardening techniques easier as you age you must read Toni's book, The Lifelong Gardener.

Good news: it is the first day of spring this weekend and the weatherman has forecast an end to this rain. I'm ready for the sun and for those perfect and not-so-perfect plants in my gardens. Please tell me about yours.

Stay safe!


Pamela x

Hellebore Helleborus 'Ivory Prince'

 I love reading your comments. I hope you leave one so I’ll know you visited! 

I look forward to visiting your blog in return.


  1. Your post is delightful Pam and several of these are my favorites. As I get older, I strive to plant perennials with that have long bloom times with little maintenance needed. Hellebores are certainly on the top of the list for mid-winter into spring. Happy springtime with more blooms ahead!

  2. i haven't had a huge rate of success with hellebores, they don't seem to like the soil here, though your post has just reminded me that I need to buy a new dicentra as Mick managed to dig up my lovely, well established one which I'd had for a number of years, and consigned it to the dustbin! Perhaps the hellebores went the same way.

  3. This is very informative and helpful to those of us who are less than expert gardeners. I'm currently in search of plants to replace some of my losses from the recent freeze and I'm on the lookout for "perfect perennials."

  4. What a beautiful bleeding heart!
    I'd welcome any of those perfect perennials into my garden. I recently addd the brunnera and love it!

  5. I would add a number 7, big, beautiful blooms. Must have big, colorful blooms and the bolder the better. Hosta lovers would probably disagree I suppose.

    Toni is right, "Garden smarter, not harder" and I need to listen to her. My garden is more than I can handle and I need to scale back. Can't figure out what to do though so I will check out her blog.


  6. Gracious timing to be tempted by new plants ... when you have a new bed to fill.