Designing Perennials for Color

Perennials bloom briefly and only once a year. If you would like flower color throughout the entire growing season, plan on a succession of bloom provided by different species. You can do this entirely with perennials, or mix in annuals for additional color from mid-summer to frost. Both tender (such as dahlia) and hardy (such as daffodil) bulbous plants offer additional possibilities. Throughout summer, hardy lilies -- with their varied colors, heights, and forms -- are especially effective in perennial borders.

Yellow coneflower
The yellow coneflower fills your perennial garden with sunshine.

Perennial gardeners strive for a mix of early, midseason, and late bloomers throughout the garden to keep it in constant bloom. As with any artistic endeavor, the right balance is a personal and somewhat subjective decision. For a powerful display, choose two or more plants that will bloom together in a good color combination. Also try to select flowers for all the seasons. Don't clump all the plants that bloom at once in only one part of the garden.

Observe your plantings through the seasons and note where color needs improved balance. Plant large blocks, three or more (many more) plants of just a few varieties together, per bloom period. The bigger the garden, the larger these blocks of plants should be. The balanced masses of color make the garden successful. Note how the garden changes in both color scheme and balance from week to week. A yellow, blue, pale green, and white spring garden may transform into a red, purple, violet, and forest-green one by July, and then go to gold, rusty-red, purple, and bronze shades in September.

Intermixing and underplanting perennials can get complex. It helps to draw up a plan on paper before digging and planting. On graph paper, draw in the band or blob for each group of perennials. After the garden is planted, it will take another year or more to fill in and get established. Spaces between clumps can be filled with annuals while the garden develops.

If your color combinations are not as good as you'd like, move the plants around. If a plant does not thrive, see if it works better under different conditions. If there's a plant you hate or one that dies, get rid of it. If you see a gorgeous perennial that you've never noticed and it grows in your zone and exposure, give it a try. Take a stroll though a botanical garden in your region for ideas about interesting perennials and ways to combine them. Be warned: Words like "addiction" and "obsession" are often used in discussions of gardening with perennials.

Color isn't the only visual effect perennials can bring to your garden. On the next page, learn about using the height, texture, and foliage of your perennial plants when designing a garden.

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