Part III : What I wish I'd known before I became a Flower Farmer Why you should grow perennials
Lesson #5 Grow perennials - they will probably save your bacon
To say that perennials have saved my bacon on many an occasion is no exaggeration. I think I've said this previously but no matter how well you plan out your annual sowing schedule something will invariably not go to plan.I have had many a tray of seedlings wither and die because I just haven't got round to planting them out. It happens to the best of us. Sometimes it might be something out of your control like a flock of revelling pukekoes who break through the protective netting of a freshly planted row of seedlings and pluck them out of the ground. On one memorable occasion torrential rain flooded my cutting garden. Wading through the lake and seeing the tops of my flowers floating around like seaweed was a dark day at MFC indeed. I lost a lot of dahlia tubers and lily bulbs. So you get my drift. Things can go wrong and invariably will go wrong which might leave you short on annual flowers when you desperately need them.
This is where the perennials can shine. These gentle souls are like green angels. Many disappear underground over winter and then quietly come to life when you're busy in the greenhouse juggling seed raising mix and seed trays. They put on growth and some will literally double in size in a year. Then they will send out their buds and merrily flower away without you doing a single thing. If you pick the right ones you can get a perennial that flowers during the "Hungry Gap".That time of year when the tulips, anemones and ranunculus are over and the autumn sown annuals haven't quite started to flower. Flower farmers can often overlook perennials in their early years of growing because they can be quite pricey. However, if you start your perennial collection early you can build it up over time so your wallet doesn't take such a hammering. You can also take advantage of being able to propagate from your plants and increase your stock each year.These are just some of the reasons why you should consider growing perennials and this post will hopefully inspire you to build up a collection that will become your own green safety net. I'll list my top eight favourites to start you off.
The lenten rose, as it's sometimes called, is an enchanting perennial. They form big clumps of useful foliage that doesn't die back and produce a beautiful nodding bloom in the cooler months when flowers are at a premium. Readily available at garden centres in an array of colours from white, to cream to a deep burgundy. They don't require any maintenance but I do ensure that they are weed free so that their growth isn't inhibited. The trick to getting a reasonable vase life from hellebores is to wait for the seed pods to form in the centre of the flower. At this point they are ready to pick. If you pick them before this stage they tend to wilt rapidly. Searing the ends of the stems can also help.
I planted valerian in my Nuttery about six years ago. I was gifted two little clumps from a friend's garden - one white and one pink. Valerian flowers in September and I love mixing it with tulips. Be warned though because Valerian will romp away and spread itself far and wide! From my two little plants I now have multiple clumps and have got to the stage where I'm digging it up to control it. I forgive it for being so rampant though because of it's generous gift of beauty at the start of the season.
Peonies are often overlooked by flower farmers because they only flower for a short time and they take up quite a bit of space. They then sit there for the next eleven months doing nothing at all! However, if you have some space to dedicate to these voluptuous beauties then I would strongly urge you to give them a go. They flower for me at the end of October into November just as the roses are beginning to unfurl. You can increase their season by picking from each of the main colour groups. Corals flower first, then the whites and pinks and finally the reds. My all time favourite is Sarah Bernhardt. She has the floofiest petals like an old fashioned dress with heaps of petticoats underneath. I also love the delicate scent of a peony and the way they start with the tightest of buds opening out with such drama and fanfare. Best picked at the "marshmallow stage" when they are still in bud and "give" a little if you squeeze them.
Sedum Autumn Joy
Sedum is another very generous perennial. From one gifted plant I now have about 40. It's easy to propagate. Simply put the spade through it, dig up a clump and replant. Each clump sends up many, many stems. The joyous thing about sedum is that it can be cut when it's green, then again when it starts to turn pink and finally as it turns burgundy. It makes an excellent dried flower and has a very strong form so adds an architectural element to a design. The bees adore this flower as it provides a nice sturdy platform on which to perch and drink the nectar. Drought tolerant.
Alchemilla mollis (Lady's mantle)
This perennial forms a mound of beautiful fan shaped leaves and then sends up the most gorgeous froth of lime green yellow flowers.The stem length is good enough for a bouquet and they are an excellent filler as well as being complementary to most focal flowers. They also dry really well and keep their colour so a great addition to a wreath or dried arrangement. You could quite easily plant a few in a group or slot them into any little spaces you may have in your garden. They also keep their leaves over winter adding interest to the border.
One of the most cheerful perennials that I grow with it's daisy shape form, bright pink petals and crazy bulbous centre. The petals do bruise easily but they can be plucked off and the interesting centre can become a statement in a bouquet. Another drought tolerant plant that can be propagated in the same way as sedum for a generous display.
Achillea is one of my all time favourite flowers. It multiplies in size every year creating clumps of frond like foliage and the most beautiful array of colours from November throughout the season. I often get the odd flower over winter too but not in any great quantity. You can buy the seed in colour mixes of every hue. Such a useful perennial to have on hand for filler in bouquets and an excellent vase life to boot. I have had some success drying achillea. Some varieties keep their colour too.
Eryngium (Sea Holly)
This perennial is so useful in many ways. It starts to develop it's blue thistles in December and can be pretty much harvested all at once and then dried. If picked when very blue it will generally keep it's colour once dried and will add real interest and an architectural grace to any arrangement. It is also very drought tolerant which is a huge bonus.
So perennials are multi faceted : they fill the hungry gaps in the year, they pretty much look after themselves and are environmentally friendly as they don't require much water. They will also enable you to create really interesting bouquets. Everyone knows a rose or a lily but not so much the perennials. Adding a few of these lovelies into your bouquets will make them so much more interesting and memorable.
Lesson #6 - Grow shrubs and trees in your first year
Lesson #7 : Grow herbs for scent and greenery
Lesson #8 Don't be too tidy in the garden and you may get a nice surprise
Lesson #9 - Grow some uglies and discover their beauty