By Deborah Nicolls
UCCE El Dorado County Master Gardener
My favorite gardening season is fall. Other than watering and dead-heading I don’t garden in the summer because I rely primarily on perennials in my yard and they don’t need a lot of attention during the summer. With the arrival of fall it is time to get back into working in my garden, including planting, cutting back and dividing my perennials.
According to the California Master Gardener Handbook, a perennial is a woody or herbaceous plant that lives from year to year and does not die after flowering once. They can be deciduous or evergreen. Shrubs and trees are considered perennials, but this article discusses only non-woody perennials. If these plants are natives or suited to our Mediterranean climate, they will be easier to grow and keep healthier than those with different climate needs.
Perennials are not necessarily for those who desire instant gratification. They generally bloom for a few months of the year and are best planted in the fall, when they usually are not blooming at all. It could be months before you see a blossom after planting them. During the winter many perennials die back leaving the garden looking a little barren, though I prefer to think of it as an expectant look, anticipating the exciting arrival of spring.
Perennials are rewarding plants to grow as they require very little work to maintain and most of that maintenance can be done in the cooler months rather than in our hot, dry summers. One of the other pluses for perennials is that out of one you can get many; most non-shrubby perennials can be divided in some manner or another. Dividing plants is an article in itself, but just know that when the plants start to get spindling or crowded looking it is time to take action.
When you shop for perennials, keep in mind the mature size of the plants you are purchasing. Overcrowding leads to stress in plants, since they are competing for nutrients and water, which encourages disease. Plants in smaller pots will quickly catch up in size to larger ones and save you money.
Lists of perennials can be found on the internet. Several such sites are Illinois and North Carolina Universities at urbanext.illinois.edu/perennials/directory.cfm and ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/perennials/indcoa_e.htm. Another reliable site is Sunset at sunset.com/garden/flowers-plants/best-perennials-fall-planting-00400000055723/. Keep in mind what your climate zone is in making your plant purchase decisions.
Perennials are best planted in the fall or early spring. In the fall the soil is still warm, encouraging root growth before the colder weather sets in and you won’t need to provide much supplemental water. Perennials spend most of their first season establishing a root system; you should not have to fertilize when planting unless your soil is very poor. Amending with compost would be beneficial if your soil is heavy or low on nutrients. Mulch will help retain moisture.
If the plants are non-natives, fertilize once in the early spring and again when they start to bud. Dead-head your plants to keep them blooming longer, though some perennials are grown specifically for their lovely seed heads. In the winter, cut the plants back. Some can be cut all the way to the ground, though this isn’t necessary for evergreen plants such as lavender.
In the early spring, it’s time to enjoy your perennials. Look for the little green leaves coming up from what looked like a mostly dead plant and know that in a few months time it might be several feet tall and covered in blossoms that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, located at 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. For more information about our public education classes and activities, go to our Master Gardener website at ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/. Sign up to receive our online notices and e-newsletter at ucanr.edu/mgenews/. You can also find us on Facebook.