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Ideas on Decor Perennials

Written for Green Profits
July 2023 article
JUL 2023

Building a decorative program around perennials means an upscale program focused on their personalities. Perennial inputs are generally higher, so rethink the container. As far as the plant is concerned, it sits in a little garden bed. Clay or ceramic or metal makes it portable, but durable over years of use, a signature perennial advantage. Fill with quality soil and very slow release fertilizer so your product has a long tail of success after purchase.

The plants themselves should have a strong personality like a dog or cat, and a xeric nature so you can sell it as low maintenance and naturally rain watered. I like to focus on volume. The plant feels valuable if it occupies space. Very often, these plants also make great cut flowers, either fresh or dried. With these qualities outlined, let's dive into the easy peasey choices first, then move onto the easy exotics next.

Europe has a deep history of developing perennials for the decor trade.

Fantasy™ 'Red Riding Hood' Younique™ 'White' 'Cheyenne Spirit' with Lobelia

Bred for the Job

It doesn't hurt to work with plants you already know. Europeans have a long history of potscapes with perennials, so breeders worldwide have developed series specifically for this job.

Echinaceas (sun): 'Cheyenne Spirit' (multi-color single) comes to mind first. It kickstarted perennial participation in the fall holiday and it's widely available. It's siblings, the Pow Wow series (purple or white), are also comfortable with pottery work. For more exotic looks, turn to 'Cara Mia Yellow' (golden pom-pom), Parrot (red/yellow single), Butterfly Kisses (delicate poms in barbie pink) or Dark Shadows Wicked (a goth-style single down to the black stems). Summer-early fall blooms · 12-24 inches · Zones 4-9

Fantasy Anemones (full-part sun): Fantasies shrink the large Anemone habit into a tidy clump of leathery leaves. Famous windflowers whirl in a tall cylinder of stems overhead. Puffy seed heads like creamy cotton balls add winter interest. Late summer-early fall blooms · 16-18 inches · Zones 5-8.

Younique Astilbes (part-full shade): Youniques are dwarves with many more flower spikes per plant, often double. Dense bottlebrush plumes appear two weeks earlier than usual. Not as xeric as the others, needs routine watering. Early-midsummer blooms · 12-18 inches · Zones 3-8.

Grass pottery picks up design cues from the landscape along with zone hardiness. Perennial grasses handle overwintering in containers pretty well.

'Feather Falls'
'Blue Beyond' 'Redhead'

Ornamental Grasses

Grasses belong to the landscape vocabulary in northern gardens, especially New England. These selections pick up on that trend and bring it to the deck and porch.

Carex 'Feather Falls' (part shade): Striped arches of bladed leaves topped with cream-white feathery plumes, like a mini-Pennisetum. Handles more sun than other Carex. Late spring-early summer blooms · 24 inches · Zones 6-9.

Fescue 'Beyond Blue' (sun): A post-punk grass with a blue hedgehog look. Think of the New Wave monochromatic scales of the Cars. Doesn't suffer the brown-tip summer dormancy of the usual Fescue. 18 inches · Zones 4-8.

Panicum 'Northwind' (sun): Very upright grass for strong columns, turns golden yellow in fall. Wispy tops when blooming. Late summer-early fall blooms · 4-5 feet · Zones 4-9.

Sporobolus heterolepsis (sun): A taller grass with draping skirts and a tall column of stems. Wispy blooms on top, it turns color in the fall. A good birding grass. Late summer-early fall blooms · 24-36 inches · Zone 3-8.

Pennisetum 'Red Head' (sun): Classic brushy plumes waving at head height. Broad base of loose grasses flow up and out in a vase shape. Can be used as a living screen when placed in a row. Summer-fall blooming · 4-6 feet · Zones 5-9.

These spiky punk perennials are sometimes found in the floral trade. Their plants have made the transition into garden decor as well.

'Blue Glow' 'Big Blue'

Garden Punk

Attitude. Some folks step out with spiky trim, wild variegations and unexpected colors; so do some perennials. Here are a few that can hear London calling for protest botanica.

Echinops 'Blue Glow' (full-part sun): Deep blue globe flowers over soft thistle foliage. More cuddly than it looks, strong pollinator. Mid-summer blooms · 3-4 feet · Zones 3-8.

Eryngium 'Big Blue' (sun): Flowers look like small blue pinecones surrounded by a high collar of thistle-style bracts. Intense colors runs down the stems and into the foliage. Plant grows in low rosettes. The sunnier the site, more intense the blue becomes. Most steampunk of the batch. Early-mid summer blooms · 18-24 inches · Zones 5-9.

Acanthus 'Whitewater' (part-full shade): Big leaves, deeply serrated with big splashes of variegation. Emerging leaves can look bleached and so does the imposing flower stalk. The ghostly white flower buds blush pink as they age. More tender than the other, but so striking. Tim Burton in his Batman phase. Summer blooms · 48 inches · Zones 7-9.

Some perennials are treated as annuals, but breeders have released hardier versions.

'Dazzle Rocks'
'Northern Star' 'Dazzle Rocks'

Tougher Tenders

You may recognize these choices from annual work. Many are perennials, just sensitive to winter's cold. These two have moved northward.

Agapanthus 'Northern Star' (sun): Classic blue Agapanthus hardy to zone 6. Lots of stiff stalks holding up blue globes over grass-like leaves underneath. Mid-late summer blooms · 28-32 inches · Zones 6-11.

Limonium 'Dazzle Rocks' (sun): Bred for compact habit and a high density of flower stalks. Clouds of tiny purple flowers are held up by wiry stems. Summer-fall blooms · 16 inches · Zones 4-8.

Some decor candidates are unusual sports of widely available perennials.

'Porcelain Blue'
'Bellissimo' 'Golden Feathers'

Exotic Looks

Selected for habits and flowers rarely seen, these perennials provide an unusual focus of attention and go for the high style of look.

Corydalis 'Porcelain Blue' (part shade): Mass of vines that fold in upon itself with big clusters of long tubes colored in robin's egg blue. Does not go summer dormant like the species. Does need regular watering. Late spring-early summer blooms · 10-12 inches · Zone 5-9.

Origanum 'Bellissimo' (sun): Vibrant purple hue on trailing strings of outsized calyxes have a hops-like vibe to them. Strictly an ornamental, but hardy like the herb. Mid summer-early fall blooms · 6-8 inches · Zone 6-9.

Heliopsis 'Sunstruck' (sun): Bought for the crackled or pickled varnish done so well on the foliage variegation. A dwarf plant with golden yellow flowers. Good birding plant if seedheads are allowed to develop. Summer blooms · 14-16 inches · Zones 4-9.

Polemonium 'Golden Feathers' (shade): A strong gold is applied to the zippered variegation of leaves and stems. It does bloom, but the foliage sells it. Pair with 'Touch of Class' for a gold and silver look. Late spring-early summer blooms · 6-8 inches · Zone 5-9.

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