When it comes to perennial beds, we often want two things that at first glance seem to contradict: lots of colorful bloom, and little to do to maintain it.
Most perennial beds, planted with a little of this and a little of that, end up being a very high maintenance project. Spaces between plants are where weeds will come up. And when you plant many different plants in the same bed, it can be difficult to discriminate the weeds from the desirable things you planted but may not be able to identify by leaf alone, early in the season, before they bloom.
So how can you turn “fussy perennial bed” into “easy expanse of beautiful bloom”? Here are 5 guidelines.
1. Plant in broad sweeps. This is one of the primary tricks that designers use: they aren’t afraid of larger swaths of fewer plants. They know that the eye loves repetition and delights in bold areas of color. Happily, this is also a fantastic lure for traveling butterflies that are trying to locate patches of nectar or host plants on which to lay their eggs.
2. Match plant to soil, sun, and water. I know we’ve heard this before. But have we actually determined how many hours of sun that front bed gets lately? Did we ever get the pH of the soil checked? When I design a garden, I create an excel chart with a column for each: soil texture, pH, sun, and moisture. Then I see how my selections weigh in on each of these characteristics.
3. Choose ground-hugging, not high-flying. Weed seeds already in the soil germinate when they have light and space to grow. Or come in on the wind, find ground, and sprout. To keep your bed very low maintenance, you want as little ground exposed as possible. Ground hugging plants can help tremendously. A few talls are OK, of course, but make sure most of your ground is covered before you add the taller plants into your design.
4. Weed early, not often. Smaller weeds have smaller roots and are easier to pull. And of course if you weed too late, your weeds will set seed – something you certainly want to avoid.
5. Prepare your bed before planting. This is work you do at the outset that greatly reduces your work later on. Tackle bed preparation from three directions: eliminate or reduce the seed bed, devise a strategy for dealing with existing tree roots if you have them, and get rid of any vines if you have them. Most vines require more than just simply cutting them back, because they will readily resprout from the roots unless killed. Also, find ways to define the limits of the bed, so that your maintenance tasks can be focused. A low boundary of some kind can really help, whether it’s an informal edge made of small rocks, or a few-inches-high wall of brick or other appropriate material.