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GARDENING : Perennials' Showy Blooms Give Colorful Encores Through Fall


In Southern California's benevolent climate, gardening is a year-round activity. Perennials, with their showy flowers, deserve a place in most gardens. Plant them now for a rewarding display of color in the summer and throughout the fall.

"This is a good time to plant almost any perennial because the weather is still cool," explained Mary Lou Heard, owner of Heard's Country Gardens, a Westminster nursery specializing in perennials and herbs. "The plants can spend the next several months developing their root systems before they begin flowering in the summer."

Perennial plants are distinguished by their longevity. Unlike annuals which grow, bloom, set seed and die in a year, perennials grow and flower for at least three years. They're distinguished from shrubs because they lack woody plant parts.

"I like perennials because they come back year after year, and they also multiply," said Jeri Cunningham, an avid gardener who lives in Orange.

She planted a cottage garden two years ago when she purchased a 75-year-old Victorian house. The plantings include hollyhocks, delphiniums, foxgloves and veronicas.

Landscape architect Shirley Kerins of Huntington Beach uses perennials in many of her garden designs.

"Perennials provide a wonderful palette of colors to work with," she said. "They can provide intense punches of color in a landscape. They also offer the opportunity to include the blue tones in a garden since blue is a color more widely available in perennials."

Traditionally, perennials were planted in borders, usually 6 to 10 feet wide, around a lawn or pavement and backed by a wall or tall hedge. Plants were selected for their color, leaf texture, height and season of bloom to ensure flowering from spring through fall.

Contemporary designers, including Heard and Kerins, advocate using perennials in mixed borders--garden beds that include shrubs and annuals, especially in this climate.

"Since we don't have to contend with snow and freezing temperatures, we can take advantage of flowering shrubs and use them in our plantings," Kerins explained. "They give backbone and substance for the perennials to play against."

Background is an important aspect of garden design, especially where flowers are concerned.

"A background of dark green foliage sets off a flower display," Kerins said. "Often people make the mistake of placing flowering plants next to the wall of house painted a color that doesn't blend."

Orange County has many stucco houses painted in pink tones. Kerins advises planting shrubs, such as hibiscus, next to these houses before placing colorful perennials in front of them. She also recommends placing a vine along the house wall as a backdrop. When it's called for, she uses potato vines.

"Their dark green foliage and white flowers won't clash with perennials," she said.

Shopping for perennials isn't the same as selecting annuals, which are usually stocked by nurseries when their enticing blooms attract attention.

"It's necessary to do some research before buying perennials," Heard commented. "I consider them the ugly ducklings of the plant world because they look so different in four-inch pots than they will in the height of their bloom in a garden setting."

Heard freely dispenses her advice to bewildered patrons who roam through the aisles of four-inch pots and gallon containers often bearing unfamiliar names. She keeps an album handy to show customers what the plants will look like when they mature.

There are many hundreds of different perennial plants from which to choose, growing in sizes ranging from ground covers to six-foot-tall flowering spikes.

There's a tendency for gardening enthusiasts to limit their perennial selections to well-known plants such as agapanthus, daylilies, salvia or columbines. But adventurous gardeners can sample from a very large assortment of plants that thrive in our climate, plants such as Alstroemeria (Peruvian lily), Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed), Aurinia saxatilis (basket-of-gold), Bergenias , Canna, cranesbill geraniums, Geum , Heuchera (coral bells), phlox, Thalictrum (meadow rue) and Veronica.

"There are some perennials that perform excellently here and sadly are overlooked," Heard said. "Verbenas tend to have a weedy foliage so are passed over, but they have lovely flowers. I particularly like Verbena bonariensis for its architectural form. It produces straight, pencil-like stems five feet in the air with the flowers at their tips."

Heard also includes scabiosa daisies on her list of recommendations. Others are Penstemon "Husker's Red" and Sisyrinchium striatum (Argentine blue-eyed grass) for their upright growth. Heard noted that S. striatum is prized in England.

"The challenge is to create gardens that combine color, texture and form and keep a garden visually interesting even after the flowers are gone," she added.

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