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12 perennial gardening tips from Denver Botanic Gardens horticulturist

Perennials offer a bouquet of advantages.
Photo by Quincy Benton for Friday Jones Publishing

Spring is an ideal time to plant perennials in Denver, along the Front Range, or any place where the ground has thawed enough to dig in. Hardy perennials offer a bouquet of advantages:

• Typically, perennials don’t require as much water as annuals.
• Perennials stretch your garden budget. If your perennials are happy, they will return in your garden year after year. They might self-seed, gifting you with more plants. They probably will grow and grow until you can divide them.

Perennials: one investment

“With perennials, it’s just one investment,” said Angie Andrade Foster, the senior horticulturist who tends the impressive perennial borders near the entrance to Denver Botanic Gardens.

The Denver Post gardening section, Grow, included my feature on the O’Fallon Perennial Walk at Denver Botanic Gardens. Read the article here for tips from Foster, who tends the O’Fallon Perennial Walk’s impressive borders near the entrance to Denver Botanic Gardens.

O'Fallon Perennial walk inspires

If you’re looking for perennial inspiration any time of the growing season, this garden offers ongoing spectacles of what a perennial garden can be. Two of Colorado’s leading garden designers--Lauren Springer Ogden and Rob Proctor—created the original O’Fallon Perennial Walk. The borders feature sections by color. If you have one particular color in mind for your garden, you can see how the O’Fallon Perennial Walk treats the color and follow their professional lead.

12 perennial garden tips from a senior horticulturist

Foster is committed to returning the O’Fallon Perennial Walk to its original design and she offered the following tips for perennial gardens:
1) Cop an attitude. “Think about what you like. What kind of attitude you want to get out of your garden?” she asked. “Cool colors are softer and more calming than bright reds and oranges and yellows--more exciting and bold. Create little vignettes of color and combination. It’s a lot trial and error.
2) Know when plants bloom. Foster follows the English gardening tradition known as succession planting. The idea is to plant for continual bloom through the season and to provide for winter interest, too. “Succession planting is very English, but you don’t want a hodgepodge. You want the perennial garden to look very natural, but plants will naturalize and go where they want.”
3) Group plants. “You want to have plants with like water and sun requirements together,” Foster said. Remember than you can plant some shade-loving plants beneath taller plants that need full sun but will cast shadows.

4) Consider height. The common wisdom holds that tall plants go at the back of the perennial garden. But Foster suggests otherwise. “Plant small things in front, but also some taller things in front to interact with and see closer up,” she said. “It’s nice to have undulating waves in the border.”

5) Think texture and color. Different leaf shapes and sizes add interest. “Think of how wispy grass texture works with a big bold leaf or round leaf lady’s mantle,” Foster said. “Color creates a mixed garden, or you can create little vignettes of color combinations. In one spot where somebody’s going to look, mix gray foliage with blue flowers.”

6) Add ornamental grasses. “Plant grasses here and there, not sweeping masses,” said Foster. “And leave them for fall and winter interest.”
7) Move it or lose it. If a plant doesn’t thrive, transplant it. “One thing nice about perennials: You can move them,” Foster said. “You can move them every year and they usually don’t care. That’s the fun part.”
8) Plant densely. “This will crowd out the weeds,” Foster said.
9) Divide and conquer. “When things start getting too big, or every couple of years, divide perennials in the fall when you can see plants well,” she said. “Cut plants down on main stalks and divide them up.”
10) Shop around. Foster will be offering more of her expert advice at the upcoming Spring Plant Sale at Denver Botanic Gardens that opens with the Preview Party on March 8, and continues 9 and 10. For tickets to the Preview Party or for more information on the plant sale, click this link.

For additional perennial shopping, Foster listed the following as some of her favorite local retail sources: Timberline Gardens, Echters and Paulinos.

11) Read all about it. Currently, Foster's favorite books on perennial gardening are the two “Succession Planting” titles by Christopher Lloyd, who was a popular garden designer from England.

12) Look toward autumn, too. Remember that in Colorado, and in many zones, you can plant perennials in the autumn, too. “I love shopping for perennials in the fall, right before all get thrown out," says Foster. "The plant has grown all season, so you know what the [more mature] plant looks like. And they’re usually on sale.”

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You grow your garden; your garden grows you." •••

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