After the recent weather whiplash, gardening might seem daunting — especially if you are a first-timer or just getting back in the planting game. Maintain hope; our gardens need us.
The best attitude to have is to persevere and carry on with the post-storm clean-up and fall chores. The silver lining is planning next year’s outdoor garden.
Ask any seasoned gardener what is the most pleasing and rewarding part of gardening and they will undoubtedly say plants with attractive, long-lasting flowers and foliage that looks good through the growing season. The less fussy and easier to grow, the better. Below is a short list of some of the almost effortless, delightful perennials to grow in Colorado. (Check out the resources for additional plant lists and descriptions.)
Perennials are plants that reliably return each spring to bloom and grow. The Front Range is considered zone 5, which means plants have hardiness down to 20 degrees below 0. The lower the number, the hardier the plant. If plants are labeled for zones 4, 3, 2 or 1 (the zone in Alaska), plants will grow easily here. Many will grow at Colorado’s higher elevations.
Give perennials the proper location, from sun to shade; amend the planting bed for better drainage; and give them at least two growing seasons with regular watering for their roots to establish well. Then they are off to the races.
If you see the plants below or others you would like to try on the fall sale table, go ahead and get them planted by mid-October.
Blue Star, Amsonia
(Zone 4, grows up to 6,200 feet)
The clustered, half-inch, star-shaped, light blue blooms of this North American native plant make it a stand-out in any style of garden. Enjoy the butterfly-friendly flowers from mid-spring through early summer. This is a disease- and pest-free, long-lived, well-behaved plant that will not flop unless growing in shade. Attractive, slow-growing, dense clumps grow upright with thread-like dark green leaves all summer and turn bright yellow gold in the fall, lasting several weeks.
Amsonia prefers sunny locations with moderate to low watering and will adapt to most soil types (clay, sandy, loam) as long as they don’t completely dry out in the summer. They can be cut back after blooming (or not) and they will produce thicker, new growth. The two varieties commonly found in local nurseries are Amsonia hubrichtii, which grows 2-3 feet tall and wide, and Amsonia jonesii, a Plant Select® variety that is a smaller form, 10-14 inches tall by 12-16 inches wide. Some companion plants that look great with Amsonia are sedum, purple coneflower, lamb’s ear, ornamental grasses and peony.
Chocolate Flower, Berlandiera lyrata
(Zone 4, grows up to 6,200 feet)
This one is designated as Plant Select®. This very drought-tolerant, Southwestern wildflower smells like chocolate and can be planted or directly seeded. Enjoy the fragrance as you stroll by in the mornings when the scent is the strongest. The yellow daisy-like flowers with a maroon center blooms from spring to frost and draws scores of pollinators. The dried seed heads add more appeal. Once established in well-drained clay or sandy soil, it rarely needs watering and will flop if too moist. Size is 12-20 inches by 12-20 inches. A mid-July haircut will keep them tidy and encourage more blooms. Cut back spent foliage each spring and pluck re-seeded new plants or let them populate the garden. Good companion plants include winecups, ornamental grasses, salvia, agastache and penstemon.
Columbine, Aquilegia spp.
(Zone 3, 4, 5, grows up to 10,000 feet, depending on variety). A must for every garden since the Rocky Mountain Columbine is our state flower and Remembrance® honors the memory of teachers and students lost at Columbine High School. Denver Gold® is a stunning, long-blooming bright yellow. They will grow just about anywhere in well-drained soil and not too hot, so avoid south-facing locations. They grow well in shady areas and evenly moist soil. Columbines emerge early in the spring to the delight of early bees and hummingbirds. They are short-lived, so let them re-seed for a continuous supply. There are many hybrids on the market which tend to cross-breed in gardens, giving them an entirely new look. Plant specific species 100 feet apart in the garden to keep them true to type or purchase mixed seeds (McKana Hybrids) and let the mixed color palette light up the garden.
Spring- to summer-flowering bulbs are one of the easiest groups of flowers to plant. They happily usher in spring each new outdoor gardening season. Every garden should have a few (or thousands). For this article, bulbs are collectively used to describe the many types of underground storage roots that survive over the winter. The list includes corms, tubers, rhizomes and bulbs. September and October is the ideal time of year to plant bulbs. It’s OK to plant up until the ground freezes in late fall. At this point, however, bulb selection may be limited.
Bulbs can be planted just about anywhere in the landscape, even under trees before they leaf out. Plant several where they can be seen from inside the house.
Timing spring bulb blooms is half the fun of choosing and planting them. Peruse the boxes and shelves of bulbs at garden centers and online. There are early, mid and late spring blooming tulips, crocus, daffodils, alliums, iris and many more. Planting charts for bulb depth is included with purchase or check the chart below in resources. Location, correct planting hole depth, well-draining soil are most important.
Remember, the pointy side of the bulb faces up; if no side is evident like anemones, don’t worry; they know what to do. Mass planting is always impressive. Use a phosphorus fertilizer in the planting hole, sprinkle in red pepper flakes or critter resistant pellets for pesky, hungry squirrels. Also use flakes on top of the soil after planting. Remove any loose tunics that have fallen from the bulbs on top of the soil after planting, any lingering scents may attract critters.
Hardy Geranium, Geranium spp
(Zone 4, grows up to 8,000 to 8,500 feet depending on variety)
The common name for these is Cranesbill, because their seed heads are shaped like (you guessed it) a crane’s bill. But don’t confuse them with zonal summer annual geraniums. These are go-to plants with the many cup-shaped, pollinator-friendly, long-blooming (June through September) color choices ranging from blue, magenta, pink, purple, red and white. Some even have pine or lemon scents. Their mounded form with deeply cut, maplelike foliage provides a long season of interest; and some turn red or bronzy in fall. Hardy geraniums prefer sun to partial shade, well-drained soil with average watering. They do not like severe drought conditions.
Hardy geraniums need little care except removing dead foliage each spring. If they flop mid-summer, give them a good 6-8 inch haircut and they’ll re-sprout quickly looking like new. Average height among the many to choose from range from 8 to 24 inches, spreading up to 18 inches. Use for the front of the border plantings, ground covers, spilling over walls and in rock gardens. Popular choices include Johnson’s Blue, Gerwat Rozanne™, and compact Bloody Cranesbill (sanguinem). Some companion plants include lupine, ornamental grasses, daisies and roses.
(Zone 3, 4, 5, depending on variety; grows up to 8,500 feet, again depending on variety)
Sure, they are common and can be over planted. However, the variety of shapes, forms and foliage colors add depth, grace, variety and interest. Plus, they look good throughout the growing season and work in any landscape style. Many have outstanding seed heads (food for birds) and colors that meld right into the fall season. Watering needs vary from moderate to low. Sun needs range from full sun to shade adaptable. Shapes range from low and moundy (Blue Grama) to beautiful and bold (Giant Sacato). Garden centers have many ornamental grasses to choose from. Match the size and shape you want with your growing conditions. With these, the must-do maintenance is cutting back clumps in late winter (or sooner if it flops from snow). They need to be divided every few years; otherwise. they can get too big or die out, usually in the center.
Salvia Perennial, Salvia spp
(The hardiness of these varies by species, and they are not to be confused with annual salvias which are also easy to grow and excellent bloomers spring through fall. Grows up to 8,500 feet, depending on variety.)
Many can be started by seed and are ignored by deer, bunnies and pests. Learn from the get-go that many quick-growing perennial salvia hybrids will put on a big bloom show of upright, spiked, whorled flowers in late spring. The key to summer-long blooms is to cut back the spent spikey blooms afterward (deadhead) for another show. You might get three shows if you keep cutting dead blooms. Some varieties may re-seed if not deadheaded; let them if you may want more plants.
Salvia flower colors range from pink, blue, purple, red and white. Height and width vary by species; sun conditions range from full sun to light shade. They require average to well-drained soil. Uses in the garden are exceptional: for fragrant, cut flowers; in containers; edging; groundcover; mass planting; or mixed borders. They attract pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds. Look for Salvia nemorosa, including May Night, Caradonna, Blue Hill and Rose Queen. Salvia greggii are more tender, meaning they will need winter protection or grow as annuals, but are still worth growing for their wonderful late-season, deep pink and red flowers that hummingbirds love. The Salvia Windwalker® selections from Plant Select® (Desert Rose and Royal Red) grow up to 4 feet in size, blooming pink or red from summer to fall, and are another hummingbird favorite. Salvia reptans Autumn Sapphire™ is relatively new to the market, another exciting Plant Select® that is drought-tolerant, low maintenance, and rises to 4 feet with willowy green foliage and small sapphire blue flowers in fall.
Colorado perennial resources
- Fall planted bulbs and corms
- Flowers for mountain communities
- Herbaceous perennials from sun to full shade locations
- Native herbaceous perennials for Colorado landscapes
- Ornamental grasses
- Plant Select®
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