How to start a perennial garden

perennial garden in Lancaster NY
This perennial garden in Lancaster can be seen from the house and from the sidewalk, too. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

If you want to start a new garden with perennials, you could plop some random plants into the ground and hope for the best.

But putting some thought into what you’d like your garden to be will make you happier in the end, said Jen Weber, vice president and manager of Mike Weber Greenhouses, 42 French Rd., West Seneca. (They are now open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.)

What are perennials?

Perennials are plants that come back each year from the roots. They are great for your garden because you don’t have to replace them every year. An annual plant, on the other hand, lives for only one year. Its seeds start new plants. (Some perennials from warmer climates are treated as annuals here because they can’t survive our winters.) Another advantage of perennials is that they will spread.

Where to locate your perennial garden

Weber recommends selecting a spot where you can see your new garden and where you want to spend time.

garden beds in South Buffalo
A secluded seating area surrounded by perennials is located at the back of this South Buffalo yard. Make sure you have a way to get to your plants. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

It should also be in a location where you can conveniently water it.

“If your garden is somewhere out in the ‘back forty’ where you can’t get a hose to it, it’s probably not in the best place,” Weber said. “People forget they have to get water.”

Tip: Rain barrels can provide a convenient source of water. You can set a rain barrel beneath the gutters on your garage or shed, which might help to get water to gardens farther back in your yard. You can make a rain barrel. You can also buy rain barrels from Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. A sale of rain barrels and composters, with an ordering deadline of May 8, is being held by Erie County, in partnership with the Western NY Stormwater Coalition, the City of Buffalo, and the Town of Wheatfield.

As you’re deciding where to situate your garden, don’t count out spots that you think are ugly or offputting, she said, such as an area with a big rock or a meter that you don’t like.

“Work with what you have,” she said.

Not sure how to do that? Consult with the professionals at local garden centers. See more below. And see some ideas on dealing with ugly items here.

How much time will you spend?

It’s not just planting that takes time. There is maintenance to do all season long, such as watering, weeding and deadheading. Some of the people I have talked to on garden walks say they spend an hour or two every day in their garden during the summer.

If you have only a half hour per week to spend in your garden, you will need low-maintenance plants, Weber said. Easy plants are ones that don’t need to be deadheaded or watered a lot. Tip: Plants that are labelled drought tolerant won’t need constant watering.

hedge pond and gazebo in Hamburg NY
This path and sculpted hedge in Hamburg are elements of a formal garden. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

What is your style?

What kind of garden do you like? Maybe you would like a grassless front yard with other aspects of what has become known as Buffalo-style gardens. There are English cottage gardens and Japanese gardens and many more styles

You don’t have to know the names of these styles or stick strictly to one style or another, but you should have a feel for the style you want in your landscape. Your style will influence your choice of plants.

Browse through our articles on garden walks to see lots of photos of what other Western New York gardeners have done.

Variety is important

Even if you have a favorite perennial, mix in other plants as well.

If your favorite plant is the peony, you may want to fill your garden with nothing but peonies. Your garden will look great when they are in flower, “But you’ll have flowers for only two weeks,” Weber said. “I’ve talked to people who did that and they were really disappointed.”

Add variety in your flower color, too. Weber suggests choosing at least three different colors of flowers, and making sure there is contrast among your colors. She has noticed that women tend to like pink and purple in their gardens, but without contrasting flowers, the garden is muted and nothing “pops.”

“Throw in some white and yellow so you can see the flowers from a distance,” she said.

You need a variety of heights, too: tall, medium and small.

But don’t choose perennials that are too tall.

If the plant will be against your house, make sure the plant doesn’t grow taller than the window sill–you don’t want the plant to block the windows.

If a plant needs deadheading, Weber chooses varieties that don’t grow higher than her shoulder–she doesn’t like having to reach up to get to the flowers.

But if she doesn’t have those situations, “I go for the sky,” Weber said.

If you want privacy, tall perennials can do the trick. Even if you have a fence, you could choose perennials that grow higher than the fence.

Bonus tip: When choosing plants, “Make sure you think long and hard before planting anything with thorns,” Weber said. Roses bushes are beautiful and keep deer out, “but they hurt!”

tall perennials provide privacy in Amherst NY
Tall perennials planted a short distance from the house provide privacy for this home on a busy street in Amherst. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Sun, part sun, shade?

The plants you can use depend on what kind of light you have in your garden. Will your new garden be sunny or part sun or full shade? How can you figure it out?

Let somebody else do it for you, Weber said.

On a clear day, take photos of your yard. Get a shot early in the morning, at lunchtime and at dinner time.

Take your photos to a local garden center. The staff there should be able to tell you what lighting conditions you have.

“You don’t have to know what kind of sun you have; someone at the garden center will know,” Weber said.

path to backyard in Lancaster NY
Hostas and other shade plants line the walkway leading from the front to the backyard in this landscape in Lancaster. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Get help from garden centers

Staff at local garden centers such as Mike Weber’s can give you lots of help in starting your new perennial garden:

  • What design styles you might like
  • Which plants are suited to the light in your yard
  • How much to water the plants you choose
  • Fertilizing needs of the plants
  • How to prune, deadhead and maintain the plants
  • How far apart to place your plants. (If you don’t mind waiting for the plants to fill out, you can place them farther apart, Weber said. If you want the area filled in more quickly, you could place them closer together or buy larger specimens.)

If you need a lot of help, here are tips on when to visit garden centers:

  • Avoid Memorial Day weekend completely
  • Visit during the week rather than weekends
  • Avoid lunchtime
  • Visit early in the morning or an hour or two before closing

Weber also recommends buying just a few things in spring, then going back to the garden center and buying something every month until the end of October. That way you will see what is blooming each month and you can make sure you have flowers in your garden throughout the entire growing season.

Be patient

You may want to skip these steps and just buy the first pretty flowers you see, but Weber encourages gardeners to slow down.

“The more you rush the process, the more unhappy you will be with the results,” she said.

6 Comments on “How to start a perennial garden

  1. Hi Robert, you can usually plant perennials starting around mid-April, depending on the weather. If you already have perennials in your garden, you will notice that they are starting to come up by mid-April. However, if the weather dips into the 20s Fahrenheit, you may need to protect your new plants by covering them. Otherwise, a little frost shouldn’t harm them. Weather also affects the soil. If the weather is rainy and your garden is wet, don’t plant. If you pick up soil in your hand and you can crumble it, you can work with it. If it sticks together, it’s too wet. I hope that helps.

  2. When in buffalo can we start putting our new perennials into our gardens without the risk of frost damage?

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