Originally Published: May 27, 2011 10 p.m.
Like many of our holidays that mark certain events on the gardening calendar, Memorial Day heralds the introduction of perennials onto the garden scene. During the early spring planting season, most perennials look like green weeds in a bucket with little to no bloom showing. That's because cool spring weather holds back development of perennials, regarded by most gardeners as the best plants in any garden or yard. They are considered the mainstays of every landscape because they are the blooming beauties that come back bigger and bolder each year they are left in the ground. Beginning with Memorial Day weekend's warmer weather, perennials really begin to show their stuff!
Most perennials need to be at least two years old before they show good flower color. So this season's perennials were planted last year, allowed to go dormant, and then pushed with this year's spring growth. Unfortunately, few varieties bloom early in the spring season, so many gardeners omit them from early plantings and miss out on their hearty, heat-loving summer vitality and colors.
To help folks avoid this gardening misstep, I have dubbed June as the mountain gardener's "Perennial Month." Without question, June proves to be the best month to shop for perennials. Not only is the selection at its peak, but the quality and size of the plants increase exponentially as the month progresses.
Best of all, all perennials are in bloom during the June planting season. A picture tag on a big green plant is an OK guide of what's to come, but to see the actual perennial flower in bloom is far better for gardeners wanting to try something new. Also, fragrance cannot be picked up from a photo.
What follows is not an exhaustive list, but it has the local varieties that, over the years, I've found to perform most successfully. Walk through your favorite nursery and let your senses pick the exact flower, color, and fragrance, but it might be helpful to be guided by this list of my mountain favorites.
Perennial #1: Walker's nepeta catmint. This anti-javelina and anti-rabbit plant is perfect for yards with heavy animal activity. It produces billowing masses of true blue flowers midst its crinkled aromatic foliage for weeks and weeks of showy color. Prune the spent flowers as they fade and this amazing plant puts on a second flower show. Heat and neglect seem to produce an even better plant!
Perennial #2: "Fanfare" gaillardia. There are many different types of gaillardias, all of which love the heat and are really tough. I fell in love with fanfare because it doesn't have conventional petals forming its 4-inch blooms; it has trumpet-shaped petals extruding from the flowers' centers to form the striking orange and red blossoms from which it gets its name. It's a must-see the next time you visit the garden center.
Perennial #3: Pincushion flower. Purple, purple, and more shades of purple. This is one of my favorites of the low-growing flowers that love sun and heat. Plant it toward the front of the garden and watch as each plant produces dozens of flowers all summer. Expect butterflies; they love these pincushion beauties.
Perennial #4: "Big sky" echinacea. The entire family of coneflowers does really well at this altitude, but big sky is a newcomer to our neck of the woods. Its spectacular bright pink, orange and gold flowers stand a foot above its clump of dark green foliage. Watch out, 'cause this one is going to reseed like crazy!
Perennial #5: Mexican primrose. Actually, this is a weed with profuse pink flowers the size of silver dollars. Just don't put it in the middle of your garden or this low ground cover will take over and choke out any other plants. Place this one out in the dry edges of the gardens, and abuse it. Tromp on it, mow it, even forget to water this perennial, and it still will deliver summer-long color. The worse treatment it gets, the better a primrose blooms! Tough, tough, tough.
Facebook question: "Ken, I came down to your place to pick up my season's supply of Hungarian peppers and champion tomatoes and they look great! I used sweet corn seed from last year and nothing is happening. It's been a week - should I be worried?"- Bill, Prescott
Answer: Cold soil has kept corn seeds from germinating quickly. It's only been a week, so you have plenty of time for a successful corn crop. However, if you seeded a patch in warm soil and, after the first week in June, your corn still is not up, you just might have mice. So check to make sure the seeds are still in the ground and the mice didn't rob you of this year's crop.
Garden alert: This week started a parade of aphids in my garden. Watch for these tiny green bugs sucking the life out of cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts and the other leafy crops in the garden. Customers also have been complaining of aphids on their roses, pines and aspen trees. This is the week to take a stroll through the yard to make sure these pests are not running rampant on plants.
Solution: Every morning I cut a little kale for our morning's green smoothie. At harvest time, my kale was covered with aphids. I used an all-natural pest control called "Home Harvest" that can be sprayed up to the day of harvest. Most importantly, because it's natural, I don't worry about toxins in my food. Home Harvest works really well against small insects in the garden or on indoor plants.
Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.
Throughout the week, Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com. See Ken's personal gardens via Facebook at www.facebook.com/wattersgardencenter.