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E-Z to Grow Perennials

Some perennials are easier to grow than others

Sandy Feather ©2008
Penn State Extension

Q. I do not like to plant flowers every year, but I love to have flowers in my yard. I am looking for tough perennial plants that will come back year after year without being pampered. I need real survivors, ones that can thrive on rain and sunshine!

A. All plants require some level of care. While it is true that you do not need to plant perennials every year as you do annuals, you still have to weed perennial beds, water them during long periods of dry weather, cut them back when they finish blooming, and divide them every three years or so to keep them healthy and blooming well. They are certainly not “no maintenance.” Very few perennials bloom all summer the way annuals do.

That said, a number of common perennial plants – especially many native plants and their cultivars - prefer a lower level of fertility and are surprisingly drought tolerant once they become established. After all, no one is out in the meadows or woods with a bag of 10-10-10 and a watering can! Another group of plants that are very attractive and lower maintenance are herbs. We use them extensively in both of our demonstration gardens because the deer leave them alone. Herbs also prefer lower soil fertility, and have the added bonus of being useful in the kitchen!

Lower Maintenance

A mixed border of small trees, flowering shrubs and perennial flowering plants is lower maintenance than a border of annual and/or perennial flowers alone. Small trees mainly require pruning early on to establish a strong, well-placed framework of branches for future growth. Shrubs require periodic pruning, but it is not an every year chore as is cleaning out the perennial bed at the beginning or end of the season. Periodic pruning and fall leaf clean up are the main chores involved with shrubs and small trees.


Soil Preparation

It is helpful to do a thorough job of soil preparation prior to planting. By incorporating 2-3 inches of organic matter prior to planting, you can lighten heavy clay soils and improve drainage while maintaining even soil moisture. This helps to create a good environment for root growth and contributes to any plant’s health and vitality. Organic matter includes homemade compost, aged horse or cow manure, mushroom compost and leaf mold. It is also a good idea to have your soil tested, so that you can till in any amendments, especially lime or sulfur to adjust soil pH and phosphorous, became those amendments move very slowly through the soil profile when applied to the soil surface. (See end of article for details on buying Penn State soil test kits.)


Even plants that are drought-tolerant will need some attention to watering for a few weeks after planting them. When shopping for perennials and flowering shrubs look for full plants with clean foliage, and always choose one in bud rather than full flower if you have the option. It is really best to buy plants that are not even in bud, so that they have a chance to establish a bit of a root system before having to support the added stress of flowers. Starting with healthy, carefully chosen plants, planting them properly into well prepared soil, and a little attention to immediate after planting care can increase the life span and lower the maintenance of any planting.

The following lists include herbaceous perennial plants and flowering shrubs that prefer well-drained garden soil of average fertility. They are not immune to damage from insects such as fourlined plant bug or Japanese beetles, but those pests will not damage them to death or make them too unattractive to have a place in your garden. Use this as a starting point – there are many tough, durable plants that thrive with minimal maintenance. I’ll include a brief bibliography of web sites where you can view pictures and read more about individual plants.

Tough Shrubs for Sun

Slender Deutzia (Deutzia gracilis)

Shrub Roses (Rosa hybrids including the Knockout™ and Carefree™ series, and ‘All That Jazz,’ ‘Nearly Wild,’ and ‘The Fairy’)

double knock out rose
Double Knock-Out Rose

Rugosa Roses (Rosa rugosa, especially ‘Alba,’ ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrupp,’ and ‘Rubra’)

Spirea (Spirea spp.)

Meyer Lilac (Syringa meyerii)

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Tough Perennials for Sun

Tickseed Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata cultivars)

‘Becky’ Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’)

Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.)

‘Herrenhausen’ Ornamental Oregano (Oreganum laevigatum ‘Herrenhausen’)

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Sage (Salvia spp. – both ornamental and culinary types)

meadow sage
Meadow Sage

Tough Shrubs for Shade

Fiveleaf Aralia (Acanthopanax sieboldianus)

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.)

Deciduous Holly (Ilex verticillata cultivars and hybrids)

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Tough Perennials for Shade

Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia)

Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia cultivars and hybrids)

Allegheny Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Hellebore (Helleborus spp.)

Hosta (Hosta spp. and cultivars)


Soil Tests

Soil test kits are available from your local Penn State extension office. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, consumer soil test kits are $12 for the first one, and $9 for any additional kits ordered at the same time. The fee covers the kit itself - complete directions for taking a good sample and understanding your soil test results, paperwork and a bag for sending the sample to the lab. Your only additional charge is the postage required to mail your sample to the university’s soil lab in University Park. The kits can be obtained by sending a check payable to Penn State Cooperative Extension to Penn State Cooperative Extension, 400 N. Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write Attn. Soil Test Kit in the lower left corner.


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