I wound’t even remotely consider myself to be an expert gardener, and when I fail with plants I tend to blame myself for not understanding their requirements and providing the correct conditions. I’ve also found it hard to get really good information about just how well a plant performs – the RHS Award of Garden Merit is a wonderful indicator, and in the early days I tended to only ever buy plants with an AGM. It helped me know I was spending money on good performers and helped make what at the time felt like an overwhelming choice of plants for my blank canvas feel a little more manageable.

Nowadays I allow myself more latitude, but I still tend to assume that if I buy a perennial it is going to be exactly that, perennial. Which turns out to not always be the case. I do sometimes see reference to a perennial being “short lived” (which I keep mistyping as “short loved”!) in plant catalogues, and have learnt to assume that any Monarda I plant will die very quickly, but I still get caught out, so I was delighted to find what I think is going to be another great resource to help me pick plants. I stumbled upon Noel Kingsbury’s blog (which incidentally has some inspirational photographs of mixed perennial plantings in his own garden, enhanced but not overwhelmed by grasses). Noel put together an EU funded project to collect and formalise the prodigious anecdotal expertise embodied in the Hardy Plant Society. He had noticed that members had a wealth of knowledge – and experience – of how long lived and vigorous a wide variety of so-called perennials actually were. he sent out a carefully targeted list of questions to gardeners, and has shared the two versions of his report (long and short) in a blog posting. Well worth a look.

18 thoughts on “Not so perennial?

  1. I have often found that some of the new varieties of echinacea to be rather pathetic in our climate – although possibly it is the “wet” here in Wales.

    I still get caught out by things that “should” be OK but dont perform well …. one of the joys of gardening!

    1. I must admit that one of the most useful segments I’ve seen on the much-maligned Gardener’s World this year was their test of Echinaceas – it saved me from investing in some of the beautiful but as you say short loved new cultivars I get seduced by periodically. They get a special mention in Noel’s study for their tendency to up and die. Mind you, ‘White Swan’ is an exception, in my experience at least.

  2. thank you for this – very useful links. A good reminder that some plants have a short life span anyway – aside from the ones that do not make it through my gardening efforts!


    1. I think for me it is as much about knowing in advance, where possible, that I am choosing something that probably won’t survive long even if I do care for it correctly! I might well still decide to go for it, but at least I’ll be forewarned…

    1. Hi Tina. There are some really interesting pictures of his own garden, which have got me thinking again about plant combinations I want to try.

  3. Very interesting study. Among the short-lived, I have the same experience in the US with Aquilegia, Achillea, Heuchera micrantha, and Echinacea—but only the fancy new introductions, not the species. I am very successful with the straight species of all these plants. Heuchera villosa and its cultivars are tough as nails. Hybrid hellebores do take three to five years to bloom, but they are definitely the toughest plant in my garden. For the US, I would add Polemonium caeruleum and all its variegated cultivars–they don’t grow in our climate. Thanks for pointing me to this fascinating study. Carolyn

    1. Hi Carolyn. Interesting, isn’t it, that we’ve wound up cultivating the vigour out of so many plants in our search for “prettier”, and often, I think, failed to improve too. I tend not to like the big and blowzy versions of naturally simple and elegant flowers.

  4. Thank you for the excellent links, this is a suject that could run and run! I think there are two basic reasons for ‘short lived’ perennials. 1. Perennials we are putting in the wrong conditions so they do not continue after one or two ‘wrong for them – summers or winters’ and as everyone has stated some of the newer introductions, which maybe we could say shouldn’t have been marketed in the first place. Piet Oudolf’s Dream plants for Natural Gardens has a chapter he calls Capricious plants that is well worth reading before buying perennials. He mentions many that have been cited above although for him Monarda is id the Tough chapter – so that’s interesting! Christina

    1. Hi Christina. I must check out that book, sounds excellent, I love the idea of “capricious” plants. I suspect my issues with Monardas may have been using the more cultivated and less robust forms. I’m trying again next year, although I hate their tendency to flop everywhere. I’d perhaps add another to your list – strange weather patterns. As more and more of us suddenly find ourselves battling with extremes of weather that we haven’t previously had to deal with, plants that have always worked well in our gardens can suddenly start to fail. But “right plant right place” certainly helps…

  5. I’m afraid I’m a bit hit-and-missy with plants and have only recently come to the decision that plants are sometimes worth it just for a season. I was missing out on some good things because I have no way of protecting them in the winter.


    1. Hello Esther. I think there is definitely a place for plants that we fall in love with and are happy to fuss over more and perhaps replace each year just for the joy of having them in our lives, though I must admit that time and money pressures mean I am tending to be more and more ruthless. I am even looking at replacing a lot of my tender plants for pots, like the Arctotis I fell in love with, with more robust perennials. Mind you, that is partly as a portable plant nursery as we may well be moving in the not-to-distant future. This plays havoc with my garden plans!

  6. Thank you for posting the links. They will prove quite useful. Plants react to environment and soil conditions and not how the tag tells them to perform. I don’t really trust the sizing either.

    1. Hi Donna, I’m with you on supposed plant sizes, I’ve had some huge surprises in that department, both literally and metaphorically!

  7. Thanks for the Kingsbury info. I belong to our local Hardy Plant Society and it is a wonderful source of info. We have speakers and tour each other’s gardens and have a plant sale each year. I have learned so much from this group.

    1. Your’e welcome! I really must find out where the nearest HPS group meets, it sounds really interesting.

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