With a new sunny border to plant and great anticipation, you head off to your favorite garden center to choose perennials. You grab a cart and begin your journey -- down one row and up another. With the plethora of pretty plants from which to choose, the selection may seem overwhelming.
Why not let a group of experts help you? The Perennial Plant Association is a trade organization made up of growers, retailers, landscape designers and contractor and educators. Since 1990, they have selected a Perennial of the Year. The award-winning perennial must be suitable to grow in many areas of the United States; it must be pest and disease resistant; it must have multiple seasons of interest; and it must be easy to maintain.
Northwind Switch Grass
Let's begin with this year's award recipient: Panicum virgatum Northwind. This tall ornamental switch grass stands straight as a soldier in the back of a border. Fine-textured flower panicles rise up to 6 feet tall over steel blue foliage that turns golden yellow in the fall.
Northwind switch grass is easy to grow in average soil. This warm-season grass needs warm soil to grow, so wait patiently for growth to begin in the spring. Cut back foliage to the ground in late winter or early spring.
Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass
Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl Foerster was the first ornamental grass to win the Perennial of the Year award. A cool-season grass, it is one of the first grasses to begin growing in spring. Green foliage forms a 2- to 3-foot clump. Feathery flowers on 5-foot stems appear in June and gently sway in summer breezes.
Grow Karl Foerster feather reed grass in rich, moist soil. It is pretty combined with almost any perennial, but I love it partnered with Coreopsis verticillata Moonbeam and Echinacea purpurea Magnus -- two more award winners.
Everyone loves coneflowers. Butterflies, bees, finches and other birds are attracted to them as much as we are. Strong stems offer rose pink petals radiating from brown cones all summer long. Deadheading extends flowering into fall.
Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus' grows up to 3 feet tall, so place it toward the back of the border in average, well-drained soil. Combine it with Russian sage -- the flowers bloom beautifully together, and the linear structure of Russian sage is a charming contrast to the coarse, rounded form of coneflowers.
This 1992 award-winner adds delicate texture to the perennial border. Small, but plentiful lemon yellow flowers sit atop delightful needlelike foliage. Plant Coreopsis verticillata Moonbeam at the front of the border, where you will enjoy the color all summer. Pair it with the purple-flowered 1997 Perennial of the Year Salvia nemerosa May Night.
Moonbeam coreopsis will perform in average soil with good drainage. The entire plant can be sheared back by half if gets a little summer worn. Your reward will be fresh foliage and more flowers.
May Night Sage
Salvia nemerosa May Night is an outstanding perennial that scoffs at our heavy clay soils. It begins blooming in May and continues, if deadheaded, through most of July. Striking, dark violet-blue spikes of flowers on 18-inch stems top neat mounds of dark green, aromatic foliage. While you're admiring the beautiful blooms, you'll also enjoy the multitudes of butterflies and bees stopping by for some nectar.
Plant May Night sage in a hot, dry spot with good drainage.
Couple Perovskia atriplicifolia with coneflowers, and you have a match made in heaven. Receiving the coveted award in 1995, it boasts tall, airy spikes of lavender blue flowers from midsummer into fall over small, grey-green, fragrant leaves.
Plant Russian sage in average, well-drained soil. Leave the stems standing for winter interest. Cut them back to 6 to 10 inches in early spring.
Everyone needs a spark of white in their perennial garden, and Leucanthemum (sometimes labeled as Chrysanthemum) Becky will contribute a summer full of dazzling white daisies. Strong 3- to 4-foot stems mean no staking required for this 2003 Perennial of the Year.
Plant several so you'll have plenty of her enchanting flowers for cutting and an abundance for you and the butterflies to enjoy in the garden.
Becky daisies prefer to be planted in average, well-drained soil. Divide plants every few years to keep them looking their best.
To complete your perennial border select Geranium Rozanne. It will weave the other perennials together with summer-long color. Marbled green foliage grows up to 18 inches tall and at least 2 feet wide. But what makes Rozanne special is the nearly nonstop bloom of brilliant blue flowers with a hint of violet.
Rozanne cranesbill looks its best when planted en masse. Easy to grow in moist but well-drained soil, you can cut it back by half if it needs rejuvenating in midsummer, and side stems can be pruned at any time to keep her smaller.
The Perennial Plant Association has taken the guesswork out of choosing perennials. This group of plants will create a sunny border any garden designer would give their stamp of approval! If you garden in the shade, watch for next week's column about designing a garden with award-winning shade perennials!
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.