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By MARY DICKINSON

UI Extension Master Gardener

In my last two columns, I talks about trees with pizzazz and easy-care shrubs. Trees and shrubs make up the framework of our gardens, but it’s the flowers that fill it out and lift our spirits.

Perennial flowers like trees and shrubs can be counted on to come back year after year. Most perennial plants in our zone are "root hardy," meaning that while the stems, leaves and flowers die back each winter, the roots remain alive underground and will produce more leaves, flowers and stems in the spring.

Some perennial plants have longer life spans than others, but most will last a long time given proper care and feeding. Over the years of gardening, I have come to know many perennial plants. Some have been absolutely winners in my garden. They return every spring, spread — but not too vigorously — and bloom in their appropriate seasons. Others have been thugs — spreading too vigorously and crowding out their neighbors in competition for food, water and sunlight. While still others are "prima donnas," requiring more attention and resources than they deserve given their bloom or foliage quality. The final category is the "wimps." These guys die before I get them planted! There are several species of perennials that I have tried on at least three different occasions to grow, and they just didn’t make it.

In 1990, growers of perennial plants formed an association to connect and educate professional growers and to promote public awareness of perennial plants. Each year, they nominate and vote for a plant that they consider "A Winner."

The plants considered must meet the following criteria, according to the Perennial Plant Association website: Suitability for a wide range of climatic conditions; low-maintenance requirements; relative pest- and disease-resistance; ready availability in the year of promotion; and multiple seasons of ornamental interest.

This is just what we want for our gardens as we aim for plants that are beautiful, sustainable and easy to care for.

This year, Variegated Solomon’s Seal was chosen as Plant of the Year. If you have a mostly shady area and you want a plant that is tall, arching, with a bit of color and waxy white bell shaped flowers, then this is definitely a good choice.   

In my garden, this plant has survived dry shade and drought. It coexists happily with Japanese Painted Fern and Hellebores (also chosen as Perennial Plants of the Year) equally as well as hosta, pulmonaria and brunnera. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ (also a POY) is a variegated form and quite lovely in spring with its tiny blue forget-me-not like flowers held high above the foliage. The variegated foliage, however, needs more sun light than my shade garden offers and so, in some areas, has reverted to solid green. The seedlings, of which there are many, also revert to plain green.

Perennial Plants of the Year for sunny gardens far outnumber those for shady ones. Some of the tried and true that we have grown to love are Purple Cone Flower ‘Magnus’(1998), Black-eyed Susan ‘Goldstrum’(1999), Shasta Daisy ‘Becky’(2003), Penstemon ‘Husker Red’ (1997), and Heuchera‘Palace Purple’(1991). 

All of these, plus others, grow in my gardens and, judging by their excellent performance and wide availability, in many other gardens, as well. These plants tolerate the extremes of our climate. They put up with heat and humidity, survive drought and flood, and are rarely bothered by diseases or serious pests. However, if you want a plant with similar characteristics that hasn’t made the A-list but perhaps deserves a mention is the False Sunflower (Helianthus helianthoides). I purchased a plant several years ago and watched it bloom consistently for at least 15 years. It has a similar color to Black-eyed Susan but grows about one to two feet taller than Black-eyed Susan or Purple Coneflower. The flowers have a long vase life and hold color well when dried. I recently purchased a variegated cultivar ‘Lorraine Sunshine,’ and after a few ‘iffy’ years, it, too, has established itself well and is performing nicely. False Sunflower isn’t as widely used as Black-eyed Susan, but it is readily available and will add interest to the back of a border or the center of an island bed.

Lovers of blue flowers who have patience and a large space in their gardens will enjoy the 2010 PPOY Baptisia australis False Indigo. I planted one in the center of an island bed about six years ago. It bloomed for the first time about three years ago. It was slow getting established because I transplanted it after its first year. The plant sends up tall four to five feet) flower spikes of indigo blue flowers reminiscent of sweet pea blossoms in late May that persist for a good long time. A member of the pea family, the flowers fade to ornamental black seed pods giving the plant another season of interest. There are several cultivars of Baptisia available now. If you have the space, at least five feet around, try the species otherwise look for a smaller cultivar.

Another blue flowering PPOY is Amsonia hubrichtii Bluestar (2011). Unlike Baptisia, this is one perennial that cannot stand alone as a specimen. It is too willowy and wispy to make a statement by itself in the garden; however, in a group of three or more, its fine texture makes an excellent contrast to some of its coarser neighbors. My single Amsonia is growing next to a Dwarf Korean Lilac, and I wish I had planted more in that spot. It looks so lonesome there! I plan to move some other plants in that bed and add at least two more  so I can get the effect I want — sky-blue, star-shaped flowers in the spring and golden foliage in the fall.

Creeping phlox was the first plant named PPOY in 1990. It comes in a wide array of colors — white, pinks and purples — and does a lovely job of being a decorative ground cover. After the spring bloom is over, the fine foliage is bright green all summer long. Its only drawback is that unless you can keep lawn grass from creeping into the phlox, you spend much gardening time keeping it tidy. 

But most groundcover plants have this disadvantage. Two groundcovers I like a little better are Candytuft and False Dragonhead. While I still have to keep the grass from invading them, they are somewhat more forgiving of my weeding than was the creeping phlox they replaced.  Candytuft’s foliage is semi-evergreen meaning it will remain green in the winter under the snow. The most common form of Candytuft is white flowering; however, recently a purple cultivar has become available. False Dragonhead flowers are blue violet and shaped somewhat like snapdragons.

Both Candytuft and False Dragonhead require cutting back after blooming to get a second flush of color but they can tolerate much more vigorous weeding than can the Creeping Phlox.

There are 23 years of Perennial Plants of the Year; each of them met the guidelines established by the Perennial Plant association. All of them are beautiful plants but not all of them will be happy in everyone’s garden.

When looking for plants, remember your growing conditions — sun, soil, and exposure, then decide if the Plant of the Year is right for your garden. Sometimes it may be worth the risk to try one to see how it performs in your space and then either add more or try something else. Remember, when in doubt you can always ask a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener. We are always happy to help people with their horticultural questions.

The University of Illinois Extension Office in Onarga is moving — but not very far! We will be at 916 W. Seminary Ave. in Onarga — right next door. Phone calls may be routed through the Champaign office until the move is complete, but please continue to ask those questions! We are here to help you with your gardening problems.

You can contact us at the Onarga office at 815-268-4051 or Champaign office at 217-333-7672.

If you would like to have your gardening question answered in the Paxton Record, email your questions to Editor Will Brumleve at will@paxtonrecord.net.

Mary Dickinson is a Loda resident and Master Gardener for the University of Illinois Extension who writes a regular column on gardening for the Paxton Record.