If perennial flowers are the backbone of your garden, as they are of mine, you may occasionally feel the need for an orthopedist. Keeping perennial flowers blooming, attractive, upright, adequately contained, and the right size and shape is an ongoing challenge. Experience and occasional expert advice are necessary to meet that challenge with reasonably consistent success.
That’s where The Well-Tended Perennial Garden comes in. Author Tracy DiSabato-Aust has written a useful and engaging book that should be read through once and then kept on hand as a reference work.
The first part of the book deals with staking, dividing, pruning, cutting back, bed preparation, rejuvenating old beds, and the intersection between plant maintenance and garden design. I found the sections on staking and cutting back to be particularly useful.
I grow a lot of wildflowers that exult in my fertile garden soil, often growing much taller than books and catalogs indicate they should. I usually end up cutting back AND staking a lot of these plants. And with all that, I may still end up struggling with floppers.
From reading DiSabato-Aust, I learned that I should probably be cutting back many plants earlier and harder. In some cases I should cut back a second time (I’m talking about you, New England Aster). I realized that my Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) didn’t bloom much this year probably because I cut it back too late in the season. And it turns out I could be cutting back the spires of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) for more compact plants, whereas I thought cutting back would result in no blooms at all, which is the case with Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).
There were also some interesting ideas about staking I’d like to try out. For example, tying stakes in an X pattern holding back plants as a group, rather than vertically to individual plants. This could work with taller, bushier plants like asters and Monarda. I’m also curious, though a little skeptical, about using chicken wire with stakes. Can that really be done in a way where the chicken wire is not visible?
DiSabato-Aust appreciates that gardening is an art as much as it is a science. Few cookie cutter formulas can be applied because there are so many environmental variables. In addition, every approach to perennial maintenance involves trade offs: more compact plants versus delayed bloom, longer bloom time versus smaller flowers, etc. You cannot approach these trade offs without having a personal vision of the kind of space you want your garden to be.
The second part of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a guide to the maintenance of about 300 perennial species, with an emphasis on pruning. This section especially merits use as a reference book on its own, a valuable one because plants can differ dramatically in how they respond to being cut back, pinched, etc. In addition, there are lists of plants by maintenance characteristics.
I’m not ready to embrace everything that the author recommends here. For example, she is enthusiastic about peat moss in bed preparation, and declares it environmentally sound without any hint regarding the fact that others disagree.
Even so, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is a stimulating and practical book that would enhance any gardener’s library.
The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Timber Press, Portland OR, 2006.