Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


April 2, 2012

PLATEAU GARDENING: Make the most of your annuals, biennials, perennials

CROSSVILLE — Plants can be categorized by their expected longevity. Annuals live one year or less, starting with a seed from which shoots and leaves grow, then flowering and producing new seeds for the next generation before the parent plant dies. Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana) are annuals. New impatiens will come from seed each spring, as long as conditions are right.

Biennials have only vegetative growth (shoots and leaves) during their first warm season, followed by production of flowers and seeds after the plant experiences a cold period. After the second year, the parent plant dies. Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are biennial. Hollyhock leaves grew up near our front porch steps this past winter. It is a volunteer plant that must have come from stray seeds mixed into garden soil I saved when a new entryway we had built in the summer of 2010 displaced some flower beds. We should have hollyhock blooms this summer. Even though the main plant will die, I expect the clump of hollyhocks to persist from seedlings that self-sow. My vegetable plot contains mostly annuals, like tomatoes and squash, but carrots and parsley are biennials that can be left in the ground for a second year, if you want them to produce seed.

Perennials live for more than two years. The top growth of those with woody stems (trees, shrubs and vines) remain throughout the winter while typically (but not always) above ground growth dies back on herbaceous (soft stemmed) perennials so that only the roots persist during the cold season. New shoots and leaves grow from perennial roots in springtime. Perennial trees, shrubs and vines give structure to the landscape and may provide homes for wildlife throughout the year. 

Local climate and growing conditions affect whether a plant behaves like an annual or a perennial. Bougainvillea vine (Bougainvillea spectabilis) and jade plant (Crassula ovata) are perennials in my sister’s southern California landscape but are annuals here since they can’t survive the colder Tennessee winters. Perennial edibles that I raise include rhubarb, onions, and garlic as well as the sage, thyme and rosemary plants in my herb garden. There are two cultivated perennial vines in our landscape – a clematis (Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ a climber with large purple blooms) and an American trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans, which has orange blossoms hummingbirds mine for nectar. Hickory, oak, service berry, sourwood and tulip poplar are perennial trees that were growing on the land long before we purchased it to build our home. Our trees are mostly deciduous, losing their leaves in autumn. A couple white pines are exceptions. Actually, the leaves on some oaks in our woods dry up in October and November but don’t fall. They remain attached. These trees wait until the leaf buds for this season swell, then drop leaves from last year. That means there are leaves to clean up twice a year (autumn and early spring). This isn’t a problem for me because I simply pick the leaves up when mowing the yard then feed this good organic material to my compost pile. The resulting leaf mulch is then used to top dress flower and vegetable beds.  

Since perennials persist in the landscape year after year, many home gardeners prefer them over annual bedding plants that must be purchased and planted anew each year. To get the best performance from any plant, be sure to research which growing conditions are best for that specimen beforehand. Whether conditions at your site match an individual plant’s needs have a huge influence on plant longevity and how vigorously individual specimens will grow. Given the right environment and good maintenance a perennial will thrive and enhance your landscape for many years.

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