Three perennials that get A plus grades in my garden are achillea, otherwise known as yarrow, antirrhinum or snapdragon and astilbe.
My first awareness of achillea was the roadside weed, or wildflower, depending on your point of view. Roadside yarrow is usually white with the typical achillea flat topped cluster of tiny flowers. The ferny green foliage is pretty even when the plant is not in bloom.
When I began to learn about perennials from my garden mentor Elsa Bakalar, she introduced me to two standard yellow achilleas that she always had in her garden. ‘Coronation Gold’ has large dense flower heads in a rich deep yellow on stems that can be three feet tall. It is a yarrow that is good for drying and using in autumnal arrangements.
‘Moonshine’ blossoms are clear yellow, a much softer shade. It is usually only two feet tall. Both of these hybrids have foliage that is a grayed green.
Since then I have discovered a whole world of achilleas that come in bright and gentle shades. Right now in my garden I have a deep rosy achillea (name lost) as well ‘Terra Cotta’ which begins with a pale peach shade and deepens to a rich orange; and ‘Paprika’ which is a bright orange red.
Some new achilleas are shorter. The pastel rose ‘Heidi’ is only 18 inches tall, and ‘Snowsport’ with its white flower and deep green foliage is only 16 inches tall.
There is even a dwarf wooly yarrow, Achillea lewisii ‘King Edward’ that forms a gray-green mat with flowers only six inches high.
Achillea ‘The Pearl’ is a different variety of yarrow with double white flowers that somewhat resembles Gypsophilia or baby’s breath.
Achilleas are very hardy and while the clumps will need to be divided every three years they are not aggressive growers. However, you will often have divisions to give friends or to donate to fund raising plant sales. They can be divided in either the fall or the early spring.
Achilleas are sun loving plants and will give a long season of summer bloom, especially if you manage to keep them deadheaded. I have been told that they can self seed and spread through the garden, but I have to say that although I don’t always keep up with the deadheading, I do not find seedlings spreading everywhere.
Astilbes are generally considered to be shade loving plants, but since it is so cool here in Heath, they don’t seem to mind being grown in full sun. I love the plumy flowers that can be held on plants between 18 to 36 inches tall, but there are dwarf varieties that are only between six and twelve inches tall.
In my garden I have the pink ‘Rheinland’ and the white ‘Deutschland,’ both of which are nearly two feet tall, and both of which have similar upright plumes. ‘Red Sentinel’ is similar in form, but has the deepest red I have seen.
Next I want to try taller astilbes. ‘Ostrich Plumes’ bloom a little later and the slightly taller coral plumes droop gracefully. I did plant the pink ‘Bressingham Beauty’ last year and while it is supposed to reach three feet it isn’t there yet. It won’t bloom for at least another couple of weeks, so maybe it will be taller then. The Taquetii hybrids are also tall bloomers in a pretty shade of lilac.
For those who prefer petite forms there is ‘Sprite’ named the Perennial Plant Association Plant of the Year in 1994. It blooms from mid-to late summer in a pale shade of pink and is only a foot tall. ‘Pumila’ is still shorter and can be used as a lavender groundcover.
Astilbes are not fussy. Plant them with a good shovelful of compost in a spot that gets some shade and where the soil is moist. They will need dividing every three or four years.
Tall astilbes and achilleas should be planted two feet apart because they both grow to form large clumps in a short amount of time. I think planting to allow for expected plant growth is one of the most difficult chores we gardeners face.
This year I found that tall Rocket snapdragons were easier to find in single color six packs. Snapdragons, more properly known as antirrhinums, are tender perennials but most of us treat them as annuals. They come in a full range of colors from pastels to a deep red. I bought a six-pack of pink (what else?) snapdragons on impulse: when I got them home I really had no good place to put them in the garden so I potted them up, three to a pot.
All my potted plants have struggled this spring. First it was so cold and then heavy rains battered them. Now it is so hot I have to water the pots twice a day. At least the heat is encouraging all the container plantings so they look as if they might actually start enjoying themselves soon.
It is still possible to buy many perennials at local nurseries. Just remember to keep any newly planted item well watered while it settles in.
Between the Rows Jul 9, 2011