My Top 10 Favourite Perennials
If you were a gardener and just moved to a new area, the best way to find out what grows well there would be to ask around, right? You find a neighbour who has a beautiful garden and ask them what plants reliably grow well. Consider this article advice from a friendly neighbour. Here are my absolute must haves when it comes to gardening in Calgary and area. These are the perennials that I will always have in my garden space. They are super dependable, extremely hardy and look absolutely beautiful. I have been growing all of them for many, many years and have never, ever been disappointed. All of these plants are hardy to at least zone 3 and many of them are drought tolerant. It doesn't help to be pretty if you can't survive our tough winters! A number of them are resistant to grazing pests such as deer and rabbits as well. Well, here goes. My absolute, most favourite, must have perennials!
Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
This guy is super hardy! (Like zone 2 hardy.) It prefers part shade/part sun, but will also grow in full shade or full sun. It is one of the least picky plants out there and for sure one of the easiest to grow. It has round fuzzy leaves that are light green with a bit of a blue tinge to them. The tiny hairs on the leaves mean that after a rain (or a watering from above), little droplets of water collect on the leaf surfaces making them sparkle. That leaf fuzz also means that browsers such as deer and rabbits usually avoid eating them. Lady's Mantle has sprays of yellow-green flowers from June through to August. All the books and plant tags say it grows 12-18" tall and 18-24" wide, but I have found that if it is happy, it can grow significantly larger. They are also fast growers and can be divided every 2-3 years if you want more plants or if you want to keep them a bit smaller. Remember, that gardeners are great at sharing! An added bonus is that Lady's Mantle is quite drought tolerant once established.
Silver Mound (Artemisia schmidtiana 'Nana')
This is the absolute hardiest plant in my garden. Zone 1! It doesn't get any hardier than that! Silver Mound forms perfectly round balls of silver, feathery foliage. They are neat, tidy, symmetrical and absolutely perfect as an architectural element in the garden. I have quite a few of these in my own garden, as I use them as a repeating element that helps make my beds look cohesive. These plants enjoy lots of sun (they may do okay in part sun, but they will be scruffier) and are very drought tolerant once established. If they start to look a bit raggedy in late summer, cut them back to about 2" tall and they will regrow into a tidy ball for you in just a couple of weeks. Silver Mound get 10-12" tall and 12-24" wide. They will flower in late summer, but the flowers are tiny and also silver coloured, so you probably won't notice them. The absolute best thing about Silver Mound is the smell! Give them a rub and then a sniff to enjoy their sweet sage aroma. Also, make sure to plant them somewhere in your garden where you rub against them when passing, so you get that scent often. One of my favourite garden smells for sure!
Common Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)
If I were to have a top 3 perennials list, this one would be on it for sure. I like to use Goatsbeard as a shrub for the shade. It is very large (4-6 feet tall and 3-5 feet wide) and is absolutely fine with part shade, and even full shade. This is great news for Calgary gardens, as there are very few shrub options for shady areas, and those that will grow in shade tend to sucker. A whole lot. So even though Goatsbeard dies down to the ground every fall (it is a herbaceous perennial, not a woody shrub after all) it is super fast at getting to shrub size each growing season. And it looks good while doing it too. The foliage is ferny and the flowers are huge plumes of creamy white. It kind of resembles a giant Astilbe, but it is way less finicky. In fact, it is super hardy (zone 2) and extremely easy to grow. The blooms appear in June and last for a good two months, drying on the plant to a bronzy beige colour. It is perfectly sited in a shady corner with some shorter colourful plants situated right in front of them. There are also a number of dwarf varieties of Goatsbeard that you may find in the greenhouse, and they are good plants, but it is the size and impact of the giant common Goatsbeard that is the selling point with this one.
Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua)
Turtlehead is named after the shape of the flowers, which resemble a turtle's head, and just like snapdragon flowers, you can squeeze the sides of the blooms to make the "mouths" of the turtleheads open. Great fun for kids! This guy likes full sun to part sun and pretty much whatever soil you have available. It is long lived, loved by butterflies and a perfect fit in raingardens due to its tolerance of both dry conditions and a bit of flooding. But what makes this one special, is that its bright pink blooms appear quite late in the season, usually August through to October. It is also pretty much kid proof. The stems are crazy sturdy and hard, making them impervious to little boys rough housing around them. That's experience talking there. It also means that, although Turtlehead gets to 2-3 feet tall (and 24-30" wide) you will never need to stake them. A bit of patience is needed though, as these guys take their time emerging in the spring.
Dianthus 'Firewitch' (Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch')
There are a ton of Dianthus available to gardeners here in the Calgary area (and most of them are great plants), but Firewitch is my absolute favourite. It is a type of Cheddar Pink. (By the way, Pinks are named after the fringe on the petals that look like pinking shears were used on them, not the colour of their flowers.) Firewitch Pinks have spikey blue-grey evergreen foliage and crazy bright neon pink flowers that smell of nutmeg, like all flowers related to carnations. They bloom quite early (May) and for a fairly long time (until the end of June usually). If you give them a haircut after they are finished blooming, you will usually get another flush of blooms later in the summer too. They are super hardy plants (zone 2), prefer full sun and get 8-12" tall and wide. If the centre of your clump begins to die out, it is time to divide your plant (see Gardening in Calgary 101 for instructions). As an added bonus, Firewitch Pinks are drought tolerant and you can eat the petals! Just remember to remove the green calyx from the blooms before eating, as they are quite bitter.
Leopard's Bane (Doronicum orientale)
Leopard's Bane is one of the very first things to bloom in my garden in spring, and its bright yellow blooms are just so cheerful! Just like early spring sunshine 🌞. It's daisy like yellow flowers bloom from April right through until June. I didn't list a specific variety here, as all of them are just fantastic (the one pictured here is 'Little Leo', one that is quite common). It is another super easy to grow and very hardy (zone 2) perennial on this list. Are you sensing a theme yet? They grow 10-24" tall and 12-24" wide, depending on variety. They enjoy sun to part shade and woodland conditions (lots of organic matter in the soil if possible). This is probably my most shared perennial in my garden. I have divided it and given away portions of this plant more times than I can count, usually every second year or so. It is super easy to divide and bounces back from replanting almost instantly.
Summer/Crested Gentian (Gentiana septemfida)
I'll be honest here. This is not the easiest plant to find in garden centres. The ones in my garden were a share from my very generous aunt. But it is absolutely worth seeking out! There really is not a lot of options for true blue in the garden. Most "blue" perennial flowers are disappointingly purple. Your only options for a real blue colour are Himalayan Blue Poppies (which are notoriously finicky), one variety of Veronica (see below) or Gentians, most of which require very specific growing conditions. Except for this one. Crested Gentian (also known as Summer Gentian or Every-Man's Gentian) is pretty much fool proof. It prefers full to part sun and is not picky to soil type. Plus, this is a super hardy plant, growing right down to Zone 2. The huge true blue flowers burst out from July right to September on plants that are 6-12" tall and 12-18" wide. Besides the stunning frilled flowers, the plant form itself is unique. Taller stems tend to fall outward, making a nest-like shape which I find quite attractive.
Bee Balm 'Marshall's Delight' (Monarda 'Marshall's Delight')
Monarda is called Bee Balm for a good reason: bees absolutely adore it (butterflies and hummingbirds too)! It has many other names as well. When talking about this plant as an herb, it is called Bergamot or Oswego tea. It's aromatic mint-like leaves are perfect in tea. Not surprising, as it is a member of the mint family. Give the leaves a rub and a smell and you will definitely be able to identify it as the flavouring in Earl Grey tea. (Note that real Earl Grey tea usually uses the leaves from Bergamot Orange, a Citrus species, but Monarda leaves taste almost exactly the same and can be used interchangeably). The bright, shaggy flower heads come in a multitude of colours that bloom from July to September. All Bee Balms enjoy full sun to part shade, but will be more prone to disease the more shade they are in. Speaking of disease, Bee Balm can be very prone to powdery mildew. Luckily, many newer varieties, such as Marshall's Delight, have been bred to be disease resistant. When choosing varieties at the garden centre, look for ones that list mildew resistance specifically on the label. Varieties can grow between 30 and 48" tall and most get 24-30" wide when full grown. These beauties are worth growing for their unique flowers, fabulous scent and versatility as a tea herb. An added bonus to that yummy scent is that grazers, such as deer and rabbits, don't find the smell appealing, and will avoid it.
Perennial Sage 'Caradonna' (Salvia sylvestris 'Caradonna')
There are Salvias in almost every department of the garden centre. There are annual Salvias (culinary sage and also non-edible ones with bright red flowers), shrub Salvias (although none hardy here in Alberta), and herbaceous perennial Salvias. Once again, there are a huge variety of perennial Salvias now available that are hardy in our zone, and you can't go really wrong with any of them, however my preference is always Caradonna. The blooms on Caradonna are an almost neon pinky-purple in natural light and the blooming stalks are more narrow and not as fluffy as many varieties, making it a far more vertical element in the garden. In addition, the stems are a unique blue-black colour which contrasts beautifully when situated in front of a light coloured background. All Salvias are very attractive to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds and are quite drought tolerant once established. They bloom from June to July, reaching 20-30" tall and 18-24" wide. An added benefit of Salvia it that the stately blooms make stunning cut flowers. Like Monarda, its smelly foliage (unsurprisingly a strong sage-like smell) prevents grazers from munching on Salvia.
Whitley's Speedwell (Veronica whitleyi)
I acquired this plant many years ago as a share once again from my aunt (she has so many great plants!) when it was quite rare. However, in the last few years I have seen it become more and more available in garden centres. Thank goodness, because this is an absolute stunner of a groundcover! There is a literal carpet of true blue flowers smothering this plant in early spring (May to June). The Speedwells (Veronicas) come in both tall and groundcover varieties, and there are a number of each currently available. This is considered the best of the groundcovers by many (not only me). The foliage is soft but spikey-looking, evergreen and has a blue-grey tinge to it. It is also very dense, ensuring that no weeds can poke their way through. It is short enough (2-4" tall) to be perfect for planting between flagstones, but is also great for larger areas too. It will spread at a medium speed, not too aggressive, but still fast enough to fill in an area before the weeds take over. Plus, you can easily dig up a patch and transplant it to another area or share with other gardeners. It is a very easy care plant! Unlike the majority of other Veronicas, the flowers are an actual true sky blue, and are quite large for a ground cover. Find a nice sunny to part sun spot in a prominent location for this head-turner.
There you go! Those are my top choices for hardy, dependable, reliable, but still beautiful, perennial plants. I am in love with every single one of them. I would like to add that this was tough! Narrowing down my favourites to just 10 was definitely harder than I thought it would be. Maybe I need to do a part 2 with ten more plants?
Yummy gardening everyone!