Perennial Substitutes

Every year around this time, the perennial catalogues come out in time for fall planting. I am a returning customer of Bluestone Perennials. (And this is probably a good opportunity to remind you that I am not sponsored by or supported in any way by any of the businesses I promote in my blog.) I love Bluestone's product search options, which help me find plants that are both zone and soil appropriate. I also love that their plants always come lovingly packaged with instructions for care and planting. If something should go wrong, or not make it through the winter, I've heard that their customer service is wonderful and that they quickly replace whatever may have died. Bluestone is a retail perennial seller. They are a good option for the home gardener or small scale growers like me who want to test out varieties before considering a bulk order from a wholesaler. 

As a flower farmer who appreciates long rows of similar plants, I have to hold myself back from ordering too many of the same perennial plant, especially at retail prices. Plants are more expensive, but faster to bloom, than starting from seed. So, I try to sample a few varieties each season. The plants that do well in my soil and produce well for cut flower production can always be re-ordered or grown from seed when I am sure they are a good fit for us. Perennials take time to mature, but once established can often out-live their growers. 

At this point in the season, I bet I'm not the only one out there wishing every plant could be a perennial. The thought of ripping up the annual beds with all the giant stalks of cosmos, zinnias, and sunflowers, in the next months is quite daunting. Not to mention the fact that I'll soon be trying to salvage netting from the tangled masses of sweet peas and hyacinth bean vines. It is a lot of work. 

If you are seeking a bit of a reprieve, you might consider planting some perennials that share some of the same characteristics as the annuals you love. Most perennials aren't as productive in a single season as annuals, but over time, they can save you a lot of labor. 

Here are a few ideas. They won't work for everyone. These are especially good for colder climates and for home gardeners who aren't pressured to produce piles on piles of stems.

  • Love Sunflowers? Try Helianthus Flore Pleno (photo above)

Helianthus Flore Pleno is a perennial sunflower. It is appropriate for zones 4-8, appreciates normal to clay soil and grows 4-6 feet tall. Flore Pleno was spring planted on our new farm and showed tremendous upright, bushy growth habit in just one, very rainy season. The flowers have great vase life, strong stems, and they are a beautiful, sunny mustard yellow color. The flower itself is fluffy, about 3.5 to 4 inches in diameter and can be harvested singly or in small sprays of 2-3 blooms. The plant blooms for 4 weeks or more and quickly replaces cut flowers with more blooms. For a burst of late season sunshine in your garden, you really can't go wrong. (I am also  weary of sawing through massive annual sunflower stems.)

  • Love Larkspur? Try Delphinium Astolat

Larkspur is a form of annual delphinium. It's spikes of blooms are more delicate and come in a beautiful range of colors from white to pink, to deep purple blue. Popular with flower farmers now is a soft blue-purple variety called "Earl Grey." I've only just finished growing Larkspur for the first time this season. I will definitely grow it again, perhaps not through landscape fabric next time. I think the plants might develop better broadcast thinly across a well-worked bed. And I need to sow them earlier next spring. Delphinium Astolat was new to the perennial garden this summer, too. If you like Early Grey Larkspur you might really appreciate this delphinium. The color is soft and muted like Earl Grey, but warmer in tone. It couldn't be any more different than the bright blue you might be thinking of when you think of delphinium. It makes for a gorgeous wedding flower. 

  • Love Cosmos? Try Anemone Robustissima

Let me start my saying that I love cosmos, and I could never give them up. But, one of the things I love most about them is they way they float on the wind and their late-season sprays of blooms. They have bounce- and new varieties, like Rosetta, have a lot of depth, too. Perennial anemone (or windflower) can give you that depth and bounce, too. Actually, Cosmos Rosetta and Anemone Robustissima could be pretty wonderful together. I'm going to have to try them when I get home from this little trip to New York City. 

  • Love Ranunculus? Try Trollius Ledebourii

Consider Trollius Ledebourii if you are looking for a bright, ball shaped alternative to ranunculus. It makes for a beautiful bright orange compliment to lilacs in the spring. The stated height is 2 feet, but I have some stalks that reached closer to 3 this season. Trollius is also called globeflower. The Ledebourii variety is appropriate for zones 3-7. It is both shade tolerant and wet-site tolerant. I have 2 plants in a mostly sunny spot with good drainage. They are doing well there, too. While trollius won't replace the range of colors that you can get with ranunculus, it can provide an early summer pop of color for those who aren't able to grow ranunculus. Be sure to check plant height when ordering. There are some shorter varieties that are less suited to cut flower design work. 

  • Love Sweet Peas? Try Vine Honeysuckle*

Goldflame Vine Honeysuckle* is hardy to zone 4, and produces super fragrant flowers to mid summer - much like sweet peas! This honeysuckle vine is pretty hardy and works great as a more "branchy" element in design work. Honeysuckle vine is NOT the invasive type of Japanese bush honeysuckle (but that stuff works great as greenery in bouquets and arrangements, too), but it is vigorous. To avoid sometimes unsightly lower stalks, thin out upper vines to keep lower growth going. Goldflame can grow 10-15 feet and produces pink and bright pink flowers. A little extra watering is good in the first season to help the roots establish themselves, but after that it is a very low maintenance plant. Scentsation* is a yellow-flowered variety - the most fragrant of the vines.  

Now, here's where things get weird. 

  • Love Eucalyptus Silver Dollar? Try....Vine Honeysuckle*

What?! That's right. There is a variety of cold-hardy (to zone 4) vine honeysuckle, whose foliage resembles the soft blue-green leaves of eucalyptus that so many designers love. The vines are packed full of thousands of bracts that resemble silvery blue-green full moons and remain long after the flower has faded. In the fall, a small orange-red berry appears at the center of each bract, and the whole vine is then dressed for the season! Kintzley's Ghost was bred in 1880 by Ped Kintzley at Iowa State, but it was lost until 2001 when it was re-discovered in Fort Collins, Colorado. That vine belonged to Kintzley's grandson, who was unaware of the plant's special qualities until it was identified by a passing gardener. 

*Please note, I have not grown or cared for the honeysuckle varieties listed above. These notes are purely from research. I am adding them to my gardens this fall, and I can't wait to see how they do.