Garden Life: Perennials make welcome springtime return




I woke up to sunlight this morning. What a joy it is to feel the sun on your face as you step out into the garden. It’s May and it’s springtime and my garden is alive with activity. I could hear the bees humming as I began my garden walk this morning. They swarm the shrubby, floriferous Mediterranean heathers. They hang onto azalea blossoms and make the twiggy branches arch and sway under their weight. They rise up slowly and then buzz off to search for more May flowers.

Perennials are non-woody plants that come back in the garden year after year. Unlike annuals, most of the perennials we plant are hardy. Hardiness is a reference to a plant’s ability to survive the coldest weather of a specific location. Although perennials that are hardy in Southwest Washington typically die to the ground through the winter months, the plant itself is still alive and returns bigger and stronger in spring. Perennials come into flower quickly, one after the other in a sequence of color and flower form.

All perennials have a minimum life span of more than two years but after that the longevity rate varies. In

my garden, the so-called perennial tulips return only two or three years before they lose the ability to regenerate flower bloom in spring. Despite that fact, I continue to hope the next collection will prove me wrong. The Bearded Iris returns for many years but must be divided and replanted as older parts of the plant die out. Herbaceous perennial peonies can grace a garden for generations to come.

In general, perennials prefer soil that is well-drained and amended with organic matter. There are perennials for every level of sun exposure. The classic white daisy will bloom throughout the growing season in full sun if deadheaded as each flush of bloom fades. The equally vibrant, yellow-flowering Ligularia “The Rocket” can take only tempered sunlight in the morning and evening. These plants would fall over in a faint if made to face the noonday sun.

I am always amazed at the incredible variety of shrubs on show in the typical Northwest neighborhood. Although I’ve made the effort, none of us can plant every shrub available. We each have to choose a unique assortment of plants to fit our personal taste, as well as the size of our garden and our budget. The pleasant result of all this is a bounty of shrubs on display throughout the many different neighborhoods in the city.

Pay attention to the most beautiful gardens in your own neighborhood and you will see that shrubs carry the garden seamlessly through the year. Regardless of the season, they contour and outline garden spaces and give a sense of privacy and enclosure. Many shrubs use the color of their flowers or foliage to tie the picture together. A hot red rhododendron looks great against a yellow house wall. The clear, salmon-pink blossoms of the flowering quince Chaenomeles x superba “Cameo” add an elegant contrast to a stone wall.

Lilacs, also known as Syringa vulgaris, are one of the world’s most fragrant flowering shrubs. Last week, my friend Wayne and I made a trip to the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Woodland, Washington. The gardens were established by the Lilac Lady, Hulda Klager (1863-1960), who began hybridizing lilacs in 1905. By 1910, she had created 14 new varieties, and in 1920 she started showing her lilacs every spring. After her death, the gardens were preserved and then organized into a nonprofit foundation in 1976. The tradition continues and the gardens are open through Mother’s Day while the lilacs are in full bloom.

Two of my favorite lilac shrubs were Syringa vulgaris “Glory” and Syringa “Arch McKean.” “Glory” is a heritage lilac with sweetly scented purple-pink flowers that open from deep purple buds. The shrub is upright, multi-stemmed and very hardy. Syringa “Arch McKean” produces long, upright panicles of small, tubular purple-red flowers. The fragrant blooms are held at the tips of the branches and attract bees, butterflies and many other pollinators. Both have a scent to take your breath away.

May arrives as a succession of perfect springtime moments. The month brings with it a flood of sunlight to illuminate the new spring growth of trees, shrubs and emerging perennials. The warmth of yellow flowers under the noonday sun, the scent of new-mown lawns and the multicolored perennial border all come together in the mid-spring garden. For these and a dozen other reasons, we continue to discover new plants and add them to our gardens.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at