Herbaceous perennial beds and borders can be beautiful things. They can make a sunny summer day even more delightful. But, to do all that, you will have to put in some effort. Sure, everyone wants to talk about "low maintenance" gardens but, the reality is that you will still have to work at it to reach your goal.

Over the years, we have come up with a priority list of activities that are routinely required in a perennial bed or border. Level 1 includes those activities that must be done on every perennial bed or border. In other words, these are the tasks that will give you the most "bang" for your gardening dollar. They are also the very least you can do to have a nice looking garden.

Level 2 is made up of chores that should be done in order to have a very nice looking garden. These are items that will improve the looks and longevity of the plants in the bed or border. This will take you additional hours but are usually well worth the effort.

Level 3 are those activities which you might do if you have the time and energy (or money to hire done). These are the so-called "fine tuning" which will make your garden really shine for this year and years to come.

l. Things that must be done in every perennial garden
  1. Edge the Beds and Borders - the way that you can get the most impact from activity is to re-cut the edges of the beds and borders. This will give them a crisp, clean look that will get them off to a good start.

  2. Weeding - Do a thorough weeding during the first or second work day on the garden. Pull them out of the ground if possible but be careful that the one doing the job can identify the "good" plants. Once the areas is cleaned up, schedule a time at least one a month to go around and pull out any new weeds.

  3. Watering - In general, the plants you will be growing require an inch of water per week in the form of either rain or irrigation. Buy a rain gauge to help you keep track of the rain and to measure the amount of irrigation water you apply.

  4. Pest Management - Keep a close eye on the plants in your garden to detect signs of insect, disease, animal or other damage that may occur. Familiarize yourself with the plants in your garden because there are often specific problems that are inherent to a particular species plant. The concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which calls for looking at an array of pest control techniques is a great way to go in the ornamental bed or border.

  5. Write Things Down - Don't rely on your memory to keep track of the things you have done (or need to do) in the flower garden. Write down any chemicals you might have used, the date of the last weeding, observations about the plants and anything that seem pertinent. Of course, today you want to transfer your notes onto a computer file of some sort for safe keeping.

II Things that should be done in a perennial garden
  1. Mulching - It was hard to determine if mulching is a must do or a should do activity. An organic mulch of shredded bark, wood chips, coco bean hulls or others will bring the garden together and will help to show off your plants. Use about an inch to two inches to help conserve moisture, hold down weeds and add to the aesthetic value of the bed or border. If you have trouble with slugs, rake up old mulch and put it in the compost bin. Then apply fresh material. Wet, decomposing mulch is an ideal environment for slugs.

  2. Fertilizer - This can be a tricky thing in a perennial bed or border because you are growing many different species of plants in a relatively small area. Each plant has its own requirements so you should do a little research. Some plants come from areas with poor soils and will respond to fertilizers with an unnatural spurt of growth which may cause them to fall over. Others came from the wide open, rich soils of the prairie and may work best with a little boost in nutrients. Many shade plants can get along just fine on nutrients supplied by a soil enriched with plenty of organic matter.

  3. Winter Care - You can cut down the foliage of perennials after they have been killed by a frost. However, certain species like ornamental grasses or astilbe blooms give some winter interest so there is no hurry. Just be sure to cut them down before new growth starts the following spring.

III. Things that might be done in a perennial garden
  1. Staking - Ornamental plants should stand up by themselves. However, there are bound to be a few in your garden that do not behave. They may get to tall because of lack of enough sunlight or too much nitrogen fertilizer or exposure to strong winds. Also, plant breeders have built some pretty large flowers onto tall plants and they just can't support themselves. Nothing seriously bad will happen if you don't stake these plants. They will just bend over a bit. Staking would be one of those fine point adjustments if you aiming at a "perfect" garden.

  2. Deadheading - This can be time consuming depending on the type of plants you are growing. Daylilies for instance have blooms that only last one day and can be difficult to keep up with. Some plants will reward deadheading by producing more flowers for your enjoyment (actually to fulfill their job of producing seed for the next generation). Again, if you don't have time for this, nothing bad will happen.

  3. Pinching - Some garden plants such as petunias, Pelargoniums, Chrysanthemums and others will benefit from having the tips of branches pinched or cut off. This process makes them branch more and produce more sites where flowers can be borne.

  4. Cutting Back - A few species of perennials benefit by being cut to the ground early in the season since they will grow back and bloom again later in the season.

  5. Thinning - After the bed or border has been established for 3 or 4 years, many plants will have grown larger and may be encroaching on nearby plants. Also, some of the short lived perennials may have died back. Thinning means taking out parts of the spreading plants to allow more room between them.

  6. Dividing - Part of the thinning process will be dividing the clumps of overgrown plants. The divisions may be moved to other beds or borders, given away to friends or, as a last gasp, put into the compost bin.

  7. Winter Protection - If time permits, you can protect evergreens with burlap barriers. Also, any perennials planted after November 1 could be covered with extra mulch for protection from heaving. This mulch needs to be removed very early in the spring before growth begins.

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

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