As winter draws to a close and we are anxious to get back into our gardens, the big decisions lie in front of us - what to plant and how much money can we afford to spend.
Annuals provide a tough-to-beat powerful punch of color in our climate that is so desperately needed after the long and often gray days of winter. But they can be expensive to replace season after season.
Consider the longer-term impact, diversity and savings that perennials can provide. Not only are perennials more cost-effective over time, exciting new selections are available each year offering longer seasons of beauty. Perennials also encourage native pollinators and beneficial insects that, in return, enhance your environmental stewardship.
Annually, gardeners place thousands of plants in new or existing landscapes, as well as in their producing gardens. In this economy, many homeowners are concerned with not "breaking the bank" to create their little piece of paradise. Planting a larger percentage of perennials can help us accomplish this .
Perennials bloom over a long season and will return each year to perform in the garden. Annuals typically provide a season of show and then disappear upon winter's arrival, not to be seen again.
Many perennials over time will also grow larger, filling in empty spaces as they mature in the landscape. Although they will often be more expensive to buy than annuals, you will recover your investment for years to come.
Some additional ways one can balance this cost and benefit is to strategically design annuals into the landscape. Look for opportunities to place containers planted with annuals that will give the most return on investment. Additionally, look for smaller open spaces in the landscape, between perennial groupings or young plantings to help "fill" the space with bright color until the perennials kick in.
Each year growers bring to market new and exciting varieties of perennials that boast improved flower color, length of bloom, enhanced foliage interest and improved habits. With the many new introductions seen each year, one might question how reliable these plants can be. Thankfully, there are resources available to help gardeners. There are a number of organizations and universities trying these new varieties and publishing results and recommendations for the gardening public. All American Selections tries new garden varieties of annuals, perennials and vegetables with the intent of providing reliable information on a variety's performance throughout the United States. Another organization that conducts trials on all kinds of perennials and shrubs both native and nonnative is the Plant Select program. This program is more regional in its focus, emphasizing plants that do well in the Intermountain West and Front Range of Colorado.
Both of these programs are represented with demonstration gardens at the Idaho Botanical Garden (idahobotanicalgarden.org), where you can see firsthand how these great plants perform in our area.
Another valuable resource is the work of the Colorado State Annual Flower Trial Garden. Each year this program trials, side-by-side, the newest cultivars of annuals and evaluates perennials over a three-year period. They evaluate these plants based on a specific set of criteria and report their recommendations for gardeners' benefit.
Planting with perennials is also important in increasing good food and habitat sources for native pollinators and beneficial insects. Pollinators are important to us because of their impact on our food systems and their role in maintaining natural ecosystems. Perennials, and in particular native perennials and their relatives, can help provide sources for high quality pollen and nectar as well as recurring food sources year after year.
There are many great resources to help gardeners choose varieties that will achieve their aesthetic goals and improve their pollinator habitat. The Xerces Society is one of these resources that have published valuable materials to help gardeners develop gardens with this purpose in mind.
Toby Mancini is the Horticulture manager at the Idaho Botanical Garden.