How to choose the perfect garden perennials

How do you decide what perennials to choose from among the thousands available?

A good place to start might be those voted the top for this year of the Perennial Plant Association, the industry group representing growers and professional garden designers, from which the perennial of the year will be selected.

The top choices of perennial professionals from across the country include relatively new cultivars (cultivated varieties) as well as a less known species.

'Northwind' is an ornamental switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with bluish-green foliage, compared to the green of the species or reddish of some cultivars. It is also one of the most upright of the switchgrasses, many tending to flop over with age later in the season. The 4 to 5-foot clumps are topped, late in the season, with one to 2-foot flowery plumes called "panicles" of small yellowish flowers.

As with all switchgrasses it prefers full sun and a moist and fertile soil. It will tolerate sandy or clay soils, and drought once established. It is hardy to much of the north (USDA zone 4 or -20 to -30 degrees F average low in winter). This perennial looks good in masses, in the middle to back of borders, on slopes, and combined with many other perennials.

'Caramel' is one of the many new coralbells (Heuchera), grown mainly for its apricot leaves in light and dark shades. It does flower in warm areas with light pink small flowers on spikes above the foliage in early summer. This is one of the selections of the hairy coralbells (H. villosa), a southeastern U.S. native, although it originated as a chance seedling in France. Under good conditions and warm climates it can reach 15 inches high and a bit wider.

'Caramel' is listed as hardy to USDA zone 4, with trials underway at the University of Vermont on the hardiness of this and other coralbells. It does best in full sun in the north if kept watered, part shade in the south. The best soil for it is a rich, moist loam but well-drained. Try 'Caramel' in masses in borders, under shrubs such as roses, along edges of beds and paths, and in containers. Contrast the leaf color with that of darker blackish coralbells, or contrast the leaf texture with ornamental grasses.

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