By Nan Sterman
Southern California gardeners are lucky. In our mild climate gardens bloom in just about every month. Much of that bloom comes from perennials.
Perennials are soft-stemmed plants that live for years. Some are shorter-lived, some longer. But the joy they bring you today, they bring next year and the year after. Our perennial palette is wide and extensive, with the most reliable and drought-tolerant choices native to California or Mediterranean Europe.
These perennials are easy to grow and easy to care for. Water them deeply, and keep them moist (not wet) through the first season to get them established. After that, cut back the water to an occasional deep soak. Perennials are always best planted in masses of three or five, and repeated throughout the garden.
The pincushion flowers of scabiosa (Scabiosa columbaria) come in shades of pink to rose to lavender and deep burgundy. These mounding perennials grow a foot tall by a foot and a half wide, with lacy, deep-green leaves. Flower stalks rise from the middle, each topped in a rounded cluster of tiny flowers reminiscent of Miss Muffet’s tuffet. Bloom is spring through fall, if not longer. While scabiosa tolerates dry conditions and some shade, it blooms better in full sun and with some irrigation.
Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is the most reliable of the garden lavenders. Unlike English and French lavenders, these perennials don’t get overly woody, don’t split apart in the middle, and perform extremely well in full sun, with little water and no fertilizer. While aromatic, they are not as strong as English or French lavenders. So if you grow lavender for fragrance, choose English or French. If you grow lavender for gorgeous year-round flowers and silver-green foliage, choose Spanish. You can always recognize Spanish lavender by the “bunny ears” that top its blooms.
‘Anouk’ (shown) has soft-green foliage and deeper purple flowers on plants that are a foot tall and 18 inches wide. ‘Otto Quast’ makes purple flowers with bright-lavender “bunny ears.” Plants grow 1–2 feet tall and 2–3 feet wide.
‘Madrid Pink’ flowers are rose pink, with silvery-green leaves. Plants grow 1–2 feet tall and 2–3 feet wide.
Rock purslane (Calandrinia spectabilis) is a succulent perennial with wide, ice-green leaves that make broad mounds several feet across. Intense magenta-pink flowers form atop tall, prolific wands that wave in the breeze. These plants are impressive in their long bloom, from spring through fall. Though these Chilean natives are succulent, they do best with a little more water than most other succulents. For the best effect, plant in clusters of three or five, in full sun.
South African daisy (Arctotis spp.) is a large group of mat-forming South African perennials that perform extremely well in our gardens. They grow low -- 6 inches tall at the most -- and a few feet across with sliver, frilly leaves. Flowers bloom in spring and fall; plants take a rest in the heat of summer. Give these plants full sun, and little water once established. If the stems become long and gangly, cut them back to just a few, each about 6 inches long. Plants regrow quickly. Arctotis is available in a wide range of flower colors, mostly in the yellow/orange/red/pink range.
Australian perennial kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos flavidus) are garden favorites. They are short-lived -- three to five years at the most -- but well worth growing, and replacing when a plant is spent. Choose kangaroo paws for their flower colors (red, orange, yellow, pink, green, and black) and their height: Hybrids grow 6 inches to 3 feet tall, with flower stalks even taller. Grow kangaroo paws in well-drained soils, with little water once established. Give them some space to ensure good air circulation. Cut flower stalks at the base for arrangements. Or wait until each stalk is done blooming, then cut it. Plants often make new flower stalks, at least for several months of the bloom season, which tends to be spring through fall.
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