The backbone of any dazzling summer color bed is an array of brightly flowered perennials. A perennial is defined as a deciduous plant that lives at least two years. Deciduous means the plant loses all it leaves and dies back. Some may survive longer than two years, while others can fade sooner.

We are fortunate here in central Alabama to have a wide array of choices. As a rule, perennials are not expensive and they are easy to grow. A down side for some perennials is that their bloom season is not as long as we might hope for. Mixing those perennials with hard working annuals is a formula for success.

I walk my garden regularly (OK, every day) during the summer to make certain the inhabitants are thriving. Perhaps a plant needs moving, or dead-heading (removing spent flower heads), or a drink of water. This careful scrutiny keeps the garden healthy and guides my choices for future landscapes.

The perennials on my hit parade are ones that have performed well without a host of problems. They are strong bloomers and come back like champs. Other gardeners may have favorites that work just as well.

Chosen plants must fit in with the conditions in our landscapes: light (sun, shade), water, soil, the amount of care and maintenance a plant needs, and our ability to provide that care.

The first step to creating a glorious garden is good soil. Perennials, like other plants, fare much better in fertile, well-drained soil with lots of organic material for good measure. Some plants will stubbornly refuse to grow in soil that is not well drained; others may grow half-heartedly. Performance is often a key to how well a plant has adjusted to its home.

The following list barely scratches the surface of the perennials for our climate zone; there are also heucheras, crinum lilies, stokes asters and threadleaf coreopsis, among others. Take a look at “Easy Gardens for the South” or “Perennial Garden Color” by William Welch. There are interesting sources online such as Plant Delights.

Add a few new specimens to your landscape every year, and soon your garden will be as spectacular as the ones in the glossy magazines.

PURPLE HEART

For a part- or full-sun location, purple heart is hard to beat. The 3-inch-long purple leaves lose some of their purple if the plant is in too much shade. This vigorous clumping (but not invasive) plant with pale pink flowers requires very little care. It is not, however, completely drought-tolerant; it does not appear to perform as well without at least a weekly watering. The majestic purple leaves make an interesting highlight and combine well with a variety of other plants.

Purple heart is also easy to root from the stems, providing endless plants for the gardener and friends.

BLACK-EYED SUSAN

‘Goldsturm’ rudbeckia, also known as black-eyed Susan, is a must have in the full-sun garden. Their bright yellow color can brighten up a garden like no other perennial; they spread but are by no means invasive. They are not completely drought-tolerant and need water during the growing season, especially during the hottest part of the summer. I deadhead the spent flowers, but the dried seed is a treat to the small birds.

DAYLILIES

Daylilies are the darling of the summertime garden. The number of cultivars is mind-boggling, as breeders have come out with so many brilliant color combinations. Years ago, my husband and I visited Roycroft Daylily Farms. I thought I had stepped into Santa’s Toy Land. My back seat was full when we left.

Unfortunately, daylilies do not fare as well in my yard as I would like; my yard lacks the proper amount of sun to nourish this deciduous perennial.

Although they are not water hogs, daylilies do like moisture a couple of times a week. They can be divided when clumps get large, about every five years. I keep the spent flower heads removed to keep the plant neat and attractive.

SALVIA

There are many perennial salvias on the market. All are tough, all attract pollinators and sport vibrant colors.

Two great performers for the summer are ‘Black and Blue’ (almost a purple color) and ‘Argentine Skies’ (with light blue blossoms). The bees love both of these perennials. Watching them hang on for dear life as they search the flowers for nectar is an entertaining show.

Both can grow to about 3 feet tall and can spread and sprawl with great energy. (Hint: share with other plant lovers).

Autumn salvia (or Salvia greggii) is also very deserving of a place in a full-sun perennial garden. It is drought-tolerant once it is established. But what makes it so desired by the gardener is its draw for our pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds. There are lots of colors from pink to hot red. Although it is drought-tolerant, it demands good drainage.

About halfway through the summer, salvias should get a hard haircut, which renews their vigor and eliminates the problem of leggy stems.

BUTTERFLY WEED

Summer without butterfly weed is like a summer picnic without hot dogs! Not only is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) beautiful to look at, the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds swarm to the flowers. I love the spectacle of the activity around its wonderful tubular flowers.

Choose the native butterfly for your garden; there are others that are not as reliably perennial as A. tuberosa. My plant is about a dozen years old and has not spread vigorously.

It is hard to dig up and move as it has a long taproot. It can be started as seeds, and many online nurseries sell the native form. Some are annuals; be sure to choose the perennial.

LILIES

As far as I am concerned, lilies (Oriental and Asiatic as well as their hybrids) are the absolute queens of a summer garden. The deer love them as much as I do, unfortunately.

There is a phrase for lilies that best describes how to plant: “Faces in the sun and feet in the shade.” Six hours of sun is good; plant the lilies so that a ground cover shades their roots.

Tall lilies will need staking, and all species require water at least once or twice a week.

Once you have one lily in your garden, you will want more. They can be tucked in any place where they get good sun, water and soil. Prepare to be amazed.

VERBENA

Verbena can handle part- or full-sun. Verbena is a wonderfully reliable perennial groundcover (with one caveat – if the winter is extremely bitter, it may not come back as vigorously). It is not totally drought-tolerant in its home in the Jacksonville Pocket Park. Its rich purple blooms blend beautifully with other plants in the garden, especially those with chartreuse or yellow flowers or foliage. Verbena needs good drainage in the winter, when I most often have lost it. The most useful verbena habit is that it can spread without becoming invasive. It makes a terrific border for so many summer plants.

Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.

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