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Even more tough perennials for your first border

Garden Chat

In fashion, older styles that have made a resurgence are called retro and if they’re truly old then vintage, instead of used or hand-me-downs. In gardens, older varieties are usually looked upon with some disdain. “My grandmother used to grow those.” But she grew them because they were tough and dependable, filled in space and provided background for showier, maybe experimental, new additions to the garden. I say, let’s put some vintage plants back in our gardens – they are no less beautiful and functional than they were for our grandmothers.

Giant white fleeceflower (Persicaria polymorpha) is an excellent choice if you have space for a perennial that grows eight to 10 feet tall and forms a clump three feet in diameter. It is neither rampant nor aggressive, just impressive. The flowers are cream in colour and somewhat resemble those of the Japanese tree lilac. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. 

Dwarf phlox (Phlox borealis, P. douglasii, P. subulata) have long been a sign of spring. Only a few inches tall, they soon form a spreading mound with flowers in shades of mainly white, pink, and blue. Place in full sun on well-drained soil. Ideal for a rock garden or the front of a border.

Primroses (Primula auricula, P. cordesoides, P. veris) are another early spring bloomer. About six inches in height, they do best in shade in organic, evenly moist soil. The auricula or dusty miller primrose has handsome green-grey foliage and comes in a wide range of colours. Primula cordesoides has soft light green foliage and pink flowers, while the cowslip (P. veris) has lovely yellow flowers.

Soft lungwort (Pulmonaria mollis) may not be the most exotic looking, but is the most dependable of the lungworts. About 18 inches tall, it has soft green foliage and lovely blue flowers and is one of the first to bloom in spring. It does equally well in sun or shade in well-drained organic soil. 

The European pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) is closely related to and a wonderful garden substitute for the native prairie crocus (which transplants neither graciously nor gracefully to gardens). About the same size as the prairie crocus, the pasque flower has larger, more intense coloured flowers in a wider range of colours. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. Ideal for the front of the border or a rock garden.

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) forms a low prostrate mat and is ideal for a rock garden or “pavement plantings” among stepping-stones or bricks. It’s available in white, pink, red and purple. Plant in full sun on well-drained soil. Very drought-tolerant once established.

Globe flower (Trollius spp.) is native to the Alps and is found just below the permanent snowcap – in full sun and with miles of drainage where the only direction is “down.” There is always a run of water from the melting snow at its roots. For best results, try to replicate these conditions: full sun, good drainage and even moisture. The plants range from one to two feet in height with lovely foliage and flowers in cream, yellow and orange. They bloom in late spring.

Dwarf species tulips (Tulipa tarda and T. urumiensis) are planted in the fall along with other spring flowering bulbs. They lack common names, so we’re left with just their Latin names. They are short (about six inches), hardy, endearing as well as enduring and soon form delightful colonies. Tulipa tarda is yellow with white tips while T. urumiensis is all yellow. Both bloom in early spring and are ideal for rock gardens or the front of the border.

Williams will be discussing more of her favourite perennials in her workshop, “Perennials: The Enduring and the Fleeting” during the University of Saskatchewan Hortweek in July,  2016. For this full program of more than 30 classes and workshops on a wide range of gardening topics (some of them free), go to 

— This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (;; Check out our Bulletin Board or Calendar for upcoming garden information sessions, workshops and tours: May 31, Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo - semiannual plant & seed exchange and sale; members only but memberships (just $10) available at door.