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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Not quite nonstop bloom

I’ve spent many winters trying to plan for continuous bloom in the garden. This holy grail of perennial gardeners is the elusive assemblage of plants that will follow each other into glorious display, like a symphony with no pauses between movements.

July in Minneapolis--admirably plentiful flowers

    When I started out, I pursued this quest in hopes of enjoying colorful flowers in the garden all season. Now that I’ve become more insect-friendly, my goal has shifted. I’m aiming to offer nectar and pollen throughout the growing season so that passing bugs will always have something to eat.

A bee snacking on some meadow rue pollen in my yard

     Mail order nurseries hold out the tantalizing possibility that a careful buyer can keep the blooms going nonstop. Each plant is listed with a putative bloom time. For example, in this spring’s White Flower Farm catalog, hellebores promise to bloom in March and April, bearded irises are listed as flowering in June (and September!), 

Bearded iris' gorgeous but temperamental flowers don't last long

reblooming daylilies offer to keep going all summer, and the asters are supposed to cover August and September. If only it were that simple!

    Hard experience has taught me that the average perennial really only blooms for about two weeks. There are a few that make flowers for months, but they aren’t just covered with flowers all the time—fortunately, because that would get boring fast. In reality they bloom, pause to regroup, and bloom again.

    Weather conditions can change everything. Those hellebores that flower in March may not help pollinators much if they’re buried under a foot of snow. 

A hyacinth caught in the snow

A heat wave in May can shorten the bloom time for spring flowers, and prolonged heat and drought in July and August often put the whole garden into a state of dormancy. 

     I’ve learned that I can rely on something flowering from late April through June and from mid-September until frost. But that carpet of bright flowers in the heat of August? It’s not happening in my garden.

Summertime, and the garden is boring

    To keep the insect buffet open, I’ve come to rely on a few free-flowering perennials for each time of year, with some annuals filling in the gaps.

    Starting around this time of year, we can count on the spring bulbs, and soon the flowering shrubs will get started. May is a riot of flowers, with lots of my favorites in full bloom.

     Bearded iris and peony flowers usually make it into June, but they don’t last long. 

Nothing's more romantic than peonies, but a rainstorm can knock them out

There’s a dull period in the heat of the summer.  A series of day lilies with overlapping bloom times stretch into August. The insectary bed keeps chugging along, with black-eyed Susan, oxe-eye sunflower, and swamp milkweed providing reliable bloom. 

     September brings cooler weather and a new wave of flowers. Asters and goldenrod flower for as much as two months, and annuals like zinnias and borage hold on into October. Fall offers lots of nectar and

Borage makes sky blue flowers all summer

    This year again I’m hoping to fill in those summer doldrums with more flowers. Seeds starting under lights might be the answer. Cosmos, here we come.

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