New homeowners are often terrified by their blank slate backyards filled with weeds and perennials they don’t like from lifetimes of previous owners. They really want a perennial flower garden filled with plants they love that will look beautiful from spring to fall, the kind of backyard they can show off to friends and feel really proud of. Sound a little too familiar? If you want to know how to start a perennial garden from scratch, read on! These are the steps for your best chance of success!
The Steps to Starting a Perennial Garden
1. Assess the amount of light in the area you want to plant
How much light the area you’re planting in gets per day will determine what kind of perennials you can plant in your perennial flower bed. Sunnier spots will give you more plants to choose from, but there are some beautiful options for shade, as well. The starts you find at local gardening centres should indicate what kind of conditions each perennial tolerates, and if you’re starting perennials from seed, that information should be on the seed packet.
Not sure if your area gets full sun, part sun, part shade, or shade? Follow this helpful guide:
- Full sun = 6 or more hours of daily sun exposure
- Part Sun/Part Shade = 3-6 hours of daily sun exposure
- Shade = 3 or less hours of daily sun exposure
Check the area you plan to plant your perennial garden every thirty minutes or so during daylight hours to get an idea of how much daily sun exposure that area is getting.
2. Find your growing zone
Depending where in the world you grow your perennials determines which plants will thrive in your garden. I garden in Zone 3, meaning I have a short growing season and work in a colder climate. Look up the USDA plant hardiness zone map to find which zone you’re gardening in and discover what’s possible for you! Us short-season, cold-climate gardeners have specific requirements for what kinds of perennials we can grow, and the same goes for growers across all zones.
If you garden in Zone 2 or Zone 3, you’ll find lots of content here at Shifting Roots to help you! If you’re gardening in a warmer climate, a lot of the tips I have (especially those in this post) will still apply to you, but you’ll have many more possibilities in a warmer climate and longer growing season with what you can grow!
3. Prepare the soil for planting (ideally, the fall before you want flowers)
One of the easiest ways to prepare a new space is to lay down cardboard, wet it, then lay six inches of new soil overtop. This will keep the area relatively weed free, along with another 3-4 inches of mulch once you plant.
However, not everyone has the budget to purchase new soil! If that’s you, remove all the grass and weeds from the area. Depending on the size of the space, you may want to use a rototiller, or you may have to do it all by hand. I recommend using one of these if you have to do it by hand. I have an old Garden Claw straight from the 90s that I use and love. They don’t make the garden claw anymore, so if you see one at a yard sale, make sure you grab it!
I also want to add that reading it sounds like a straightforward process, but it’s a lot of work to break new ground or clean out an old overgrown perennial bed. In my house in the city, the beds were so neglected when we first moved in that it would take me a whole hour to clean out a meter-by-meter space. I removed 200 ferns each year for the first two years—and my yard wasn’t that big.
This is why I now despise ferns!!!
4. Pick your plants
If you’re a cold-climate gardener in a short growing season, you’ll be pleased to know you have endless options for your perennial flower bed! Check out the lists below for some of my favourite perennials for different growing conditions:
- Perennial Flowers That Love Shade
- Perennials That Survive & Thrive in Intense Heat
- Long-Blooming Perennials
- No-Fail Perennials to Plant in Zone 3
- Deer-Proof Perennials to Grow in Zone 3
- Spring Blooming Perennial Flowers, Trees, and Shrubs
- Best Perennials to Plant in Zone 3
And, whether you garden in Zone 3 or Zone 8, check out the lists below for the perennials you should avoid:
- Perennials You’ll Regret Planting (for cooler zones)
- More Perennials You’ll Regret Planting (for warmer zones)
Need even more options? Download this freebie for 100 perennials to plant in Zone 3:
5. Space plants correctly
This is both for aesthetic and practical reasons. Before digging any holes, map out your space so that your plants have enough room to grow to the size they should reach by maturity. You want to consider how they will look next to other plants in your perennial garden and ensure every plant has room to breathe.
You can think of designing a flower bed like arranging kids in a class picture. Keep the tall kids at the back and the short kids at the front, arrange them in a staggered clump rather than a straight line and make sure there’s enough space between them that they don’t feel uncomfortable. When it comes to plants, this means that ground cover will be planted at the edges of the perennial garden and bushes or taller plants will be planted closer to the fence, tree, or other structure they are planted in front of.
6. Dig a hole
Make sure to dig a hole twice as big as the plant, so you can fill in with amendments if needed and help the roots spread out! If you are transplanting a perennial or have purchased something from the greenhouse, keep the plant at soil level. Planting six inches deep is a good guideline if it’s a bulb like a lily, tulip, or daffodil. Always reference the directions on the package for best practices when planting.
Wondering how to set up and care for a raised bed perennial garden? Check out this post: Overwintering Perennials in Raised Beds in Zone 3
7. Add mulch for fewer weeds
If you want to save yourself a ton of work, surround your perennials with a healthy amount of mulch. It’s a little more work (and adds a bit of money to the yearly gardening bill), but it is incredibly worth it! Spend your summer enjoying the beauty of your perennial garden instead of breaking your back or feeling guilty about not weeding.
For under the mulch, I prefer cardboard over landscape fabric because the cardboard disintegrates. This makes things easy to change if need be. Make sure to replace your mulch every 2-3 years. You can also use a couple of sheets of newspaper if your plants are closer together or it’s easier for you to source.
Want to learn all the ins and outs of mulching? Check out this post: The Cheapest and Best Way to Get Rid of Weeds Without Chemicals.
8. Water in well (at least for the first year)
If you’re concerned about maintenance and how to tend to your perennial garden, I can give you one piece of advice: water your plants well. You’ll want to ensure you water first-year perennials just as much as you would water annuals. While perennials are known for being low-maintenance, they are not low-maintenance in the first year you plant them.
Once the first year is over, you can occasionally water them if they need and then by the third year, you only need to water them in drought conditions. But in the first year, don’t be stingy!
Interested in a perennial wildflower garden? Check out these posts about planting native plants: 5 Benefits to Landscaping with Low Maintenance Native Plants, 27 Drought-Tolerant Native Plants for the Prairies.
How long will a perennial garden last?
Perennial gardens can last 50-90 years, but once established, you’ll need to give your garden a facelift every 5-7 years. This means dividing overgrown perennials, moving perennials you no longer love, and giving any shrubs a hard pruning so they don’t crowd out your flowers. Perennials usually take 3-5 years before they look how you imagine they will. The common saying about perennials goes like this: the first year, they sleep; the second year, they creep; and the third year, they leap. So, you want to make sure to plant your perennial garden somewhere you’re willing to leave be!
If your dream is always to have something blooming, you’ll want to ensure you’ve covered all the blooming periods. As a beginner, it can feel really complicated trying to make sure that you have spring, summer, and fall blooming perennials. Check out my ebook Constant Colour Garden if you’d like to learn more about this!
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WANT TO CREATE A PERENNIAL GARDEN THAT BLOOMS FROM SPRING TO FALL?
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