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Biennials

Aug 7, 2012

biennialfoxgloveBiennials can drive gardeners nuts as we desperately try to fit them into the mold of more predictable perennials.  We scratch our heads each spring while staring at the sad remains of last year’s beautiful flowers.  We sigh, shrug, and resignedly head off to the garden center to buy more plants.  Let me help you break this maddening cycle.  By simply understanding the wacky and wonderful world of biennials, you can have these beautiful flowers in your gardens year after year without thinning your pocket book. (pictured Foxglove ‘Pam’s Choice’)

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First, understand their modus operandi:  Biennials have a two-year life cycle.  First year: leaves; second year: flowers; third year: dead.  Not exactly a ‘happy ever after’ story, unless you are careful to allow some flowers to go to seed.  These seeds will prime the pump for next year’s show.  Many biennial seeds will germinate later that summer – just about when you are reading this article!  If the weather allows for strong root and leaf development, then this will ‘count’ as the plant’s first year and flowers will appear next season.  If you don’t want to hassle with reseeding or mistakenly pulling seedlings for weeds, then don’t plant biennials.  Life will go on.
To scatter seed, simply cut the dried flower heads and shake seeds where you want their replacements next year.   If I am feeling frisky, I do my one-of-a-kind biennial ballet dance.  I glide around the yard casting seeds randomly over my gardens.  Scattering seeds this way makes for delightful cottage gardens.  It also provides entertainment for neighbors.  After all, gardening should not only be low-maintenance, but a source of humor as well.

As you can tell, my approach to gardening with biennials is a relaxed one.  This can be quite the challenge for type A personalities like myself.  Despite the best planning, biennials are unpredictable, germinating wherever a swinging arm or breeze may carry them. They play a fun game of ‘peek-a-boo’, surprising you with flowers in the most unexpected places.  You may need to relocate some of the wayward gypsies to spots where you want them.

waltersgardens-lo3810-myosotis-sylvaticaroyal-blue-compactForget-Me-Nots fall into their own special category.  These biennials will aggressively reseed all over the garden and even in your living room if you let them.  I ruthlessly thin these in spring before they bloom.  Once they start to look shabby (flopping open with browning centers) I become ‘The Terminator’.  I rip these spent beauties from the bed, shake the seeds about, and toss the plants into the compost pile.  About four weeks later hundreds of little seedlings pop up.  If I didn’t connect these mysterious new arrivals with my earlier seeding efforts, I’d be tearing them out as pesky weeds.   Unfortunately, this is a common mistake by many gardens.  They fail to recognize biennials in their infant state.

Commonly sold biennials in the Northeast are listed below.  For some, like Iceland Poppies, English Button Daisy and Verbascum, there is controversy over whether the plant is really a short lived perennial or a biennial.  The bottom line?  None of these have a long life span like peonies and daylilies.  You need to make sure some go to seed, insuring future generations.

English Button Daisy (Bellis perennis)  4” – 6” tall.  Sun to Part Sun.  Early summer.  White, pink and ruby daisy-like flowers.  These petite sweeties need to be planted in mass instead of solo to make the best impression.  Zone 3

waltersgardens-lo19650-alcea-roseamars-magicHollyhock (Alcea) 3’ – 6’ tall.  Sun.  Summer bloomer.  White, yellow, pink, nearly black, peach or red flowers.  Most Hollyhocks are biennials although there are some perennials.  Flowers can be single or double (pom-poms).  Hollyhocks are prone to rust (orange spots on their leaves).  This is very hard to combat.  You can try using a sulfur product.  Also strip infected leaves and get rid of them, but not in your compost pile.  Sometimes, if the plant is really infected, the best solution is to get rid of it.  Fig Leafed Hollyhocks (ficifolia) are less prone to rust and have old-fashioned single flower forms.  Zone 3 (pictured ‘Mars Magic’)

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) 1’ – 3’ tall.  Sun.  Late spring, early summer bloomer.  White, pink, maroon and red flowers. Some references list this as a short-lived perennial as it will flower from seed the first year.   Sweet Williams have mound flower heads that are mildly fragrant.  They ‘shout’ cottage garden.  Zone 3

Wallflower (Cheiranthus) 12” – 18” tall. Sun.  Spring bloomer.  White, yellow and orange flowers.  Although this is technically a short-lived perennial it is usually treated as a biennial in our area.  Zone 4

canterberybellsjungsseedCanterbury Bells (Campanula medium)  1’- 3’ tall.   Sun.  Late spring, summer bloomer.  White, pink and blue flowers.  This flower is also called the cup and saucer plant because of its shape.   It’s a standard for any English garden.  Zone 4   (pictured)

Moneyplant (Lunaria)  2’ tall. Sun to Part Sun.   Spring bloomer.  Rosy-pink flower.  The dried seed heads look like silver dollars, a plus in our economy.  Zone 4

Foxglove (Digitalis) 2’ – 4’ tall.  Sun to Part Shade.  Early summer bloomer.  White, pink, apricot and beige flowers.  Most Foxgloves are biennials which are the showiest group.  Perennial Foxgloves are usually shorter with smaller flowers.  ‘Pam’s Choice’ is a popular biennial Foxglove with white flowers and maroon-red speckles inside the throat.  Other showboats include ‘Apricot’, ‘Alba’ (white), ‘Foxy’ (mixed colors) and ‘Giant Shirley (mixed colors).  ‘Candy Mountain’ is the first biennial to have upward facing flowers for better appreciating its beguiling throat markings.  All Foxgloves are no-no’s for consumption.  They can make a heart race to its death.   Zone 3

waltersgardens-lo8369-papaver-summer-breeze-series-orangeIceland Poppies (Papaver nudicale) 12” – 15”  tall.   Sun.  Late spring, early summer bloomer.  Yellow, orange, pink, rose and white flowers.  Iceland Poppies have papery-thin petals that form saucer-shaped flowers on elongated stems.  The bluish-green foliage has a hairy texture.  As with other poppies, these are difficult to transplant once established.  Either start them from seed or buy these in 4” pots and carefully place the whole potting medium with plant into the hole so it never knew a thing.   Zone 3

Biennials are easy to start from seed packets or you can purchase them in containers. When buying flowering biennials in pots, remember they are in their second year of growth.  Garden centers know that flowers sell, not leaves.  It’s your job to make sure they go to seed. If you want to stack the ‘flowering odds’ in your favor, buy both first year and second year plants.  By doing so you will have primed the proverbial biennial pump for seasons of color.  You can usually find first year plants in 4-inch pots.   Fall is an especially good time to pick these up at clearance prices.  If planted before October, they should root well for the following year’s show.
There is no doubt that biennials require more time and effort.  They are not be ‘no-brainers’, like many low-maintenance perennials, but their charm and free-spirited nature call to my wild side.  So, to ‘biennial’ or ‘not-to-biennial’?  It’s your call.