Monday, March 9, 2015

How to Grow Your Own Perennials

When we first moved to our home 5 years ago, it was a mostly blank slate.  A few exotic plants here and there and ivy.  Lots of ivy.

In transforming our lot into a garden for food and wildlife, I visited a lot of nurseries.  I bought a lot of plants.  And spent a lot of money.

Five years later, most of our yard is full of happy California natives, herbs and other drought tolerant, pollinator-friendly perennials.  While the plants are fairly well established, there are still bare spots waiting to be filled.

I have decided, however, that I have spent enough money establishing my garden though.  I'm now putting my plants to work for me by growing my own perennials.  I use 4 primary methods for growing perennial plants.


I learned how to propagate by accident when a new prized native perennial had a branch snapped off. I quickly read up on what to do and ended up turning that broken branch into a new plant.

Island Bush Snapdragon - my first propagated plant.  It is 3 years old. 

Island Bush Snapdragon, all grown up.  Ground nesting birds - Juncos- nest inside.
To propagate a plant, you simply need to snip off a sprig.  Your cutting should not have many leaves and no flowers on it.  You want it to put its energy into growing roots - not keeping leaves alive.   Clear the stem of leaves and dip it into rooting hormone or cinnamon.  Then poke it into a pot filled with potting soil.  Keep your cutting damp and in 6 months to a year, it can be transplanted into your garden.

Some of my recently propagated plants and runner plants.  They will be ready for planting in the fall.
Think about season before snipping.  Propagated plants grow better in different seasons.  For instance, pineapple sage is better to propagate in the fall but other plants might be better to do in the spring.  You can find out when to cut your particular plants for propagating through an Internet search or by reading books on the subject.  For my natives, I rely heavily on California Native Gardening: Month by Month Guide which specifies which months work best for which plants.


Growing perennials from seed requires more steps and patience and sowing annuals but is basically the same process.

Milkweed and Hooker's Evening Primrose growing in my greenhouse now.
Perennial seeds need more coddling than their annual brethren.  Some (like my native milkweed) just need to be soaked overnight.  Others need to be cold stratified.  To achieve this, you can either plant them in the fall and leave them outside where they will get the cold naturally or put them in a bag with some damp potting soil and refrigerate for two to four weeks, depending on the species.

Once your seeds are ready to be planted, treat them just like annuals - put them in a starter mix, keep them warm and well-lit and well watered.  Unlike annuals, which can be transplanted out to the garden in short order, these little fellows need more pampering.  I have lost many perennials by transplanting them before they were ready.  It works better to pot starts up to a larger container and let them spend from 6 months to a year - depending on variety - in a pot.  At that point, they are big enough to survive the big bad outdoors.

Monarch butterfly on native milkweed in my backyard.

If you want to grow a perennial that you do not have yet in your garden, buy the seed from a reputable source.  To grow from a plant in your backyard, simply collect the seeds and plant.  My native milkweed bloomed last year and I happily collected the seed.  As I type this, those seeds are germinating in my greenhouse, producing more milkweed plants for more neighborhood monarchs.

Milkweed seed
You can also grow trees from seed.  Oak trees grown from acorns have been better structure than nursery planted oaks.  Here are detailed instructions on planting acorns.  I have also planted California buckeyes from seeds.  Like acorns, you collect the large seeds in the fall.  It is best to get them off the tree or right after they have fallen to the ground.  Plant them within a couple of days and wait until spring.  I have had 5 out of 6 seeds germinate this way.

California buckeye - the result of a buckeye seed planted last fall.

California fuchsia (front) reseeded itself in the perfect spot. California figwort (middle) grown from seed last year. 
If you read my posts regularly, you know I love lazy gardening!  I often do not cut my perennials back when recommended.  I like to leave them up over the winter - the seeds fodder for wildlife, the dead stems useful for nest building.  Occasionally, there will be another bonus.  Some of the plants will actually reseed themselves around the garden.

Lamb's ear reseeded itself in my garden path. I transplanted it last fall to fill in the front of a side yard bed.
My favorite California fuchsia plant (seen below) has had babies.  Lots of them!  Resulting in 8 to 10 free plants around my garden and a few more dug up and shared with friends.

Hummingbird on California fuchsia

Grey hairstreak butterfly on chaparral mallow
Finally there are those perennial plants that spread by rhizomes or runners.  Some may complain about these as being aggressive but, so long as they are not invasive exotics, I look at them as more free plants!  I planted a beloved chaparral mallow four years ago.  I have kept it in bounds by digging up runners and either replanting them around the garden or sharing them with friends.  At least 4 friends and one local elementary school boast my mallow's babies in their gardens.

Similarly, I planted a native elderberry a few years back.  Sadly, the elderberry died its first winter but a single woodland strawberry plant that had hitched a ride in the nursery pot thrived, and spread and spread.  Last fall, I was looking for a native ground cover that tolerated shade to plant in the front yard.  When my Internet search landed on woodland strawberries, I did not hustle down to the nursery.  Instead, I simply dug up the requisite amount of strawberries from the patch in the backyard.

The back half of this bed is full of woodland strawberries.  Free to start with, they have spread nicely.  I've take some out for planting elsewhere in the garden.

Although growing your own perennials takes time, it results in a full garden and wallet.  Do you grow your own perennials?  What methods do you use?

This post is part of the Tuesday Garden PartyMaple Hill Hop and Green Thumb Thursday.


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