I like the idea of a perennial garden - a productive garden that attracts birds, bees, butterflies, toads, and lizards; a garden where the soil is built from the surface of the mulch down, season after season, without being disturbed; a yard where vegetable-garden beds are surrounded by established, drought-hardy perennials that bloom throughout the year. But the closest plants that I have to perennials, aside from the motley assortment of boring, hardy shrubs that came with the property, are the Cosmos flowers that reseed themselves year after year in the garden by the driveway.
If I like perennials so much, why don't I plant them?
First of all, I need a plan. Perennials are long-term commitments and, while most plants can be transplanted, moving an established plant is always a risk, especially during heat or drought. Every plant differs in shape and size, flowering season, water needs, growth pattern, and maintenance. Aside from researching plants, I also need to figure out how I'm going to turn the rest of my front yard, and the adjoining strip of side yard, into a garden. I need to measure where my property line is, figure out where I want to grow vegetables, and decide how to deal with the slope. In the last few years, I simply haven't had the time to research plants and map out the yard and devise a plan for a full-yard garden.
Second, perennials are not just a commitment in terms of garden space and maintenance time, perennials are a long-term watering commitment. In Austin, a watering commitment is a serious vow to take. For the past few years, I have planted zinnias in the garden by the driveway. This year the zinnias bloomed and grew, and bloomed and grew, all summer and fall, still pleasing the bees with flowers late into October. Last year, when we had the hottest summer on record in the midst of a two-year drought, I realized in June that keeping the zinnias alive was simply going to take too much water, so I stopped watering, let them die, and pulled the plants. I felt bad about letting the plants go, but, given the heat, it was a reasonable decision, and one that I know I can make each time I buy a cheap flat of annuals.
The perennials that I would like to grow are drought-tolerant and, with some extra water, would be able to make it through brutal summers, but only once they are established. In the spring, when a variety of perennial starter plants are available locally and by order, I always wonder: will this be a good year for planting, or will it be 105˚ in June? Because, for the first summer, even the most drought-tolerant plants need favorable conditions and reliable water to establish themselves.
Third, I am indecisive. Recently I decided that I wanted to buy two Bougainvillea plants to go on either side of the front walk. At the store, I realized that, not only would the Bougainvillea plants grow to be much wider than the narrow spaces on either side of my front walk, the plants were also quite thorny, not a good trait for a plant growing into the front walk. I abandoned the Bougainvillea idea and researched smaller, native flowering shrubs for the front walk. I took a list of suitable red-, purple-, and blue-flowering plants to the nursery, where I walked up and down the perennials aisles reading tags and thinking. I did this walking, and thinking, and staring-into-space routine for so long that a few different nursery employees tried to help me.
Eventually, I decided on sage plants and spent the next, well, eternity, debating color - true red or deep magenta? I preferred the color of the red-flowered plants but the growth shape of the magenta-flowered plants. I chose two red-flowered plants. Then I looked at them and realized that their tiny flowers, though bright, and their tiny leaves, would get lost next to the dense shrubs at the front of the brick-colored house. So I put the sage plants back and choose two plants of a yellow-flowered milkweed with a dense, upright growth habit. Later I found out that my new milkweeds will freeze to the ground in a month or two, so I will, once again, have empty spaces on either side of the front walk until spring.
Finally, annuals are cheap, pretty, and easy. I find it difficult to walk past a display of zinnias and impatiens in the spring, or pansies and snapdragons in the fall, without choosing colors. Last week, I decided that, despite their heroic late-season blooming, the zinnias had to go to make way for the cool-season flowers, so that they could get established before it freezes. I choose a variety of pansies and snapdragons to plant in the garden by the driveway and along the sidewalk edge of the front-yard garden. As I planted this season's batch of revolving annuals, I told myself that next year, next spring, it's time for perennials.