If you are about to venture into the world of growing perennials or are a new gardener and simply have no idea where to start, or what wondering what a perennial is, then this guide will provide helpful tips and information on the benefits of perennials and my best varieties to grow in cold climates. I am in zone 3 so will provide my reccomendations but of course, you may need to taylor according to your gardening zone.
What are perennial plants?
A perennial is essentially a plant that you plant once and it will come back year after year so you don’t need to start this plant from seed each spring. They can do this either by going dormant over the winter months and starting new growth in the spring or they can be self sowing. Self sowing perennials will drop seeds late summer/fall that will overwinter in the ground and new plants will grow from those seeds come the warmer months.
Perennials are a wonderful addition to your garden because they are usually low maintenence, perhaps some pruning may be required or some mulching to provide cover over winter. However, they tend to be easy going and if you like the idea of growing some food and gardening but despise starting plants from seed, then a perennial garden may be for you!
Before purchasing a perennial do check that it will be able to overwinter in your zone. Some plants are perennials in warmer zones but would die in a colder zone. Lavender is one for instance, that can be a perennial in warmer climates but usually will not survive winter outdoors here. That goes for many herbs and it is why I enjoy potted herbs so that I can bring in over the winter months.
Do think of perennials as an investment. They can take a few years to reach maturity and produce food especially if you are starting your perennial garden from seed or buying young plants. If you are looking at purchasing more mature plants then the offset cost can be more expensive but your perennial garden will be more established quicker.
So whilst my perennial garden is more comprehensive than this list I am providing (because it would probably feel too overwhelming for those reading) I have curated my favourite and in my opinion, low maintenence perennials for the colder climate garden.
So I will start with some great options that work well from acreages to suburban backyards. I think everybody can definitely have a few fruiting shrubs in their space and whether you aim to preserve the fruit or simply enjoy fresh all summer long, here are some of my recommendations.
- Raspberries-these are very cold hardy, even down to zone 2. They flourish in Alberta and can even be found when foraging through the woods. These can spread around your garden so some maintenence in “control” may be required but nothing can beat picking fresh raspberries!
- Saskatoon berries-these berries are another type that can also be found growing wild throughout Alberta but will grow well in a yard space. They can grow into decent sized, bountiful shrubs and the berries make an excellent addition to jams and pies.
- Haskap berries-these are a hardy, early fruiting type that are gaining popularity.
- Strawberries-a classic and favourite for many, these berries will also produce well but can also spread around the garden. One of my personal favourite varities are the little Alpine strawberries.
- Goji berries- introduced to the Edmonton area by Chinese immigrants, these bushes can be found growing in backyards throughout the city. They can grow into a decent size shrub so will need some space when planting. I have found our goji berries to be extremely cold hardy and their seeds can be purchased here
Perennial fruit bearing trees can also be grown in colder climates. Of course, with trees it is often a waiting game and longer term investment. But, if you are planning on putting roots down on your property then it is worth it.
Many dedicated growers have been breeding and selecting for cold hardy varieities of fruit trees for years. There are several species of apple, pear, plum and nut trees that can be grown on the prairies. One of my personal recommendations for apples is the Norkent as it can make fantastic juice. For a nursery specialising in hardy fruit trees, take a look at Prairie Hardy Nursery.
Before I get into perennial flowers, I do want to mention two outliers that have become staples in my garden. These are rhubarb and asparagus.
Rhubarb I have been able to start from seed and once it is a few years old, you are ready for harvest. The stalks are excellent in lemonade or fillers for jams and pies. I get so giddy when the thaw arrives and I see that rhubarb growing out of the ground!
Asparagus is another crop that will take a few years but is an easy, reliable addition to the yard. The spears are early to come up in the year so it is one of our “firsts” to harvest. We started our asparagus corner from crowns, Mary Washington is our chosen variety and has served us well so far.
Lastly, I do want to share some of my favourite perennial flowers to grow. Flowers make a beautiful addition to the garden, they attract pollinators, can help protect your plants from pests and simply add colour and vibrance to the garden space. Perennial flowers are particularly useful in that they take some extra steps out of planting your flower garden each year. These suggestions are “self sowing” so they drop seeds towards the end of the year and will start new growth in the spring.
- Sunflowers-a particular favourite of mine is Monets Pallette which grows multiple heads on one stem and has shades ranging from orange to burgundy
- Calendula-a medicinal plant. The flowers can be used in salves and balms and they come in a cheery shade range of oranges to yellows
- Poppies-I have enjoyed the “double shirley” variety that produce double blooms. Poppies look beautiful in bouqets or dried in arrangements.
You can purchase flower seeds here