Do Perennials Take As Long To Mature As Shrubs?


IMG_2466Telekia bigger than my car

Susan has been writing about massing as a way to make a garden seem substantial.  There is another way, but you have to be able to resist temptation, which I often cannot: Put down the god-damned shovel and stop moving the perennials around on every whim!

Digging up and dividing them keeps them in a state of constant adolescence.

But if you let them be, some of them will grow to the size of Priuses, and you won't necessarily need to group them in multiples and plant them in drifts in order to achieve a sense of purpose in your garden.  You can use other design strategies, such as repetition, which I find harmonious and pleasing and possibly better suited to a small city yard.

After four or five years in a good spot, perennials achieve something like stature, even the little ones like low-growing geraniums and campanulas.  I can't say that they do this too much faster than a shrub.

Patience, however, is not much emphasized in the literature of flower gardens–where the operative lie is that perennials that don't flower in their first year after planting usually flower in their second, as if the deal is finished then. 

Of course, there are exceptions.  Larry Hodgson's excellent 2005 book Making the Most of Shade, which offers sprightly and unusually frank descriptions of several hundred pages' worth of plants, is constantly cautioning that the plants will become really impressive…if you don't fuss with them.

Here is his advice, for example, on aruncus:

Just plant it and leave it.  This plant never needs dividing and thrives on neglect–moving it around or dividing it regularly slows it down.

Fortunately, my arunus dioicus are seeding themselves.  

But I have loads of other substantial perennials…and empty spots waiting for a piece of them.  Leave them alone is great advice, if you are capable of following it.  Which, I am often not.


  1. I try not to move plants, but I seem to have some inherent flaw which prevents me from placing things properly, so then I do have to move plants so they can grow!

    I have taken to drawing circles around new plants to represent their eventual grow-up size, and this has helped, even if things look a bit bare that first year or two.

  2. Two of the largest plants in my garden are also two of the oldest: /Kirengeshoma palmata/ and /Rodgersia podophylla/. Both are shade-loving perennials that have traveled with me across three gardens and ten years. Each is now 5 feet across and 3-4 feet high. Even non-gardening visitors stop in their tracks to ask “What is that?”

  3. Thank you for this advice… I really needed it. I’m a chronic revisionist (writer AND gardener). Next time I reach for that shovel I’ll remember your words of wisdom… let them be.

  4. I just found your Rant through DIRT by Amy Stewart. What a fabulous idea! I’ve added you guys to our blogroll and absolutely want to compliment your approach, here.

    I have a new urban organic veggie garden that attempts to be whatever the heck it wants – falling very short of any expectations Martha might have for her. 🙂 (And she likes it that way!)

    Thanks for the great resource!


  5. Plant and leave alone! I wish my husband could do that! He worries about the plants after only a week or two of planting< that they are not going to "do anything!". We bought and planted a crepe myrtle bush this has not bloomed yet as has all of the neighbors...he is already talking about putting another one in its place! another helpful website is

  6. Oh dear! So THAT is how the plants get big! I am terribly guilty of moving my plants around a lot… it’s the revisionist artist type in me, I’m afraid. But maybe now I will just focus on putting new things in if I get antsy, rather than move things around. 🙂

  7. Thank you for mentioning the idea of repetition taking the place of planting in drifts in a city garden. I got all fired up last week when it seemed everyone was saying “plant in drifts” and started to write a rant against it for my blog. I never got around to finishing and posting my rant. Thank you for saying what I wanted to say, only better!

  8. Didja notice in my second posting about massing that I couldn’t ID the hydrangeas b/c I’d moved them so many damn times I’d lost track of their names?
    SO yeah, I’m also guilty of constant moving and fussing, which I lovingly call “tweaking”. It’s my absolute favorite activity in the garden.

  9. I have a few clients who keep calling me wondering why their prized such and such isn’t “doing anything”.

    Um, because you insisted on moving it twice in the last year because it wasn’t “doing anything” in the other two spots, because you keep moving the dang thing?

    I can teach people gardening. Teaching patience is a lot harder.

  10. I planted a perennial garden about three years ago. I moved a couple of things here and there for placement. I did not expect big things for the past two years because of the drought we had been experiencing. We’ve had a nice, steady, reliable rainfall this year and for the first time, I can really see the potential.

    I’m also getting disappointed with the disjointed look of some of my plant choices, so…you guessed it… I’ll be moving some plants this year!

  11. There is an old saying about perennials, “the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap”. That is if the deer and the voles don’t get them.

  12. Obviously I have too many things going on in my life as I have humongous plants….and it must be because I have not touched them in about 5 years. The daylilies are giant, the peonies are woody and strong, the crab apple I had to remove was a seriously big job and I won’t talk about the forsythia that is taking over the corner. I think THAT thing has grown about 6 inches in the last 2 months.

    when I divided up the daylilies I have so many that I have no idea what I will do with them all. No room, and am terrible about keeping pots watered so potting and selling…while a great idea….is probably a death sentence for my plants.

    Who knew?

  13. I try not to move them too. My theory is if I just willy-nilly chuck a shovel in, that I’ll damage the wee roots and working (disturbing) the soil is bad. Truly, I think plants are better off if you let them settle for a few years and enjoy. Think of how you’d feel, if treated similarly and yanked out just when you got readyto send out new roots.

  14. I have a 12′ x 6′ bed in front of a large, south-facing dining room window. It’s flanked by a deck on one side, 3 false indigos on the other, and a brick patio in front. Several years ago I planted three echinaceas along with a buddleia, russian sage, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and asclepias tuberosa. After two years, the coneflowers took over. Did I thin them out and try to sculpt space for the other plants to grow? Hell no! I let Mother Nature take her course and allowed the coneflowers to thrive taking out all but the asclepias (which still pokes it’s ugly orange head through the coneflowers every year. It IS a weed, after all.) Now, the bed is my favorite area of the sun garden because a) it’s gorgeous (lush green all spring/early summer followed by stunning purple blooms that last for weeks) and b) because not doing a damn thing resulted in a spectacular “mini-meadow” that has year-round interest. Find a good spot and leaves your plants alone, people. Get plants that do well in your zone (I’m in 5a), even IF they’re common and not the latest trend, then plant a lot of them.

  15. Because of time issues (I work 3rd shift) I don’t have the energy nor the ambition to move the garden around so before I put anything in the ground I do as much research as I can before I plant to save myself headaches not to mention money killing plants can get expensive when they are not planted in the right area sun vs. shade and water loving plants vs. drier. I also keep being able to maintain them as easily as possible everything must be with in a hoses reach. Finally you have to learn patience some things will always grow faster then others.

  16. I have two gardens. One’s a large front garden, with dry, sandy shade and choked with Norway maple roots. Even “monster” plants find it hard growing there. The other is a very small back garden, where things actually do grow and, therefore, I have more plants than there’s room for. Inevitably, something’s struggling and gotta move, even if it’s into the safety of someone else’s garden.

  17. A very theraputic posting for the faithful…Next time talk about plants that get bought but stay in the container for three summers because you “couldn’t find just the right spot.”

  18. Holy crap. Have you sen my less- than-2-year-old garden on my last blog post (plug plug). I have eupatorium and monarda and rudbeckia and what have you all MUCH bigger than ninebark, dogwood, itea, viburnum, et cetera. Plant it and leave, darn right. Don’t even need any kind of fertilizer–kind of how marriage is… wait….

  19. My peonies took THREE years to flower again after moving them. Of course, now I see some of them would be happier with more sun, but I don’t want to move them and sacrifice blooms again!

    I am very happy to see some small bareroot perennials planted two to three years ago are finally flowering and thriving: namely, seaholly, baptisia, hydrangea and campanula.

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