Tips for Planting Perennials

orange and yellow day lily

Nothing can give you “lawn confidence” quite like perennials. They’ll give you years of healthy greenery with minimal maintenance, but before you relax and enjoy their fantastic foliage and flowers, you have to start them strong. Follow these tips for planting perennials to learn when and how to get your sturdy growers in the ground and which ones are best for your yard. 

What is a perennial plant?

Perennials are plants that grow for more than three years, surviving the winter months by either going dormant (stopping growth until spring) or growing as evergreens. They come in all shapes and sizes, from flowers and ground covers to shrubs and trees. 

Perennials are slow growers at first: They take the first one to three years to establish deep roots and dense foliage. However, once established, they thrive with little maintenance to give your yard beautiful new growth year after year.

With a majority of perennials in your yard, you can sprinkle in some pretty but higher-maintenance annuals and biennials — without making your water bill skyrocket. 

When to plant perennials

Plant your perennials in the spring or fall, so the heat doesn’t stress your fresh seeds or seedlings (or you!).

You can determine when to plant your perennial based on its bloom time

  • If the perennial blooms in late summer or fall, plant it in spring. 
  • If the perennial blooms in the spring or early summer, plant it in late summer or early fall. 

If you are planting your perennial in the fall, plant when the soil is still warm, six weeks or more before the first hard frost. You want to give the roots time to establish in their new environment before the ground freezes solid, to prevent frost heaving and plant death. 

Alongside these timing guidelines, it’s always a good idea to check your plant’s tag or look up its specific planting time online to ensure that you’re planting it during the right season.

Prepare to plant perennials

Whether you are transplanting perennials or sowing them from seed, follow these garden preparation tips to start your new plants off strong. 

Order a soil test from your local cooperative extension

Before you start planting a perennial garden, you need to know what type of soil you have and what soil amendments it needs for successful growth. You don’t want to plant a bunch of acid-loving plants like hydrangeas and blueberries only to discover you have alkaline soil. 

Order the soil test at least six weeks before you plan to plant, so you have time to get the results back, amend your soil based on the results, and wait two weeks before planting. It’s typically best to test your soil in the fall, when the soil is dry. Then, you have time to make soil amendments before winter so the soil is nutrient-rich by springtime.

– Choose plants with varied blooming times. 

Each perennial species typically blooms for two to four weeks, so choose a variety of plants with different blooming times to stagger your garden’s bloom season. 

You can look up bloom times online, but the best method is to observe when different plants bloom around your neighborhood, so you know exactly how they behave in your specific climate.

– Consider sunlight and water requirements.

Some perennials (like daylilies and yarrow) love full sun, while others (like hostas and bleeding hearts) prefer partial to full shade. Design your garden so that shade-tolerant plants occupy the dark corners and tree-shaded parts of your lawn. 

Group perennials based on their water requirements to prevent overwatering and underwatering. This eco-friendly practice is known as hydrozoning

– Spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter like compost.

Spread a healthy layer of compost or manure over the soil to protect plant roots, improve drainage, and give plants a nutritious treat. Use a spade to work the compost into the soil to a depth of 4 to 8 inches. After spreading the compost, wait at least two weeks before planting your perennials. 

If you’re planting in the spring, spread compost in the fall so it has time to decompose over the winter. Come spring, your soil will be rich, moist, and well-draining — perfect for young plants that need a growth spurt. If you’re planting in the fall, spread compost in early summer.

Note: If you’re planting native perennials, check their soil requirements before spreading compost. Many native plants prefer poor soil and won’t respond well to amended, nutrient-rich soil. 

– Plant on a cloudy day. 

Planting on a cool, cloudy day protects fresh seeds or seedlings from immediate heat and sun stress, so they can get acclimated to their new environment.

How to plant perennials

There are two methods for planting perennials. You can transplant young perennials that you purchased at a garden center or started indoors, or you can sow them from seed. Most gardeners prefer transplanting perennials to direct sowing, as transplanting guarantees a higher degree of success.

How to transplant perennials

You can purchase plants from your local garden center or start them indoors six to 10 weeks before the last frost date of spring. Transplanting is a sweatier process than direct seeding, but for guaranteed germination and strong establishment, it takes the cake. 

1. Place your plants

Place your plants (still in their pots) in your yard or garden bed to see how they complement and contrast each other. Move them around and try out different shapes and plant groupings, so you feel confident in your garden design before popping your plants in the ground. 

Plant ornamental plants in groups of three to give your lawn a more natural aesthetic and ensure that each planting looks full and dense.

Keep spacing in mind. Take note of each plant’s mature size so it has enough space to grow without crowding out its neighbors or hitting the side of your house.

2. Dig the hole

Use a spade or shovel to dig a planting hole twice as wide as the plant’s container, at the same depth as the container. Spread a light layer of compost or manure at the bottom of the hole. If the soil in the hole is dry, water it and let the water drain. If you are planting an army of perennials, dig holes one or two at a time, so that the soil in the hole doesn’t dry out prior to planting.

3. Water the plant

Before you remove your perennial from its container, give it a healthy soaking so that the roots are moist. If you are planting bare-root perennials, soak the roots in water for one hour prior to planting.

4. Remove the plant from the container

Gently remove your perennial from its container by flipping the container at an angle. Hold one hand over the soil, tap on the bottom of the container, and squeeze the sides. The plant should fall out into your hand. 

Pro Tip: Do NOT try to yank the plant out of the container by its stem. It’s a recipe for stem damage. 

5. Untangle roots

With your fingers or a knife, gently break up the root ball and tease out knotted roots and roots that have grown into a circle at the bottom of the container. This process will encourage new root growth and won’t hurt the plant. Toss extra soil and broken roots into the hole as an organic treat for your plant as it acclimates to its new home.

6. Plant your perennial

Place your perennial in the hole and turn it to its most flattering angle, making sure that the base of the plant is even with the soil surface — not too high and not too low. Once your plant looks its best, backfill the hole with the soil that you removed. Once the hole is halfway full, water it to help settle the soil and remove air pockets. Then, fill it the rest of the way with the leftover soil.

Pro Tip: Mix organic matter like compost or slow-release granular fertilizer like Osmocote into the soil before you backfill it to give roots a nutrient boost. 

7. Firm the soil

Gently firm the soil around your plant with your fingers or the back of your trowel, creating a small moat around the stem or trunk to encourage water to filter down to the roots. 

8. Water thoroughly

Give your plant a deep soaking to the roots to eliminate air pockets and get your plant comfortable in its new environment. 

9. Mulch, if needed

Give your perennials a healthy 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch like wood chips, tree bark, grass clippings, compost, or decomposed leaves. Mulching protects roots, prevents weeds, and keeps the soil moist.

Do not apply mulch directly at the base of your perennial, as this can cause stem damage and rot. Instead, make a ring of mulch around your plant roots.

How to directly sow perennials

Sowing perennials directly onto the ground is simpler than transplanting young perennials, but it has a much lower success rate and most seeds take two to five weeks to germinate, which means you’ll have to do a lot of watering. 

1. Prepare the seeds

Most perennial seeds benefit from warm or cold treatments to improve germination. You can soak, scarify and soak, or chill your seeds to encourage germination:

  • Soak the seeds overnight in hot water.
  • Scarify seeds (nick the seed coats with a knife or nail file) and soak them in water for a few hours.
  • Chill seeds in the refrigerator: Fold them in a damp paper towel, seal the paper towel in a plastic bag, and place the bag in the refrigerator. Store the plants in this cool environment for seven to 40 days, depending on the species. 

2. Spread the seeds

Follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet to sow your seeds at the correct depth and spacing. Spread the seeds about eight weeks before the last frost date of spring for your region. You can spread seeds by hand or use a hand-crank spreader if you have a wide area to cover. Spread a light, quarter-inch layer of topsoil over the seeds. 

3. Firm the soil

Use the back of a rake to gently tamp down the soil.

4. Water well

Perennial seeds can take over a month to germinate, and it’s important to keep the seeds moist as they slowly grow. Water your perennial seeds daily until the majority of the seeds have germinated. After about a month (depending on your plant’s germination rate), switch to a watering schedule of two to three times per week, giving your perennials a total of 1 to 1.5 inches of water. 

The best perennials for your yard

For lists of plants that thrive in your specific climate and soil type, check out your local university’s cooperative extension. Many extensions offer virtual handbooks that show which plants are particularly shade-tolerant, disease-resistant, and pollinator-friendly. 

Know your USDA hardiness zone when picking out plants to make sure they can survive in your region. To get you started, check out these suggestions for dry, wet, and shady areas. 

Perennials for drought-prone regions include:

  • Yarrow
  • English lavender
  • Carpet sedum
  • Purple coneflower
  • Red bottlebrush
  • Russian sage
  • Foxglove beardtongue
  • Blanket flower
  • Southernwood
  • Butterfly weed
  • Globe thistle

Perennials for areas with wet soil:

  • Bee balm
  • Blue flag iris
  • Canada anemone
  • Cardinal flower
  • Hardy hibiscus
  • Joe-pye weed
  • Meadow rue
  • Queen of the prairie
  • Sneezeweed
  • Swamp milkweed

Perennials for shady areas:

  • Black snakeroot
  • Foamflower
  • Hosta
  • Jacob’s ladder
  • Redwood sorrel
  • Royal fern
  • Saxifraga
  • Solomon’s seal
  • Toad lily

Benefits of planting perennials

Annuals may be lovely to look at, but perennials are the backbone of a healthy yard. They’re low-maintenance and eco-friendly (especially native species), and while they may have a higher price tag than annuals, they’ll save you money and energy in the long run. 

Here are the advantages to prioritizing perennials in your yard: 

✓ Easy watering schedule

Once established, perennials only need to be watered once or twice a week (or even less, if you plant drought-tolerant perennials). Deep, infrequent waterings encourage roots to dig deep beneath the soil surface to “root out” groundwater when a drought hits. 

✓ Need little to no fertilizer

Many perennials do not require fertilizer and actually produce more flowers without it. Unless you have sandy, poor soil, you can skip the expensive chemical treatments, or just give your perennials one dose of slow-release fertilizer in early spring.

✓ Deep roots prevent erosion

Perennials have deep vertical roots and spreading horizontal roots that keep the soil in place during strong wind and rain, so you won’t have to worry about the next thunderstorm leaving your yard a muddy mess. Less erosion also means less pollution flowing into local waterways and degrading the habitats of fish, frogs, and turtles.

✓ Hardier than annuals

Most perennials — especially native species — are more drought-tolerant and cold-hardy than annuals. You can choose perennials to stand strong against your particular growing challenges, whether you live in a smoggy city, dry desert, or humid wetland, or on a hurricane-prone coastline.

✓ Many shade-tolerant options

Shade-loving perennials flourish in the dark corners of your yard where turfgrass and annuals won’t. Perennials like blue-eyed grass, foamflower, and Christmas fern will infuse that bare patch beneath your shade tree with a pop of color. 

✓ Require little maintenance

Perennials are easy-care, low-sweat plants. Water weekly, deadhead flowers (clip fading blooms), trim overgrown stems, and you’re set! 

✓ Financially savvy

While perennials are initially more expensive than annuals and biennials, they survive year after year, which means you won’t have to buy fresh seeds or seedlings every time spring rolls around. Plus, you’ll save money on water and fertilizer.

✓ Habitat for native species

Native perennials attract pollinators like butterflies, birds, and bees that are facing habitat loss. You can design a wildflower meadow or butterfly garden filled with eco-friendly plants that will give wildlife a home they can return to year after year.

✓ Sustainable supply of fruits and vegetables

Perennial fruits like blueberries and rhubarb and vegetables like asparagus and Jerusalem artichokes can grow for decades, offering fresh, delicious produce every year. 

Disadvantages of perennials

Perennials are fantastic plants, but they aren’t perfect. That’s why it’s a good idea to add annuals and biennials to the mix. Here are the three main drawbacks to planting perennials: 

Long establishment period

Most perennials take one to two years to establish, which means you can’t expect flowers until the second or third year. 

Short bloom time

Perennials bloom for only two to four weeks during the growing season, while annuals bloom for the entire season (spring to fall). 

Not as colorful as annuals

Perennial flowers typically aren’t as bright as annual flowers. Though some perennials like black-eyed Susans and blanket flowers add vibrant color to your yard, most perennials flowers are more muted than annual flowers like geraniums and petunias. 

FAQ about planting perennials

1. Can I expect my perennial plant to live longer than three years? 

It depends on what type of perennial you plant. Some perennial flowers like delphiniums and Shasta daisies have a short lifespan, lasting only three to four years before they need to be replaced. Other perennials like hostas can live for 30 years, peonies can last for 60 years, and ginkgo trees can thrive for hundreds and even thousands of years

2. When should I buy potted perennials? 

deals in the fall to reduce their inventory in preparation for winter, so buying and planting spring-blooming perennials in early fall is a savvy decision. You won’t get a show of blossoms this year, but your plants will be well-established for the coming spring.

3. Which plants can I directly sow into my yard?

While some perennials have a low germination rate and grow unevenly when directly sown in your yard, these perennials are easy to plant outdoors from seed: 
— Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Blanket flower (Gaillardia)
— Blue flax (Linum perenne lewisii)
— Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata)
— Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
— Lupine (Lupinus)
— Purple coneflower (Echinacea)
— Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
— Yarrow (Achillea)

4. How do I maintain my perennial garden? 

Once perennials are established, they require very little maintenance. 
Deadhead fading flowers to encourage fresh blossoms.
Trim scraggly stems and branches.
Hand weed every week.
— Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch around your plants in the fall to protect the root system from temperature fluctuations.
Stake tall, top-heavy plants early to prevent them from flopping over.
— If needed, apply a slow-release granular fertilizer in early spring. Go for a low N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) concentration, such as 10-10-10 or 5-10-5.
— If overcrowding becomes an issue, you can divide your perennials and transplant them to another section of your lawn or give them to neighbors as lovely green gifts. 

When to water your perennials

Follow this watering schedule to keep your perennials hydrated while encouraging deep, drought-resistant roots.

Time since plantingWatering frequency
First weekDaily
First year2-3 times per week
Second year and beyondOnce a week (1-1.5 inches of water)

If you plant drought-tolerant or drought-resistant perennials, you typically won’t need to water your perennials at all after the three-year mark. 

When to hire a pro for your garden and lawn

Picking out your favorite perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees can be a blast, and once perennials are established, they’re easy to care for. But the time in between planting and establishment can test even the toughest gardener’s patience. If you’re ready to take a break from the yard care chores, call a local lawn care pro to lend a green thumb on the mulching, trimming, and garden work.

Main Photo Credit: Daylily shot by Jeff Herman at the Dallas Rose Garden in Farmers Branch, Texas

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.