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Must-have perennials for Iowa gardens

The Iowa Gardener: Mix and match these picks to have something blooming from April to October

Painted Lady butterflies feed on purple aster flowers at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Area in Toddville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Painted Lady butterflies feed on purple aster flowers at Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Area in Toddville on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Just as with choosing your favorite children, choosing your favorite flowers is difficult.

But I bit the bullet, and here they are. I chose these particular flowers because, for the most part, they are incredibly easy to grow in Iowa — they are super cold-hardy, and they will survive on just our natural rainfall. (However, some, to look good and bloom their best, need watering in late July through September. Still, if you don’t do that, they are not likely to die out.)

They include a variety of flowers that will bloom from early April through the end of October so you can have something blooming in your garden all growing season. A bonus: Most are fairly good cut flowers to bring indoors and put in a vase.

These perennials, unless otherwise noted, are a convenient medium size, grow a foot or two high and/or a foot or two across. And, as with most perennials, they like rich, well-drained soil with plenty of compost worked in. Mulch them with about two inches of bark mulch or another type of mulch that eventually breaks down to help suppress weeds and conserve moisture.

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Daffodils

Technically a bulb, these have such fabulous color in April they are indispensable. Plant narcissus — the botanical name for all daffodils — in large drifts of 10 or more for best effect. Plant early-, mid-, and late-season types for weeks of bloom. Let foliage ripen and brown on the plant to nourish for next year. Pull off when it comes out easily.

Creeping phlox

Great on slopes and in rock gardens, phlox subulata makes a nice, loose ground cover. Excellent interplanted with tulips, it blooms in early May in Iowa. Shear after blooming if needed to keep plants compact and full.

Siberian iris

Unlike Grandma’s German bearded iris, iris siberica hardly ever suffers from pests and diseases. The foliage looks great all season with beautiful, delicate flowers in late May to early June. Plant in “drifts” of several plants together.

Peony

What would a June garden be without paeonia, an old-fashioned favorite? This is excellent to get from friends, but you can also invest in some of the gorgeous new types, especially the crinkled single types. Stunning!

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Purple coneflower

Echinacea purpurea is an Iowa prairie native that survives any weather and spreads nicely. Bees and butterflies love it. Leave flowers to dry on the plant to go to seed and attract goldfinches. Coneflower is interesting in the snow, too.

Daylily

Hemerocallis is a July bloomer. Each flower blooms just one day, but the plant produces so many it seems to bloom a long time. Dead head regularly. Stella de Oro, a miniature, is one of the longest bloomers.

Joe-pye weed

Give this big guy room to sprawl — about a 4 foot by 4 foot area — and he’ll steal the show in August and September. Eupatorium purpureum hits up to 6 feet, and the “chocolate” type is striking with dark maroon stems and deep rose flowers.

Black-eyed Susan ‘Goldsturm’

In late August and September, when everything else is tired-looking, rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ bursts into bloom and looks delightfully fresh. A good spreader; great to get from friends and family.

Tall sedums

While “Autumn Joy” is the most common, try other less tall sedums, such as “Brilliant” — it flops less. Divide “Autumn Joy” every two years to prevent flopping. Plant in drifts of three or more for best impact. Blooms in September.

Asters

Fancy cousins of the native prairie flower, garden asters are September bloomers. Avoid types not hardy to Zone 4 and colder. Consider spraying with a fungicide (organic types available) in April to prevent mildew problems in summer.

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Everblooming bleeding heart

Unlike its more common cousin, dicentra eximia has ferny foliage that looks good all season long and little pink flowers that are produced all season. An amazing plant! The first heavy flush of blooms is in April.

Virginia bluebells

Mertensia virginica blooms in late April. It spreads rapidly, especially in more moist conditions and is great in rough grass or among trees. It is excellent to get as divisions from a friend and creates a gorgeous blue mist of bloom.

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Columbine

The intricate flowers of aquilegia x hybrida often remind me of elaborate hanging lanterns. The common type can be dug and shared, but do try the stunning special cultivars in blues, pinks and yellows. Blooms in May.

Coral bells

Heuchera foliage is so nice you could grow it for that alone. Often green, it now also comes in fantastical colors and markings. Almost as a bonus, it produces sprays of flowers in pink and white in June. Doesn’t like too much shade.

Lily-of-the-valley

A stand of convallaria majalis makes passer-by stop to appreciate its sweet fragrance in May or June. It spreads rapidly to the point of being invasive, so plant it where it’s contained by sidewalks, driveways or other major barriers.

Astilbe

This moisture-lover will be sparse with small blooms if not given ample extra waterings and good, rich soil. With gorgeous plumes of flowers in July and sometimes August, its size depends on the type of cultivar and amount of moisture.

Lamium

A showy ground cover, usually with beautiful variegated leaves, it spreads readily with ideal conditions and ample, but not too much, moisture. Look for interesting cultivars. It produces pink or white flowers in June or July.

Goatsbeard

Often mistaken for astilbe, this woodland native plant, aruncus, is taller (4 to 6 feet) and less needy about water. With beautiful, creamy white plumes, it blooms in June and July.

Ligularia: ‘The Rocket’

Hits 3 to 4 feet tall. In all but the wettest years, it needs lots of water in late summer, and direct afternoon sun will make it wilt. The showstopping spires in June or July make it worth it. Appreciates dark, rich soil.

Hosta

Try a variety of hostas. Giant yellow-green “Sum and Substance” spreads up to 4 feet across. Try blue crinkled types and creamy, subtle variations in greens, creams, and yellows. Hosta plantiginea is outrageously fragrant.

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