Once established, most perennial plants are relatively carefree. In general, they require less in the way of fertilizer and water inputs than do annuals. However, as is true of all plants, some tender loving care is needed to keep them healthy and attractive.
Wood chips as a mulch layer
If not done before planting, it is beneficial to mulch the flower bed before heat of summer sets in. This will keep the soil cool, retain moisture, and help with weed control.
Perennial plants should be irrigated less often and to a greater depth than nearby lawn areas. Many perennial plants have effective rooting depths of up to three feet. During July and August, a weekly irrigation with about 2 in. of water should be adequate in most soils. In sandy soils, less water should be applied on a more frequent basis. The amount of water applied should be cut back during the cooler spring months, the late fall, and during those infrequent periods of rain. A few perennials are adapted to very moist or even saturated soil conditions. These must be watered more often.
Most perennial plants need very little in the way of fertilizer. They may benefit from a spring application of a fertilizer high in nitrogen at the equivalent of 1-3 lbs nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. On the other hand, some years, no fertilizer of any kind may be needed. Determination of requirement is based on growth response of the plants. If the previous year, plants were slow growing, small, or yellow in color, add fertilizer at the higher end of the recommendation. If they were growing well and looking nice, add at the low end of the recommendation. If they were vigorous, floppy, and too large, do not add any fertilizer.
Removing old seed heads will aid flowering
Although relatively carefree, some perennials need attention to remain attractive throughout the summer. Plants that look thin and leggy can be forced to produce more lateral growth by shearing or pinching off the growing point of each stem. Plants that have many stems may produce bigger stems and larger flowers if some of the stems are pruned out. Removing lateral flower buds, leaving only the top-most bud, will also make flowers larger. Plants that fall down or become floppy may need to be staked or interplanted with stiffer, more upright types of plants. Deadheading will prolong flowering of many perennials and make the plants more attractive.
There are no options to completely replace hand weeding in annuals. Mulching with organic matter or weed barriers will help by blocking germination and growth of weed seed. Perennial weeds that creep into beds create the most difficult problems. If hand cultivation provides inadequate control, it may be necessary to hand apply a herbicide, such as a glyphosate product, by hand with a sponge or other wicking material.
Perennials may require winter protection
In the fall, perennials (except those that provide some winter interest or seedheads for sustaining birds and other wildlife) should be cut back to a height of 3-4 inches. This will create a more attractive winter landscape and allow the crowns to be covered with a layer of mulch. Proper winter mulching consists of application of 3-4 inches of compost, leaves, wood chips, or other organic matter. The mulch should be removed from around the crowns in early spring to help prevent premature growth of shoots that may be damaged by frost and rot in wet spring climates.
Disease and Insect Control
It is beyond the scope of this site to provide specific pest management information for the large number of commercially available perennial species. Each has unique problems that may be more or less serious. However, there are many pests that are common and infest many types of plants. Diagnostic and simple control information will be given for these common pests in our sections on insects and disease problems. For detailed information on control of insects and diseases, as well as information of other pests, see the Insect and Disease Pests section of this site.
Aphids with a predatory lady bug larvae ©2004 Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium
Aphids: Also known as plant lice. Small, soft-bodied, sucking insects that cluster on the stems or underside of leaves. Aphids are usually wingless and green, brown, or black in color. Symptoms of infested plants include distorted or curled leaves, presence of sticky sap (honeydew) on the infested surfaces, and misshapen new growth.
Aphids can be controlled with the use of insecticidal soap or a registered insecticide. A strong stream of water directed at the infected plants may knock them from the plant. Many beneficial insects feed on aphids and if an infestation is not too severe, it may be appropriate to be patient and let nature take its course.
Caterpillars can be destructive
Caterpillars: Are the larvae of numerous species of moths and butterflies. These voracious legged worms come in many sizes and colors. Plant symptoms include chewed or completely missing leaves. Some types of caterpillars will roll or fold the leaves and hide inside. Often, frass or droppings are present on and around the plants.
A light infestation can be easily controlled by picking them from the plant a crushing them. Common registered insecticides will effectively kill caterpillars.
Leafminers: Are small insect larvae that burrow under the leaf surface while feeding. Symptoms are easily recognized and exhibit themselves as zig-zag or wandering lines on the upper leaf surface that are lighter in color that the rest of the leaf surface. These are tunnels in the leaves caused by leafminer feeding.
A light infestation of leafminers can be controlled by removing and destroying damaged leaves. A heavy infestation will require the use of a registered systemic type insecticide.
Mealybugs: Are sucking insects that infest stems of many plants. Mealybugs are easily recognized by the presence of a cotton-like white substance they deposit for protection.
Control of mealybugs can be had by spraying the plants with a direct stream of water, using and insecticidal soap, or using a registered insecticide.
Spider Mites: Not actually insects, these miniscule pests are actually related to spiders. They spin protective webs on the underside of leaves and feed by sucking juice from the leaves. Symptoms include color mottling that, at a distance, may appear as a general yellowing of older leaves. Webbing will be presence on the underside of infested leaves. The mites, to small to be easily visible, can be detected by shaking a leaf over piece of clean white paper.
Spider mites prefer dry, dusty environments. Sprinkler irrigation or routine washing of leaves with water usually keep them at bay. A severe infestation may require the use of a registered miticide. Most common insecticides are ineffective against spider mites.
Slugs and Snails: Prefer damp soil and humid conditions. Slugs and snails often hide during the day and feed at night. Symptoms include chewed leafs and glistening slime trails on plant surfaces.
Control snails and slugs with baits.
Thrips: Damage is cause by the larva of this small, four-winged insect. Thrips reside on the underside of leaves and use their rasping mouthparts to scrape away the surface of the leaf after which they feed on the sap. Symptoms appear as white streaks and blotches, more prominent on the underside of the leaf.
A light infestation does little permanent damage to the plant and can be ignored. A heavy infestation will likely require the use of a registered insecticide.
Whiteflies: In Idaho are more commonly a problem in greenhouses than they are outdoors. They are small insects with distinct bright white wings that reside and feed on the underside of leaves. Symptoms include the presence of honeydew on leaf surfaces, often accompanied by a lack sooty mold. When disturbed, clouds of the white, rapidly flying insects will rise above the foliage, then quickly resettle.
Trap the flies with yellow sticky boards or use a registered insecticide.
Damping Off: Caused by fungal pathogens that infect seedlings at soil level, girdling the stems and causing death. Infected seedling will develop tan-colored, soft tissue at the base of the stem. The plants fall over and usually die. Once established and actively growing, plants seldom are affected by damping off.
Control measures include maintaining optimum soil moisture and planting into well-drained soils that are not overly wet. In extreme cases, a soil drench of a registered fungicide can be applied to the soil surface. However, by the time damage is observed it may be too late for control using fungicides.
Leaf Spots: Are caused by numerous fungal (occasionally bacterial) pathogens that penetrate and kill leaf tissue. Symptoms usually start and are worse on older leaves. These diseases are usually worse following periods of wet weather and high humidity.
Removal of all dead plant material at the end of the growing season helps prevent many leaf spot diseases the following year. In-season control usually requires use of a registered fungicide.
Powdery mildew on a perennial plant © 2004 Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium
Powdery Mildew: Is caused by fungal pathogens. The classic symptom is a whitish, powdery growth present on leaf surfaces. Heavy infections cause distortions on new growth. Infections are often worse during summers that follow damp spring weather. Plants grown in shade are more prone to infection with powdery mildew
Prevention involved growing plants in a sunny location and making sure there is plenty of space and air movement around plants. Control usually requires the use of a registered fungicide.
Root and Stem Rots: Are caused by fungi (occasionally bacteria) that live in the soil. Infected plants initially develop mild wilting symptoms that become progressively worse and may eventually cause death.
Soil pathogens are difficult to control. They can best be prevented by planting resistant varieties, avoiding overly wet soil conditions, and destroying infected plants.
White Mold: Is caused by a fungus that overwinters in the soil. It infects plant stems that touch moist soil surfaces. Symptoms include a slimy, white mold that girdles and collapses the infected tissue. Leaves above the girdled stem wilt and die. In advanced stages, small gray structures that look like mouse droppings form inside a hollowed stem.
Prevention is the best strategy and involves staking stems off the ground, spacing plants to allow air movement around foliage, and irrigating infrequently to allow intermittent drying of the soil surface.
Virus: Not technically alive, viruses are small, disruptive pieces of genetic material that disrupt plant function. Symptoms vary widely and usually include some combination of stunting, yellowing, mottling, or leaf and stem distortion. Viruses are a particularly severe problem on perennials because their long life span and lack of seed propagation create many opportunities for chronic infection.
There are not control measures for viruses other than using resistant varieties or controlling the organisms (usually insects) that transfer them from one plant to another. Prevention involves removing and destroying any infected plants.
Information on control of garden insects and diseases common to Idaho can be found in the online Idaho Master Gardener Handbook.
Diagnosis information and specific control measures for diseases in the landscape is available from the University of Kentucky.
The University of Illinois Extension has published a bulletin on control of common insect pests in flower gardens.