"Perennials are like shoes and socks around the legs of larger trees and shrubs," says Brian O'Neil, the director of horticulture at Norfolk Botanical Garden. "They add interest and layers to the landscape." In most parts of the country, fall is prime planting time for these non-woody and herbaceous plants because the ground provides a warm welcome for growing roots before they take their long winter's nap.
What kind of floral footwear are O'Neil's gardens rocking right now? Here are a few of his faves found at the Norfolk Botanical Garden and in his own backyard:
Solomon's Seal – According to O'Neil, florists love this plant because it lasts a long time in water, but gardeners go for it because it tolerates dry soil once established and sprouts dainty white flowers in the spring.
Cardinal flower – Often found growing wild along creeks and streams in the Southeast, the cardinal flower has a stately spire of red flowers that are both lovely to look at and attractive to hummingbirds.
Coreopsis – Also called tickseed, this perennial has been known to bloom from late spring to summer and even into fall. "There have been a lot of developments in breeding native coreopsis lately," O'Neil says. "I'm noticing them in oranges, reds and other colors I haven't seen before."
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' – Butterflies and gardeners share a love for the 'Autumn Joy.' "Its flowers look like heads of broccoli and go from light pink to dark pink as they age," O'Neil says.
Garlic chives – A cousin of the edible chive, the leaves of garlic chives can be cooked and eaten. It blooms starry white flowers and has to be dead-headed to keep from spreading.
Though he knows first-hand the lure of a pretty flower photo in a magazine, O'Neil advises doing your homework before buying and planting. "Make sure you're putting the right plant in the right place," he says. "Prep your soil, water well and your plant will live a long time—which is what a perennial is supposed to do."