Every year we are offered new varieties at the garden center, but how many will perform as promised or fail to live up to expectations? Equally which established perennials are really worth their long term place in your garden? To discuss these questions Margaret Roach interviewed Katherine Tracey and you can read a transcript of their discussion below which I found on her A Way to Garden blog.

WHAT ARE YOUR time-tested perennials?and would you like expert help selecting others that rate that status? It?s time to talk standout plants, and on that score: Maybe the only thing I miss about my former city life and an office setting is having colleagues. I used to work on a team that included other very keen gardeners, and especially around catalog-shopping time, we talked plants, plants, plants.
Q. Part of your ?job??or really a lot of your job, both as a nursery owner and garden designer?is to identify great plants that will do the job in the garden setting (not just look good in a photo in a catalog). It must be hard to resist every pretty new face. How do you go about selecting things? Do you trial them, or what?s the process?
A. I can?t resist trying out new plants, and so I do. I try them out and see how they survive, and not just one year but several. Of course each winter we have here in the Northeast is different. We might have a mild winter and things come though beautifully, and the next year not so well.
anewilThere are some plants that are still trying to prove themselves. Last year, for instance, we were taken by that new anemone that was introduced at the Chelsea Flower Show a couple of years back, a hybrid called ?Wild Swan.? It was reported to have bloomed all summer into fall.
It started to bloom a little bit in late spring-early summer, and then no blossoms for most of the season, and then it picked up again in the fall. So it didn?t quite live up to its billing, but maybe it needs a year to establish in the garden and might show off better the second or third season. Patience is in order.
Q. So you don?t always resist temptation, but give them the test and trial things?give them a little more time. I think sometimes do take a year or two or three to settle in. I?ve been in my garden 30 years?and I think you have, too.
A. Yes.
Q. Shocking, isn?t it?
A. It?s fun to look at the plants that have been there that long, and maybe not so much fun to think about those that have come and gone.
Q. I remember going to a garden in Texas, John Fairey?s garden called Peckerwood that was part of the Garden Conservancy preservation scheme at one time. He had an area in the middle of one bed, and at first you didn?t know what you were looking at. Then you realized: It was a giant cluster, like an enormous pincushion but on a large scale, of plant labels?of things that had died, but he?d kept the labels and made them into this impromptu sculpture.
A. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness, a shrine to all the dead plants.
Q. And he made the bed so perfectly manicured like the plants were in there. It was hysterical. So yes, I know what you mean: lots of missing creatures.
I really have to renovate a big area in front of my house, a bed that?s maybe 15 or 20 years old, and when I look at it I get stuck. I think, oh, when I planted it originally it was X, Y and Z plants?but that was 20 years ago, and I don?t want to repeat or recreate it. I?m not living in a historic-restoration property or anything [laughter]; not some famous garden.
It?s hard for me to get past what was there, and imagine something new for it, and I want to use some new things. But again?I see the pretty new face and never know if it?s worth it. So I thought maybe we could talk about some of what I call powerhouse plants and you call time-tested plants, if not for that specific bed (although I may take notes!).
calnepA. For sun, I go back to my all-time favorite plant for the sunny border, because it is so reliable. I think the plants that we planted approximately 20 years ago are still in the garden and have not declined in any way. This plant is Calamintha nepeta ssp nepetoides, and it is a calamint that doesn?t drop seed in my garden. I have heard people complain that calamint self-sows, but this particular form has not here?and it should if it was going to.
And it blooms from early July right through September and into October. It?s a hazy mound of white?airy little white flowers. It doesn?t photograph especially well, so it?s often overlooked in catalogs. It?s not till people see it performing in the garden that they go, ?What?s that??
I know it?s been around for a long time, but I am still amazed at the number of gardeners who don?t know about it and haven?t used it in their gardens, because it seems to perform in sunny, hot, dry summers as wells as cool, wet summers.
Q. So Calamintha nepeta ssp nepetoides?but we can just say it?s a calamint, yes? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, it?s a mouthful of a name.

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