Peony has been grown in English gardens for centuries.

Old-Fashioned Perennials

by Karyn Maier

In an age when anything “new and improved” is given preference over whatever existed before, an appreciation for an heirloom quality garden is refreshing. Persistent faith in tried-and-true perennials is evidence that there isn’t much new under the sun after all, even though availability of new hybrids and cultivars is ever-increasing. Designing or revitalizing a garden to feature time-honored favorites creates opportunity to make “old-fashioned” new for the next generation of gardeners.


Peony (Paeonia spp.) is a perennial shrub with large, whimsical flowers described by the 20th century American author, Henry Mitchell, as “a rare fusion of fluff and majesty.” Hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8, peony thrives in full or partial sun and well-drained, loamy soil. The flowers, which bloom in colors ranging from creamy white to blushing pink, red and yellow, last all summer, while the plant itself may last as long as 100 years. Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.) enjoys a similar culture in USDA zones 3 through 9, but the bold blooms of blue and pink varieties morph from white in spring to deep blue in acidic soil and pink in alkaline soil in summer. In fall, the blossoms turn light green flushed with burgundy and make excellent dried flowers.


The deep blue flowers of Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum) add old-fashioned charm tucked into rock gardens, woodland settings and other moist, shady locations in USDA zones 4 through 8. This spring bloomer will often make an encore in summer if pruned back to basal foliage after flowering. Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) is the showpiece of cottage-style gardens in USDA zones 2 through 10, although its residency is brief as a biennial or short-lived perennial. The stalks, which reach a height of up to 8 feet, support large, showy flowers of red, salmon, pink and white that draw butterflies and hummingbirds all summer.


Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) is a North American native suited to USDA zones 4 through 9 that is traditionally featured in hummingbird gardens. This member of the mint family isn’t fussy about soil or sun, but does need plenty of moisture with good drainage and air circulation to avoid the risk of powdery mildew. The bright red blooms, which emerge in mid-summer, are added to tea blends and baked goods. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), long considered the “queen of herbs,” is a semi-evergreen native to the Mediterranean adapted to USDA zones 5 through 9. The highly fragrant, deep blue flowers are also used in tea and cooking, as well as in floral crafts.


Sedum (Sedum spp.) is a genus of succulent perennials cultivated in USDA zones 3 through 9 with star-shaped flowers of white, pink, yellow or red. Compact varieties are called stonecrop because they are popular in rock gardens, while taller species are suited for borders and beds where they provide cut flowers in late summer and color interest in fall. In USDA zones 3 through 8, cranesbill (Geranium macrorrhizum) is an old-fashioned groundcover that spreads quickly in small areas without threatening invasiveness, preferring partial shade. The green-grey leaves release fragrance when crushed or brushed against, while clusters of white, pink or purple flowers last from spring through mid-summer.

About the Author

Karyn Maier is a seasoned columnist and feature writer. Since 1992, her work has appeared in Mother Earth News, The Herb Quarterly, Better Nutrition and in many other print and digital publications. She is also the author of five books, and is published in six languages.

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