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Sustainable Herbaceous Plant Maintenance

Herbaceous plants include some of the best-loved plants in our home gardens and landscapes. Combined with woody trees and shrubs or planted alone in masses of color, herbaceous plants add interest and beauty to homes, commercial buildings, parks, college campuses and many other areas.

The principles of sustainable landscaping provide the groundwork for proper maintenance of herbaceous plants. Understanding a plant's requirements for healthy growth - soil type, water, light, and nutrients - as well as its resiliency to cold and heat is the first step in creating landscapes and gardens that are functional and maintainable. Techniques that employ cultural improvements such as mulching, weed control and encouraging beneficial insect populations will help create a landscape that is environmentally sound and make maintaining herbaceous plants easier and plants healthier. This results in a cost-effective and ultimately aesthetically pleasing landscape.

The following section of SULIS provides basic information about types of herbaceous plants and their methods of maintenance. Each section includes links to other University of Minnesota online publications and websites as well as many external websites.

1     Annuals

By definition, annuals are plants that complete their lifecycle in a year. They add masses of color to a landscape in the form of blossoms and sometimes foliage as in the case of Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides). Annuals can be planted in containers, hanging baskets, on trellises or directly in a garden bed, and many, such as pot marigold (Calendula), bachelor's buttons (Centaurea cyanus), and poppies (Papaver species), will self-sow for more plants next year. Great for borders, containers or mixed in with leafy perennials such as hostas (Hosta species) or lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina), annuals are easy to grow and maintain, and they bring color and texture to a landscape throughout the season.
2     Biennials

Biennials require a little more patience than annuals or perennials, but the results are worth the wait. Biennials usually require two growing seasons in order to complete their lifecycle. Be aware that biennials produce foliage and roots the first year, but do not bloom or produce fruit until the second year - a point to be emphasized when planning a landscape. After the second year, some biennials will die while others will self-sow, creating new plants for the following season. Some popular biennials are foxglove (Digitalis), hollyhocks (Alcea), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), and Canterbury bells (Campanula medium).
3     Cultivated Perennials

Cultivated Perennials
Perennials are usually long-lived plants that have the distinct honor of being the backbone of any garden. Many are relatively hardy and require only minimal care such as minor pruning and watering throughout the growing season. Some perennials may be considered tender perennials that require protection during our Midwestern winters to avoid winter kill. Or they may be hardy perennials that survive the cold winter temperatures with little or no protection and re-emerge year after year. Perennials can be easily propagated by division, allowing gardeners the opportunity to change their garden design every few years with little investment beyond time and effort.
4     Ferns

The fern is the oldest of plant forms, dating back 300 million years to the Carboniferous Period. They belong to the plant group called the Pteridophytes along with their allies - whisk ferns, horsetails, spikemosses, clubmosses, and quillworts. The ferns and allies are unique in that they reproduce vegetatively and by spores. The ripe spores are often evident in capsule-like sporangium located on the fern's leaves - the fronds - and are disseminated by water, wind, animals, and humans. Ferns can be challenging to grow from spores, but can be grown in the proper environment and add a lush, tropical quality to a landscape.
5     Ground Covers

Ground Covers
Under a dense tree, on an eroding hillside, along a foundation - there are some places that upright, traditional plants will just not grow. Ground covers can be used in these areas to add interest, beautify, and to preserve and protect the valuable soil. Many ground covers are fast-growing and feature dense foliage anywhere from two to 12 inches high. Ground covers like bugleweed (Ajuga) are available in many varieties, having been bred for foliage colors and textures to suit almost any landscape design. Most ground covers are easy to grow, and, once established, require little maintenance to sustain their beauty.
6     Herbs

Herbs may be annuals, such as basil (Ocimum) and dill (Anethum); biennials such as parsley (Petroselinum); or perennial such as mint (Mentha) and chives (Allium). Whatever the lifecycle of the herb, it has no doubt played an important part in history as a flavoring, a medicine, a preservative, a fragrance, etc. The use of herbs are noted throughout ancient history as having potent powers to enhance, cure, inspire or prevent a variety of physical or mental health conditions. They vary dramatically in size, shape, flowers and textures, and are easy to grow. Annual herbs make excellent container gardens, and perennial herbs will reward gardeners with their longevity and growth year after year.
7     Landscape Grasses

Landscape Grasses
The popularity of landscape grasses has exploded in recent years with the availability of new varieties, the interest in native prairie plants and the increased awareness of sustainable landscaping. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'), was voted plant of the year in 2001. Most of these grasses are adaptable to a variety of soils - including poor soils - and conditions, and many actually improve soils by adding organic matter in the form of decomposing roots as new roots form on the perennial types. Their graceful forms, interesting seed heads, winter interest, and wide variety of sizes and colors have made grasses a favorite for large landscapes and small gardens alike.
8     Bulbs, Rhizomes,
Corms & Tubers

Bulbs, Rhizomes, Corms & Tubers
There is nothing more satisfying to a gardener than seeing the first snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) or crocus (Crocus vernus) peeking through the melting snow of the garden. This section of SULIS includes "bulb-like" plants that may actually be technically classified as rhizomes, corms, tubers or true bulbs. Some bulbs are tender bulbs and must be planted each spring, bloom in the summer, and then are dug each fall and stored indoors. Hardy bulbs are planted each fall, bloom in the spring, and can withstand the cold winter temperatures in the soil.
9     Vines

Many vines grown in the Midwest are woody plants such as grapes (Vitis) or trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). However, a number of herbaceous vines such as cardinal climber (Ipomoea x multifida), scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) can also be attractive additions to the landscape by adding a climbing, vertical dimension. Easy to grow and low maintenance, these plants can also be grown to attract wildlife, for their flowers and fruit, and for their beautiful foliage.
10     Wildflowers

Wildflowers are typically divided into two groups: woodland wildflowers and prairie wildflowers. While their habitats and growth requirements are different, these two groups enable gardeners and landscapers to add a piece of history to a garden. They represent many of the plants that have survived and thrived in our area long before humans were here to select and cultivate them. Some even have herbal characteristics. The expansive list of wildflowers suitable to our conditions makes this kind of landscape an exciting exploration into the history of our flora.


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