From the Garden: It's all about perennials when it comes to a great 'show'

Delphinium add a nice splash of tall, summer color and texture to Juneau area gardens. They are also a perennial, which means they will come back year after year with proper care.

Perennial plants are the theme of our Southeast garden “style,” their adaptable bodies and sequential appearance allows us to fill our spaces with color and shape, with texture and aroma day after day, changing through the season as the earliest appearing species give way to the later and larger ones. The first primroses and daffodils often appear while the snow still fills the shady corners and the earliest anemones dash into view while the ground is still frozen. The last couple of weeks have been a daily parade of new acts on the garden stage, as old friends reappear to perform their familiar but always fresh performances.


The spring show is really in full flood now and the next wave of actors is just about to appear.

Warming soils and lengthening days call forth new plants to the stage. Some arrive tentatively, like the gently reaching fronds of the astilbe, some as bold as brass bands like the abundantly blooming globe flowers, and some deceptively emerging as low flurries of leaves like delphinium, which later shoot their stalks up into the sky. This visual and tactile symphony of sequential emergence delights the eye and energizes the spirit of gardeners and their supporters.

Columbines, shyly waving their baskets about, entice passersby to linger and visit, their two-toned floral arrangements can be startling in their combinations. Red and gold western columbines, which are often natives grown from seed collected from the mountains or their relatives and descendants lovingly bred and selected, seem to float as their wiry stems fling the abundant flowers into the air. Some of the most delightful are the dark blue alpine columbines, a short-stemmed plant perfectly fitted for the wild high winds found at high elevations. Their large flowers attract wandering pollinators.

Lilies are pushing up, robust and alarmingly regular, their precisely arranged leaves spiral Fibonacci-like up the strong stems, preparing for their march to bloom. They are a wonder in their carefully crafted design. They have two root systems, one below the bulb to anchor it and every year these roots pull the enlarging bulb deeper into the earth. The other roots, between the top of the bulb and the surface of the ground, are there to exploit the nutrient rich soil and feed the enormous flowers they will bestow in later summer.

A family in New Zealand, the Dodeswells, have revived and reinvigorated delphiniums; they’ve developed a series called “New Millennium” with stronger stems and much richer flower colors. Their website shows a wide spectrum of choices. They have been planted in Juneau gardens for the last 10 years and outperform all previous types incredibly. Their strong flowers even stand the punishing summer rains without succumbing to the droops and fades of older types.

A great planting combination includes lilies, surrounded by feathery astilbes (to mask the lower stems), with delphiniums rising behind them all underplanted with the dwarf Shasta daisies, whose bright white flowers illuminate the taller blossoms. They all bloom together in late July and August every year, and they are all perennials here. This planting combination has enchanted generations of Juneau gardeners since it was first developed as a container garden. Its blend of foliage and flower color has been photographed and shared countless times.

The first peonies are blooming in the greenhouses, and the local garden grown ones are developing buds already. Competitive peony growing is a longtime Juneau hobby. As the season approaches, the murmur of gardeners getting ready for the week of opening is like bees buzzing about a bud. Old time favorites like the huge “Sarah Bernhardt” in pale pink that lives on C Street downtown, or the deep red ones that fill Douglas gardens are watched with anticipation. The newer kinds, including the absolutely beautiful single flowered Japanese types are being planted with hopes of joining the ranks of the famous. One very strong contender is called “dancing butterflies” and sports abundant flowers in bright fuchsia, with a single row of petals so they don’t get rain damaged, and the compact foliage has a deep red fall color that doubled the seasonal impact of this long-living species.

This is just the beginning of our summer show, and the opening dancers and singers are already on stage. Some of the greatest artists of our garden performances have yet to make their appearance, and we’re sitting on the edge of our box seats, eyes on the wings, as we wait for our favorites to appear.

• David Lendrum is a Juneau resident and longtime local gardener who, with his wife Margaret Tharp, has been in business for 30 years as Landscape Alaska. They can be contacted at


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