Maturing Perennials

Patience is required when developing a perennial garden. Perennials, which generally live for two to several years, need time to develop and mature.

First year sleeping by Midwest Gardening

Under ordinary conditions perennials will mature in three to five years, although an occasional perennial will mature in as little as one year. Even experienced gardeners may grow frustrated at the slow progress of perennial development. Blaming a harsh winter for a poor spring showing is quite common. Thinking winter damage has all but killed a young perennial, how many have you pulled up and replaced? In the cold northern climates, this is where patience is really important. We tend to think that tiny little plant that never even grew in its first year just wasn’t strong enough yet to survive winter. Yet being too busy to replace a struggling perennial, I have sometimes been surprised at its persistence and eventual strong performance. Winter damage and summer heat stress may of course slow down progress a bit, but every new perennial will encounter some seasonal challenges as it matures.

If we understand the perennial’s process of establishment and growth we can be a but more patient waiting for the garden to reach its’ potential. You may have heard the gardener’s adage “First they sleep, then they creep, finally they leap”. We need to understand what is happening in these stages so we know what to expect.


Selecting and planting perennials in spring comes with huge anticipation. A good deal of planning and site preparation takes place to ensure a healthy plant with vigorous growth.

Nothing. Happens. It just sits there.

Don’t be fooled! Things are definitely happening that you can’t see. As a matter of fact a tremendous amount of energy is being expended and it is important that you support it with appropriate water and nutrients, and protect the roots from summer heat and winter damage with mulch. Most perennials need the first season to establish a great root system that will enable strong top growth. A good root system is so important for taking in nutrients and water as well as anchoring the plant in the soil. A strong root system and strong plant will help to resist disease and insects.

In the first growing year for a perennial there will normally be minimal top growth and some blooms will be produces. There are some perennials that will produce no blooms at all, and yet others will grow and bloom prolifically right away the first season. In any case, don’t be concerned, a year of sleeping is expected.

Second year Creeping by Midwest Gardening


The progress is often slow the second year, but your perennial is creeping toward maturity. There are so many things happening this second year that are hard to see as the plant becomes established.

The roots are spreading, getting stronger, and drawing in more water and nutrients. You may notice the second year of perennial growth that you don’t need to water as often with this more extensive root system. Not only does a wide spread and deep roots structure have more access to water and nutrients, but they are delivering plenty of energy to establish better structure above ground also.

Steady creeping of roots underground in year two begins to send energy to the stems and foliage. Your perennial will begin to look fuller and likely begin to produce at least a few blooms.

Third year leap by Midwest Gardening


Finally in the third year of growth most perennials will mature to a well established plant. The foliage will fill out to it’s full glory and blooms will burst freely.

This third year the plant will leap to lush growth and produce blooms to its full potential. Now you can finally see the personality and behavior of your perennial, as well as the suitability of the planting site you have chosen. Is is spreading aggressively already? Wallowing in too much shade? Wilting under hot sun? Or being perfectly charming and well behaved?

After the perennial has matured and showed you its potential you can make decisions about its placement in the gardens. Too often we jump the gun and move or discard a perennial in the second year. We also have to be careful not to compare the progress of one perennial in the garden to another. They do not all mature at the same rate. As much as we love a plant that grows and blooms quickly, it can initially throw off the balance of the garden plan! Be patient! And grateful that at least something is putting on a show.

Sharon DwyerComment