Top 10 Perennials for the Finger Lakes

#2 Hemerocallis “Just Plum Happy” Daylily

When I had my perennial plant nursery, people would often ask me to name my favorite. Since we were growing and propagating approximately 1,200 varieties, this was always a tough task for me. Now I design perennial gardens and landscapes, and maintain properties for a living, so my perspective has changed. At the nursery, our main criterion for a good plant was always that it be “garden worthy,” and that is my rule of thumb to this day. Plants need to have more than one good quality. There are only a few things I will grow that have just one quality, like delphinium for its stately blue flowers, but they will be tucked into a border garden where they can be hidden until they put on their show.

The perennials on this list are here because they either bloom for a very long time, or have a foliage structure that sustains throughout the season. In some cases they have both, but these are qualities that are not easily found. Most perennials bloom anywhere from two to four weeks, so the trick is to combine the plants so that they complement each other, and extend the color in your gardens. The plants on my list will be the workhorses in your garden, as they carry color and structure for the duration of the season. Remember, it’s not only flowers, but also foliage that can be that POP of color.

The Finger Lakes Region is not an easy place to garden. We have a fairly short season, so annuals cannot be planted early enough to get going much before the end of June, and those early frosts in the fall take them right down. Perennials that are hardy to zone 5 and 6 are the answer, but they are an investment, so knowing the plants will make you a wise consumer and gardener.

#10 Hosta “Sum and Substance” – my favorite large hosta in apple green. I use this like a shrub because of its size and heavy texture.
4 feet high by 4 feet wide, shade or part-shade

#9 Astilbe “Visions” – the longest blooming astilbe is a
gorgeous pink. The trick to astilbe is moisture, so plant them near your hydrangea bushes or hostas, but they will do sun or shade if kept moist.
2 feet high by 2 feet wide

#8 Carex “Bowles Golden” – the very best grass for shade gardens, as it stays within its bounds, and does not self-sow. The chartreuse color in shade is like a light.
2 feet high by 2 feet wide, shade to part-shade

#7 Echinacea “Sunset,” or “Cantaloupe” – I seldom use the purple coneflower because it self-sows and can go crazy, so I’ve fallen in love with the peachy-orange shades of the new hybrids that are becoming abundant in the garden centers. Many of the new varieties are not hardy here, so I keep trying things and go with the strongest ones. Peachy tones go with so many colors, and these make great cut flowers.
26 to 30 inches high by 24 to 30 inches wide, full sun

#6 Heuchera “Caramel” – This is a coral bell that is grown for its peachy-pink caramel foliage. I use these to edge gardens or accent other plants. They are evergreen and easy to maintain. If I want a coral bell for flowers, I use “Vesuvius” because it blooms all summer, but it has green foliage.
15 inches high by 20 inches wide, part-sun or shade

#5 Phlox “Purple Flame” – I love all of the Phlox varieties for summer flowers, cutting and fragrance, but the flame is a new series that is very mildew resistant. The “Mt Fuji” is not a flame variety, but it is a taller, late-blooming white that never gets mildewy, but it is sometimes hard to find.
3 feet high by 2 feet wide, full sun

#4 Crocosmia “Lucifer” – This is on my list because it is the best hummingbird attractor ever. These fire-engine red flowers last on the arching stems and will bring in the hummingbirds, guaranteed. There are other varieties, but they are not as hardy as Lucifer.
3 feet high by 2 feet wide, full sun

#3 Helleborus Orientalis “Christmas or Lenten Rose” – This plant is actually categorized as a sub-shrub because of its evergreen qualities, but it is such a great plant for this list. It blooms in late winter; in fact, as soon as the snow melts. Any plant that can give a gardener hope for the spring when we have had a miserable winter has to be a winner. There are some pricey new hybrids on the market, but truly they are all great plants for shade or part-shade.
2 feet high by 2 feet wide

#2 Hemerocallis “Just Plum Happy” Daylily – There are approximately 30,000 varieties of daylilies, but this is the only one that I use. It has very strong stems and blooms for four to five weeks. The color is peachy with a maroon eye, so it goes with many things. This hybridizer created a series of daylilies that have great blooming qualities, it is the Apster series.
18 inches high by 2 feet wide, full sun to part-shade

Drum roll please …
#1 Geranium “Roseanne” – This has been my number-one perennial workhorse for many, many years, mostly because of two things: it requires no maintenance, and it blooms from May until it snows (yes, it flowers right through the frosts). Its only possible drawback could be its size, but it does not spread invasively or self-sow, in fact, you can trim it or shape it and not interrupt the flowering. It does not require deadheading, and makes a perfect edging plant. Some perennial geraniums are very invasive. (Fair warning – Roseanne often looks awful in the pots in the garden centers, but it fills out nicely in the garden).
15 inches high by 3 feet wide, full sun

With these plants as the foundation of your garden, you cannot go wrong. Experiment with other plants in between these, or use some annual grasses for colorful accents as I do, and you’ll be amazed at how good your landscape will look from spring until fall. The Finger Lakes summer is too short to spend any time without great-looking gardens!


by K. C. Fahy-Harvick