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Sleep, Creep, Then Leap - Insights into How Perennials Grow

Learn more about how perennials get established and grow in the garden.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

Perennials are often beloved by gardeners for the beauty they add to gardens year after year.  However, while annuals look their best within weeks of planting (they'd better, they are gone at the end of one season) perennials often take time to come into their full glory.  While not all perennials need time to look and do their best, this is a common enough phenomenon that there is an actual adage for it "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap!"  But what does that really mean?

The First Year They Sleep

Spring has finally sprung and the gardening itch just has to be scratched, so you head to your local garden centers and haul home botanic treasure.  You plant them in their new homes and wait with great anticipation for floral glory, only nothing happens.  The plant just sits there, taunting you, seemingly content to laze the summer away without growing much bigger. 

Now if you had a thinga-ma-jigger (I have a three year old daughter, PBS kids may literally have saved my sanity) you could hop aboard and take a look and see that while it's true that nothing much is happening above ground, there is a lot happening underground.  Roots are what's happening.  Some perennials spend most of their energy the first year creating a great root system, instead of growing a lot on top, and that is the basis for great plants in the long run.  Well-developed roots are better at finding and taking up both water and nutrients, not to mention anchoring the plant in place and keeping the plant healthy which translates into better pest and disease resistance too. 

Does this mean that if you planted a perennial and it took off right away and put on a show the first year, it is doomed to live a short life?  Absolutely not!  It simply means that the plant was better at multi-tasking and managed to grow strong roots and tops the same year.

The picture above is of Decadence® 'Lemon Meringue' Baptisia, a classic example of a plant that sleeps, creeps and then leaps. I found great plants with multiple stems and an extensive root system last year at my local garden center, but they were mostly in a holding pattern their first season.  Now that they are going into their second summer in my garden, I'm seeing more flowers and stems, but I am expecting them to do something even more spectacular next year. In fact, I am on the hunt for four more plants to make this grouping even more awesome.

The Second Year They Creep

In a perennial's second year, even though you can't see them, the roots are growing bigger and stronger.  You'll notice that there is more foliage and flowers than the first year.  That's important because the leaves are the "engine" for the plant -- they absorb the sun's rays which creates food and energy for the plant.

The photo at right is of 'Sweet Summer Love' Clematis, a perennial vine that tends to sleep, creep and then leap.  It was pretty small when I planted it last summer and it literally sat there all summer,  never growing taller than the four inches it was when I planted it.  It was sleeping for sure!  This photo was taken this spring, and you can see by the yellow arrow how tall it has gotten in the three weeks since it started growing.  It's a good two feet tall now and is just getting started for the year.  I don't know that I'd call this creeping, we might be leaping at this stage..

The Third Year They Leap

In their third year, perennials burst into full glory. The roots are now very well-established, they are growing strong and flower power is amazing. My Shadowland® Autumn Frost (left) is definitely in its full glory!  It is almost as if it is bursting with joy!  It'll leave you thinking "Now THIS is what I was talking about!"  Some plants stay at peak performance for decades, peonies, for one, seem impervious to time.  Others are at their peak for 3 to 5 years and then begin to decline, which is your signal to dig and divide them.  That will give them more elbow room to grow and will make you the favorite among all of your gardening friends.  After all, she who has divided perennials to share, shall be most popular.

In addition to Baptisia and Clematis, here are some more perennials that tend to sleep, creep and then leap:


Ornamental Onion (Allium)
Blue Star (Amsonia)
Milkweed (Asclepias)
Backberry Lily (Belamcanda)
Snakeroot (Cimicifuga)
Montbretia (Crocosmia)
Ornamental Grasses such as Prairie Winds® Apache Rose (pictured to the right)
Lenten Roses (Helleborus)
Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia)
Peonies (Paeonia)
Balloon Flower (Platycodon)
Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum)
Stoke's Aster (Stokesia)
Adam's Needle (Yucca)

Patent Info: Decadence® 'Lemon Meringue' Baptisia hybrid USPP 24,280, Can PBRAF:  'Sweet Summer Love' Clematis USPP 24,044, Can PBRAF;


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