Carolyn Singer: Four favorite perennials for sun or part shade |

Carolyn Singer: Four favorite perennials for sun or part shade

Carolyn Singer
Maryland golden aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is one of Carolyn Singer's suggestions for a water-efficient and deer-resistant plant in your garden.
Photo by Carolyn Singer

For more than 40 years I have been testing hundreds of perennials in my Sierra foothill garden near Peardale in Nevada County. A single season was not enough to evaluate each plant’s merits as I increased or decreased sun or shade exposure, reduced or even withheld summer irrigation.

And the resident deer had no idea how closely I was watching their preferences. I even noted how the fawns’ tastes might differ from that of the adult deer. I discovered that fawns might sample a perennial when they were young, then change their feeding habits the next year.

The results became the basis for my nursery, Foothill Cottage Gardens. For 25 years I shared my plants, my observations and recommendations with foothill gardeners, and even some perennial enthusiasts as far away as the Napa Valley.

When we read an article about a plant in a national magazine or even a regional garden section of a newspaper, two major problems often arise. First, the author may not be addressing cultural requirements for our region. For example, we do not have summer fog, and it rarely rains. Have you noticed that?

The second challenge is finding the plant. Sometimes an article calls so much attention to a plant that the limited supplies may disappear with the first spring sales. If you have a gardening friend who grabbed the last one just before you arrived at the nursery, you may still seed save, take vegetative cuttings, or winter divisions.

Here are four favorites for sunny foothill gardens. My list of other favorites is much longer. These four are compatible in their cultural requirements. My favorite shade plants will be in an upcoming column.

Singer’s selections

One of my favorite perennials for local gardens is the peony (Paeonia), often available in local nurseries. In fall, the fleshy roots are sold along with bulbs by many online bulb companies. However, they may not ship until late fall or even early winter, wisely waiting until the plant is dormant.

Plan for the long-term requirements of this very strong perennial so you will not need to disturb it. My oldest plant is four feet in spread. The dramatic May bloom soon fades but the foliage is attractive all summer and its fall color a nice accent for that season. Sun or light shade, and irrigation no more than once a week meet the cultural requirements of the peony.

Salvia garganica “Black and Blue” is a striking summer bloomer with its bright blue flowers on black stems. While in limited supply in local nurseries in the spring, it may be ordered online from Digging Dog Nursery in Albion. The requirements of sun to light shade and moderate irrigation parallel the needs of the peony, so they could be grown in close proximity, allowing for the four-foot mature spread of each.

Willow-leafed amsonia (Amsonia ciliata) would be good company for my first two selections, but it differs in growth habit. With its habit of dropping seeds, volunteers may increase the stand from a single plant to several. In my garden it has spread from seed to cover five feet, while each crown is only about a foot in width.

Arching in appearance, the flower stalks produce mid-blue flowers in May and June, followed by long delicate seed pods. The slightest breeze moves the stalks, a special attribute few perennials provide. Fall foliage is an attractive golden green.

Maryland golden aster (Chrysopsis mariana) adds late-season flowers in the nearby border. A strong perennial and easy from seed, this three to four-foot tall aster is the only aster the deer have not eaten.

I have a volunteer that self-sowed in a dry border along my driveway. It receives no summer irrigation. While the crown has not increased in size, this Maryland golden aster blooms faithfully each summer.

Definitely a worthy long-blooming plant for Sierra foothill gardens, Chrysopsis mariana is an eastern native, found from New York to Ohio, and in the south from Florida to Texas.

Uncommon in the nursery trade, seed and plants for this outstanding perennial are available through Dropseed Native Nursery in Kentucky (

These four perennials add so many seasons of interest to my garden, I can’t imagine being without them.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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