Identifying plants

Q: We moved to a new home in Calgary last year and one of the neat features is that the back yard is all gardens and no grass. It bloomed from June when we moved in right through to the fall. Constantly changing. We were told to just cut everything back by some friends, but we have never done this before and don’t know where to start. There is just so much variety (from the small to the tall), and we know very little about what everything is. We would like to attempt this on our own.

Regarding plant identification, I love the book from England by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix called Perennials. It is most often seen as a two-volume set, one for early and one for late perennials. It’s especially good for figuring out the names of plants that you don’t know because the entries are in order of bloomtime, rather than alphabetical. It has plenty of photos, so you can begin by trying to spot plants from your garden. They also have similar books on herbs and bulbs. Many of the plants won’t be hardy in Calgary, but the format is great for just this kind of challenge.

If necessary, to confirm i.d. and to learn more about caring for each plant, you can always check by name in another reference book. I wouldn’t be without the Reader’s Digest A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, which lists plant height, spread, preferred sun conditions and so on.

I am currently working in a garden centre near Seattle, and we love getting bits of plants taped to paper to identify. Some gardeners don’t even know which ones are weeds and which are ornamental. We write the names next to the plant so the gardener can keep it for reference. If you do this, try to include a flower, especially if the leaves are non-descript – that is, simple, rounded, green leaves without notable characteristics.

As you suggest in the subject line, many of your plants are perennials, as they came back and then bloomed through the season. In terms of cutting plants back, you can play it a bit by ear. Watch what happens after the first frost and then proceed. For example, hostas quickly resemble frozen lettuce at the first sign of frost and call out to be tidied up. But some perennials, particularly those with daisy-like flowers like Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, have a sturdier constitution and seed heads that feed hungry birds. So for a start, don’t cut anything back unless it looks bad. It won’t hurt to leave the plants to sort themselves out, and you can always tidy up in the spring.

The best way to learn about gardening is to observe your plants and make notes (mental or on paper) about what worked well and what didn’t. And best of all, enjoy your garden and have fun!