One of the joys I have been experiencing lately has been harvesting perennials. It wasn’t always this way, in fact it wasn’t until a few years ago that the Grande Perennial Move occurred and the perennials became a joy.

The Grande Perennial Move (as we dubbed it on our weekly lists) took a lot of initial work, but we are thrilled with the result. For years, the perennials at our farm had the unfortunate tag line of “But are they really worth it?” because of the obvious imbalance of time and money spent weeding and mulching versus money generated from them. I’d usually retort with “But at least we started nearly all of them from seed and look at how much money was saved! If we had purchased these large plants it would have cost a fortune!” or “These are the cuts that sell our mixed bouquets—we have to have them to move all the annuals!” Exasperated by my true but weak rebuttals, I began dreaming about the Grande Perennial Move.

Landscape fabric… YES! No more wood chips, no more weeds, no splash-up issues onto the blossoms, but what about when they need dividing, fertility, will it have rodent issues in the winter, what type of irrigation? I didn’t want to let the perennials go, but the weed pressure was winning. If anything was to happen, it needed to happen soon.

The general specs of our Grande Perennial Move:
– We chose the wettest location we have (we farm a former glacial beach), and one that in most years cannot support tractor cultivation due to the wetness. The only irrigation is the natural moisture in the soil, and overhead irrigation. We always have the option of installing drip (overtop of the fabric), especially if any beds need more water than others.
– For one year, we incessantly stale-bedded the area to decrease the weed seed count in the soil. We lucked out and it was a dry year, making this possible in the usually wet location.
– The bed length is 180 feet, and the bed width is our standard 5 foot on center. We have plans for expanding it lengthwise, but need the next area fully prepped beforeinstalling the semi-permanence of the fabric.
– Using six foot wide landscape fabric, we created three styles of hole patterns and burned appropriate numbers of beds of each of the types.
‘A’ pattern has the largest holes (11-12 inches wide and 2½ one on the left side of the bed and one on the right in a typical walking pattern) for the peonies, liatris, phlox, eupatorium, solidago, grasses and other larger perennials. I have since wished these holes were wider, more like 15-16 inches.
 ‘B’ is a hopscotch-like pattern (center hole, then two outside holes, then center hole, etc; holes are 9-10 inches
wide and 2½ feet apart along the row) for eryngium, sedum, delphinium, lysimachia, astilbe, echinops, etc.
‘C’ is the densest pattern, with three holes across the bed (holes are 8 inches wide and 14 inches apart along the row). In the ‘C’ pattern we have alliums, aquilegia, digitalis, heuchera, veronica, etc.
– The positioning of the pathways is very consistent, so we can drive the tractor onto the fabric in the fall and mow down any perennials that are done. A leaf blower helps to blow all the mowed chaff off the fabric, although we’re in a really windy spot, so if we time the mowing to be prior to a windy period, we can get some work taken care of for us.
– All holes were burned with a torch, and all fabric was cut with a torch, so there are no frayed strands to catch on shoes or the mower.
– All perennials were trans-ferred to the new area bare-root, to limit the transfer of grass and weed seeds to the new area. We tacked one lengthwise side of the fabric, laid it across the prepped bed, poked holes in the soil wherever the burned holes were, lifted up the fabric, planted the plants in the divots, then laid back down the fabric and tacked it in place. For small plants we planted directly into the tacked down fabric, but for larger ones this system worked really well and kept soil off the fabric.
– Some perennials were divided when they were transferred, and a list of re-sow perennials was created so that we have large blocks of perennials to expand the sales possibilities.
– Any netting added is staked within the hole itself (on the outside edge) rather than making new holes for stakes. Any hole in fabric is a possible weed refuge.
– To tack down the fabric, we used eight-inch ground staples every two feet, and the fabric is consistently shingled over the subsequent bed so that it can be lifted to the side (a bed at a time) when it is time for dividing. Divisions are potted up for retail sales the following spring.
– Three foot wide fabric was used for buffer strips to contain the whole area, so there is a clean edge separating the grass and farm road from the perennials. When mowing the edges, we can put put one tire on the fabric and mow the edge without catching the fabric or leaving a weedy edge around the buffer.
– Annually, we use granular fertilizer and can always lift the fabric for full bed compost additions.
– For rodent control under the fabric during the winter, we use Tin Cats, a type of mouse trap. (Note: We let all shrews free so they can help control the rodents). We flag each trap location so we can find it in the snow. So far this has been very effective, although I attribute it mostly to having the perennials cleaned up before snowfall so there isn’t much in the way of bedding materials, food, or vegetation for rodent habitat.
– Nearly all of our perennials were sown in 392’s, then potted up into 50’s, then planted out into their appropriate pattern from there. There is weeding that needs to happen until they establish their holes, although we have been toying with the idea of a thick adjustable paper collar to cover the unused part of the hole as the plants are getting established.

The Grande Perennial Move was worth the effort. No longer do the perennials get a “But are they really worth it?” tag line, but more often “What would we do without these?!” and “They just keep giving and giving and we hardly are maintaining them!”
Ahh, the joys of perennials!

I hope you all have been using the new Community Network, and everything you learned from  the Regional Meetings and National Conference to have a great, fun, and profitable year!

Happy Growing!

Missy Bahret

Old Friends Farm

Missy Bahret Old Friends Farm Amherst, Massachusetts
[email protected]