Northern Garden Symphony: Combining Hardy Perennials for Blooms All Season

masterpiece. An absolute masterpiece. Those are the only words that accurately describe what author Cindy Warbelow has produced with her book “Northern Garden Symphony.” If she has left out anything about how to select, plant and care for a perennial garden that will succeed in the Interior, I have yet to discover it. Readers who follow her instructions will be able to design a garden symphony that suits them, where various flowers take center stage as others retire to the background, all working together to provide a season-long harmony of color.

To keep the analogy going, you are the conductor and Warbelow gives you the tools to audition and then nurture the right players for the orchestra you want. The first tool is knowing the proper definitions of annuals, perennials (including flowers that are perennials but do not function that way in our climate so essentially become annuals), biennials, herbaceous plants, woody plants, plant hardiness, native plants, and non-native plants.

Even if you were born and raised here and gardened at Grandma’s or Grandpa’s knee, it is worth revisiting these categories because the availability of Fairbanks-hearty plants has increased dramatically. I have gardened here for close to 50 years and I second Warbelow’s observation that perennial gardens used to be pretty much limited to delphiniums, Asiatic lilies, columbine and Maltese Cross lychnis.

As she points out, new breeding methods and climate change have made today’s Interior hospitable to many more perennials. Although as I sit here typing this review on May 22, having dragged in wagon after wagon of plants because it may get to 32 degrees tonight and some areas might have light snow showers, I do have to work to remind myself of these truths: “Over the last century the growing season in Fairbanks has increased from 85 to 123 days ... for hardened-off and very frost-tolerant perennials, the growing season is even more than 123 days. The average annual temperature has increased 2.5 degrees.” I know that daily weather is different from climate, sort of in the way today’s news is different from historical trends, but as I look for things to plant it is good to be reminded that our season is longer than it once was.

The next tool is a section on planning your garden, a topic I should have paid more attention to over the years. Unfortunately, the lack of coherent style demonstrated by my clothing and home furnishing is also reflected in my garden. Over the years, if I liked something that was going to come back, I plopped it down in a spot and left it. Nothing in my garden works in harmony with anything else. My spontaneity has yield not a sense of natural beauty but something that looks like Albert Einstein’s hairdo, out of control.

Part of my failure is due to not understanding, until I read this book, that there are eight aspects to designing a gorgeous garden. I knew them, sort of, but not in the logical way Warbelow presents the eight parameters: light requirements, cultural requirements, bloom time, height, plant form and texture, foliage characteristics and color, flower shape and size, and flower color. Best of all, she doesn’t just describe them, she has charts galore!

There is a master chart of over 200 perennials, listing genus, species or cultivar, bloom time, height, color, foliage, and fragrance. Then there are several arranged by bloom time: early, mid-season, and late. Next, they are charted by small, medium, and tall heights. And, finally, if you want only certain colors, they are broken down in a color chart. 

Warbelow gives other tools for a successful perennial garden, such as when to plant and how to shut down the perennials for the winter, but what I think many will find the most helpful, is the alphabetical listing and photos of her favorites. If you used to drive out to Tack’s General Store (people who didn’t go for the plants went for the pies!) or her subsequent nursery, The Plant Kingdom, you probably saw all of them at one time or another.

Whether a newbie or an accomplished perennial gardener, you will find value in this book. In fact, since she also discusses how annuals, herbaceous and woody plants contribute to a garden’s visual presentation, I believe that Northern Garden Symphony should be in every gardener’s home reference library.

In her acknowledgements, Cindy Warbelow mentions her mentors, including her parents, Ann Dolney of Ann’s Green House, and Lee Risse. With this book, she does them proud.

Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer, gardener and cook who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at dorking@acsalaska.net.

“Northern Garden Symphony: Combining Hardy Perennials for Blooms All Season”

By Cindy Warbelow

302 pages

University of Alaska Press

$29.95