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Perennial plant of the year 2012 for the shade

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For some gardeners the tactile experience of maintaining the garden is not really what they’re after. I love the whole process but I realize that most people just want things to look good without too much fuss. As our farm grows on the four-legged and two-legged side of things I am noticing some perennial plant neglect. So, I do need to do some rearranging so that the mixed borders get easier to care for not more difficult. Therein lays the mission of the Perennial Plant Association’s “Plant of the Year” program.  
‘Jack Frost’
Each year industry professionals vote for what they think is an outstanding perennial, both beautiful and easy to grow, and this year the nod goes to Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Brunnera macrophyllagoes by a few common names:  Siberian bugloss, heartleaf brunneraand false forget-me-not.  This last moniker gives you a good idea of what the delicate blue flowers look like in the spring garden. In my mind, Brunnera fits the profile of many shade loving perennials with its textured foliage and spray of small blue blossoms: a similar appeal as coral bells, varieties of Rex Begonia and Epimedium.
Brunnera‘ Jack Frost’ has textured heart-shape leaves. The frosty color of the foliage is set off by deep green leaf veins. And, as mentioned, forget-me-not blue flowers rise above the foliage in the spring. Brunnera is not as tolerant of dry soils which we can encounter in the shade of an old oak tree but in rich, retentive soils this perennial with do well once established. As with any newly planted material be sure to water regularly in the first season. Because of ‘Jack Frost’s’ rough textured foliage is should be less palatable to deer; however, it has been my experience that if the pressure is strong enough deer will eat anything.
Brunnera is best situated towards the front of a mixed border or among other ground cover plants because it mounds to about 12 inches in height. Partner Brunner with other shade lovers like bleeding hearts, hostas, Solomon’s seal, lilies of the valley, ferns, astilbe, hellebores, coral bells and epimedium.

‘Moonbeams’, ‘May Nights’
Other past winners include Amsonia, Baptisia, or false indigo, which is hard to kill and lovely all season (only recently have we seen a new pest that devours the foliage of Baptisia- watch for the Genista Broom moth caterpillar in early summer); hardy Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with its delicate blue blooms tinged in white and Nepeta‘Walker’s Low’ that scores high for wildlife.  Bees and butterflies love the blooms of all of these plants; most all are deer and rabbit resistant and all persist in the garden under stress once established (with the exception of ‘Rozanne’ if she doesn’t get a little afternoon shade). The Nepetaand the hardy geranium will bloom again late season if you cut them back by about half mid-season.  
More past winners that continue to be excellent choices for the mixed border include Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’, Shasta daisy ‘Becky’, Russian sage, Salvia ‘May Night’, Phlox ‘David’, Hellebore hybrids, and feather reed grass ‘Karl Foerster’. If you are new to gardening and you have a sunny location for a mixed perennial border consider starting out with some of these.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at Jwiche@shelbybb.net. or at  www.SwallowRailFarm.com)