Sleep, Creep, Then Leap - Insights into How Perennials Grow

Perennials are often beloved by gardeners for the beauty they add to gardens year after year.  However, while annuals look their best within weeks of planting (they'd better, they are gone at the end of one season) perennials often take time to come into their full glory.  While not all perennials need time to look and do their best, this is a common enough phenomenon that there is an actual adage for it "The first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap!"  But what does that really mean?

The First Year They Sleep

Whether you plant your perennial in the crisp fall or the cheery spring, you won't see much growth in the first year. The plant just sits there, taunting you, seemingly content to laze the summer away without growing much bigger. That's actually entirely normal!

Now if you take a look and see that while it's true that nothing much is happening above ground, there is a lot happening underground.  Roots are what's happening.  Some perennials spend most of their energy the first year creating a great root system, instead of growing a lot on top, and that is the basis for great plants in the long run.  Well-developed roots are better at finding and taking up both water and nutrients, not to mention anchoring the plant in place and keeping the plant healthy which translates into better pest and disease resistance too. 

Does this mean that if you planted a perennial and it took off right away and put on a show the first year, it is doomed to live a short life?  Absolutely not!  It simply means that the plant was better at multi-tasking and managed to grow strong roots and tops the same year.

The Second Year They Creep

In a perennial's second year, even though you can't see them, the roots are growing bigger and stronger.  You'll notice that there is more foliage and flowers than the first year.  That's important because the leaves are the "engine" for the plant -- they absorb the sun's rays which creates food and energy for the plant.

The Third Year They Leap

In their third year, perennials finally burst into full glory. The roots are now very well-established, they are growing strong and flower power is amazing. Some plants stay at peak performance for decades.  Others are at their peak for 3 to 5 years and then begin to decline, which is your signal to dig and divide them.  That will give them more elbow room to grow and will make you the favorite among all of your gardening friends.  After all, they who has divided perennials to share, shall be most popular. 


Contributors: Kerry Meyer