One of my favorite references and the text for my course on this topic is:
The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer
Stephanie Cohen and Nancy Ondra. 2005. Storey Publishing, softcover, 310pp.
If you’re new to perennial gardening you definitely should have this book. Even if you’re experienced with perennials, you should enjoy the humorous and very engaging writing style, and get ideas from the artistic photos of Rob Cardillo. There are three main sections on design, perennial gardens for 20 different sites or uses, and how to deal with the three situations you may have– a bare site, expanding an existing garden, or renovating a garden. Being so affordable, and covering both design and plants, it should make a useful reference for gardeners and text for students.
Throughout the text, over 475 perennials are covered briefly, along with some of the best cultivars. What I find most useful is the table at the end of all plants, alphabetical, with visual keys to their bloom time, culture, and uses. Such bloom tables of current cultivars are fairly rare yet quite useful. Garden plans are illustrated with wonderful, impressionistic, watercolors by Lois Lovejoy. There are many other creative and useful features such as numbers on photos to identify what perennials are discussed; close-up photos of striking yet simple plant combinations; or the inserts in each chapter from the authors on very practical tips. It is a very visually- oriented book which you can learn from just by browsing through. It is a book you can just open and start looking and reading and pick up new ideas. For such a relatively inexpensive softcover book it has unusually crisp photos and artwork.
The information is information you can trust, coming from authors with years of experience. Nancy has authored other books on gardening, and prior ran a rare plant nursery. Stephanie is known to many through her writing of articles, and extensive speaking engagements on new perennials and design. She teaches this topic at Temple University, and has wonderful gardens of her own that are seen in this book along with those of Nancy to illustrate their points.
Stephanie’s humorous speaking style is similar in her writing, from chapter headings such as “Orange you glad” for orange flowers, and “Say No to Bulb-kebabs” for a tip to avoid skewering dormant bulbs when digging in the garden. On referring to “small is beautiful”, Stephanie says “…if you have visions of grand gardens…dancing in your head, you can easily bite off more than you can spade.” Then there are the humorous captions, such as of the station wagon filled with perennials, to the effect that “isn’t this what such cars are designed for?” Practical advice based on the authors’ personal experiences and networking among other gardeners and growers, based on reality instead of textbook and academic rules, are one of the strengths of this book over so many other gardening books.