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According to an old English saying, you can tell that it's time to start planting if it's warm enough to sit buck naked on the ground. In my experience, a bare arm on the ground will do just as well.

During this past week, nurseries got in their big shipments of new plants in time for the long weekend and the start of the planting season. This weekend is an ideal time to choose perennials, the plants that come back year after year. They provide some of the best value for dollar in the garden.

Perennials can be expensive, so it's wise to know a little bit about them before you shop. I am a big believer in making a list before going to the nursery. Otherwise I want to buy everything, and am bedazzled by plants tagged "New!" "Rare!" and "Unusual!"

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A well-organized list will tell you what looks good together. One method of shopping is to do it one bed or border at a time. For a hot border - one that's in full sun and features strong primary colours - consider putting on your list:

Monarda didyma (Raspberry Wine): a bee magnet with gorgeous colour;

Purple coneflower (Echinacea): any of the new cultivars are fabulous, with strong colours that range from peach to gold to purple;

Catmint: bright blue, long-lived and scented.

For shady spots, choose silver, blue and gold plants such as:

Pulmonaria (Excalibur): a lungwort with strong silver foliage and bright blue flowers;

Hakonochloa macra (All Gold): a great Japanese grass which glows in the shade.

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Brunnera (Looking Glass): with blue spring flowers and tarnished silver overlay on big heart-shaped leaves.

To reduce your watering needs, consider adding some succulents and herbs to your mix.

At the nursery, stick plants together in the cart to see if they look good together. If you can find a plant with one flower in bloom it will give you an idea of the true colour of the bloom.

When choosing perennials, look beyond the flower because the plant will bloom only for a few weeks, while foliage stays on until frost. So check the shape of the leaves, the texture and whether leaves are variegated with splotches or edges of gold or silver. Mix it up: large and small leaves, strappy and wide, fuzzy and smooth.

Choose some plants with the same-colour foliage. This will help to unify different sections of your garden. For instance, I love purple-leaved plants. Silver is another foliage colour that works magic to give a garden cohesion.

Before you pay, make sure the plants are well groomed: they should be weed free, have very few roots coming out of the bottom and shouldn't be parched; a parched plant will not only have a dry surface but will feel very light. You don't want to get home and have to nurse your plants back to health.

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At home, put the plants in a shady spot, give them a drink of water and look after them until you can plant them properly. I never, ever shop unless I've prepared a spot for the newbies, and know I'll have time to get them into the soil.

Don't be impatient with your perennials. They take at least three years to mature into something spectacular, and too many new gardeners get discouraged in the first year. Don't beat yourself up. It's worth the wait.

Marjorie Harris just published her 15th garden book, How to Make a Garden: The 7 Essential Steps for the Canadian Gardener (Random House). She is editor-at-large for Gardening Life magazine and runs a plant consulting business in Toronto.

mharris@globeandmail.com

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