How to prune verbena?

This perennial dies back to below ground level each year in autumn, then fresh new growth appears again in spring.

  • Position: full sun
  • Soil: moderately fertile, moist, well-drained soil
  • Rate of growth: average to fast-growing
  • Flowering period: June to September
  • Hardiness: borderline hardy (may need winter protection)
    Tightly packed clusters of lilac-purple flowers top the tall branching stems from June to September. This stylish perennial has been enjoying a resurgence of interest in recent years. It is perfect for a sheltered, sunny spot with well-drained soil and its open, transparent shape means that it can easily be used at the front, middle or back of the border.
  • Garden care: In cold conditions Verbena bonariensis can suffer dieback if cut back in autumn, so it’s best to leave the plant until spring and cut back the old growth when you see the new shoots emerging at the base. Also it’s a good idea to mulch around the base of the plant with a deep, dry mulch in winter to help protect the plant. Where the plant is grown in partial shade the stems may need to be supported – if this is necessary use natural materials such as brushwood or twiggy pea-sticks.

Verbena Bonariensis Care Guide: How to Grow Tall Verbena

Verbena Bonariensis Care

Verbena Bonariensis is an easy to grow, versatile plant that can add height, colour and interest to the garden. It is easy to grow from seed, making it an inexpensive way to add colour and variety to any planting scheme.

Brief intro to caring for the plant

This plant is a perennial, meaning it comes back year after year. However, as it is not full hardy it is sometimes grown as an annual in colder areas of the country. The plant will self-seed, so, once you have sown this plant you are pretty much guaranteed to have them growing in your garden thereafter.

These perennial plants will resume growing in spring and begin flowering a few weeks later.

Light requirements

Verbena Bonariensis enjoys full sun and will flower best in this position, however, it can tolerate partial shade.

Water requirements

These plants are pretty drought resistant. However, a thorough soaking them once a week will help the flowers to last longer. Do not let them sit in boggy soil though, as this could cause the roots to rot. Water at the base of the plant rather than the leaves to reduce the humidity. Watering early in the day will also allow moisture on the foliage to dry out in the sun reducing the likelihood of a fungus attack.

Soil requirements

Verbena Bonariensis enjoys moist, well-drained soil to which organic matter has been added. It will happily grow in chalky, clay or sandy soil.

Fertilizer requirements

This plant enjoys an annual mulch of well-rotted manure or compost. A layer of straw or leaf mould can also be used as a protection from winter frosts.

Planting

Bought plants should be planted as soon as possible after purchase. You should prepare the soil with some well-rotted manure or soil improver. Remember that this plant grows quite tall so choose an appropriate location such as towards the middle or back of a border. Dig a hole twice the size of the rootball and put the plant in so that its base is level with the surrounding soil. Backfill and firm in the plant to ensure there are no air pockets around the roots. Water well to settle the soil.

If transplanting a plant you have grown from seed you should do this once they have at least two sets of true leaves and are large enough to handle easily. This should be done after the chance of frost has passed and when night time lows are no less than 15°C (5°F). Using a trowel, dig holes around 10 inches (25 cm) apart and deep enough that your plant will be at the same level as it was in the seed tray or pot. Backfill and firm in the soil before watering well.

If your verbena has self-seeded you can remove the seedlings and move them to a different position so that they don’t become overcrowded.

Maintenance

Water your plant regularly until it is well established. After this, plants require little maintenance. An annual application of well-rotted manure or soil improver and a weekly water should suffice. Though these plants are tall, they are sturdier than they look and do not require staking. If you regularly pick the flowers for indoor displays you may find this causes the plant to grow less high and a little bushier which is not necessarily a bad thing as this plant does have a tendency towards straggly growth.

Looks good with

The light airy structure of this verbena makes it perfect for herbaceous borders. It can be woven between other plants to good effect. This plant also looks good by itself planted in swathes creating a delightful purple mist. It also goes well with ornamental grasses and other prairie style plants such as Rudbeckia. Verbena Bonariensis also works well in a cottage style garden with other airy plants such as cosmos, larkspur or scabiosa.

The lavender purple flowers contrast nicely with bright yellow flowers or foliage. Alternatively, try it against a backdrop of purple or red shrubs such as Smoke bush Cotinus coggyra ‘Royal Purple’ or Barberry Berberis thunbergii Atropurpureas.

Pruning advice

Verbena Bonariensis does not require much pruning. You may want to cut back stems with sharp scissors if they begin to get a bit leggy. Seed heads can be left on to add interest to the winter garden and to allow them to self-seed. In late winter or early spring, you may like to cut the plant back if it looks untidy and to prevent it becoming straggly. Cutting back at this time stimulates new growth from the base of the plant rather than the old stems, so it helps keep the plant neat and avoids having lots of old woody stems.

It sometimes seems that every car park, roundabout, back garden or park is smattered with Verbena bonariensis. It is not a “designer” plant any more – that ship sailed long ago – but it fits in effortlessly wherever it is added. So I guess I am advocating even more to please the butterflies.

V. bonariensis has captured our garden hearts because it can also thread together a scheme, add height without too much distraction, please pollinators and flower well into autumn. It will self-seed, particularly if you give it a free-draining substrate; it loves cracks in paving and gravel gardens. Although it’s a short-lived perennial, if the conditions are right, it will seed itself just as the parent plant is giving up the ghost.

However, if the winter is mild, the plants often go from sturdy lofty things to rather haphazard and shrubby as they resprout in spring. In a wilder space this might not be much of an issue, but in smaller spaces it needs to stand strong, otherwise it looks a mess.

The simplest way round this is to take cuttings. With the average container growing plant being about £4, it saves money, too. Cuttings taken now will require somewhere frost-free over winter, but it’s easy enough to house a dozen or so if the winter is brutal. My cuttings will spend their winter by my back door, the lee of the house being protection enough. If frost threatens, I’ll put a propagator lid and fleece over them.

Taking cuttings is simple. Choose a non-flowering shoot; often the best are side shoots that are 5-10cm long. Snip them off with secateurs or sharp scissors just below a set of leaves. Remove this lower set of leaves and insert the cutting into gritty compost around the edge of a pot. If you can offer bottom heat from an electric propagator, this will guarantee quick rooting, but it’s not necessary at this time of year; in a month, though, it’ll be more so.

When you see roots coming out of the bottom of the pot, it’s time to pot them individually. Keep them somewhere bright and protected, until you can plant them out next spring.

You can take cuttings of any verbena right now and there’s more on offer than just V. bonariensis. If all that height is not what you are looking for, try V. rigida, which reaches 30cm tall and looks similar to V. bonariensis but with more vibrant flowers. It works well on rooftops, in containers and on balconies, because it’s a tough little plant and often keeps flowering into November. If you are looking for something a little more restrained, ‘Polaris’ is a very pale purple-grey.

Finally, V. hastata is still underused. It grows to 20-30cm tall and has a more tapered, stiffly erect habit with pale pink flowers. V. hastata ‘Alba’ has white flowers and a lovely autumn colour. Like the other verbenas, by late winter the seed heads turn jet black and look most arresting.

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Someone recently asked me, “How did you get this into gardening”? Most have an easy answer like, “My parents or grandparents were gardeners” or “I had an interest in plants from a young age”. For me, there was no simple answer.

With that in mind, I started to analyze where my passion for plants originated. And I realized it came from a series of events over the past 17 years.

Here is the story of one of those events:

When I wrote about Shuttergate last week, I mentioned how soon after I had made a trip to my local nursery and picked up a shrub and read a plant label for the very first time. That kickstarted a new interest in “landscaping”, not to mention a small criminal enterprise that involved stealing plant tags. You can read about those high stakes adventures here.

Today, we pick things back up in spring of 1998. The world is Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, Titanic continues to dominate the box office, major league baseball season is upon us, I’m continuing my plant label thievery and my new found liking of “landscaping” hasn’t waned over the winter.

You’ll notice I’ve used the term “landscaping” multiple times rather than “gardening”. That is exactly how I referred to my interest in plants at the time.

Like so many uninformed people today, I associated the “gardener” with an older woman snipping daisies while wearing a large brimmed hat. That could never be me. I like “landscaping” which is like totally masculine and shit. I like cutting lawns, firing up a gas powered trimmer, using a backpacked leaf blower unnecessarily on my postage stamp sized lawn and maybe planting some “green bushes”. There was no room for flowers or anything the least bit “feminine”.

While still armed with that ogre-like mentality, I made a trip to Home Depot to pick up, um, something. While impatiently waiting on the never ending checkout line, I spotted this.

Without much thought, I scooped it up and added it to my cart. Perhaps a little light reading to accompany my breakfast.

A quick aside – my breakfast did not include coffee at that time. Believe it or not, my discovery of coffee a year later will be the topic of a future post as the story weaves in beautifully with my discovery of what a true garden is all about.

Damn I am deep.

I ended up never putting the damn book down. It was the ideal bathroom read, the ideal book to leaf through while watching bad TV and the ideal book to bring outdoors as the weather warmed up that spring. Eventually and fortunately, it became my gateway book into “real gardening books” (another story for another day).

Around that same time, with the greatest of intentions, I had picked up another book.

Don’t laugh. This wasn’t a gag gift from my family. The internet hadn’t truly blown up yet, so this was THE reference guide.

I managed to follow some of the directions (translation – the real easy stuff) but diagrams like this made me run for the hills.

I’ve managed to comprehend things like plumbing and electrical in my later and wiser years (no comments family) just so you are aware that I am not a complete dolt. But items like this overwhelmed me to no end in my mid 20’s. I realized then that I really was missing the spatial relations gene.

As a result, I would seek refuge and take comfort in my precious landscaping book. I couldn’t do too much damage while digging a hole and throwing a plant in there.

After many hours studying and memorizing my Home Depot book, I actually started to map out a plan for my own yard. It mainly revolved around adding/replacing shrubs since my property at the time had sufficient mature trees. I had identified the shrubs I was interested in purchasing without a concern as to where they would be situated. Just a minor detail missed.

The very first shrub acquired was a ‘Nikko Blue’ hydrangea. I was pulled in by the fantastic blue blooms (the move to “gardener” was initiated?) and bright green foliage. I figured I could just plant it and see the same results witnessed in my beloved book. Plus my wife was a big hydrangea fan and I needed to show that she in fact a part of the master plan.

It is difficult to see and I really had to dig through the archives to find it, but if you look closely enough, you can see the hydrangea to the right of my front porch stoop.

Nothing like dumping it in there without a thought around design. If my memory serves me correctly, the blooms were pink when I purchased it in late spring but I had plans to “make them blue” based on my new found knowledge of soil PH in the HD book. How you like me now?

By the way, how great is my shearing job on those shrubs along the foundation? I want to go back in time and punch myself in the face for that ridiculous display of lollipop-ness. Luckily, I eventually developed a plan to replace those hideous things.

But what I hadn’t included in that wonderful plan was how to account for the arrival of a shady looking stranger who pulled his car into my driveway as I was replacing the aforementioned shrubs.

The man slowly emerged from his vehicle, gazed at me creepily and asked “Are you John Markowski?”

To be continued …

The first time I interacted with verbena, I kind of hated it.

I was working at a garden center many years ago and discovered quickly the shoulder pain incurred from watering over one hundred hanging baskets at a time, especially for one particular flower. Verbena was a troublemaker as far as I was concerned, a flower that refused to stay attractive unless I babied it.

Flash forward years later and I recognize that, yes, this flower does need a bit of extra care to be at its best, but not that much.

My frustrations were grounded in the sheer volume of plant material to take care of, and now that I’ve spent time with verbena in a smaller and more easily manageable setting, I’ve found it to be a lovely and happy flower to grow.

Take the benefit of my experience in learning how to speak the language of this flower, then put it to use in your own garden!

Verbena Basics

“Tears of Isis” is a nickname for verbena and probably one of the coolest common flower names I’ve ever seen. Although the flower is native to the Americas and to Asia, it is a popular plant around the world.

Images of the flowers have been carved as wards and talismans against the evil eye, and the plants were supposedly used to staunch the wounds of Jesus after his removal from the cross, apocryphal though that may be. Verbena has also been used as an herbal tonic through the years, and in aromatherapy.

Verbena can be grown as a perennial or an annual, more commonly as the latter. Brace yourself for some self-seeding craziness; the taller, upright variety has pestered me for this entire summer since it blew into my herb bed!

Best Places to Grow

While some varieties of the flower grow upright and top out at a height of about three feet, most of us are probably familiar with the shorter varieties of verbena available in shades of red, purple, white, blue, and pink. These are perfect as an accent to almost any combination of other annuals.

You’ll find verbena in butterfly gardens as well. All types of pollinators from hummingbirds to butterflies to bees love these clustered flowers and will be regular visitors wherever it is found.

These are often used as a filler or a spiller plant in containers but may perk up many areas in the garden too. My favorite use for verbena is to add a red variety with red-and-orange marigolds and some dusty miller. The colors practically bark summertime, but they can pass as fall colors too!

Growing Essentials

Verbena is generally pretty happy-go-lucky. It wants at least six hours of sunlight a day, prefers well-drained soil but isn’t picky about the quality of the soil, and needs about an inch of rain a week.

Those requirements are not unusual for most annuals, but unlike other, tougher plants, verbena does not recover well from lapses in care. Without regular attention it will turn into a burnt-up, flowerless clump of unappealing foliage.

Luckily, that extra attention doesn’t take much time out of your gardening schedule. Keep in mind that if you’re growing your flowers in the ground, they’ll require less attention since their roots can “dig deeper” and often solve their own problems, while container-grown plants need much more frequent and regular care since they’re in a more isolated environment.

Careful Watering

Watering is the biggest hangup I’ve seen people experience with these flowering annuals. Too often, the gardener will soak the soil too much and cause the stems of the plant to rot, or they won’t water at all and the once-lush foliage crisps up into something like a breakfast cereal.

The best solution is to simply inspect your verbena every day during hot or dry weather. Once the foliage begins to flag (garden speak for turning limp and hanging like a flag on a windless day), it’s time to give it a drink. While an inch of rain a week is a good guideline that can be difficult to measure, an inch of rain during scorching weather isn’t going to be enough to keep the plants happy.

A Good Haircut Here and There

Verbena tends to get pretty leggy as it grows, and this was part of my initial dislike of the plant. But enough time and experience with this annual led me to discover that all it needs to perk right back up is a good shearing a few times a year.

Some sources suggest cutting the plant back twice a season, but I do it more often; I’ve found that removing spent foliage once a month or so is ideal for keeping your flowers in bloom.

The amount you remove is dependent on how often you’re doing it. If you cut the spent foliage and flowers back once or twice a year, you can safely remove up to a third of the plant and still expect a flush of new flowers.

If you’re cutting it back more often you’ll remove less, maybe a few inches at a time, or just the spent blooms themselves.

If your plants are refusing to flower or are grown out and leggy, a quick haircut is the trick to encouraging those blossoms to start forming again.

A Boost of Nutrients

More than other annuals I’ve worked with, these blooming annuals require frequent feeding. My go-to fertilizer for annuals has always been Jack’s All Purpose 20-20-20 Fertilizer. It’s water soluble, safe to use when applied as directed, and works really, really well.

J R Peters Jacks Classic 20-20-20 All Purpose Fertilizer (via Amazon)

I’ll give my plants a boost of Jack’s every two weeks at the directed amount (about 1 tablespoon per gallon). These prolific flowers respond well to a regular meal, so feed ‘em often!

Dealing With Problems

Like most plants, verbena can be susceptible to fungal issues in wet conditions. Avoid this by practicing smart water techniques and encouraging ample air circulation. Use a soaker hose, or water in the morning so plants can dry before nighttime sets in.

Spectracide Immunox 3-in-1 Insect & Disease Control (via Amazon)

If your plants do become infected with a fungal problem like powdery mildew, a general-purpose fungicide should do the trick until conditions dry up.

Insects seem to cause more trouble for this flower than anything else, and unfortunately the list of potential pests is extensive.

Aphids, caterpillars, gall midges, leafminers, mealy bugs, mites, scale, and white flies are the most common annoyances. If you can’t tolerate these pests on your plant, an insecticidal soap can be used, or the suggested fungicide above can be used on insects as well. But before you start spraying, consider that the pests might not be a huge problem.

An acceptable level of loss should be something every gardener is aware of simply because our environment is soaked in pesticides and other harmful sprays. If we can let a few aphids dine on our annuals before we start squirting on the chemicals, we’ll be better off for it in the end.

Besides, insects are part of a healthy garden, even if those insects occasionally damage our favorite ornamentals!

Where Can I Buy?

Great question! You’ll be able to find live verbena at almost any garden center during the spring and summer growing season, but starting from seed is a relatively easy process.

They can take a long time to flower, with some requiring as many as 90 days, so be patient while waiting for these beauties to open up.

Start your seeds indoors about ten weeks or so before the last freeze date. Sow a few seeds per cell or container, and prepare to wait as long as three weeks for them to germinate. Cover the seeds with a light layer of soil; they need darkness to germinate!

Once they start popping up, thin the seedlings out once they reach a height of about two inches, choosing the healthiest and strongest seedling per cell to keep.

Harden the seedlings off outdoors, and plant them outside when they’re hardy!

I like to take a week to harden my seedlings to the outdoor conditions by following this simple schedule:

  • On Day 1: Keep your seedlings outdoors for an hour and bring them back in.
  • On Day 2: Keep your seedlings outdoors for two hours and bring them back in.
  • On Day 3: Keep your seedlings outdoors for three hours and bring them back in.

Continue this process, adding one hour to their outdoor duration on each day of the week, and by day seven your seedlings should be completely hardened to the outdoors.

Favorite Varieties

Imagination

For a taller and more upright flower, consider the ‘Imagination’ verbena. I love that dark purple color, and these flowers will add a nice bit of variety and texture to your garden beds and containers.

Imagination Verbena

The plant will reach a height of about sixteen inches.

Find them on True Leaf Market.

Bonariensis Verbena

This is a more primitive species of verbena that’s more true to its wild relatives. A favorite in cottage gardens, this drought-tolerant variety will grow as a perennial in zones 7-10. It’s a big attractant of butterflies and bees.

Burpee Bonariensis Verbena Seeds

It has clusters of small violet-blue flowers with just a few leaves.

Find it now on Amazon.

Quartz XP

Like a little variety in your life? Check out the ‘Quartz XP’ series. These flowers are far from subtle and demand to be seen – but when they look this good, that’s not a problem!

Quartz XP Series Verbena Seeds

They will rarely reach heights taller than a foot. Available in Burgundy Eye, Red with Eye, Scarlet, Silver, White, Blue, or Mix.

Find them on True Leaf Market.

Now Get Growing!

Verbena is a lovely flower that demands nothing more than some regular love, and that makes it an excellent addition to the garden beds or containers of the gardener who enjoys tending to their plants, no matter how fussy they are.

You’ll have luck mixing your verbena with marigolds, canna lilies, heliotropes, and other sun-loving annuals, or just throwing it right into your butterfly garden. As long as you’ve got the desire to tend to this little flower when it needs your love, you won’t be disappointed when adding this flower to your garden.

Thanks for reading! Drop us a line in the comments below to share your experience growing these beauties.

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Photo credit: True Leaf Market, Burpee Seed Co, .

About Matt Suwak

Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.

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