General gardening topics

How to grow and care for Penstemons, from planting, pruning and taking cuttings

Last updated on May 18th, 2022

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Penstemons are grown for multiple reasons, the most common being their ability to attract bees and butterflies into your garden and the long flowering season they have. Some varieties will flower in early summer and flower well into the autumn.

If you want to add a great deal of colour to your border gardens, especially later in the summer when many perennials are beginning to finish flowering, these are a wonderful solution, especially if you plant them in groups of 3 or 5. They will continue to flower all the way until the first frosts, which is usually around October.

Where to plant Penstemons

Penstemons need to be planted in an area that has fertile and well-draining soil, ideally in an area that has full sun or light shade. These perennials grow best when they are planted in mixed border gardens.

Penstemon 'Stapleford Gem'

Growing Penstemons

Plant them in well-drained soil in full sun and mulch around the base of plants in spring

Penstemons need to be grown in well-drained soil in a position with (ideally) full sun but they will tolerate partial shade too. You should give them mulch every year in spring to help conserve moisture.

Feed every two weeks throughout the summer

In the summer feed them around once a fortnight with a balanced fertiliser. The exception to this is if you have planted the alpine or shrubby varieties that naturally grow in poorer soils.

Colourful, tubular flowers grown on tall spikes are commonly found in prairies that are exposed to sunny conditions. Such a beautiful Wildflower, also referred to as beardtongue plants, can be easily grown in your garden especially if you grow them in containers but they need plenty of water but not to wet.

Prune plants back in spring to new growth shoots

Given the climate of the UK, even though they are fairly hardy, Penstemons can suffer if we have a harsh winter so we recommend avoiding cutting back your plants until the spring, and when you do, only cut back to new growth towards the base. This will promote new strong growth and help to stop them from becoming tall and leggy, which they will if not pruned in spring. This is also a great time for you to take the opportunity to take cuttings too.

Plant new plants in spring to give them time to establish before winter

They should be planted in spring so that the new plants have a chance to establish themselves before the winter sets in. Penstemon shouldn’t really need supports or stakes unless you plant them in an exposed area with a lot of wind. 

Propagating Penstemons by taking cuttings

Propagating penstemons

Propagating Penstemons is a process best done by taking cuttings. For this, you want to take cuttings between the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Cuttings that are taken at end of summer or beginning of autumn need to be kept in a frost free position, in a cool location until they are ready to be planted out in spring, once they have enough root and the risk of frost has passed.

You can also take softwood cuttings at any time during the growing season, including in spring. Cuttings that are taken early usually need a little bottom heat to get themselves established and they can usually be planted out in summer.

How to take cuttings

Each cutting should be cut back to just below the nearest leaf joint, with all lower leaves stripped away. For the best results, having more cuttings than you plan to transplant is best because they don’t always all take. Think of it as an insurance policy in case some fail. That being said, you can plant multiple cuttings in the same pot or container, 9cm to 1 litre pots are ideal, as long as you are able to prevent their leaves from touching. 

The pots should be filled with potting compost (or multi-purpose compost) mixed with 50% perlite to improve the drainage. The cuttings are then placed into the pots and kept in a sheltered space, either in a cold frame or in your garden, where they can remain frost free. By the following May, they should be ready to go outside in their final positions. 

It’s important to get the hang of this process early because Penstemons have a short, though beautiful, lifespan and if you want to make sure the plants are there to appease you regularly, you will need to cultivate cuttings every few years. 

Penstemon growing in border

Regular Care

Penstemons should be regularly given a strong dose of all-purpose fertiliser in spring. They should be watered thoroughly when first planted and at the start of summer to help them during dry weather.

In autumn you want to cut back any faded flowers back to good strong growth to help them during winter, and then after winter, once the last frost is upon you, you can cut back the remaining plant hard to new growth.

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