Tag Archive: Perennials

  1. “Bad” (Invasive) Garden Perennials and Safe Substitutes

    Lythrum salicaria JaKMPM

    Purple lythrum looks pretty in the garden but beware this dangerous invasive flower. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Some perennials have major territorial issues.  Give them an inch, and they’ll take a yard – or at least a good chunk of it.  Allow them a toehold, and their rampant root systems or prolific seedlings will likely haunt your garden for years to come.

    Of course, such perennials don’t limit their thuggery to the garden; they also can spread (usually by seed) into nearby natural areas, out-muscling native vegetation.  For the scoop on the worst offenders in your region, check your state’s list of banned invasive species.  But keep in mind that many species with serious boundary issues don’t appear on most state banned lists.  Even if it’s not listed by your state (as is probably true of the species described below), the perennial that’s captured your heart might have designs on taking over your garden.

    Lysimachia punctata JaKMPM

    Yellow loosestrife is pretty but a garden thug. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Baptisia sphaerocarpa 'Screamin' Yellow'

    Yellow wild indigo has characteristics similar to yellow loosestrife, but it is tame. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Just about any list (state or otherwise) of takeover perennials is likely to include a few that go by the common name “loosestrife.”  Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – the perennial that ate the Northeast (as well as several other regions) – is the textbook example.  Close behind, however, are several species in the genus Lysimachia.  Many a gardener has regretted falling under the spell of the arching white spires of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides).  Lovely in bouquets, this East-Asian native is a rambunctious bully in the garden, spreading rapidly via fleshy white underground shoots (known as rhizomes).  A far wiser (and better behaved) choice for perennial borders is milky loosestrife (Lysimachia ephemerum), which forms 3-foot-tall, gray-leaved clumps surmounted in summer by candles of frothy white flowers.

    Also too vigorous for most gardens are yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia punctata, and fringed loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliata (usually grown in its purple-leaved form, ‘Firecracker’).  Both make good candidates for damp, isolated niches where they have room to romp.  Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) and its hybrids (including ‘Carolina Moonlight’) would be a better choice for situations where good manners and 3-foot-spires of bright yellow, early-summer flowers are desired.

    Rudbeckia laciniata JaKMPM

    Rudbeckia laciniata is pretty but aggressive. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few other yellow-flowered aggressors are commonly grown (and virtually ineradicable) in gardens.  Almost all perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), for example, are rapid colonizers with tenacious questing rhizomes.  If the mellow yellow blooms of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ beguile you, you might want to opt instead for Silphium mohrii, which produces summer daisy-flowers of an even softer pastel-yellow, but on 4-foot-tall plants that stay in place.  Another popular splashy yellow summer-bloomer to avoid is the double-flowered Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Golden Globe’ (also known as ‘Hortensia’).  Take a pass on this common pass-along plant (there’s always plenty of it to share thanks to its romping rhizomes), and seek out its mannerly look-alike, ‘Goldquelle’.  Also often passed along are some of the more assertive yellow-flowered members of the evening primrose tribe (including Oenothera fruticosa and Oenothera tetragona).  These might best be passed by in favor of arguably the largest-flowered and loveliest hardy Oenothera, Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa).

    Missouri Evening Primrose is not fast spreading.In contrast, goldenrods (Solidago) often get tagged with the “invasive” label, even though many of them are model citizens with arresting late-summer flowers.  Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) holds dense, flat heads of lemon-yellow flowers above handsome clumps of gray-green foliage, while the equally fetching showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) carries steeples of bright yellow blooms on burgundy-red stems.  As for the canard that goldenrods cause hay fever: they don’t.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’ is tidy and clump forming unlike the spreading species. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The common name of Physostegia virginiana – obedient plant – also gives the appearance of a canard, given the relentless rhizomes of this Central U.S. native.  The moniker, however, refers to the mauve-purple, turtlehead-shaped flowers that line its 3-foot-tall spikes in late summer.  Push an individual flower into a new position, and it compliantly stays put.  The white-flowered cultivar ‘Miss Manners’ departs from other physostegias in possessing obedient flowers AND rhizomes.  Its flower color is also more compatible.

    The domed flower heads of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) share the adaptable, milk-white coloration of ‘Miss Manners’.  This prolific ornamental onion isn’t so good at sharing space, however.  Neglect to deadhead its late-summer blooms, and it will populate much of your garden with seedlings.  The somewhat earlier blooming Allium ramosum also bears showy (and sweet-scented) heads of white flowers atop 18-inch stems, but without the resulting seedling swarm.

    Three more invasive perennials to steer clear of (and suggested substitutes) include:

    1. Plants sold under the botanical name Adenophora, which almost always are the fiendish, tuberous-rooted Campanula rapunculoides.  Use peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) or great bellflower (Campanula latifolia) instead.
    2. Yellow archangel, Lamium galeobdelon.  Rather than unleashing the garden-variety species on your yard, substitute its cultivar ‘Herman’s Pride’, which offers even handsomer silver-splashed foliage, sans the infinite spread.
    3. Butterbur (Petasites).  Yes, the romping colonies of immense, heart-shaped leaves are captivating, but the thick rhizomes will not stop until they’ve occupied every square millimeter of available soil.  A Ligularia or Rodgersia will give the same foliage effect without commandeering the whole neighborhood.
    Petasites hybridus

    Butterbur will take over a shade garden in no time. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Whenever you plant a mannerly perennial in your yard, be sure you know its soil needs. Fortifying soil with needed amendments will result in better overall performance. We suggest Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, for starters. Although these and quite a few other perennials are too rampant for most garden areas, they might work in an isolated niche (such as a driveway island) where nothing else will grow, or in an informal planting (such as a cottage garden) that features plants that can fend for themselves.  “Right plant, right place” is a garden maxim that never goes out of style.

  2. “Knitting” Perennials for Textural Flower Gardens

    Geranium sanguineum ‘John Elsley’ “knitting” into a silvery lungwort. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Flopping is often frowned upon in the perennial garden (and quickly corrected with bamboo stakes, peasticks, or other mechanisms, if it occurs).  Some perennials, however, make a virtue out of laxity, their trailing growth providing the perfect foil to the upright stems of delphiniums, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).  In flower gardens, as in containers, nothing complements a towering thriller better than a contrasting spiller.

    Natural and OrganicTrailing perennials are especially valuable for their ability to knit together other garden elements, upright or otherwise.  Mass them at the fringe of a perennial border, and they unify what lies behind them.  Position them near a path or patio, and their tumbling stems interrupt and soften the line between hardscape and softscape.  And they’re literally made for walls, producing cascades of texture and color that bring the landscape alive.

    Margins and walls are not the only places where trailing perennials do their knitting.  They excel at covering the voids left by large perennials that go dormant in early summer, such as oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).  Many will thread their stems through upright neighboring perennials, intermingling their contrasting foliage and blooms.  Some ground-hugging sprawlers (including creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum) can even be planted into lawns to form textured, flowering patchworks.

    Here’s a sampling of some of the best of these perennial “knitters”.

    Callirhoe-involucrata

    Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata)

    A native of dry prairies throughout the Central U.S., winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) has just about everything a North American gardener could want, including cold-hardiness (USDA Zones 4-9), drought-tolerance, and a long season of showy blooms. Its lax stems typically form low mats, but will also clamber up neighboring plants or cascade down banks or walls. The bowl-shaped, bright purplish-pink, white-eyed blooms continue for many weeks in summer along new portions of the continually lengthening growth. Several other species of Callirhoe – of various habit – are also well worth growing. All of them prosper in dry habitats.

    Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is so common as to be dismissed by gardeners who should know better. But, just because a plant species is sold at hardware stores and supermarkets (as well as about every other establishment that deals in plants) doesn’t mean that it’s unfit for sophisticated gardens. Hailing from dry slopes and ledges in the East and Central U.S., this needle-leaved evergreen can’t be beat for draping down a wall, or covering a dry slope, or fronting a xeric perennial planting. Its filigreed foliage would be reason enough to grow it, even if it weren’t also a prolific early-spring bloomer. Gardeners who are put off by brassy-flowered forms of this species have any number of subtler cultivars from which to choose. It’s worth considering for any sunny garden within USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Phlox subulata 'Fort Hill' (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Phlox subulata ‘Fort Hill’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Several trailing bellflowers (Campanula spp.) occur on ledges and embankments in European mountains and take well to similar habitats in gardens.  Among the most vigorous of the lot is Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), which in late spring bears starry blue flowers on low, 3- to 4-foot-wide hummocks. The typically sprawling stems will also clamber or drape, given the opportunity. Plants tolerate a wide range of conditions and may become overly rambunctious in moist, fertile soil.  Other bellflowers for edging or walls include Campanula cochlearifolia, C. carpaticaC. garganica, and C. portenschlagiana.

    Also from Europe is another trailing perennial that excels on sunny dry slopes: bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).  A variable plant, it typically matures into a sprawling, 6- to 10-inch-tall mound of deeply lobed foliage, decked in late spring and summer with magenta, pink, or white, dark-veined flowers.  This hardy (USDA Zones 5 to 9), durable perennial is perhaps at its best in naturalistic plantings, where it can be allowed to seed around into informal colonies.

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking )

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking)

    An excellent geranium for threading through perennials and shrubs is the Geranium ‘Rozanne’, prized for its early-summer-to-frost bounty of purplish-blue flowers.   This lanky, 2- to 3-footer will also sprawl obligingly across gaps left by early-dormant perennials.

    The legendary garden designer Gertrude Jekyll liked to cover such gaps with the lax, non-climbing growth of , a hybrid between the shrubby Clematis integrifolia and the vining Clematis lanuginosa.  Its toppling, 7-foot stems bear a summer-long succession of large starry violet-blue flowers that resemble those of its vining parent.  Other clematis for this purpose include Clematis recta, a 5-foot, splaying perennial that envelops itself in summer with small fragrant white flowers; and ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, another shrub/vine hybrid whose flopping 8-foot stems carry billowing clusters of pale-blue blooms in August and September.

    Hardy perennials for knitting can be planted in fall. Good soil preparation and light mulch will help them become established and protect them through the winter months. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be worked into the soil at planting time and added as a light mulch around newly installed perennials.

  3. Architectural Perennials for Beautiful Landscapes and Gardens

    senna marilandica

    Wild senna (background with yellow flower) is a big, bold perennial that’s great for large sunny flower borders.

    It takes all types to make a perennial border, from seasonal thrillers (such as oriental poppies and hybrid tulips) to carpeting fillers.  But no type is more valuable than the sort that is tall and trouble-free and has handsome foliage that doesn’t quit.   Such dominant, “architectural” perennials are perfect for providing the structural backbone of the border, punctuating and unifying it with season-long form and texture.

    Amsonia montanaMany of the best architectural species for sunny borders hail from the prairies and meadows of central and eastern North American, where big, beautiful perennials reign supreme.  Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), for example, occurs in moist open habitats from the upper Mid-Atlantic to Texas.  A variable plant in the wild, in cultivation it typically forms 3- to 4-foot-tall clumps of sturdy upright stems clothed with slender, willowy, lance-shaped leaves.  The foliage stays healthy and lush all growing season.   Clusters of powder-blue, star-shaped flowers cover the plant in mid-spring, and the leaves glow butter yellow in fall.  This long-lived species will thrive for decades in fertile, humus-rich garden soil. (Sandy or clay soil can be amended with a good amendment, such as Fafard Premium Topsoil).

    Actaea rubifolia

    The leaves of Actaea rubifolia are very large and textural.

    Several other bluestar species are also well worth growing, especially Hubricht’s bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), whose narrow, ribbon-like leaves form feathery 3-foot mounds.  It, too, blooms blue in spring and turns buttery yellow in fall. The compact hybrid cultivar ‘Blue Ice’ is likely the best of all Amsonia for the garden, though its tidy, compact stature is less bold and architectural than most species.

    Wild indigo (Baptisia australis) shares Eastern bluestar’s general geographic range, bloom time, stature, and longevity.  Its spires of violet-blue flowers, however, are a different thing entirely.  So, too, are its grayish-green, three-parted leaves and large, inflated seed pods.  Plants emerge relatively late in spring, the asparagus-like new shoots developing rapidly into leafy 3- to 4-foot domes (or 18 to 24 inches in the case of subspecies minor).  Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) does much the same thing, but with grayer foliage and luminous yellow flowers.  It’s also more adaptable to dry sites, making it a good choice for xeric gardens.  White-flowered wild indigo species include lofty white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and the relatively compact longbract wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata var. leucophaea), which holds its creamy blooms on gracefully bowing stems.

    aralia racemosa

    Aralia racemosa is striking in the landscape.

    Yet another lordly legume from the central and eastern U.S., wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) produces bright yellow midsummer flowers on towering stems that can reach 6 or 7 feet in sites with moist, fertile soil.  The pinnate, ferny leaves give it a light, airy presence, despite its imposing size.

    The same can be said of Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum).  Its majestic, 4- to 6-foot stems carry well-spaced, star-like whorls of narrow, pointed leaves, to elegant, almost weightless effect.  Candelabras of frothy white or pink flowers develop atop the stems in midsummer.  Like wild senna, it grows best in full sun to light shade and moist, relatively fertile soil, and is native to much of central and eastern North America.

    FRD_TopsoilThe steppes of Central Asia are another hotbed of large, handsome perennials, including the misleadingly dubbed Russian sage.  In fact, Perovskia atriplicifolia (and its near-twin, Perovskia abrotanoides) is from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet, rather than Russia.  No matter; it’s still among the best architectural perennials for hot, sunny garden habitats with dry, lean soil.  Technically a subshrub, it sends up 2- to 5-foot, silvery stems from a low, woody framework.  Dainty, fuzzy, aromatic leaves line the stems’ lower reaches, below branching clusters of misty lavender-blue summer flowers.  Numerous selections and hybrids of the species are available, including lace-leaved ‘Filigran’ and dwarf ‘Little Spire’.

    Aralia racemosa inflorescence

    The starry flowers of Aralia racemosa add unique appeal to shaded gardens.

    Two of the finest groups of perennials for shady gardens have both Asian and North American roots.  The genus Aralia offers architecture aplenty, comprising some of the supreme foliage plants for partial to full shade.  Eastern North American native spikenard (Aralia racemosa) gradually matures into a 4- to 6-foot clump of immense compound leaves that suggest something tropical.   Sprays of small, white, starburst flower clusters stand tall in midsummer, ripening to purple berries.   Some forms of spikenard have burgundy-purple stems that add to the drama.  East Asian aralias include A. cordata and its radiant chartreuse-yellow cultivar ‘Sun King’.

    Members of the erstwhile genus Cimicifuga (recently lumped into Actaea) also loom large in the shady perennial border, both literally and figuratively.  With their artfully divided leaves and showy candles of fragrant white flowers, bugbanes are perfect for bringing life and light to the garden.  Maroon-leaved cultivars such as ‘Black Negligee’ are the current darlings of designers, but perhaps the gem of the genus is Actaea rubifolia, from the mountains of the Southeast U.S.  The luxuriant, jagged, maple-like foliage alone puts it in the first rank of perennials, and its showy white wands are the equal of any bugbane.

  4. Hardy Geraniums, the Perfect Perennials

    Geranium 'Anne Thomson'

    Geranium ‘Anne Thomson’ (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Hardy geraniums will not cure baldness, ensure world peace or transform chocolate cake into a healthy food, but they are the answer to a wide range of garden questions. Do you need a perennial ground cover to disguise the wretched remnants of spring daffodil foliage? Try bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), with pink flowers and apple-scented leaves that redden in the fall. Is your garden in need of a flowering plant that will flourish in shade? Waste no time in snapping up the shade-tolerant Geranium phaeum. Does your heart ache for a well-mannered, weed-stomping carpet to plant at the feet of that brand new hydrangea? Try Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, an award-winning white-flowered hybrid with gorgeous lobed leaves.

    Geranium 'Rozanne' PP12175

    Geranium ‘Rozanne’ (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Hardy geraniums, sometimes called “cranesbills”, belong to the same family as the showy window-box geraniums that adorn outdoor spaces from Memorial Day through the end of summer. Everyone, from your grandmother to your nosy neighbor, refers to those big-headed specimens as “geraniums”, but they are known botanically as Pelargonium. Lovely as they are, pelargoniums are not winter hardy in much of the United States. Hardy geraniums, on the other hand, are often reliably perennial in cold-winter climates. In place of the large, domed flowerheads characteristic of pelargoniums, hardy geraniums most often bear single, five-petaled blooms in shades ranging from purest white to near black. Many of the most popular varieties feature pink or purple flowers, sometimes with contrasting veins.

    Good garden centers and specialty nurseries offer an array of hardy geraniums, making choice the biggest challenge. To figure out the answer to your particular geranium question, take stock of the available growing space and light availability, and consider some of the following beautiful and useful cranesbills just waiting to find homes in your garden.

    Sun Lovers

    Geranium phaeum 'Lily Lovell'2

    Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’ (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Horticultural experts in high places, like England’s Royal Horticultural Society and America’s Perennial Plant Association, have decreed that ‘Rozanne’ is nothing short of a miracle plant. The one-inch flowers are among the bluest found in the geranium clan, with five blue-purple petals surrounding a pale blue-white central “eye zone”. Reblooming at regular intervals throughout the growing season, ‘Rozanne’ also provides deeply dissected foliage that turns red in the fall.

    “Bloody cranesbill” is an evil-sounding common name for Geranium sanguineum, a lovely law-abiding plant with pink flowers accented by darker red veins. Variety lancastriense features darker pink blooms than the species. Growing only ten inches high, the plants spread into pretty mounds, with dissected, medium green foliage. The spring-blooming ‘Album’ cultivar has all the virtues of other sanguineums, plus pristine white petals. It tends to self-sow, but is never uncivilized in the process. Besides, the flowers are so beautiful that self-sowing is a virtue.

    Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo'

    Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Biokovo cranesbill (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’), a spontaneous hybrid named after the Croatian mountain range where it was discovered, bears lovely rounded leaves that are at least semi evergreen in many climates. Spreading nicely over time, this geranium, another Perennial Plant Association “Plant of the Year” winner, bears delicate white spring flowers with prominent red stamens.

    The garden world would be poorer by far without bigroot geranium and its various offspring. Its fragrant, palmate leaves are a great foil for the numerous pink spring flowers. The blooms of ‘Bevan’s Variety’ are a little darker than the species. All bigroots spread if they are happy and their undemanding nature makes achieving that happiness easy. If bigroot geraniums happen to stray into light shade, they will still perform well.

    Shade Lovers

    Geranium 'Album'

    White-flowered hardy geranium

    The hardy geranium tribe is also home to numerous species and varieties that thrive in light to partial shade, with some that will even prosper under trees. One of the best known is Geranium phaeum. Like bloody cranesbill, it suffers from grim nicknames, including “dusky cranesbill” and “mourning widow”. Native to parts of Eurasia, including Croatia, the “widows” are distinguished by reflexed petals that range in color from the white of ’Album’ through shades of mauve to the deepest purple-black of ‘Raven’. All are attractive without being flashy. Some Geranium phaeum varieties provide extra value by bearing variegated foliage. The distinctive pointed leaves of the purple-flowered ‘Samobor’, for example, are mottled with large, maroon purple blotches.

    Geranium nodosum is another good choice for shady spots. The species features maple-like lobed leaves and purple flowers, accented with darker veins. Making a slightly louder statement, the fashionably-named ‘Svelte Lilac’ variety boasts flowers with lighter “eye zones” and brighter green leaves.

    Cranesbills are almost always billed as being deer and other varmint resistant, not to mention tolerant of various soils and climate conditions. Start them right by amending the soil before planting with a high quality mixture like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost or Premium Topsoil. Water regularly until the young geraniums are established. Once flowering is through, shear back the foliage to keep plants looking attractive and stimulate new flowers in reblooming varieties, like ‘Rozanne’.

    In addition to their other virtues, most happy cranesbills will eventually form large clumps that are easy to divide and use elsewhere in the garden or donate to lucky gardening friends. For beauty, ease of care, and the ability to cloth garden beds, containers, and even rock wall niches with loveliness, hardy geraniums are a great investment.

  5. Growing Happy Hellebores

    Helleborus x hybridus 'Pine Knot Select' JaKMPM

    The hybrid Christmas rose ‘Pine Knot Select’ is a distinctive selection with speckled flowers. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Garden writers in cold winter climates often warm themselves in January and February by rhapsodizing about topics like good garden “bones”, shrubs with bright berries, and the enduring appeal of evergreens. That is all well and good, but many of us are just dying to see a flower—any flower—in the garden.And that is precisely why hellebores are so wonderful.

    What could be better in the gray weeks after the Winter Solstice than to wade into the garden and see the large, buttercup-like flowers of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) shining out like spring beacons? Just as the white blooms of Christmas rose begin their transition to buff pink, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) unfolds its petals. If hellebores have been on your radar in the last few years, you know that those substantial Lenten rose petals may appear in an array of colors from palest green through a range of yellows, pinks and reds to near-black. Not only that, but they may be single or double, with rounded or pointed edges. Bi-colored varieties are common, as are those marked with alluring freckles. Hellebore leaves are medium to dark green, depending on species and deeply dissected. Sometimes, the foliage is even enhanced with attractive marbling or contrasting veins.

    Hellebores--hybridus

    Rosy pink Lenten roses brighten the winter landscape.

    Native to various parts of Europe, western Asia and China, hellebore species, especially Christmas rose, have been on the horticultural and medicinal radar screen since ancient times. Large-scale garden use of hellebores has taken off in the last two decades, with the plants’ popularity increasing exponentially. Part of this has to do with modern propagation methods. Traditionally hellebores were grown from seed—a slow process—or increased by dividing established clumps. Modern tissue culture (cloning) has made it much easier to produce large numbers of identical plants. Breeding efforts in the United States, Europe and Asia have also resulted in many new, seed-grown strains that have been painstakingly bred for specific traits, especially unusual coloration and double flowers.

    Hellebores have become catnip to gardeners who love their easy-going nature, long season of bloom and unattractiveness to deer and other hungry garden browsers. Planted in lightly shaded spots with good drainage, most thrive with little care. Though they are reasonably drought tolerant, the plants appreciate supplemental water during dry periods. When planting, enrich the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, to give young plants a good start. Happy Lenten roses will often mature into large clumps and can be used very effectively as ground covers. Some species, like the unfortunately nicknamed “stinking hellebore” (Helleborus foetidus) also self-sow with enthusiasm.

    Helleborus cyclophyllus JaKMPM

    The Corsican hellebore is well adapted to direct sun. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Christmas and Lenten roses are the most frequently planted hellebores, but not the only ones available. If you are blessed with a spot that is too sunny for orientalis types or Christmas roses, try Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), which grows about two feet tall and wide and features large, pale green flowers and lightly marbled, leathery leaves. Mature plants can produce twenty to thirty flowers apiece. Cloned varieties of the hybrid Helleborus x ericsmithii are worth growing for their foliage alone, which is adorned with silvery veining. The reddish stems of many ericsmithii varieties support flowers with outward-facing white flowers that age to pink, a testament to their Christmas rose parentage.

    For maximum early season floral impact and sequence of bloom, plant several species of hellebore in shadier garden areas. Christmas rose and its hybrids, like ericsmithii and Helleborus x nigercors, bloom first, often followed by bear’s foot or stinking hellebore and the silvery green-leafed Helleborus argutifolius. The orientalis hybrids make a splash afterwards. To get the best floral show, especially with low-growing stemless types like Christmas and Lenten rose, clip off old, ragged-looking leaves to allow blossoms and new growth to shine forth.

    Hellebores--4

    Helleborus are so tough that they can withstand significant cold and snow.

    Since happy hellebores form good size clumps and are evergreen or partially evergreen, they make effective groundcovers. Those leaves can also provide good cover for the fading foliage of spring bloomers like daffodils and tulips.

    Hellebores also perform well in containers. Remember to allow enough room for plants that will reach two feet in diameter at maturity and surround the roots with a good container medium like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed With RESILIENCE™.

    Water containers regularly during summer dry spells. If space is tight, grow hellebores in plastic liner pots that can be dropped into slightly larger containers during the bloom season and then removed later to make way for other flowering plants.

    Berries and interesting tree bark are lovely, but hellebores make a mid-winter garden party.

  6. Plant Awards and 2016 Award-Winning Plants

    Salvia_SummerJewelLavender-AAS2016-PRIMARY

    Salvia Summer Jewel™ Lavender is a truly beautiful 2016 award winner. (image thanks to the AAS)

    When choosing new plants for 2016, it always pays to know the bestowers of plant awards, so you can easily identify the best-of-the-best edibles and ornamentals for the season.  Plant award programs are numerous and many are distinct in their selection criteria. What they have in common are great garden plants.

    And these programs are reliable. Not only are most based on extensive field trials but they are also driven by third-party entities with the simple goal of promoting outstanding plants for home and garden. So, you can count on award-winners to perform well, if they are recommended for your region. Many are tested and approved for national audiences but others are specifically selected for regions, or by plant societies dedicated to specific plant groups. Here is just a sampling of recommended awards programs and their great plants.

    Candyland Red Tomato (Currant) Color Code: PAS Kieft 2017 Fruit, Seed 08.15 Elburn, Mark Widhalm Candyland01_02.JPG TOM15-19648.JPG

    Candyland Red is a superior currant tomato with big flavor. (image thanks to the AAS)

    The All-America Selections (AAS) is a respected, independent, non-profit organization that promotes terrific plants for North America. Their mission is “To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.” Their trials are conducted across the US and Canada and focus on high-performing vegetables and annual garden flowers. Each year a handful of award winners are chosen and promoted. The program began in 1933, and lots of “old” award winners, now technically heirlooms, are still grown today. To learn more about the AAS and their selection criteria, click here.

    There are 12 AAS-winning plants for 2016 to include Salvia Summer Jewel™ Lavender, tomato ‘Candyland Red’, and the giant white pumpkin ‘Super Moon F1’.

    The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) program, which highlights plants of great merit for UK growers. Thankfully, many of the selected plants also perform well in North America. Unlike the AAS, this program seeks out all forms of high-performing ornamental include trees, shrubs and perennials. Species and cultivated plants are all fair game.

    Recent additions to the AGM program include Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’, sweet pea ‘Mary Mac’ and carrot ‘Artemis’.

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    Geranium Biokovo was the 2015 Perennial Plant of the Year. (image care of The Perennial Plant Association)

    The Garden Club of America (GCA) promotes an outstanding North American native plant of the year and bestows upon it the Montine McDaniel Freeman Horticulture Award in honor of longtime member of a New Orleans GCA chapter, Montine McDaniel Freeman. The award-winning native for 2015 is the lofty and beautiful bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), which is long-lived, tough and statuesque.

    A “Perennial Plant of the Year”, bestowed by the Perennial Plant Association, has been selected since the program began in 1990. Chosen plants must be “suitable for a wide range of growing climates, require low maintenance, have multiple-season interest, and are relatively pest/disease-free.” Novice gardeners seeking to beautify their landscapes with perennials would be wise to start by choosing plants from this list—to include the 2015 selection, Biokovo geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’).

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    The steely blue Windwalker® big bluestem is a Plant Select® winner. (image care of Plant Select)

    Plant Select® is a popular regional awards program dedicated to ornamental plants—woody and herbaceous—of the North American high plains and intermountain region, but many are good general performers in other parts of the country. One unique feature is that “Plant Select® leverages a uniquely collaborative model and highly-selective cultivation process to find, test and distribute plants that thrive on less water.” So, Plant Select® are water-wise in addition to being high performing and beautiful. Disease resistance and non-invasiveness are two more important selection criteria.

    Notable Plant Select® winners for 2015 are the evergreen Wallowa Mountain desert moss (Arenaria ‘Wallowa Mountain’), perfect for fairy and succulent gardens, Windwalker® Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’), Coral Baby penstemon (Penstemon ‘Coral Baby’), and the stately Woodward Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Woodward’).

    Out East, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been promoting its PHS Gold Medal Plants annually since 1978. The winners represent superior woody plants for the landscape that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-7. Recent winners include the Rising Sun redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Rising Sun’) and Darts Duke viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Darts Duke’).

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    Penstemon ‘Baby Coral’ is a water-wise and long-blooming Plant Select® winner. (image care of Plant Select®)

    There are lots of plant societies offering award-winning selections for home and garden each year. The All-America Roses Selections (AARS) has represented the best from their national rose trials since 1930, but due to a flagging economy this important trial ended in 2014. Fortunately, some have been willing to keep it alive, bringing us several great winners for 2015, which includes the thornless, cerise pink, antique rose ‘Thomas Affleck’ and the fragrant hybrid tea, Deelish®.

    Choose to garden smart this season with a few award winners. Pick a few for the New Year and reap the rewards. Fortify them with top-quality potting soils and amendments from Fafard, and you cannot go wrong.

  7. Designing with Tall Sedums

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    Tall sedums (Sedum spectabile hybrids) look pretty through most of the year—save late winter and spring, before they have broken bud. Through summer they provide mounds of lush, blue-green foliage and in early winter their dried flower heads hold up moderately well before being flattened by snow, but late summer and fall are when they shine the most. Their sturdy stems support mounds of pink rose and white blooms that glow in the late-season sun. New varieties make growing and designing with these tried-and-true perennials even more gratifying and fun.
    Sedum 'Thunderhead' has some of the deepest, darkest flowers of any sedum. (photo care of Terra Nova, Nurseries)Tall sedums have broken the mold of the old-fashioned dusky pink ‘Autumn Joy’ of your grandmother’s garden. Extra bright flowers and unique foliage colors, like bronze, purple and near-black, mark some of the new tall sedums.  Some are extra tall and others are very compact and densely flowered.

    Take the new ‘Thunderhead’ (pictured above, photo by Terra Nova, Nurseries) introduction by Terra Nova. Its giant, bright, rose-red flower heads stand on strong, 18” stems above bronzy green foliage. Plant with the soft, mounding, blue-green ‘Blue Zinger’ sedge and bright-yellow flowered Helianthus ‘Low Down’, which only grows to 2-feet high.

    One for outstanding foliage as well as flowers is the 2015 introduction ‘Dark Magic’, which has deepest burgundy foliage all season and large heads of burgundy pink flowers in late-summer and fall. The compact plants only reach 12” high, making this a great plant for border edges. Its upright habit makes it the perfect complement to lower, more mounded grasses and perennials. Try evergreen germander or tidy thyme plants.

    Frosty MornIn contrast, the pale, super dwarf ‘Crystal Pink’ becomes literally covered with palest green and pink flowers. Plants reach no more than a foot and complement taller, darker garden plants that allow this sedum to shine.

    Another bright sedum is the variegated ‘Autumn Charm’ (pictured right), the surprisingly vigorous variegated counterpart to ‘Autumn Joy’. Its bright mounds of foliage complement darker-leaved plants and are best planted in multiples to enhance the silvery effect of the ivory-edged leaves. Late in the season, plants become topped with subtle, dusty pink flowers. The darker flowered ‘Autumn Delight’ (pictured below) is a bolder variegated form with deeper variegated leaves and bright rose flowers.
    Autumn DelightGardeners looking for classic tall sedum looks but more exciting flowers might consider ‘Autumn Fire’. Tall plants produce large, flattened clusters of rose-pink flowers that are to a darker, richer hue. The plants themselves have significant presence in the landscape with their dense stems that reach 2 to 3 feet in height.

    Like all sedums, these plants prefer drier feet, but they aren’t as drought tolerant as some of the smaller creeping species able to withstand really high heat and low water. Plant them in porous, moderately organic-poor, mineral-rich soil. Raised bed spaces can be amended with Fafard Cactus and Succulent Potting Mix for perfect rooting.

    All sedums attract butterflies to the garden making them perfect for pollinator gardens. After fall flowering, the seedheads should be left until they are no longer ornamental. Cut them back on a dry midwinter’s day, and wait until the soils warm in spring and their rosettes of fleshy leaves begin to grow again.

  8. New Flower Introductions for 2015

    The best way to survive winter is to dress warmly and dream of spring. And the best way to dream of spring is to get acquainted with new plant varieties. For maximum spiritual uplift, start with flowering annuals and perennials.

    If you were conjuring up the perfect flowering annual or perennial for 2015, it would possess all the traits that gardeners have come to expect over the last few years. The ideal plant would feature a compact growth habit, making it suitable for both in-ground and container gardening, and it would bloom continuously or rebloom regularly throughout the growing season. On top of all that, the ideal plant would be fragrant, adaptable to varying cultural conditions and resistant to pests and diseases. Shade loving paragons of perfection would feature interesting foliage or conspicuous flowers, or, ideally, both.

    The following are some of the pick of the 2015 introductions crop.

    Annuals

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    Superbells Cherry Red Improved gets top ratings from Proven Winners customers. (Image by Chris Brown)

    Millions of Petunias: Petunias and their smaller relatives, Calibrachoa, abound among this year’s introductions, with breeders bringing out new colors, forms and expansions of existing lines. Vivid red-and-yellow striped ‘Caloha Double Trouble’ from Cohen Propagation Nurseries features double flowers and a trailing growth habit. Proven Winners adds to the Super Bells series of single-flowered calibrachoa with the vivid cerise ‘Superbells Cherry Red Improved.’

    Foliage Drama: Coleus continues to dominate among annual shade plants. New entries include Ball Seed’s maroon and green ‘Coleosaurus’ and ‘Box Office Bronze.’ Rex begonias also come on strong with the introduction of the Jurassic Series from Ball Ingenuity. The plants feature lobed foliage variegated in shades of green, red, white, bronze, purple and silver.

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    The impressive Osteospermum ‘Blue-Eyed Beauty’ is a floriferous new introduction from Ball Seed. (Image care of Ball Seed)

    Tougher Impatiens: For those who have given up impatiens because of disease issues, help is at hand in the form of Selecta’s Bounce and Big Bounce series. Bearing flowers in an array of colors, these impatiens are disease-resistant interspecific hybrids that are able, according to marketers to rebound from fungal disease.

    Crazy Daisies: With their colorful petals and blue-tinted centers, floriferous daisy-form osteospermum, native to South Africa, are wonderful for containers and garden beds. New varieties include ‘Blue-Eyed Beauty’ from Ball Seed’s, with golden petals surrounding a blue-purple central eye.

    Perennials

    Uptick in Tickseed: American’s love affair with Coreopsis or tickseed continues unabated with many new varieties of this daisy family member. Veteran breeder Darryl Probst of Walter’s Gardens makes a big noise with his compact Little Bang series, including ‘Enchanted Eve,’ which is yellow with red centers; rosy ‘Red Elf’ and white-petaled ‘Starlight,’ which also features rosy centers.

    The soft colored blooms of 'Candy Love' Hellibore come in shades of pink and primrose yellow. (Image care of Plants Nouveau)

    The soft colored blooms of ‘Candy Love’ Hellebore come in shades of pink and primrose yellow. (Image care of Plants Nouveau)

    On the Rise: Vertical gardening continues to thrive everywhere and this year’s clematis introductions take it to new heights. ‘Fireflame’s red flowers grow as large as 6 to 8 inches, appearing as single or double forms over the course of the growing season. With raspberry-pink petals edged in white, ‘Maria Therese’ is a compact, large-flowered variety introduced from Pride of Place Plants. Planted in containers in-ground, ‘Maria Therese’ combines big visual impact with manageable size.

    Early and Often: Shade-loving hellebores have caught the fancy of many breeders and gardeners, providing bloom and color in late winter and early spring. Color ranges have increased, with breeders also working on new leaf colors and shapes. One of the better varieties from from Plants Nouveau is called ‘Candy Love’ and has blooms in delicate shades of pink and yellow.

    Compact and long-blooming, Geum 'Sun Kissed Lime' is a superb introduction from Terra Nova Nuseries. (Image care of Terra Nova Nurseries)

    Compact and long-blooming, Geum ‘Sun Kissed Lime’ is a superb introduction from Terra Nova Nuseries. (Image care of Terra Nova Nurseries)

    Geum Generosity: Cheerful, low-growing geums have come into their own, because they suit plots or pots and rebloom over the course of the growing season. One of the most vibrant of the geum tribe is the new ‘Sunkissed Lime,’ from Terra Nova. The 9- inch tall plants feature eye-grabbing lime green foliage and vivid orange flowers. ‘Sunkissed Lime’ offers garden smooches in sun or light shade.

    Butterfly Magnets: With plentiful flower spikes that attract butterflies and garden visitors, while repelling deer, ornamental salvias have long been mainstays of the sunny garden. New varieties abound for 2015, including Salvia nemorosa ‘Blue Marvel’ from Ball Seed. The color is similar to old favorite ‘Mainacht,’ but the flowers are larger. The Color Spires series from Proven Winners expands the Salvia nemorosa color range and includes three new varieties: ‘Crystal Blue,’ ‘Violet Riot’ and ‘Pink Dawn.’

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    Clematis ‘Maria Therese’ is a spectacular new offering from Pride of Place Plants. (Image care of Pride of Place Plants)

    With daylight on the increase and green thumbs beginning to tingle for another year, get a good start on the gardening season by making lists of interesting, newly-introduced plants that might work in your garden. Stock up on necessary garden components like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix for containers and Fafard Garden Manure Blend to build soil fertility. The last frost date will come sooner than you think.

  9. Glorious Gladiolus

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    Mixed summer Gladiolus offer bright color to borders and cut flower beds.

    Few gardeners feel ambivalent about common garden gladiolus (Gladiolus x hortulanus). In the decades since the first large-flowered hybrids were developed in the late 1830’s, the tall flower spikes have been in and out of fashion many times. But glads and the gardeners who love them are nothing if not persistent. Even when horticultural fashion arbiters ignore the genus, the many-colored blooms show up in all kinds of places, from the end rows of vegetable gardens to carefully tended perennial borders and florists’ bouquets.

    The tall garden hybrids are impressive, but the genus is full of other winning plants, including petite species and varieties that are well suited to container and small garden culture. Many species glads have an informal look that is more reminiscent of the wildflower garden than the florist shop. Some are also fragrant. All gladioli share the characteristic long, sword-shaped leaves and summer bloom time.

    The following is a brief guide to some of the stars of the gladiolus galaxy.

    Grandiflora Hybrids: These are the plants that come to mind when most people hear the word “gladiolus.” All grow from corms that are tender in cold winter climates. Standard grandifloras soar between 3 and 6 feet tall. The trumpet-shaped individual flowers, which can be up to 6 inches wide, open from the bottom of the spike to the top. Vendors carry scores of named varieties in just about every imaginable color. Bi-colored glads are available in an amazing array of combinations. Breeders have also developed shorter, dwarf varieties, including the vividly marked “butterfly” types, which reach only 1 to 3 feet.

    Abyssinian Gladiolus feature orchid-like flowers.

    Primulinus Hybrids: These plants, formerly known as Gladiolus primulinus, are now classified as Gladiolus dalenii. Somewhat shorter, at 2 to 4 feet tall, the individual blossoms are hooded, rather than open like the grandiflora types. They also tend to be smaller and less crowded on the stems, giving the plants an informal feel. The primulinus glads are especially useful to cold winter gardeners, because they are hardier than grandifloras. Some varieties, like golden-apricot ‘Boone,’ are cold hardy to USDA zone 6.

    Nanus Hybrids: Also smaller and less formal than the grandifloras, the Nanus Hybrids, bred from Gladiolus nanus, bear up to three slim flower stalks with up to ten relatively small individual flowers. These cold-tolerant miniatures may also feature distinctive markings.

    Byzantine Gladiolus: Native to the Mediterranean, Gladiolus communis var. byzantinus blooms somewhat earlier than grandiflora types and is also more cold-tolerant. The 24 to 36 inch stems are slender and arch gracefully, bearing ten to twelve individual, open magenta flowers per stem. Byzantine glads bloom earlier than their large-flowered relatives and naturalize readily. They are fixtures in old southern gardens and have often been passed along from gardener to gardener.

    Abyssinian Gladiolus: Formerly known as Acidanthera, Abyssinian gladiolus (Gladiolus callianthus ‘Murielae’) has a distinctive, orchid-like appearance and a pronounced fragrance. Introduced in the late nineteenth century, the blossoms feature sharply pointed white petals with dark purple centers. Abyssinian glads grow on slender stems that rise from 3 to 4 feet in height.

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    Hooded flowers characterize primulinus types like the cultivar ‘Boone’.

    Gladiolus corms should be planted 4 to 6 inches deep in rich, well-drained soil. Before planting, amend heavy clay soil with organic material like Fafard Garden Manure Blend or Fafard Natural and Organic Compost Blend. For container-grown specimens use a complete potting medium such as Fafard Ultra Potting Mix With Extended Feed. Tender gladiolus hybrids can be grown as annuals in cold weather climates. To keep desirable varieties from year to year, lift the corms in fall and store in a dry, frost-free location. Replant in spring after all danger of frost has passed. Grandiflora types may need stakes or other support to prevent the heavy flower stalks from flopping, but shorter varieties can stand on their own.

    Gladioli are sometimes known as “sword lilies” for the sword-like shape of their foliage. Arm your beds and borders with these “swords” and they will cut through the summer garden doldrums.

  10. Beguiling Rock Garden Plants

    Callirhoe involucrata is a charming, heat tolerant summer bloomer for the rock garden.

    Rock garden plants have an elfin, seductive charm all their own. Hailing from windswept, mist-shrouded summits, rocky slopes, craggy coastlines, and other picturesque and often challenging habitats, they somehow embody the mystery and majesty of their native haunts. Make their acquaintance and you will almost certainly yield to their spell.

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    Clematis fremontii is an unusual, attractive species fit for rocky garden spaces.

    Just about any garden can accommodate at least a few of these beguiling rock-dwellers. Moreover, their diminutive size and their preference for rocky niches make them some of the best subjects for space-challenged gardens. Tucked into a patio wall, or nestled in a clay pot, or associating in an alpine trough, they excel at bringing character and ornament to garden nooks and crannies. They even work well in urban settings.

    Getting them to grow happily in a domesticated habitat is another matter. To simulate a boulder-strewn mountaintop can be a bit of a trick if you garden in central Manhattan. Fortunately, many popular rock garden plants are relatively undemanding, taking well to most well-drained soils (although varying in other requirements such as exposure and soil acidity). As for the fussier types, most do well in humus-rich, nutrient-poor, gritty soil that stays moist in spring and cool and relatively dry in summer. A little Fafard® Sphagnum Peat Moss makes a fine amendment for gritty soils in need of added organic matter. Of course, almost all rock garden plants do best (and look best) in the company of rocks, which buffer their roots from heat and their stems from cold and dampness.

    If you garden in coastal or upland New England or the Rockies, your unamended back yard may make the perfect rock garden habitat. In less craggy regions, however, some modifications may be necessary. To create a large rock garden habitat on well-drained but stone-free soil, bury large flattish rocks at a slight upward angle with their tips exposed. Place the rocks in such a way that they suggest the edges of an underlying rock ledge. Surface groupings of a few rounded boulders also work well.

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    Sisyrinchium idahoense offers delicate starry flowers over grassy foliage.

    Build small rock gardens from scratch by burying rocks in mounded growing medium, or by sandwiching the growing medium between stone retaining walls. A mixture of equal parts topsoil, coarse sand or grit (such as calcined clay), and Fafard compost makes an excellent medium for many rock garden subjects. The same mix can be used to create growing pockets in existing stone walls. For a micro-garden that can reside on your patio or at your doorstep, buy or make an alpine trough – a tub-shaped planter specially designed for alpine plants (see how to build and plant one at this link).

    Among the seven best plants for beginning rock gardeners (or any rock gardeners, for that matter) are:

    1. Fan columbine (Aquilegia flabellata) and other dwarf members of the genus Aquilegia. Hummingbirds adore them.

    2. Campanulas, including Carpathian harebell (Camanula carpatica) and Dalmatian bellfower (C. portenschlagiana). Both do well in full to partial sun and any not-too-soggy soil.

    Dianthus gratianapolitanus 'Grandiflorus'

    Dianthus gratianapolitanus ‘Grandiflorus’ is an easy charmer for early summer rock gardens. (image by Jessie Keith)

    3. Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus), alpine pink (D. alpinus), and others of the Dianthus tribe, featuring grassy leaves and fringed, spicy-scented flowers. Most prefer full sun and alkaline soil.

    4. Beardtongues such as hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) and pine-leaf beardtongue (P. pinifolius). Hummingbird favorites, they thrive in sun, acid soil, and low humidity.

    5. Lewisia cotyledon and its many beautiful selections and hybrids. This native of Northwest mountains loves cool, gritty, lime-free soil, and an east- or north-facing slope.

    6. Phlox stolonifera, P. divaricata, and other low-growing phlox. The two mentioned here are best in partial shade.

    7. One of the most beautiful Eastern woodland natives, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which occurs in nature in shady, rocky habitats. Double-flowered forms (such as ‘Multiplex) are especially beautiful, and relatively long-blooming.

    Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex'

    Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’ is a double-flowered ephemeral ideal for spring rockeries.