Lovely Lacecap Hydrangeas

The lacecap bigleaf hydrangea is planted in more alkaline soil, hence the pink flower color.

In James McNeil Whistler’s famous 1871 painting, Whistler’s Mother, the title subject wears a lace cap and does not appear very happy about it.  Most of us would probably have the same expression if we had to don similar headgear.  Installing a lacecap hydrangea in the garden is a completely different experience and is highly likely to produce smiles instead of frowns.

Mopheads Versus Lacecaps

Mophead hydrangeas have more puffy, rounded flower clusters.

The garden lacecaps are eye-catching varieties of bigleaf or mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) or Japanese mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata), and it is the floral “lace” that makes them different. Instead of the large, globe-shaped flowerheads familiar to hydrangea lovers far and wide, lacecaps have flattened flowerheads (technically called corymbs), characterized by wide centers of small true flowers, surrounded by lacy outer borders of large sterile florets.  Depending on the variety, lacecaps bloom in the same colors as mopheads, bluer in acid soils, red or pink in alkaline soils, and lavender or purple when the soil is neutral.  All the macrophylla hydrangeas feature the same large, medium to dark green leaves that are shaped like toothed teardrops. Japanese mountain hydrangeas tend to be smaller in stature and the leaves have more toothed, or serrated, edges.

Japanese Origins

Lacecaps have been around for some time.  The first wild shrubs were discovered in Japan in the 1870s by English plant hunter Charles Maries, just a few short years after Whistler immortalized his mother.  By the end of the decade, two varieties, the white-flowered ‘Veitchii’ and the pale blue or pink-flowered ‘Mariesii’ had been introduced commercially in Europe.  The two are still available through some retailers today.

Modern Developments

The opulent ‘Izu no Hana’ bears double outer florets with pointed petals.

Modern breeders in Japan, Switzerland, the United States, and elsewhere have produced several other winning varieties, sometimes marketed as part of trademarked series.  BLUE WAVE is the new, trademarked name of an old variety, ‘Mariesii Perfecta’, which features vibrant blue flowers and was introduced into commerce in 1904. It is a compact variety, with a 3.5-foot height and spread.  ‘Lady in Red’ is even smaller at two to three feet wide and tall, boasting dramatic dark red stems and leaf veins.  Its leaves turn scarlet in the fall.  For even more drama, try ‘Zorro’, with near-black stems, and red fall foliage.

The opulent Japanese variety ‘Izu no Hana’ bears double outer florets with pointed petals.  For even more petals, ‘Lanark White’ offers small blue florets that jostle in the flowers’ centers with a number of the larger sterile ones that are repeated in the outer margins.  The overall appearance is that of a lacecap/mophead mash-up.

Variegated leaves can add interest to the garden, and varieties like Hydrangea macrophylla var maculata feature the characteristic green, elliptical leaves edged in cream.

Pruning and Blooming

Traditional lacecaps flower on “old wood”, which means this year’s flowers grow on last year’s stems. Late summer pruning is often recommended.

As with other mophead hydrangeas, traditional lacecaps flower on “old wood”, which means this year’s flowers grow on last year’s stems. Therefore, the best time to prune them is in the summer after their big flush of blooms has past. Another problem with the trait is that the buds can be frozen by late spring frosts, resulting in a loss of summer blooms.  Newer varieties, like ‘Twist and Shout’ (part of the ENDLESS SUMMER® series of lacecaps and mopheads), bloom on “new wood” or stems produced in the year of bloom, which solves the spring frost problem.  If you have experienced hydrangea disappointment when plants produce few or no flowers in any given year, it is worth seeking out new varieties to fill holes in your planting scheme. (Click here for a detailed hydrangea pruning guide from Proven Winners®.)

Hydrangea Hydration and Care

The pale blue or pink-flowered ‘Mariesii’ is a very old variety.

All bigleaf hydrangeas prefer uniformly moist soil and light shade.  Heavier shade will result in fewer blooms.  When planting, add a rich soil amendment, like Fafard® Premium Natural and Organic Compost.  Mulching is also a good idea for moisture-loving lacecaps.  The shrubs will succeed in large containers, as long as you water regularly throughout the growing season and feed with commercial plant food applied and diluted according to the manufacturer’s directions.  If pesky spring frosts are a routine occurrence and you love your mature, traditional mophead and/or lacecap hydrangeas, you can wrap yours in comfy layers of burlap in the fall and remove it in spring when all danger of frost has passed.  This doesn’t look particularly attractive, but may greatly improve the chance of abundant summer blooms.

Summer Coleus for Nonstop Color

Coleus ‘Inky Fingers’ features deeply dissected maroon leaves edged in lime green

The old saying goes, “Call me anything you like, but don’t call me late for dinner.”  For a long time, plant taxonomists and botanists have moved Coleus from genus to genus; the colorful plants have been botanically tagged as Coleus scutellarioiodes, Solensostemon scutellarioides, Coleus x hybrid, and Plectranthus scutellarioides.  But, gardeners just call the plants “coleus”, or sometimes, “painted nettles”, and only call it for dinner when it is part of a cut flower and foliage arrangement.

Old-Fashioned Coleus for Summer Foliage

Coleus is at home in window boxes, containers, or flower borders.

Long ago, the ancestors of coleus thrived in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia and Malaysia. Gardeners truly embraced coleus during the Victorian era. The straight-laced Victorians were anything but prudish about color in the garden.  They lapped it up, which led to broad acceptance of coleus after its first appearance around 1850.  Splashing around with leaves in every color but blue, coleus became indispensable in both parlors and gardens.  Those indoor accommodations were, and still are necessary in cold winter climates, because coleus, which is a perennial in its native climate, cannot survive outside of USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 10-11.

With leaves in a multitude of shapes, colors, and patterns, coleus has long been a garden staple, beloved by anyone who has ever sought lightness and brightness in shaded spaces. Most celebrate it as a favorite summer foliage plant, showing up in borders, containers, window boxes, and public plantings all over North America and beyond. The species, which is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae) seems to transcend commercial barriers, dominating pallets in the biggest of big-box stores or the snootiest of specialty nurseries. This is quite an accomplishment for a plant that is both inexpensive and easy-to-grow.

Growing Shade-Loving Coleus

One robust coleus is enough to fill a large patio pot.

Like many mints, coleus—with intact flowers—will attract pollinators and generally repel garden varmints, like deer and rabbits.  The plants grow readily and prefer light shade, which guarantees the best color.  Consistent soil moisture makes for the happiest coleus and mulching helps the soil retain that moisture.  We recommend Fafard Professional Potting Mix for potted coleus, and garden soil amended with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost for coleus planted in ground.

Not all coleus grow to great heights, but many varieties get “leggy” as the growing season progresses, with longer stems and fewer leaves.  The easy cure for this is pinching back the stems by about one-third (or two-thirds for plants that are way out of bounds) to induce bushier growth and a fuller appearance. Another trick is disabling the plants from flowering because when they flower their foliage loses color, density, and vivacity. Pinch back all flower buds before they bloom to keep plants looking their best.

Mix coleus varieties for a riot of color.

Bargain lovers relish the ease with which coleus can be propagated.  A 6-inch cutting with leaves removed will root quickly in a glass of water and can be transplanted within a week or so.  This is a great way to increase supplies of unusual or highly desirable varieties.  If you can’t afford to buy flats of coleus to fill beds or containers, take cuttings from a few specimens and root them.  You will fill the available space quickly and cheaply.  When cold weather approaches, coleus can be potted up and brought inside, but it is sometimes easier to start new plants from fall cuttings that grow to maturity on sunny windowsills indoors.  When spring rolls around, take fresh cuttings from the overwintered specimens.

There is a coleus for almost every garden situation. The average coleus grows anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet in height with an almost equal spread.  Depending on the variety, the growth habit may be mounding or upright.  Coleus can also be trained to grow as a small topiary, with a rounded ball of leaves atop a sturdy stem or several stems braided together. The colorful leaves are the plants’ main attractions, but they also produce slender flower spikes of tiny white or bluish blossom.  Many gardeners snip these off, allowing the leaves to dominate the scene.


Choice Coleus Varieties

‘Henna’ is a beautiful coleus with fringed leaves of gold with hints of copper and purple.

Hybridizers come out with new coleus introductions every year in a dizzying array of colors and styles.  To set things on fire, try the aptly named ‘Inferno Red’ or the slightly darker ‘Oxblood’.   You can pick cheerful chartreuse varieties, like ‘Electric Lime’, the equally limey ‘Wasabi’, or Proven Winner’s Lime Time. Each will add a bright splash of color to any porch container or shaded garden. The number of bi- and tri-colored varieties is almost infinite.

Leaf forms and textures are varied as well.  ‘Inky Fingers’ features deeply dissected maroon leaves edged in lime green, while ‘Coral Candy’ is a sun-tolerant coleus with elongated and toothed foliage centered in coral and surrounded by wine-red borders narrowly edged in green. ‘Henna’ has fringed golden leaves edged in coppery shades and purple, and ‘Spun Glass’ boasts ovoid leaves that seem to ripple in lime green accented with near-black veins.

Coleus is a garden hero, making shady areas into colorful canvases that reflect individual gardeners’ aesthetic and horticultural sensibilities.  The plants are also great companions for shade perennials like hostas and readily cover ground vacated by early spring bloomers like daffodils and tulips.

‘Wasabi’ is a cheerful bright green coleus.

Creating Japanese Kokedama

February can be the longest short month for gardeners. In cold winter climates it is frequently too soon to get out in the garden and work. Elsewhere it may be gray, rainy, and dismal. Indoor gardening is a good way to beat the cold-weather doldrums, and the Japanese art of kodedama is a relatively easy, inexpensive means of enjoying a green project indoors.

What is Kokedama?

Asparagus fern is an easy-care kokedama plant.

Kokedama means “moss ball” in Japanese, and the words define this container-free method of growing small to medium-sized houseplants in mossy orbs of potting medium. Instead of a pot or other vessel, the plant of your choice grows in a soil mixture enclosed in a sheet of sphagnum moss (typically) and held together by nylon or burlap garden twine. The result can be hung from the ceiling or displayed on a decorative plate or tray.

Kodedama is interesting enough for adults and a great activity for children, with adult help and supervision.

Picking a Kokedama Plant

Choose small- to medium-sized non-spreading plants for kokedama.

Almost any small to mid-size plant that does not spread will work. If you plan to hang your kokedama, try English ivy (Hedera helix), asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus), or trailing heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum). For a flowering ball, think about African violets (Saintpaulia hybrids, click here to read more), flowering kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), or bromeliads, like terrestrial Tillandsias or Guzmannia. Dwarf fancy-leaf begonias make showy kokedama. If you have a sunny space and love succulents, smaller specimens will also grow well.

Think about where you will display your finished moss ball and choose plants that flourish in the available light. Flowering subjects generally like more light than foliage plants.

Raw Materials for Kokedama

Tillandsias can make very kokedama good specimens.

Like any good recipe, kodedama starts with an ingredient list. Necessary kokedama supplies:

  1. Sphagnum sheet moss or loose coarse sphagnum moss
  2. Well-aerated potting mix or bonsai soil (available at some garden centers or online)
  3. Quality standard potting mix, like Fafard Professional Potting Mix
  4. Garden twine or nylon filament
  5. Large bowl
  6. Scissors
  7. Garden or rubber gloves

Have all of your materials ready before starting. The process can get messy, so work on an easy-to-clean surface or cover the work area with plastic or paper.

Creating Kokedama

Start by forming a ball of soil.

Assemble the chosen plant, plus all the ingredients, with a water source nearby. Your finished kodedama will probably be 5 to 8 inches wide, depending on the size of the plant.

Put on your gloves. Soak the moss in water for a few minutes to make it pliable. In a bowl, mix equal parts of the bonsai and potting mixes. Begin adding water, a little at a time, until the mixture holds together when scooped up in your palm.

Form the mixture into a ball (like making a snowball). When you have a cohesive ball, split it by cutting or twisting. Remove the plant from its container, and gently remove the excess potting mix, but be sure not to harm the plant’s root ball. Insert the plant between the two halves and then reform the soil ball around the plant, patting and turning until the mass holds together. Be careful not to bend or harm any of the plant’s stems.

Wrapping Kokedama

Make sure the sphagnum moss covers the soil ball before tying.

Place the plant ball atop the moistened piece of sheet moss and pull the sheet moss up around the ball, tucking it at the base of the plant. Take the twine or filament and wrap it around the middle of the ball, leaving about six inches free to tie at the end of the process. Continue to wrap twine around the moss (like winding yarn into a ball), until the kokedama is held securely. If you are going to hang the finished creation, make a couple of hanging loops of the same length at the top of the ball and tie them together (see the image under Picking a Kokedama Plant). Trim and loose ends of twine or tuck them under. The kokedama is finished and ready to hang or display.

Aftercare and Keeping Kokedama Going

If you plan to hang your kokedama, be sure to tie the plant firmly.

As you might expect, you can’t just water a kokedama with a watering can unless you want a drippy mess. The best way to water is to soak the ball in a bowl of water for about five minutes and then let it drip dry for half an hour or so in a strainer or colander. Watering frequency may vary depending on the plant type and also the level of humidity in the air. If the ball feels relatively light and/or the leaves are droopy, the kokedama needs a drink. Dry air may mean watering every few days. Feed by using soluble fertilizer diluted according to the manufacturer’s directions and added to the water in which you soak your kodedama,

Most plants, even slow-growing succulents, will eventually outgrow their kodedama packages. When that happens, you can either use the plant to make a bigger kodedama, install it in an appropriately sized container, or, in the case of a perennial plant, transfer the former kodedama subject to the garden.

African Violets

The National Garden Bureau has decreed that 2024 is the “Year of the African Violet”.  Coming in January, generally a dark, cold month, this boost for a cheerful little plant couldn’t be more timely.

Plant names can be great deceivers, but in the case of African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha), the common name is at least partly right. The ancestors of modern African violets did indeed live on the African continent, in mountainous cloud forest regions of today’s Kenya and Tanzania.  Though the flowers bear a superficial resemblance to those of members of the violet or Violaceae family, African violets are not related to them.  They are gesneriads, belonging to the Generiaceae family along with other popular blooming houseplants, like primulina, streptocarpus, and gloxinia.

Like their gesneriad relatives, African violets produce rosettes of evergreen leaves.  Those leaves are rounded, somewhat fleshy, and covered with soft hairs.  The flowers are on slender stalks and have five petals apiece—two upper petals and three, slightly larger lower ones.  The petals may appear equal in many modern violet varieties.  If you look at the flowers closely, you will notice that the petals’ bases fuse into a tube, another gesneriad characteristic.

In the nineteenth century, cradles of biodiversity in Africa, South America, and Asia were rife with European adventurers, some of whom were keen amateur or even professional botanists.  One such amateur was Prussian nobleman Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who, during the 1890s, served as a bureaucrat for the German East Indian Company.  Hiking through the Usambara mountains of eastern Tanzania, he discovered the low-growing plants that were eventually named in his honor.  The baron sent seeds back to Europe and the saintpaulia craze began.

Serious breeding efforts began in the United States in the 1920s and eventually, thousands of African violet varieties were developed.  The African Violet Society of America, now the world’s largest interest group devoted to a single indoor plant, was organized in 1946.  In its role as the international cultivar registration authority for Saintpaulia, the AVSA is the African violet world’s “keeper of the keys.”  Amateur and professional violet breeders must register their new creations with AVSA before they can be recognized as unique varieties.

African violets are inexpensive and accessible, available everywhere, from supermarkets to big box stores.  Many of those plants, especially the trademarked Optimara violets, come from the world’s largest African violet supplier, Herman Holtkamp Greenhouses in Nashville, Tennessee.

The plants’ popularity owes much to the fact that they are relatively unfussy and thrive in indoor situations where light is somewhat less than optimal.  All you need is a relatively warm room, bright diffuse light and well-drained potting soil.  Relatively high humidity is not necessary, but the plants will appreciate either a humidifier or a perch atop a pebble and water-filled tray.  The pots should sit atop the pebbles, not directly in the water, lest the water-logged situation cause crown rot, which is deadly to African violets.  For safety’s sake, water only when the soil surface feels dry to the touch and direct the stream of water towards the edges of the pot, rather than directly at the plant’s crown. This also avoids water spotting on those fuzzy leaves. Your African violets will also appreciate regular applications of plant food marketed especially for the species, applied according to manufacturers’ directions.

While choice is sometimes limited in local retail stores, online vendors offer a host of options.  Breeders have created plants in several sizes, grouped according to the width of the basal rosette of leaves. Miniature violets are six to eight inches or less in diameter, semi-miniatures grow six to eight inches wide, standard varieties span eight to 16 inches, and large African violets feature leaf rosettes that are over 16 inches wide.

Trailing varieties, suitable for pedestals and baskets, are also available.  Blooms may be single, double, or appear as bursts of exuberantly ruffled petals.  Flower colors range from white through pink, a host of purples, pale green, and even yellow.  Some varieties sport bi-colored petals. Leaves may be green or variegated and shapes also vary widely, from the textured loveliness of “quilted” leaves to the pointed-sided “holly” types.

You can buy African violets almost anywhere, generally for a song.  For something more unusual, the AVSA also has a listing of vendors located on their website.

Simply Beautiful Stewartia

In spring, when everything bursts into flower, the world is full of trees in bloom.  But springtime is also the time to plan and plant ahead for the season, anticipating flowering trees and shrubs with a different time of bloom, like Stewartias. Their large, ivory, Camellia-like flowers would be worthy of a spring show, but they arrive in late summer when gardens are in need of their beauty.

The fact is, stewartias are welcome landscape additions at just about any time, and you can find one to fit just about any size garden. They are also plants that are showy in all seasons, whether in flower or not. Their mottled bark and beautiful statuesque habits are always lovely, and in the fall you can anticipate colorful leaves. Here are some of the best of these well-behaved Asian trees and shrubs.

Japanese Stewartia

Bees pollinate the blooms of Japanese Stewartia and other species.

If you have the room, Japanese stewartia (Stewartia japonica) is an all-around great tree that offers four seasons of interest. Growing between 20 and 40 feet tall, with a pyramidal canopy, its branches have slightly toothed, ovoid leaves that are a cooling dark green during the growing season. In the fall, they flame up in shades of yellow, red, and burgundy, putting on a great show.

Before all of that foliage drama, Japanese stewartia flaunts its family relationship with camellias by pumping out beautiful, white, Camellia-like flowers.  Each bloom is at least 2 inches wide and features five to eight petals surrounding a center of golden-orange stamens. While only minimally fragrant, the flowers are maximally elegant and borne abundantly on trees that are hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8. 

Japanese Stewartia develops fantastic mottled bark as it ages.

In the colder months, when both leaves and flowers are things of the past, Japanese stewartia continues to shine with multi-colored, exfoliating bark.  This bark, which peels gradually from the tree, looks a little like camouflage, but a lot more interesting, with patches of gray, sepia, tawny orange-brown, and taupe covering the trunk. It is a feast for the eyes at all times, but especially in seasons when visual interest may be at a premium.

Tall Stewartia

The large-leaved tall stewartia can reach 25 feet at maturity.

Tall stewartia (Stewartia monodelpha) is another native of Japan, hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6-8, with characteristics similar to those of Japanese stewartia.  Young plants have a somewhat shrubby habit, but assume a tree form with age, reaching up to 25 feet tall in height.  Tall stewartia features large, dark-green leaves that turn deep red in the fall.  The bark does not exfoliate as colorfully as that of Japanese stewartia, but as the tree ages, the bark smoothes out and turns a stunning shade of cinnamon brown. The camellia-like flowers are more cupped in shape than those of other stewartias and sport attractive anthers in their centers.

Chinese Stewartia

Chinese stewartia is relatively compact. (Image by Kathering Wagner-Reiss)

Chinese stewartia (Stewartia sinenesis), which is hardy to Zones 5-7, can be grown in tree or shrub form.  Left to its own devices, it will reach 15 to 25 feet tall, but like other stewartias, it can be kept smaller when pruned after flowering.  The white flowers are somewhat smaller than those of Japanese stewartia but are profuse and surrounded by leaves that are reddish when emerging in spring, dark green in summer, and red again in the fall.  The cinnamon-brown bark exfoliates in strips to reveal smooth, tan underbark, sometimes with pinkish overtones. 

Mountain Stewartia

The  Asian stewartias have American cousins, the best known is Stewartia ovata, sometimes known as mountain stewartia or mountain camellia.  Native to the southeastern United States, and hardy to Zones 5-9, it is a little smaller than Japanese stewartia with a height and spread of 10 to 15 feet.  It also excels in versatility because it can be grown as a tree or a multi-stemmed shrub.  Like its Japanese relative and true to its common name, it features Camellia-like flowers and leaves that glow red and orange in the fall.  Its gray-brown bark, while attractively ridged and furrowed, does not exfoliate like that of the Japanese species.  Still, for those hankering for stewartias, but confined to smaller spaces, mountain stewartia is an excellent choice.

Stewartia Relatives

Franklinia blooms are attractive to lots of different pollinators.

Stewartia and camellia are both members of the Theaceae or tea family.  Their equally beautiful relatives include the all-American Franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha), which was discovered in Colonial America and now extinct in the wild. Specimens of this beautiful small tree can be found at many botanical gardens and arboreta. They are also available at select garden centers.

All the stewartias make excellent stand-alone specimens, but can also anchor partly shaded garden beds, and situations that resemble their native habitats at the edges of wooded areas. They thrive best in rich, consistently moist soil and locations that are protected from harsh winds.  To get a young specimen off to a good start, mix the soil in the planting hole with a nutritious soil amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, which is ideal for boosting the soil of newly planted trees and shrubs.  Water regularly while the plants establish sturdy root systems and mulch generously around, but not touching the plants’ trunks or main stems.

Spring Container Garden Tips

There is nothing like a colorful spring container to brighten the garden.

Every year on May first, home and business owners in Annapolis, Maryland create May baskets in an official celebration of May Day.  The May baskets, which appear on porches, stoops, and front sidewalks, are judged and prizes are awarded, but every basket shouts “Spring.”

As temperatures warm up, we all want to shout “Spring,” and there is no better way to do so than to fill containers with exuberant blooms and greenery.  You don’t have to wait until May Day either.

Pick a Pot

Invest in well-made containers that make you happy!

Choose containers in sizes, shapes, and colors that make you happy. Your “basket” doesn’t have to be a basket, though wicker and woven containers have a spring-like lightness.  Single large planters provide drama, while a cluster of small to mid-size pots creates visual excitement.  If the chosen container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, either create the holes or plant up a slightly smaller, lightweight container that has drainage holes and slip the planted container into the decorative pot.  This “pop in, pop out” strategy also works well for quick changes.  Your early spring display may fade and pop-in containers make it easy to substitute a fresh arrangement that will brighten things up later in the season.

If you are using a large or heavy container, make sure to position it in the desired spot when it is empty to avoid muscle strain later on.

Choosing the Container Rainbow

Pansies are spring standbys that everyone loves.

Garden centers, big box stores, and even supermarkets are full of spring-blooming specimens, from perennial hellebores to winsome pansies and violas.  For a longer-lasting arrangement, choose plants with one or two open flowers and plenty of buds.

When you plan your container display, buy enough plants to give a full appearance, but allow for a little growth room.  If you aren’t sure, buy a few extra small plants.  When your containers are full, you can always plug the extras into smaller decorative pots, or, if you have garden space, find spots for them in beds and borders.  Make sure to add a quality potting mix, like Fafard Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed, to your shopping cart.

Exciting Container Garden Mixes

Primroses, hyacinths, English daisies, daffodils, and other colorful spring flowers make great filler flowers.

Florists have long used the “thriller, filler, spiller” formula for mixed planters because it is easy and it works.  Don’t be afraid to combine cut branches, which can be plugged right into the soil, with annual or perennial plants. 

Pussy willows, in the form of either branches or small weeping standards, make great thrillers. (If you use cut branches be aware that they will root themselves quickly.)  Even as the “pussies” or catkins drop off, the young green leaves are attractive.  Cut forsythia or other flowering branches also work well.   The “filler” in your container arrangement might be potted daffodils, tulips, or hyacinths, or for smaller containers, dainty primroses or violas.  If you happen to have a large swathe of snowdrops or crocuses in the garden, dig up a clump or two and use them as part of your selection of “fillers”.  You can replant after the flowers fade.

For “spillers” small-leafed ivies work really well and variegated types add visual interest.  Shade-tolerant tradescantias like ‘Zebrina’, with its boldly striped leaves, spill beautifully.   

Container Garden Color Combos

A two-color planting is easy to create and always looks great.

Some of the best container arrangements contain only one or two colors.  A large urn filled with a  solid mass of blue grape hyacinths or violas makes a compelling statement.  If you want a little variation, use those same grape hyacinths in a mixture of darker and lighter blue. 

Color wheel opposites, like orange and purple, are eye-catchers in containers.  Create a carnival in a basket by combining dark purple and orange pansies.  For something a little more subdued, try pale green hellebores with pale pink tulips.

Spring Container Garden Aftercare

When the spring plantings are past their peak, and frost warnings have passed, it is time to plant summer container garden plants.

Once you plant your containers, keep them well-watered but not soggy.  Deadhead faded flowers to encourage rebloom in plants like pansies that will continue to pump out flowers until the summer really heats up.  For once-blooming specimens like daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, carefully dig up and swap out spent plants for fresh ones, which keeps the floral show going without the necessity of replanting the entire container. Plant the bulbs in the garden to enjoy the following spring.

First and foremost, have fun with your container arrangements, knowing that while they may please others—or even win prizes—they have to delight you. 

Easy Succulent House Plants

Echeverias, with their pretty rosettes of foliage, are easy and a visual treat.

Succulent plants are riding a wave of popularity right now.  Striking, easy to care for, and available in a variety of shapes and colors, they make perfect house plants.  Some indoor gardeners amass a collection of specimen plants, while others combine different species or varieties into indoor gardens, arrangements, or even wreathes.  The possibilities are many and the limitations are few.  The following are some of the best.

The Healing Plant: Aloe vera

Aloe vera has been a kitchen stalwart because its soothing sap is a great topical remedy for burns and other injuries.  The fleshy leaves are erect, fanning out from the plant’s center and tapering at the ends.  Some are attractively spotted, with leaf edges that are slightly toothed. 

As with most other succulents, the plants flourish best in bright indirect sunlight and need a well-drained potting mix. Overwatering or lack of drainage will result in root rot and eventual plant death, so even if your aloe lives near the kitchen sink, do not kill it with the “kindness” of overwatering.  Breaking off leaves to doctor scrapes or burns will not harm the rest of the plant.

Choice Crassula

Jade or money plant (Crassula ovata) is a long-lived native of South Africa with a branching habit and fleshy, rounded leaves.  Left to its own devices a healthy jade plant can become tree-like and rise between 2 and 3 feet tall. Though statuesque and striking, it is not noted for its clusters of starry white winter flowers, which may not even appear on indoor specimens. 

For dramatic flowers, try the closely-related propeller plant (Crassula perfoliata).  Unlike the branching jade, it features propeller-like grey-green leaves that jut out from single stems. When in bloom, the plants produce vivid red flower heads made up of scores of tiny blossoms that last up to a month. Another winning crassula is Crassula spiralis, with its bright green, spiraling, angular succulent leaves.  Growing to only 6 inches tall, it is the perfect succulent for small spaces. (Click here to view a fine collection of Crassula from Mountain Crest Gardens.)

Vibrant Kalanchoe

Blossfeld’s flowering kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) is another branching Crassulaceae member and a much-loved indoor plant. The glossy green leaves are fleshy and nicely scalloped, sometimes with reddish edges.  It is known for its long-lasting umbels of flat-topped clusters of small, single flowers that rise above the foliage and last for months. Petal colors include white, shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow.  Some retailers may also carry a more opulent, double-flowered kalanchoe variety sold under the trade name, Calandiva.

Whether single or double-flowered, flowering kalanchoe is easy to grow, though it can be tricky getting it to rebloom (click here for details).  Be sure to check the leaves before you water.  If the foliage is plump and firm, the plant has all the moisture it needs.  If the leaves seem flaccid, water sparingly.   Sometimes the stems of established plants grow “leggy”, with relatively few leaves on elongated stems. Fix that by pinching the stems back by about one-third. This promotes branching.

Succulent Roses

Rose-form echeverias (Echeveria spp. and hybrids) are among the most beautiful succulent plants. Their dense, fleshy leaves overlap like rose petals and may be rounded or distinctly pointed at the ends. The succulent, low-growing rosettes bloom in a range of colors from near-black, to shades of brighter and darker green, to grey-green. Varieties with grey-green leaves may also be glaucous as if each leaf is covered with a powdery translucent veil.  Some echeveria foliage sports reddish or pinkish overtones.  Flashier varieties are variegated with contrasting stripes. (Click here to view an excellent selection of Echeveria from Mountain Crest Gardens.)

Widely hybridized, echeverias are native to the New World and hail originally from Mexico and parts of Central and South America. When mature, they are compact, growing only 3 to 5 inches tall and up to 6 inches wide.  Happy echeverias may eventually flower or even produce offsets, which can be grown into new plants.

Succulent Snake Plant

Sansevieria trifasciata is known by many common names, including snake plant, viper’s bowstring hemp, and even “mother-in-law’s tongue (presumably for its sword-shaped foliage).  It is an impressive upright plant with narrow, sharply-tipped green leaves, each with a vertical gray-green central stripe. Jutting skyward, the plants may grow up to 4 feet tall outdoors in frost-free climates, but generally, reach only about 2 feet indoors in containers.

Species snake plants are striking and sculptural all by themselves, but sansevieria fanciers can also buy interesting varieties like ‘Black Coral’, featuring silver, horizontal bands. All snake plants are long-lived and resilient and reputedly help clean indoor air.

Good Conditions, Happy Plants

Since succulents have evolved to conserve moisture in their leaves, potting mediums must be free draining.  If you use a potting mix like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix, combine it with fine gravel or sand to increase drainage.  Once installed in well-drained containers, water the plants sparingly.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, your succulents will appreciate an outdoor vacation during the late spring and summer months.  Position the containers in a semi-shaded, protected spot, and make sure to tip pots to drain away excess water after rainstorms.  When night temperatures start to drop in early fall, return plants to their bright indoor locations.

Celebrate the Wintery Beauty of Florist’s Cyclamen

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen leaves continue to look lovely.

Florists’ cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum hybrids) is a great imposter.  Despite the Latin name persicum, they are not from Persia (modern-day Iran) but hailed from nearby countries, including Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia. Though the graceful flowers might make you think of orchids, cyclamens actually reside in the primrose family, Primulaceae.  The leaves are also cleverly disguised, with patterning that might be mistaken for marble or damask fabric.

Subterfuge aside, florists’ cyclamens beguile holiday plant buyers with their ravishing good looks, and every winter multitudes of them find their way into homes, offices, houses of worship, and other public and private spaces.

Cyclamen with Dancing Flowers and Swirling Leaves

Rising 6 to 10 inches tall and equally wide, cyclamen plants dazzle with basal mounds of heart-shaped leaves marbled in silvery shades.  They almost swirl before your eyes. Slender stems support nodding buds that resemble tightly furled umbrellas. Once open, each bloom features five backswept petals that may be pink, red, violet, lavender, white, or in combinations of two or more of these colors.  The petal edges are either smooth or exuberantly ruffled.  The combination of swaying stems and vibrant colors has led more than one observer to liken a pot of cyclamen in full bloom to a flock of butterflies. 

Cyclamen’s Wild Ancestors

Cyclamen persicum is the primary wildflower descendent to most cultivated Cyclamen.

In the beginning, Cyclamen persicum was a pretty wildflower that barely hinted at the charms of its modern domestic descendants.  The species made it to Europe around 1700, but breeders first took an interest in them in the early nineteenth century and have been working on them ever since. Most breeding occurs in England, continental Europe, and Japan.  All of that breeding and propagating work set the stage for cyclamens to burst onto the mass-merchandising scene nearly 50 years ago.

New Cyclamens Get Bigger and Better

Bigger flowers in more diverse color combinations are sought by plant breeders.

Consumers have always loved big flowers, so breeders have made that trait a priority.  Once they bulked the flowers up, plantsmen produced larger plants with a wider range of flower colors.  Double flowers and those with contrasting picotee petal edges also emerged from the selective breeding process. Each year it seems that the flowers get bigger, bolder, and more numerous.

Fragrant Cyclamen

One trait that was all but lost in the breeding process was fragrance. But that began to change around 2000, when hybridizers started crossing Cyclamen persicum with a fragrant Mediterranean species, Cyclamen purpurascens.  The resulting plants were somewhat smaller than standard florists’ cyclamen, but boasted pronounced fragrance, sometimes reminiscent of roses. Now scented varieties are available in many places—to find them just follow your nose in the greenhouse section of a well-stocked nursery or garden center.  One beautiful and fragrant variety to look for is the exceptional, hard-to-find, Cyclamen purpurascens ‘Green Ice’.

Holiday Cyclamen Care

With the right care, cyclamen make reliable, lovely house plants.

Fragrant or not, all florists’ cyclamens need care once they arrive home from the store. “Care” means removing the decorative foil around the pot and positioning it in a cool place with bright, indirect light. A surplus of direct sun will caused scorched leaves.

If you want to repot it after the holidays, use a quality medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, and make sure the top of the root ball is level with the top of the soil in the new container. (Click here for an overview about how to repot house plants.) High humidity is a plus, so mist regularly or place the pot atop a saucer filled with pebbles. Add water to the saucer, but make sure the base of the pot is not submerged. Cyclamen appreciate moisture but detest wet feet. Water when the top of the soil is dry and aim the spout of your watering can around the edges of the pot. 

Post-Holiday Cyclamen Care

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen have decorative leaves.

With proper care, a cyclamen with some open flowers and a few buds should bloom for three or more weeks. Once the bloom period is over, gradually cut down on watering. It is not uncommon for plants to go into a natural dormancy in summer, which corresponds to a summer dry period to which they are acclimated. This is the point when most people throw a cyclamen out, thinking that it has died. Instead of doing that, you may want to try for a second cyclamen act. 

Move the pot to a cool, moderately dry location for a few weeks and then, attempt a resurrection by soaking the soil thoroughly and bringing the pot back to a spot with bright, indirect light. Wait until you see signs of sprouting before watering again, and resume a regular watering schedule. Feed with commercial houseplant fertilizer according to package directions. With a bit of luck, the cyclamen will begin its growth cycle anew.

If for some reason the cyclamen has actually died, skip the guilt and purchase another one.  The death was probably not your fault.  When thousands of plants are raised in a carefully controlled environment, and forced into bloom at a specific time, they may not have a second season’s worth of energy. Ironically, in the Victorian language of flowers, cyclamens, which seem so bright and cheerful during the winter, are symbolic of goodbyes. 

Cyclamen buds look like closed umbrellas.

Holly Olive and Its Virtues

Fortune’s Holly Olive is an appealing evergreen with highly fragrant spring flowers.

You might call osmanthus a great imposter, because shrubs and trees in the genus go by so many names.  At various times and places, osmanthus species have been tagged with common names like “false holly”, “tea olive”, “wild olive’ and even the scary-sounding “devilwood”. 

It takes some doing to get a handle on this group of ornamental evergreens.

Osmanthus species have nothing to do with Camellia sinensis, the species that provides black tea.  Nor are they part of the genus Ilex, home to hollies.  They really do not have any associations with the devil, though craftsmen find the hardwood devilish to work with.

The Latin name Osmanthus, is derived from the Greek words for fragrant and flower, so these common names probably fit it best.  Some of the common names reference olive, which provides another clue to their true nature.  Osmanthus is a card-carrying member of the olive family, Oleaceae, and its members are famous for the fragrance of their clusters of small, four-petaled flowers.

Experts reckon that there are about 15 species of holly olives, which are native to Asia and southern North America.  Some flower in spring, while others wait until fall, but all can thrive in home landscapes.  Smaller species may also be grown in large containers and overwinter inside in cold weather climates.

Autumn-Flowering Osmanthus

‘Goshiki’ is an especially pretty variegated holly olive.

In autumn, as the garden season starts to wind down, holly olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus, Zones 7-9) defies the seasonal trend and pumps out scores of small, white, four-petaled flowers.  Many of those flowers hide demurely under the foliage but make their presence known with a pervasive sweet scent.  Growing 8 to 10 feet tall and 7 to 9 feet wide, the species can be grown as a large, bushy shrub or standardized into tree form.  The leaves are dark green and spiny, like true holly, but close comparison reveals that holly olive leaves are opposite on the stems, while true holly leaves alternate.  Though the leafy branches can be used effectively in winter holiday arrangements and decorations, holly olive does not produce the bright red berries that characterize many true hollies. 

Many commercially available holly olive varieties bear green leaves, while others, like “Goshiki’ and ‘Kembu’ sport variegated leaves that are blotched or edged in cream.  Add light to the landscape with ‘Ogon’, which features bright, golden-green leaves.

Sweet olive has very fragrant flowers and more elongated, elliptical leaves.

 For something a little smaller and potentially more manageable in limited space, try sweet olive (Osmanthus decorus, Zones 6-9).  Native to areas around the Black Sea in Asia Minor, decorus grows only 6 to 8 feet tall, with tiny, white spring blossoms that perfume the air around the shrub.  The oblong foliage is spineless, glossy, and dark green. In fall, the shrubs produce small, purple-black fruits, a testament to the familial link between osmanthus and the rest of the olive family.

Good Fortune: Cross holly olive with fragrant olive and you get Fortune’s olive (Osmanthus x fortunei, Zones 7-10), which can grow 15 to 20 feet tall, with a rounded crown, but is easily pruned to fit smaller available spaces.  The hybrid has spiny, holly-like leaves and fragrant fall blooms.  One popular variety, ‘Fruitlandii’, is slightly more compact than its parent, with flowers that are creamy yellow instead of white.  ‘Variegatus’ offers green and white foliage, plus scented blooms.  Fortune’s olive offers better cold hardiness than some other osmanthus species.

Devilwood has deeply incised holly-like leaves.

Devilwood is a terrible name for (Osmanthus armatus, Zones 7-9), a lovely shrub native to China. Admittedly, the lustrous, holly-like leaves can be spiny on young plant but smooth out on mature specimens.   The characteristic white flowers appear in clusters, the better to spread their glorious scent in autumn. Female plants may also produce oval-shaped, dark purple fruits after the flowers drop. Devilwood is most often grown as a multi-branched shrub and can reach eight to 15 feet in height.  It is cold-hardy to at least Zone 7 and will tolerate more shade than many other osmanthus species.

Orange Supreme fragrant olive has an extra sweet spring fragrance and unsurpassed beauty.

In warm winter climates fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans, Zones 9-11), native to Japan and China, contributes strongly scented flowers to the spring garden, along with leathery oblong green leaves.  Maxing out at 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, it can be grown as a tree or shrub and pruned to keep the size under control.   Unlike holly olive, fragrant olive produces its white blooms in spring.  Like most other osmanthus, this spring charmer is relatively unfussy, tolerating clay soil and, once established, drought. The spectacular orange-flowered variety Osmanthus fragrans f. aurantiacus ‘Orange Supreme’ is one to seek out!

American wild olive is an underused native shrub. (Image by Homer Edward Price)

Osmanthus americanus (syn. Cartema americana, Zones 6-10), also known as American or wild olive is also sometimes referred to as devilwood.  The elongated leaves, which feature smooth rather than spiny edges are dark green and adorn shrubs that can top out at between 15 and 24 feet high.  As with other osmanthus, the fragrant flowers are white, blooming in mid-spring, followed by blue-purple fall fruits. Wild olive is quite cold-hardy.

Burkwood’s osmanthus (Osmanthus x burkwoodii, Zone 6) is relatively small (six to 10 feet tall and wide) hybrid with highly aromatic spring flowers.  Most often grown as a rounded shrub, the shiny, dark green leaves are toothed rather than spiny.  Introduced in England in the 1920’s, Burkwood’s osmathus has remained popular for its fragrant early flower clusters and is also reputedly deer resistant.

Planting Osmanthus

Osmanthus is easy to grow and tolerant of an array of conditions, but needs a good start in the garden.  Plant potted or balled and burlapped nursery specimens in soil amended with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.  Mulch thoroughly, but do not allow mulch to touch the plants’ main stems or trunks, and water regularly for the first few months while the roots get established.

Festive Garden Fruits and Berries of Fall

Beautyberries offer one of the most brilliant and memorable shows of fall and there are many species from which to choose.

Depending on where you live, October can be a time when the last of the late summer and early fall color is fading from the garden.  The asters are almost finished, the goldenrod is going, and most of the color comes from potted mums and Halloween pumpkins.

But your landscape does not have to succumb to drabness. There is an answer to the color dilemma—shrubs and trees with eye-catching fruits or berries.  Taking center stage with gem-like red, black, purple, or yellow fruit, these plants multi-task by beautifying the garden while providing food for birds and small animals.   The following species and varieties are among the best investments for the four-season landscape.

Passionate Purple Beautyberry

Beautyberries will remain on the shrubs after the leaves fall until they get snapped up by birds.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa ssp.) more than lives up to its name, with clusters of vivid purple berries hugging the stems, which also bear ovoid, slightly toothed green leaves.   A member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, deciduous beautyberry boasts bronze spring foliage, small pink summer flowers, and fall berries–all on graceful, arching stems.   There are several species of beautyberry available commercially.  Among the most popular is ‘Profusion’; a variety of Bodinier’s beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri), which is celebrated for its heavy crops of fall berries.  Hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8,  ‘Profusions’ grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, perfect for use as a specimen plant, an anchor in a large garden bed, or en masse to form a noteworthy hedge. Other available species include native American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana),  which is slightly more heat-tolerant than other species and hardy in zones 6 through 10; the slightly smaller purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), hardy in zones 5 through 8; and  Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica), hardy in the same USDA Hardiness Zones.  All will thrive in full sun to light shade and can withstand clay soil.  They should be pruned back in late winter for health and appearance’s sake.

A Non-Traditional American Cranberry

American cranberries simply glow against their red and purple changing foliage.

The universe of beautiful viburnums is large, but highbush cranberry, also known as cranberry viburnum or American cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), is one of the loveliest in autumn.  It is not a true cranberry but bears edible fall fruit in a brilliant shade of red.  As the name suggests, highbush cranberry is native to North America and grows large—8 to 12 feet tall and wide—but delivers a lot in return for that significant investment of garden space.  In spring the shrubs sport flat-topped flower clusters reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace, followed by dark green leaves, with three lobes apiece and an appearance akin to maple foliage.  The leaves sometimes color up in fall before disappearing, but the crimson berries tend to outshine them. 

Highbush cranberry is hardy in zones 2 through 7,  performs well in full sun to light shade, and can survive cold winters.  The flowers are beloved by butterflies and the fruits are attractive to birds.  Humans can use them in much the same way as true cranberries—in jams, jellies, and confections.

Golden Crabapples

Golden Harvest crabapples literally glow on the branches after the leaves fall and birds love them.

All flowering crabapple trees (Malus spp.) are beautiful, and, at anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall, depending on variety, compact enough for many home landscapes.  They flower in spring in a frothy burst of pink buds that open to pink or white blossoms, with single or double rows of petals.  Some never fruit, but many crown the fall season with small round apples in shades of pink to rosy red.  The much-loved Sargeant crabapple (Malus sargentii),  is a dwarf variety that can be grown as a large shrub or standardized as a small tree, is one of the red-fruited varieties. It is hardy in zones 4 through 7. 

Red is heartening, but yellow or gold-fruited crabapples are especially dramatic.  Cultivars like the rosy gold fruits of ‘Golden Harvest’, clear golden yellow fruits of ‘Golden Raindrops‘, and the larger, edible, golden crabapples of ‘Golden Hornet’, which is also a Royal Horticultural Society award winner. All are hardy to zones 4 through 8  and produce abundant, showy fruits that are beloved of birds and humans.

Crabapple fruits are not as persistent as some fall berries but are beautiful while they last.  Many varieties also feature leaves that color up in the fall, prolonging the brilliant show.

Flowering crabs are tolerant trees, able to flourish in clay soil and withstand drought, once established in sunny locations.  Prune to shape in late winter.

Brilliant Chokeberry

Brillant chokeberry has colorful fruits and its leaves turn from green to red in fall. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Chokeberry is an unattractive name for a very attractive, deciduous flowering and fruiting shrub.  Aronia melanocarpa, known as black chokeberry, is the most common chokeberry in commerce.  A member of the rose or Rosaceae family, black chokeberry is native to the eastern half of North America and is hardy in zones 3 through 8. 

In the spring, the shrub starts with small clusters of five-petaled white flowers, which lure bees and other pollinators.  These give way to glossy black fruits in the fall.  If the birds do not get them all, the fruits may persist after frost.  Though edible, they are sour but can be cooked and sweetened to make jellies, relishes, and other dishes.  Chokeberry fruits share the spotlight with the leaves, which turn red-purple in fall before dropping from the plants.  Black chokeberry is the smallest of the Aronia species at three to six feet tall and wide. 

Black chokeberry has edible fruits and brilliant orange-red fall leaf color.

Chokeberry lovers who crave red fruits can invest in Aronia arbutifolia or red chokeberry, which grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 9.  A slightly more cold-hardy black chokeberry/red chokeberry hybrid, Aronia x prunifolia produces dark purple fruits on shrubs that grow 8 to twelve feet tall and 6 to 9 feet wide. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7.

Chokeberries are suckering shrubs that can form thickets if left untended.  They crave consistent moisture and are happy in moist or even swampy spots, including pond or stream edges.

Giving Fruiting Trees and Shrubs a Good Start

Beautyberry, highbush cranberry, crabapple, and chokeberry are relatively unfussy plants but benefit from a good start.  Site in sunny locations and amend the soil at planting time with nutritious Fafard Garden Manure Blend.  Water regularly to establish root systems, and keep chokeberries irrigated during dry spells. (Click here for a full guide to properly siting and planting shrubs and trees.)