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Well-Mannered Groundcovers for Shade

Foamflower is a highly desirable native flowering groundcover for shade.

Back when one-size-fits-all gardening was a thing, ground covers for shade were seemingly as easy as one-two-three: creeping myrtle (Vinca minor), English ivy (Hedera helix), and Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). That is before they all began invading wildlands. All were neatly arrayed under an equally ubiquitous Norway maple or Bradford pear– both equally invasive and troublesome.

It was bound to happen. Introduce lots of one vigorous, spreading plant species, and you increase the likelihood that it will become a pest itself by invading local native plant communities. It did not take long for all three non-native, go-to ground covers to be added to the invasives lists of many U.S. states, particularly in the Southeast and Northwest.

Unfortunately, going ubiquitous presented additional problems in the garden. As anyone who has ever tried to maintain the “perfect” lawn and garden can attest, mass plantings are easy pickings for mass invasions of pests and diseases. Japanese spurge loses a lot of its allure when it’s riddled with Volutella blight, as is all too common these days.

Well-Mannered Groundcovers for Shade

Fortunately, excellent (and arguably superior) ground cover alternatives abound, many of them native. Feeding the soil with quality compost, such as Fafard Premium Garden Compost Blend, at planting time will encourage good establishment from the start.

Twilight Aster

Twilight aster blooms for a long period in summer and fall.

Who says ground covers have to hug the ground? Some situations call for something taller. Twilight Aster (Aster x herveyi ‘Twilight’ (aka Eurybia x herveyi)) spreads by rhizomes into large swards of broad-leaved rosettes that give rise in summer to leafy 2-foot-tall stems. Plants are crowned with clusters of pale lavender flowers for many weeks in late summer and fall. An incredibly adaptable thing, ‘Twilight’ can handle situations from dry shade to damp sun. This eastern U.S. native goes dormant in winter.

Sedges

Many native sedges are evergreen and make lush groundcovers for shade.

Botanically speaking, they’re not grasses, but sedges provide much the same look for shade with their clumps of narrow-bladed leaves. Masses of low sedges such as Carex pensylvanica and Carex rosea (both eastern U.S. natives) make excellent low-foot-traffic lawn substitutes. For a bolder look, try a clump of seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea), whose strappy puckered evergreen leaves contrast effectively with lacier shade subjects such as ferns.

Green-and-Gold

Green-and-gold is semi-evergreen and bears loads of bright golden blooms in spring that attract native bees.

Green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) is a hardy, attractive woodland native. “Green” references the dense spreading rosettes of fuzzy, crinkled, heart-shaped leaves that hold their color and substance through much of winter. The “gold” is provided by the numerous little yellow “daisies” that spangle the plants in spring and repeat sporadically until fall. Native to woodlands in the Southeast U.S., Chrysogonum virginianum is hardy well north of that, to Zone 5.

Robin’s Plantain

This is one of those rare plants you can plug into the garden just about anywhere – sun or shade.

Often occurring as a rather doughty lawn weed, this plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) is a nearly evergreen eastern U.S. native that occasionally assumes much more pulchritudinous forms. The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’, for example, grows into handsome carpets of broad fuzzy gray-green leaves that are decorated in spring with pink daisies on 18-inch stems. It’s one of those rare plants you can plug into the garden just about anywhere – sun or shade. Another delightful selection of robin’s plantain is ‘Meadow Muffin’, with contorted leaves that give its rosettes a bit of a cow-pie look.

Allegheny Spurge

Allegheny spurge has leaves that are elegantly splashed with silver mottling, lending the plant a distinguished look totally lacking in Pachysandra terminalis. (Photo by Zen Sutherland)

Although not a rapid runner like the aforementioned Japanese spurge, our Southeast native Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) far outdistances it as a desirable ornamental. The whorled evergreen leaves – arrayed in mounded 6-inch-tall clumps – are elegantly splashed with silver mottling, lending the plant a distinguished look totally lacking in Pachysandra terminalis. Things get even splashier in spring when conical clusters of frilly white flowers push from the ground, along with the fresh-green new leaves, as the previous year’s foliage fades. It’s one of those early-season garden scenes that makes your heart leap up. Allegheny spurge thrives in moist humus-rich soil, so give it a dose of Fafard compost if your soil is overly sandy or heavy.

Ragwort

Golden flowers light up this native naturalizer in late spring.

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) and its near look-alike roundleaf ragwort (Packera obovata) provide quick cover for more informal garden areas. Low swaths of bright green rounded leaves emerge from their rapidly spreading roots in early spring, followed a few weeks later by heads of small yellow “daisies” on 2-foot stems. Use golden ragwort in moist garden situations, and roundleaf ragwort in moist to dry niches. They’re both native to much of central and eastern North America.

Creeping Phlox

This evergreen woodland creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) from eastern North America will expand into a ground-hugging carpet.

Don’t let its rather dainty appearance deceive you: this evergreen woodland creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) from eastern North America will expand into a ground-hugging carpet of small spoon-shaped leaves. It also provides a spring garden highlight when it opens its clusters of proportionately large round-lobed flowers, poised on 6-inch stems. Blue-, pink-, violet-, and white-flowered selections are available, but probably the best for ground cover is the vigorous cultivar ‘Sherwood Purple’.

Whorled Stonecrop

A native sedum that thrives in shade? Yes!

If you think stonecrops are drought-loving sun plants, you’re probably not acquainted with Sedum ternatum. Hailing from moist partly shaded habitats over much of central and eastern North America, it makes an excellent small-scale ground cover in similar garden conditions, although it also succeeds in sunnier, drier sites. Its dense low hummocks of fleshy ear-shaped leaves are studded with sprays of white flowers in spring. This highly effective shade plant is still rather rare in gardens – perhaps because of its family associations.

Foamflower

Frothy 6-inch spikes of white flowers appear in spring above spreading expanses of handsome maple-shaped basal leaves. These features of foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), combined with a tough constitution, make for one of the best and most popular native ground covers for easter U.S. gardens. Its variety collina is a clumper rather than a runner, so it’s a better choice where a less rambunctious ground covering plant is required.

Barren Strawberry

Semi-evergreen leaves and bright golden spring flowers make this handsome bee plant a real winner in the garden.

Dense swaths of strawberry-like leaves expand steadily and tenaciously to provide attractive semi-evergreen ground cover in most any garden niche, from dry shade to full sun. Saucer-shaped yellow flowers dot the plants in spring, with a few repeat blooms later on. Recently moved to the genus Geum, barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides aka Geum fragarioides) is one of the best native ground covers for eastern U.S. gardens – under whatever name.

Perennials with Decorative Fall Seedheads

Some fall seedheads bring life to changing, late-season gardens, whether by adding structure and texture to beds or bringing beauty to dry arrangements. Many also do double duty by providing fatty, nutritious food for wildlife. Our favorites even continue to look attractive into the colder months.

Part of enjoying fall seedheads is knowing which should not be cut back. Fastidious gardeners need to hold back with their shears and trimming instincts with these plants. Only when they have served their purposes–whether by adding garden interest or feeding wildlife– should they be cut. Here are several of the best perennials with the prettiest seedy heads for fall.

Perennials With Decorative Fall Seedheads

Black-Eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susan seedheads are very structural and attractive in fall, and birds love them!

Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species and hybrids) have small, dark seedheads that remain attractive if you do not cut them back. Branched stems are topped with seedheads that songbirds cannot resist. Wait to cut them back until spring. The heads continue to lend garden interest and catch winter snow beautifully.

False Indigo

Baptisia has many seasons of interest if you leave up their dark, attractive pods through winter.

False Indigo (Baptisia species and hybrids, Zones 4-9, ~2-3 feet) has lovely pods that stand above the foliage and turn from green to black. In fall and winter, the dry, black seeds rattle and look attractive. The seeds eventually break open, and seedlings usually follow, but these are easily raked away with a hoe and mulched with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost over in spring. Some songbirds, such as black-capped chickadees, also eat the seeds in winter.

Chinese Lanterns

Chinese lanterns are favored by dried flower lovers as well as gardeners.

Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi, Zones 3-9, 1-2 feet) are beautiful in fall–providing glowing lanterns that dry to bright orange-red, which are not seedheads but in essence seedhead covers. The upside is that they remain beautiful in the garden or dried arrangements for a long time. The downside is that these perennials spread quickly, so I recommend container-planting only for these rowdy but attractive plants. Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix is an excellent choice for potting up perennials. Cut off the lanterns by late fall to reduce self-sowing.

Clematis

Long or later-blooming garden clematis, such as Jackman’s clematis (Clematis x jackmanii) offer more reliable seedheads for fall.

Clematis (Clematis species and hybrids) of all types, vining, and non-vining, produce fluffy seedheads that remain on the plants through fall if left undisturbed. As they dry, they become super fluffy, and finally, they shatter. The seeds are then spread far and wide by the wind. Many hybrids produce sterile seeds, so you do not have to worry about seedlings overtaking your garden.

Coneflowers

Coneflower seedheads are strong-stemmed and will remain up and attractive even after birds have picked them clean.

Coneflowers (Echinacea species and hybrids, hardiness and heights vary) have reliably attractive seedheads that birds cannot resist. Many gardeners may be tempted to cut back the old flower heads in summer, but refrain from the temptation. Your reward will be lots of songbirds in the garden, and sturdy stems that dry to lend garden appeal all winter long. Expect some seedlings in springtime to move about the garden or share with friends.

Joe-Pye Weed

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, Zones 4-9, 5-7 feet) is a tall, native perennial that makes an impressive statement when in bloom and in seed. The fluffy seeds are attractive to birds and the structural heads and stems remain attractive into winter. Cut them back when they start to break apart. Expect some welcome spring seedlings.

Milkweed

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is showy when in bloom and pod–from fall to winter.

Milkweed (Asclepias species and hybrids, hardiness and heights vary) have become garden favorites because they are essential for monarch butterflies, but many species also have very interesting and beautiful seedpods and seeds that break open and fly in the wind in fall. Keep the pods up in winter for interest. Seedings occur on occasion. Be sure to move them about the garden to increase its butterfly appeal.

Native Grasses

Prairie Winds® ‘Blue Paradise’ Little Bluestem is a beautiful native grass variety from Proven Winners with pretty fall plumes. (photo left thanks to Proven Winners)

Native grasses of all types have very showy plumes in fall and winter. These include stately garden grasses such as Blonde Ambition blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis Blonde Ambition, Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet), with its numerous small seedheads, airy pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Totem Pole switchgrass (Panicum virgatum Prairie Winds® Totem Pole, Zones 4-9, 6-7 feet), Blue Paradise little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium Prairie Winds® Blue Paradise) or in the most extreme case, the 8-10′ western-native giant sacaton grass (Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’, Zones 5-9).

10 Common Garden Flowers that Feed Birds

Coneflower seeds are a favorite of goldfinches.

Birds–chirping, whistling, and singing—are integral contributors to the daily symphony of garden sounds.  Their presence is also a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Attract them by using the right combination of flowering plants and focusing on a succession of blooms and seeds. The end result will be a beautiful landscape and a smorgasbord for birds.

The majority of bird-friendly blooms need sunny space, though a few, like allium and black-eyed Susan, can flourish in light shade.  Some species will thrive in the leanest soil, while others prefer a growing medium enriched with organic material like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. 

Zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and other prolific annuals are “cut and come again” flowers, producing fresh flowers over and over again after deadheading or cutting.  In fact, the biggest dilemma for bird and bloom-loving gardeners may be whether to enjoy cut flowers or let them set seeds for hungry birds.  When in doubt, plant enough for both uses and refrain from deadheading at the end of the gardening season.

The ten flowering plants below are among the best at providing beauty, ease of culture, and food for avian visitors. 

Spring Flowers for Birds

Golden groundsel has seeds that feed birds. Birds also eat the spring pollinators they attract.

Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea, Zones 3-9): The native golden-yellow flowers of golden groundsel are repellant to troublesome garden critters like deer and rabbits, but magnetic for pollinators and birds. Their golden-yellow clusters of daisies attract lots of pollinators (some of which birds eat) and brighten partially sunny to shaded beds and look great in woodland gardens. Flowering may start in mid-spring and continue to late spring. Leave the fluffy white seed heads for the birds to enjoy! Plants may spread, so give them space to move.

Many birds enjoy eating cornflower seeds.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus): Annual cornflower, sometimes known as ‘bachelor buttons”, is an old-fashioned annual that blooms from May through July.  The most common cornflower color is bright blue, but some varieties may also sport blue-purple, dark purple, white or pink flowers.  Gardeners with poor soil can succeed with these bird-friendly blooms because they prefer lean conditions.  Like other annuals, cornflowers will respond to cutting by producing more blooms.  From a bird’s perspective, the sooner the flowers go to seed the better, so make sure to let that happen.  The seed that the birds leave behind or drop will produce a new crop the following year. 

Summer Flowers for Birds

Cosmos attract insects that feed birds, and their seeds are also highly nutritious to many bird species.

Common Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): Blooming from the beginning of summer through frost, this annual is among the most cheerful members of the daisy family or Asteraceae (formerly Compositae).  The longtime garden favorite bears familiar saucer-shaped flowers with white, pink, or rose petals surrounding golden centers.  Some varieties, like those in the Double Click series, feature double blooms.  The leaves are fern-like, accenting slender stems that may be anywhere from 1 to 4 feet tall.  Like bachelor buttons, cosmos favor lean soil and good drainage.  For color variation, try Cosmos sulphureus, with yellow, orange, or orange-red petals.  Birds will have no trouble finding these tall beauties, which rise between 2 and 6 feet.

Zinnia seeds are a nutritious bird favorite, so leave up those seedheads in fall!

Zinnias (Zinnia species and hybrids): The world of annual zinnias is wide, encompassing varieties in just about every color except for brown and blue. Heights range from ground-hugging (6 inches) to 4 feet tall.  Some of the most popular are tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans). All zinnias bear bright, daisy-like flowers, borne on somewhat coarse, hairy stems adorned with elongated green leaves.  Pinching back the stems of young zinnia plants encourages branching, making more flowers for you and the birds.  Zinnias will also bloom from early summer through frost but are sometimes prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease.  Avoid crowding the plants, as good air circulation discourages powdery mildew.

Coneflowers: Once upon a time, if you wanted a perennial coneflower (Echinacea spp.), your options were limited to the lovely blooms of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Now perennial coneflowers have become the darlings of the horticultural world and choices abound.  Petal colors range from white, like the lovely ‘White Swan’, through a range of yellows, peach, pink, orange, and red, with bi-colors, like the fetching ‘Green Twister’ thrown in for good measure.  Many of the newer coneflowers are also fragrant, an added plus.  The one thing that they all have in common is large, cone-shaped centers filled with seeds.  Goldfinches, in particular, love them.

Marigold seeds are numerous and feed birds.

Marigolds: Annual marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are easy to grow and, tolerant of a range of conditions.  Tall types, usually varieties of Tagetes erecta or African marigold, may reach a height of up to 4 feet tall, with large flower heads of cream, yellow, or yellow-orange petals.  Blooming through the summer, both flowers and stems are aromatic and quite effective at repelling deer and other garden pests.  Low-growing French marigolds (Tagetes patula) have all the virtues of their taller relations, but top out at 6 to 12 inches—perfect for containers, small spaces, and border edgings.  When flowerheads are left intact for bird consumption, marigolds will self-seed readily.

Nutritious seeds are the main attraction of black-eyed-Susans, so keep your seedheads up in fall.

Black-Eyed Susans: An old-time favorite, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) flowers from mid to late summer.  Native to North America, the plants may be biennial or perennial, but all feature prominent seed-filled cones that attract birds, especially finches and chickadees.  One of the most popular garden “Susans” is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, a reliable perennial that is widely available in garden centers and features some of the largest flowers.  In general, black-eyed Susans can flourish in a wide variety of soil conditions and may even tolerate light shade. 

A scarlet tanager looks for insects on a sunflower head.

Annual Sunflowers:  It is hard not to love annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), which are held in high esteem by humans, mammals, and birds.  With broad, open flower faces and statuesque profiles, drought and heat-tolerant sunflowers, are also among the easiest plants to grow from seed.    Breeders have worked hard to expand the range of available sizes and colors.  Petals can be cream, shades of yellow, gold, orange, or russet, with bicolors popping up on the market every year.  All have seed-filled centers.  The big leaves may look ragged by summer’s end, but the flowerheads more than make up for that.  Container gardeners do not have to miss out on the flowers, or the birds, because shorter varieties like ‘Little Becky” topping out at about 3 feet.

Autumn Finale

Chickadees eat visiting insects and seeds of asters.

Asters: Perennial asters (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and Aster spp.) are no longer grouped under one species name, but they all feature daisy-like blooms in shades ranging from white through a host of pinks and roses to blues and blue-purples.  For visual impact, you can’t beat traditional New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).  Upright and leafy, they may grow up to 6 feet tall, but can also be kept shorter with judicious pruning earlier in the growing season.  Shorter asters, like the Woods series (‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Pink’) have the same winsome flowers beloved of both people and birds but feature shorter stature (up to 18 inches). Butterflies relish the flowers’ nectar and birds feast on the autumn seeds.

Perennial sunflowers are essential late-bloomers for feeding birds.

Perennial Sunflowers: Drought-tolerant and versatile, sedums have really caught on with gardeners.  Whether you choose tall varieties like the much-loved ‘Autumn Joy’ or shorter ones, like ‘Wildfire’, sedums feature flowerheads of small, star-shaped blooms that draw butterflies.  Hanging around throughout fall, when other flowering plants have long since given up, sedums attract birds like finches with their plump seedheads.  If you can, avoid cutting back sedums until spring clean-up.

Many of these garden flowers naturally self-sow from year to year, so allow a few seedlings to provide more bird food and beauty to future gardens.

Best Native American Shrubs for Feeding Birds

Gindfinches are primarily seed-eaters, but they sometimes enjoy seedy berries as well, as this young goldfinch is doing.

The best forage plants for wild birds are appealing natives that provide nutritious fruits, seeds, and nectar. Our top picks offer even more bird food because they attract favorite insect and caterpillar bites. Planting just a few of these shrubs in your yard will supplement bird-feeding efforts and help increase local bird diversity.

Planting to invite wildlife to feed has become more popular because more gardeners see their yards are an extension of the natural world. Natural habitat continues to be destroyed at a rampant pace, leaving fewer places for wild birds to feed. The shrubs on this list will beautify your yard or garden with their fine foliage, flowers, and fruits as well as the added beauty of the colorful, melodious birds they are sure to attract.

Native caterpillars are top-quality native bird food, so choose plants that are important larval host plants. They also mean more butterflies to enjoy! (American bluebird shown)

We recommend the native shrubs listed here in addition to perennials and even annuals. (Click here for a full list of great native larval host plants for the garden.)

Native Shrubs for Birds

Most of the shrubs on this list are native to Eastern North America, though some have limited distribution in the West. All are quite hardy and effortless to grow once established. (Click here for excellent shrub planting and siting instructions.)

The copious red fruits of American cranberrybush are a delight to birds.

American Cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum, Zones 2-8, 8-15 feet, full to partial sun) attracts spring pollinators, is an essential larval host plant, and provides delicious red fruits to birds in late fall and early winter. (Birds prefer to eat the berries after they have become frozen and thawed.) Few native shrubs are as beautiful. The domed clusters of white spring flowers feed bees and butterflies and red fall fruits are so cheery. The maple-like summer leaves are fed upon by spring azure (Celestrina ladon) and hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) caterpillars and turn shades of orange-red in autumn.

Cedar waxwings eat berries and insects, which they can get from the summer fruit of serviceberries and the caterpillars and pollinators they attract.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp., Zones 3-9, 12-20 feet, full to partial sun) species exist across much North America, and most are well-suited to the home garden. Their white clusters of fragrant spring flowers attract pollinators, the leaves feed caterpillars, and the edible summer fruits are a favorite of birds. Red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) caterpillars rely on their leaves for food. In fall, the leaves turn glorious shades of yellow, orange, and red.

Baltimore Orioles have diets of insects, fruit, and nectar, all of which they can get from a serviceberry shrub.

Chokecherry shrubs (Aronia arbutifolia, Zones 4-9, 6-10 feet, full to partial sun) are fantastically beautiful. The fragrant white spring flowers attract lots of pollinators, spring azure butterflies feed on the summer foliage, and the copious bright red fall fruits bring lots of birds to the garden. The season ends with a grand display of brilliant red and orange fall leaves. Try the more compact variety ‘Brilliantissima‘ (6-8 feet), which has high fruit production and redder fall leaves.

Red chokecherries can persist into fall and even early winter. (Photo by Abrahami)

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, Zones 6-10, 4-8 feet, full to partial sun) can tolerate a little shade but it flowers and sets fruit the best in full sun. Bees and butterflies visit the small lavender or white flowers that line the branches in spring, and by late summer or fall, they turn brilliant purple. Spring azure butterfly and snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) caterpillars feed on the summer leaves. The fruits persist until late fall if they are not snapped up by birds first. Most often the fall leaves turn yellow.

A northern mockingbird feasts on fall beautyberries. (Image by Jessie Keith)

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus, Zones 4-8, 2-3 feet, full to partial sun) is a compact wildlife wild-food powerhouse! Pollinators visit the white clusters of fragrant summer flowers, including several specialized bee species, and the fatty seeds produced are snacked on by many songbirds. Several butterfly larvae, such as those of mottled duskywing (Erynnis martialis), spring azure, and summer azure butterflies (Celestrina neglecta), rely on its leaves for essential food. The foliage turns russet-yellow hues in fall.

New Jersey tea is very compact and pretty. It’s the perfect intro native shrub for gardeners with little space. (Image by John Oyston)

Spice Bush (Lindera benzoin, Zones 5-9, 8-15 feet, partial sun to partial shade) deserves to be planted more often in home landscapes, especially those with wooded areas. The fragrant leaves of the open shrubs are fed upon by spicebush swallowtail caterpillars (Papilio troilus), and female spice bushes produce nutritious red berries that are important to many wild birds. The fall leaves generally turn yellow.

The fatty fruits of spicebush are eaten by many birds. (Image by Cody Hough, college student and photographer in the Michgian area.)
Spicebush swallowtails rely on spice bushes for larval food, and birds enjoy eating them. Spicebushes also produce fatty fruits that many bird species eat.

Easy Okras for Hot Summer Gardens

Red, burgundy, and purple okra varieties are extra pretty in the garden.

Okra is a southern staple crop for several reasons. The tasty podded vegetable thrives in heat and even drought, and it is so easy to grow. Newer varieties are more tender, prolific, and lack painful spines. As an added bonus, you can let the pods mature and become woody at the end of the season, and then cut them and bring them indoors. They last for years and add an architectural flair to everlasting arrangements.

About Okra

Okra flowers are quite pretty and attract bees.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a tender perennial with native roots extending from Africa to Southeast Asia. Historically, it was brought to the Americas through the slave trade in the late 1600s and is noted as becoming a southern staple crop in the United States by the early 1800s. It is a nutritious vegetable (technically a fruit) that requires little nurturing to produce pods, so it certainly helped feed those with little resources early on in the South. It is an essential ingredient of Louisiana gumbo and is also enjoyed fried, pickled, and added to mixed meat and vegetable dishes.

Okra is an essential ingredient in Louisiana gumbo.

The plants are tall, upright, and have large, lobed, palm-shaped leaves. They are members of the hibiscus or mallow family, so their purple-centered, mallow-like flowers of pale yellow, ivory, or pink, are quite pretty when in bloom. Bees are the primary pollinators, so refrain from using pesticides around okra, not that they should be needed. The plants don’t have many severe pest and disease problems, aside from Japanese beetles where these pests are present (click here to learn how to manage Japanese Beetles). Aphids also cause occasional, but not severe, problems. The upright pods should be harvested when they are tender and young. Once they are woody, you can no longer eat them.

Good Okra Varieties

Large okra varieties, like ‘Bowling Red’ need lots of space to grow.

There is a surprising amount of variability in okra forms. Pods may be purple, red, or various shades of green. The most essential traits to seek out are cultivated varieties with numerous tender pods and continuous production. Height is another factor to consider. Some varieties can reach 8 feet high, while compact forms may only reach 3 feet. Here are seven exceptional varieties to try.

  1. Annie Oakley‘ (53 days from seed to harvest) is the first okra that I ever grew, and it sold me on okra for life. The compact plants produce lots of small to mid-sized okra pods that are green and very tender.
  2. Bowling Red‘ (57 days from seed to harvest) is a large okra (7-8 feet) that bears lots of long, slender, tasty pods of deep purplish-red. Pods are noted for remaining tender at a larger stage. The variety dates back to 1920s Virginia.
  3. Carmine Splendor‘ (51 days from seed to harvest) is a high-yielding heirloom with somewhat small, uniform, reddish pods and are fast-to-produce. It should bear fruit from midsummer to late summer or early fall.
  4. Clemson Spineless‘ (60 days from seed to harvest) is a 4-5-foot heirloom that is noted for being one of the first spineless types developed. Its pale green, pods are tasty and prolific.
  5. Heavy Hitter‘ (55 days from seed to harvest) is a 5-foot okra that appears to be on steroids because its crops are so large. Single plants are reported to produce as many as 250 pods over a season! Give the large plants plenty of space.
  6. Jambalaya‘ (50 days from seed to harvest) is compact, early, and bears smaller pods heavily through summer. This is the okra to try if you have little space.
  7. Louisiana 16 inch‘ (60 days from seed to harvest) has long, palest-green, extra flavorful pods that remain tender for a long time. If you like to eat lots of okra, choose this variety! Keep in mind, it becomes huge (to 8-feet). Some report it growing into the trees, so plan to give it lots of space.
‘Clemson Spineless’ Okra is truly spine-free! (Please note the aphids on the fruit. They can be problematic but are easily spritzed off with a jet of water from the hose before harvest.)

Planting and Growing Okra

Okra grows best in full, hot sun for a minimum of 8 hours per day. It will tolerate poor to average soil, but adding fertile amendments to the garden will boost performance and production while reducing the need to water as often. Fafard Garden Manure Blend is a great amendment for okra planting.

Okra seeds are large, so it is a good direct-sow crop, meaning you can seed them in on-site. Plant them when the soil is warm and the threat of frost has passed. Topping the seeds off with added organic matter provides extra moisture and light cover to help them germinate more readily.

Space plants according, based on their final estimated plant size, and expect them to grow large quickly. Wayward branches can be pruned off to keep plants in bounds. Large plants may require staking, especially if you live in an area where high winds are common.

Harvesting Okra

Harvest pods with a sharp knife, pruners, or shears.

When it comes to harvest, timing is everything. The pods develop so quickly that they can turn from tender to woody in just a day or two, so plan to pick them daily during harvest season. Harvest them then they are small, tender, and bendable, or squeezable. Cut them from their tender base, and store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. The faster you cook the pods, the better they will taste!

As fall becomes chilly, okra stops producing. At this time, I recommend leaving a stem or two to fully mature and dry. The woody stems and fruits add decorative flair to dry arrangements. It is also the perfect time to collect seeds for the following season.

Garden Perennials That Don’t Stop Blooming

As flowering plants, most perennials are a mixed blessing. To their credit, they produce some of the garden’s signature blooms, on plants that return reliably year after year. What would spring be without primroses and trilliums, or summer without bee-balm and black-eyed Susans, or fall without asters and Japanese anemones?

Seasonality of bloom does have its downside, however. Many perennials are as fleeting as they are beautiful, flowering for a mere 2 or 3 weeks. Many – but not all. Here are some of our favorite perennials that depart from the norm by blooming for 3 months (or more) rather than the typical 3 weeks. Most will.

Nonstop Flowering Perennials

Yellow Fumitory (Corydalis lutea, aka Pseudofumaria lutea)

The bright yellow flowers and delicate blue-green leaves of this fumatory bring season-long color to gardens.

Few shade-loving plants of any type flower as brightly and as tirelessly as this somewhat short-lived perennial from mountains of central Europe. The golden-yellow, sharks-head-shaped flowers occur on mounded, ferny-leaved, foot-tall plants from mid-spring to fall, with barely a pause. Plants often generously self-sow, assisted by ants that distribute the seeds. Not to worry: unwanted seedlings are easily pulled – but you’ll likely want to keep all or most of them. Yellow fumitory is a perfect fit for shady cottage gardens and other semi-informal settings, mixed with celandine poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), ferns, hostas, zigzag goldendrod (Solidago flexicaulis), and the like.  USDA hardiness zones: 5 to 8

Kenilworth Ivy (Cymbalaria muralis)

The ever-flowering Kenilworth ivy grows beautifully along rock walls and between paving stones.

Another shade-loving European native, Cymbalaria muralis does indeed resemble a miniature ivy in its lobed near-evergreen leaves and its clambering growth. Its small blue snapdragon-like flowers depart completely from the ivy model, however. The trailing plants grow best in well-drained soil, quickly covering the ground or a wall, and flowering happily from early spring to late summer. Plants can become a nuisance in favorable climates, so use with caution in areas such as the Pacific Northwest. The similar Cymbalaria pallida spreads less vigorously, forming condensed mats spangled with mid-blue flowers (or white, in the case of ‘Albiflora’). Both are hardy from zones 5 to 8.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

‘Rozanne’ forms attractive mounds and blooms effortlessly through summer.

Few perennials flower as unceasingly as this hybrid geranium. Happy in full sun to light shade, it produces violet-blue saucer-flowers from late spring through summer on lax continually lengthening stems. You can shear plants to a few inches from the ground in midsummer to keep them more compact and to stimulate more prolific late-season bloom. The 2008 winner of the Perennial Plant Association’s Perennial of the Year award, ‘Rozanne’ has become immensely (and ubiquitously) popular throughout its USDA zone 5 to 8 hardiness range. (True Geranium are distinct from florists’ “geraniums”, which actually belong to the genus Pelargonium).

Corsican Violet (Viola corsica)

Corsican violets and delicate year-long bloomers.

Small in stature but unsurpassed in flower power, Corsican violet blooms continuously year-round, pausing only during sub-freezing winter spells. The violet-blue, white-eyed flowers lift their faces to the sun atop low semi-trailing stems that ultimately extend to 5 or 6 inches. Give this delightful little urchin a place in a sunny well-drained garden niche in its Zone 5 to 10 hardiness range and it will give you virtually endless delight. If you leave a few seedheads you’ll also get a few volunteer plants to spread the cheer.

Lavender (Lavandula hybrids)

Some lavender varieties will bloom from June to early October.

While technically a dwarf shrub, lavender functions as a herbaceous perennial in cold-winter areas of the U.S., where it typically flowers from late spring until late summer. Some lavender varieties take it a few weeks further, blooming into early fall. Among the best of these floriferous selections are 2-foot-tall ‘Royal Velvet’ and the 10-inch dwarf ‘Super Blue’. Also well worth seeking out are hardy hybrids between common lavender and Lavandula latifolia (known collectively as lavandin or Lavandula × intermedia). The lavandin cultivar ‘Phenomenal’ earns its name by producing numerous 2-foot lavender-blue spires on hardy silver-leaved plants from June to early October. It shares common lavender’s Zone 5 hardiness, given a sunny well-drained niche.

Dalmatian Toadflax (Linaria dalmatica)

The non-invasive Dalmatian toadflax is drought-tolerant and blooms endlessly.

Don’t be deceived by the superficial resemblance to the weedy Linaria vulgaris, aka butter and eggs. This is a totally different toadflax, forming non-spreading clumps of 30-inch stems furnished with attractive blue-green foliage and topped from early summer to frost with spikes of lemon-yellow snapdragons. A beautiful drought-tolerant thing, it prospers in hot sunny well-drained garden habitats in zones 4 to 9, self-sowing moderately where happy. It can be a bit too happy in parts of the Western U.S., so check your state’s invasive-plant list.

Phlox ‘Solar Flare’

A hybrid between two native phlox species, ‘Solar Flare’ bears pink-eyed flowers in flushes from spring to fall.

A hybrid of the eastern U.S. native Phlox carolina, this disease-resistant cultivar opens its white, pink-eyed flowers in late spring, weeks before those of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). It follows with repeated flushes throughout summer and into fall, provided it’s regularly deadheaded. Other laudable features include a compact habit (2 feet tall and 1 foot wide) and exceptional disease resistance. It’s a reliable performer in full sun to light shade in zones 4 to 8. Apply an inch of Fafard organic compost in spring and your ‘Solar Flare’ will be especially dazzling.

Daisy Mae Mongolian Daisy (Kalimeris integrifolia ‘Daisy Mae’)

Clouds of little white yellow-eyed daisies adorn the 2-foot, clumping stems of ‘Daisy Mae’ from early summer until frost. Full to part sun and well-drained soil are all it requires. Use it in borders and containers, perhaps in combination with other sun-loving, drought-tolerant perennials such as winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) and balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus). Hardy from zones 5 to 9.

Gaura (Oenothera lindheimeri)

The prairie-native, Gaura, blooms nonstop and is a butterfly favorite.

Also known as Gaura lindheimeri, this prairie native keeps on blooming through heat and drought from early July to frost. The butterfly-shaped blooms are arrayed along wiry 3-foot wands that toss in the summer breeze. Typically white-flowered (as in the excellent variety ‘Whirling Butterflies), it also comes in pink forms (including ‘Pink Cloud’ and ‘Siskyou Pink’). Given a porous soil in full sun, it will reliably winter from zones 5 to 9.

Divide and Conquer Your Garden Perennials

Divide and Conquer Your Garden Perennials Featured Image
Dividing perennials allows you to share them with friends or move them to new garden spaces.

In the time of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, “divide and conquer” was a battlefield technique that defeated the Emperor’s enemies and expanded the Roman Empire.  You can expand your own empire—or at least your supply of ornamental plants—by dividing mature clumps of perennials.  This technique, which does not require much in the way of labor or expertise, will also revitalize established perennials and improve the looks of your garden.

Perennials for Division

Tall phlox
Tall phlox are large, clump-forming perennials that are much easier to divide in the spring.

If your landscape is home to clump-forming or spreading perennials, like hostas (Hosta spp.), tall phlox (Phlox paniculata spp.), daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), goldenrods (Solidago spp.), or perennial grasses that have been in place for several years, chances are some of them could stand to be divided.  Sometimes the plants cry out for division by producing fewer flowers and appearing a little less vigorous than in prior years.  At other times the opposite may be true—vigorous specimens that have outgrown their original spaces attempt garden domination by muscling aside other plants and creating congestion in formerly harmonious planting arrangements.

Dividing is the best way to deal with both situations and spring is a good time to think about doing so.  Dividing in spring, when the shoots are emerging, is much easier than lifting and dividing large unwieldy specimens later in the season. Clumps of immature plants are also more forgiving and less impacted by transplant shock.

Why Don’t More People Divide Perennials?

This Hosta has been easily divided with a sharp spade and trowel
This Hosta has been easily divided with a sharp spade and trowel. The two healthy divisions are ready for planting.

Fear of killing plants is probably the primary reason, but it is unwarranted.  The vast majority of perennials are amenable to division. A healthy plant, divided with even a modicum of care, will not die. In fact, the successful division of one moderately large clump is more than likely to result in two, three, or even four thriving new plants.

Dividing plants does not require much in the way of special tools: a sharp spade or garden fork, watering can, a garden knife or sharp trowel for smaller plants and a pair of gloves will do the job. To keep things tidy, consider working on a tarp when working with large clumps.

When it comes to division, water is your friend.  If you can time the job so that it takes place a day or two after a rainy day, the ground will be soft and yielding, making it much easier to remove plants.  If you can’t arrange that, water the ground around the plant thoroughly a day before you divide it.

Dividing Perennials in the Spring

Once the ground is soft in spring, use the spade or garden fork to dig down and around the clump until you can lift the root ball out of the surrounding earth. 

Pulling out fleshy roots of day lilies
The fleshy roots of daylilies can be pulled or cut apart.

Some species, like daylilies, can be divided by simply pulling apart the roots with your fingers.  Others, like hostas (Hosta spp.), may require the use of a garden knife, spade, or garden fork.  Depending on the size of the clump, you may be able to separate it into two, three, or even more divisions.  No matter how many new plants you create, make sure that each division has a healthy supply of roots attached. 

Fafard Garden Manure Blend pack

Once you have made the divisions, replant one of them in the old planting hole, improving the soil with a quality natural amendment, like Fafard Garden Manure Blend. Distribute the others to new locations around the garden, making sure that the young plants will enjoy the same light and soil conditions as the parent. Amend the soil as the divisions go in and water them regularly as they establish themselves, especially if the weather is dry.

If your garden is so full that you have to hang out the “no vacancy” sign, donate the divisions to family and friends, or local public gardens.  If you can’t install the divisions right away, or are giving them to others, be sure to keep them cool and moist until they are ready to go into the ground. Planting them up in pots is another options.

Dividing Perennials in Fall

Pink anemones
Many anemones form big clumps over time that should be divided.

While spring is an excellent time to divide many perennials, early fall is also good.  Stress on plants and humans increases as temperatures rise and rain amounts decline.  Spring or fall conditions are more comfortable for the specimens being divided and the individuals doing the dividing.

The common wisdom is that fall-blooming plants, like Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis var. japonica), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), and goldenrods (Solidago spp.), should be divided in spring, and spring-blooming plants, like Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) and moss pink (Phlox subulata), should be divided in fall.  As with many time-honored “rules”, there are exceptions.  I make one for early spring bloomers, like snowdrops, grape hyacinths, and daffodils, dividing them right after they finish flowering, but before the foliage has withered.  Since these plants are ephemeral and disappear for their annual siestas in late spring or early summer, it is a good idea to divide them while you can still see them.

Thrifty gardeners have always divided plants, gradually filling up their gardens with no additional investment, other than a little time and energy.  Distributing divisions around the landscape also creates repetition, one of the key tenets of garden design.

With the renewed emphasis on sustainability, the age-old practice of multiplying by dividing has gained new currency.  It links today’s gardens with the past and the future.

Five Stellar US Native Shrubs for Pollinators and Wildlife

Five Stellar US Native Shrubs for Pollinators and Wildlife Featured Image
These shrubs are tough, beautiful through multiple seasons, and excellent for wildlife.

Some shrubs look beautiful in their natural form. Those on this list are elegantly beautiful in the wild or a garden. They offer aesthetic value and benefit our yard’s ecosystems.

These five shrubs are givers, providing season-long beauty as well as food for multiple pollinators and wildlife at different times of the year. They’ve been selected from personal experience. I’ve observed them in the wild, in gardens, and in landscapes. There are no ornamental or environmental losers in this bunch. Plant them, and your yard will smile.

Five Beautiful Shrubs for Pollinators

1. Serviceberries

Serviceberries in a garden
Serviceberries are stately natives with year-round interest and high wildlife value.

Across North America, there are approximately 20 species serviceberry species (Amelanchier spp.). All are exceptionally beautiful, have high wildlife value, and many are in cultivation. Most grow as shrubs, but some develop into multi-stemmed small trees at maturity. Here are some better species and selections to grow.

Serviceberries spring flowers, edible summer fruits and fall leaves
Fragrant spring flowers, edible summer fruits, and glowing fall color are traits held by most serviceberries.

Saskatoon Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia, 4-15 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-8) is of special interest to bees, birds, and a couple of butterfly species. Its fragrant white spring flowers feed bees and butterflies, birds and mammals enjoy its sweet, edible, blue-black fruits, and it is the larval host to striped hairstreak and California hairstreak butterflies. In fall, the leaves turn brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow, and its smooth, gray bark and pleasing habit stands out in the winter landscape. The variety ‘Regent‘ is compact (4-6 feet) and bears copious flowers and delicious fruit for jam making and baking. 

Canada serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, 15-30 feet, Zones 3-8) feeds early bees with its bright white clusters of spring flowers. Its reddish summer fruits are tasty and edible. Birds and mammals love them, and they can also be used for baking or jam making. The fall leaves turn shades of orange, red, and yellow.

laevis

2. Lead Plant

Lead plant
Lead plant is tough, loved by native bees, and beautiful.

Native to American prairies, leadplant (Amorpha canescens, 1-3 feet, Zones 2-9) is an attractive, hardy shrub to subshrub in the pea family that sets spikes of purplish pea flowers against silvery-green compound leaves in early to midsummer. The fragrant flowers are highly valuable to native bees. Once established, the plants are quite drought-tolerance and set deep roots–reaching as much as 4-feet down. The denser, green-leaved dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana, 2-3 feet, Zones 3-9) has reddish-purple summer flower spikes with a strong honey fragrance.

3. Summersweet

'Ruby Spires'
‘Ruby Spires’ is a commonly sold summersweet variety with deep pink flowers. It can reach 6-8 feet.

The ivory flower spikes of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia, 3-8 feet, Zones 4-9) appear in summer and are followed by little brown fruits that are eaten by many birds and mammals. Butterflies can’t get enough of the flowers, including a wide variety of swallowtail species. Bees and hummingbirds also enjoy them. New growth is bronzy, ages to deep green, and then turns shades of orange and yellow in fall.

Though usually ivory-flowered, pink summersweet variants exist in the wild. ‘Ruby Spires’ (6-8 feet) is a commonly sold variety with especially deep pink flowers and golden fall foliage. Some varieties are also more compact for smaller gardens. ‘Compacta’ (3-4 feet) is a uniformly compact, shrubby, white-flowered form that is a bit more upright and compact than the comparable ‘Hummingbird‘, which flops a bit but is just as lovely.

4. Purple-Flowering Raspberry

The pretty flowers of purple-flowered raspberry appear through summer.
The pretty flowers of purple-flowered raspberry appear through summer.

The pink-flowered purple-flowered raspberry (Rubus odoratus, 3-6 feet, Zones 3-8) is probably the prettiest of all the North American raspberries. The eastern North American native inhabits open woods. Large, pink, or pinkish-purple flowers bloom throughout summer above suckering shrubs with pretty maple-shaped leaves. The fragrant flowers are pollinated by bees and butterflies. Edible, but dry and not-so-appealing raspberries ripen through summer and feed birds and wildlife. Plant it along a wooded or shady area where it can spread.

Buttonbush

Natural buttonbush shrubs
Natural buttonbush shrubs are large, cut there are some compact varieties available.

The unique white, celestial-looking flowers of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis, 8-12 feet, Zones 5-9) are big butterfly attractors. Monarchs, swallowtails, painted ladies, and silver-spotted skippers are all common visitors. Native bees like them, too. Natural shrubs grow quite large and favor moist soils. Full sun encourages the best flowering. Some desirable shorter varieties exist, namely the 4-foot-tall Sugar Shack® from Proven Winners.

Plant for wildlife as well as beauty and reap the rewards. It’s a pleasure to watch pollinators, birds, and other wildlife enjoy your plantings. Adding a good balance of natives will ensure that you are serving regional pollinators well as the honeybees.

Hot New Vegetable Varieties for 2021

Hot New Vegetable Varieties for 2021 Featured Image
Chinese-cabbage lovers wishing for a little more excitement will relish the purple-leafed ‘Merlot’.

With the holidays in the rearview mirror and the New Year launched, it is time to check out the new vegetable varieties from seed vendors.  Most 2021 catalogs are up now online, and many companies still send paper editions as well.  Whether you aim to grow a simple pot of cherry tomatoes on the balcony or an acre of diverse vegetables, the New Year brings an array of hot new choices.

The trends are easy to spot.  Tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors are still champion sellers.  Color, in the garden and on the plate, is in fashion, with vendors offering old standard vegetables in new, often brilliant hues.  Heirloom varieties remain popular, as are compact plants suitable for small spaces and containers.  Micro-greens abound.  Ease of preparation (think stringless green beans and thin-skinned squash) are also frequent features of this year’s new varieties. 

New Tomatoes

‘Bosque Blue Bumblebee' cherry tomatoes (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
Bosque Blue Bumblebee’, is a standard-size cherry variety that starts out blue and ripens to yellow with a blue blush. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

New tomato varieties are popping up everywhere, promising great taste and adaptability to small spaces–from the prolific ‘Ella Bella’ cherry variety, with sweet, firm red fruits, to ‘Thorburn’s Lemon Blush’, a large, beefsteak type with pink-blushed yellow skin, the catalogs are packed with new tomatoes.  Other notable newcomers are the sweet ‘Bosque Blue Bumblebee’, a standard-size cherry variety that starts out blue and ripens to yellow with a blue blush close to the stem, and the heavy-fruiting, sweet, compact Funnyplums varieties that grow beautifully in containers or hanging baskets and come in red, orange, or yellow-fruited forms.

'Ella Bella' cherry tomatoes
Prolific ‘Ella Bella’ cherry tomatoes are sweet, firm, and bright red.

There is nothing like a tomato sandwich at the height of the growing season, and that is only one of the many uses for large slicing tomatoes.  New varieties like ‘Marnouar’ and ‘Cubalibre’ bear large (10 to 16 ounce) fruits on vigorous, disease-resistant plants.  The tomatoes have an heirloom look, with near-black streaks on dark red skin.

If you aim to make sauce and need a plum tomato variety, try the new ‘Plum Regal’, with broad fleshy fruits and good disease resistance.

New Ornamental Edibles

'Charbell' Swiss chard
Vigorous ‘Charbell’ Swiss chard is delicious and beautiful.

Modern vegetable gardeners want horticultural daily doubles—plants that look good enough to be grown as ornamentals and taste good enough to win over even the pickiest eaters.  It doesn’t hurt that those colorful vegetables also look Instagram-ready on the plate. 

Many of the hottest new varieties come in unusual colors.  ‘Celine’ bush beans are traditional wax beans with a twist– purple pods and yellow interiors.  The ‘Snowball’ bell pepper tastes like a traditional green bell pepper but with white skin that matures to ivory.  ‘Charbell‘ Swiss chard is a potential garden brightener, with bright magenta stems, good disease resistance, and high performance. 

'Mashed Potatoes' acorn squash
‘Mashed Potatoes’ acorn squash has pale flesh that can be mashed and eaten like potatoes.

Acorn squash is normally dark green with orange flesh. Squash lovers can change things up with ‘Mashed Potatoes’ acorn squash, which boasts white rind and flesh.  Sellers suggest using the squash as a lower-calorie mashed potato alternative.

The color purple continues in fashion, sported this year by a number of new vegetables.  ‘Purple Peacock’ broccoli features tasty, small florets atop frilled leaves.  ‘Ultra Violet’ mustard bears purple stems with purplish-green leaves.  Chinese cabbage lovers wishing for a little more excitement will relish the purple-leafed ‘Merlot’.

Everything Old is New—The Heirloom Craze Continues

'Pippin's Golden Honey Pepper' (Image thanks to Hudson Valley Seed Co.)
‘Pippin’s Golden Honey Pepper’ (Image thanks to Hudson Valley Seed Co.)

By definition, heirloom varieties are not new, but some have been rediscovered or reintroduced for 2021.  The ‘Iroquois Skunk‘ pole bean looks and tastes much better than the name suggests, with mottled, blue-black pods encasing white beans.  ‘Pippin’s Golden Honey’ bell pepper is an heirloom that was long grown and used in Philadelphia’s Black community.  The lovely purple flowers develop into fruit that morphs from dark purple to yellow and finally to orange as the peppers ripen. The ‘Tall Telephone’ garden pea from the nineteenth century is a traditional variety characterized by heavy production. For something really dramatic—inside and out—try the ‘Silver Edge’ pumpkin, a Mexican heirloom that is streaked green and white on the outside, with tasty peach-colored flesh and large, edible seeds that are white with silver edges.

More Hot New Vegetables

Fruity ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)
The fruity ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama are also fire-hot. (Image by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Gardeners who want to turn up the culinary heat have a plethora of choices this year.  Hot peppers abound, including ‘Aji Chombo’ from Panama, which features heat comparable to Scotch Bonnet peppers with a fruity flavor to balance that heat.  ‘Black Magic’ jalapeno peppers are dark green-black with traditional jalapeno flavor and intensity.

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack

Growing from seed is one of the best ways to try out new and different vegetable varieties.  If you are starting seeds indoors, use a quality potting mix, like Black Gold Seedling Mix. For direct-sown varieties, clean and prepare planting beds by amending the soil with organic matter. Enriching your garden soil with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost will get your hot new vegetables (as well as old favorites), off to a great start.

Wonderful Winter-Blooming Shrubs for the Garden

Wonderful Winter-Blooming Shrubs for the Garden Featured Image
Winter jasmine has beautiful fragrant flowers and a pleasing cascading habit.

January showers bring winter flowers. No – really. Plant the right shrubs, and you can have midwinter bloom whenever the weather turns mild, provided you’re in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b or warmer. Boston, Rochester, Columbus, Detroit – wherever. And, all feed early bees and other essential pollinators.

Witch Hazels

'Aurora' witch hazel flowers
Witch hazels with orange- or red-tinged flowers, like ‘Aurora’, are especially colorful.

Topping the roster of hardy winter-blooming shrubs are the witch hazels (known botanically as Hamamelis). These medium to large deciduous shrubs are to winter what roses are to summer. The gossamer, spicy-scented flowers unfurl their ribbon-like petals as early as December. (The eastern North American native Virginia Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) departs from the witch hazel norm by blooming in autumn.) Witch hazels are also attractive during the growing season, bearing broadly oval, gently scalloped leaves that turn bright yellow, red, or orange before shedding in fall.

Plant witch hazels in full sun to light shade and humus-rich soil that’s not overly heavy or dry. Mulch with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to get them off to an especially good start. Their semi-translucent flowers are showiest when flooded with light, so give them a position where they can be viewed against the sun.

Witch hazels in Fall
Brilliant fall color is another notable trait of witch hazels.

A good place to start your winter-blooming shrub collection is with one of the many hybrids of Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), arguably the showiest-flowered members of the witch hazel tribe. As with all Hamamelis species, the 1/2- to 1-inch-long petals of Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids are lemon yellow (with a citrusy scent to match), but sometimes stray into other colors. Among the most outstanding of this wonderful group of large shrubs are:

Chinese witch hazels
Chinese witch hazels are known for their lemon-yellow flowers.

Arnold Promise’, which opens its large sunny-yellow flowers relatively late in the witch hazel season, from late January to late March.

Aurora’, whose orange-tinged, golden-yellow flowers are among the largest and most abundant of the lot. Like most cultivars, it flowers from early January to early March or so.

Diane’, a coppery-red-flowered selection that also features outstanding bright orange to red fall foliage.

Primavera’, noted for its pale moonlight-yellow flowers and its exceptional fragrance.

Strawberries and Cream’, named for the delicious intermingling hues of its pink, yellow, and maroon flowers.

Vernal witch hazel in snow
Vernal witch hazel is a yellow-flowered Ozark native that’s smaller and denser than Chinese.

In USDA zones 4 and 5a, where Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids are marginally hardy, consider instead the U.S. native Hamamelis vernalis, commonly known as vernal witch hazel. Somewhat smaller and denser in habit than Hamamelis mollis, this 6- to 9-foot-tall shrub typically bears orange-yellow blooms with stubby ¼- to ½-inch-long petals. The cultivar ‘Amethyst’, in contrast, offers flowers of a striking mauvy maroon that’s unlike anything else in the witch hazel tribe. Another marked departure from witch hazel norms is ‘Quasimodo’, a semi-dwarf selection that tops out at 4 to 6 feet tall. Some forms of vernal witch hazel also bloom exceptionally early, including ‘Beholden’, whose pale orange flowers debut as early as November.

As companions to your witch hazel collection, consider the following winter-blooming shrubs.

Winter Heath

Winter heath with pink and white blooms
Winter heath is evergreen and has very lovely small pink or white blooms.

Winter heath (Erica carnea) is a low, hummock-forming, 8-inch-tall evergreen shrub with small needle-like leaves, this European native covers itself with small flask-shaped flowers from midwinter to early spring. Cultivars include ‘Springwood Pink’, with lilac-pink blooms on vigorous spreading plants; ‘Springwood White’; and the relatively petite, rose-pink-flowered ‘Vivelli’.

Japanese Camellia

Japanese camellia
Brilliant red flowers and lush evergreen foliage make Japanese camellia a star in the winter garden.

Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) is another reliable winter bloomer. “Hardy camellia” may sound oxymoronic, but in fact some members of the tribe can withstand remarkably low temperatures. Japanese camellia is undoubtedly the hardiest of the genus, with plants of Korean origin flourishing in Zone 6 or even Zone 5. Camellia japonicaBloomfield’ features brilliant red flowers, lush evergreen foliage, a large, dense, rounded habit, and rock-solid Zone 6 hardiness. The single, 3-inch-wide blooms occur in flushes during mild spells in late winter and early spring. The original plant – grown from Korean seed at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia – is more than 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Even hardier is ‘Korean Fire’, which produces smoldering-red, six-petaled, 2-inch-wide flowers. It’s well worth trying in favorable partially shaded microclimates into USDA Zone 5a.  Plants grow to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Black Pussywillow

Pussywillows
Pussywillows of all types look beautiful in late winter.

Black pussywillow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’) has large, mitten-like, black-purple catkins line the maroon-tinged stems of this wonderful pussywillow in late winter and early spring. It’s hardy to Zone 4. Equally arresting (and hardy) is ‘Winter Glory’ (aka Salix chaenomeloides), with even larger catkins of the typical silver-gray color. Both these shrubs grow to 10 feet tall or so, and benefit from a hard early-spring pruning every couple of years. Give them full sun and moist humus-rich soil.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle
Winter honeysuckle is especially fragrant!

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). A welcome sight and scent in the late winter garden, this East Asian native perfumes the air with small white blooms that open on mild days from midwinter to early spring. A deciduous, 6-foot shrub in the colder sectors of its zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, it behaves – or rather misbehaves – as a moderately to highly invasive 8- to 12-foot evergreen in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. It’s thus best reserved for northern U.S. gardens. Its hybrid Lonicera × purpusii (including the cultivar ‘Winter Beauty’) does much the same thing. All forms of winter honeysuckle favor full to partial sun and well-drained, average to fertile soil.

Cornelian Cherry

Corenlia cherry flowers
Cornelian cherry has yellow winter flowers and edible summer fruits.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is a large shrub or small tree from southern Europe and western Asia covers itself with clusters of small acid-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. The common name refers to the fleshy edible fruits that ripen red in summer. Don’t be deceived, though; this “cherry” is actually a member of the dogwood tribe. The East Asian native Cornus officinalis is similar, but also features handsome exfoliating bark and a slightly earlier bloom time. It’s also a bit less hardy, to Zone 5 rather than Zone 4. The award-winning ‘Kintoki‘ is known for its superior floral and fruit displays. Both species like full sun to light shade and do well in most soil types.

Winter Jasmine

Carolina jessamine flowers
Carolina jessamine can start blooming in late winter down south and continue to spring.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). The bright yellow flowers of this scrambling East Asian native resemble those of Forsythia, but open weeks earlier. Its lax green 10- to 15-foot stems are useful for trailing down a bank or wall or for training on a trellis. Flowering may occur somewhat later in the zone 5b to 6a fringes of its hardiness range. Gardeners in Zones 6b and up can grow the somewhat similar Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). Its wonderfully scented winter-to-spring flowers, evergreen foliage, and native origins compensate for its relative winter-tenderness. In colder climes it works well as a greenhouse subject, which can be moved outside with warmer weather. Both winter jasmine and Carolina jessamine do well in most types of soil in full to partial sun.