Black Plants for Goth Gardens

Black Plants for Goth Gardens Featured Image

What better way to celebrate the Halloween season than to design and plant a Goth Garden? Admit it: you need one.

Of course, you’ll also need plants that look the part. Spiky or bizarrely shaped or ghostly hued plants are obviously essential (a contorted beech – Fagus sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’ – would fit to a twisted tee). Most of all, though, you’ll want some black flowers – or as close to black as you can get. The possibilities are surprisingly many.

Molly Sanderson Viola (Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’, Zones 5-10)

Black pansies
Black pansies look the part in cool fall plantings and may even survive through winter.

Plum-black miniature pansies envelop this winsome – but slightly spooky – little perennial in spring, and again after the return of cool weather in fall. Each flower flashes a sunny-yellow eye, accenting and enhancing the surrounding blackness. The blooms are darkly adorable in combination with ‘Jack Be Little’ mini-pumpkins. Available as plants or seed, ‘Molly’ is a short-lived perennial that often persists by sowing itself about. It’s longest-lived (and evergreen) in areas with mild summers and moderate winters.

Black Sprite Mountain Knapweed (Centaurea montana ‘Black Sprite’, Zones 3-9)

The spidery purplish-black flowers of 'Black Sprite' in summer
The spidery purplish-black flowers of ‘Black Sprite’ appear in summer.

Spidery-petaled midnight-purple flowers open from cobwebbed buds in late spring and early summer over contrasting clumps of gray-green leaves. At 18 inches tall, the flower stems are somewhat shorter than those of standard-issue violet-blue-flowered Centaurea montana. Cut them black after bloom, and you’ll be rewarded with a second round of sinister flowers in summer. As with ‘Molly Sanderson’, this sun-loving, relatively short-lived perennial usually stays in the garden via self-sown seedlings.

Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus, Zones 7-10)

Dark-chocolate colored cosmos flowers
The dark-chocolate colored flowers of this cosmos are fragrant and summer blooming.

This Mexican native earns its common name not from the black-maroon color of its daisy-shaped summer flowers, but from their delicious chocolate-laced fragrance. Appearing on 2-foot stems in summer, the flowers are at their most prolific in sunny sites with fertile well-drained soil (amend overly heavy soils with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost). In colder regions, lift the frost-tender, tuberous roots before the ground freezes in fall, and overwinter them in open paper bags in a well-aerated location. Plants will winter in the ground into USDA Hardiness Zone 7 if heavily mulched with pine needles or straw in early winter.

Voodoo Lily (Sauromatum venosum, Zones 6-10)

Dragon arum
Dragon arum has a striking black flower.

An altogether different sort of fragrance wafts from the gratifyingly grotesque spring “blooms” of voodoo lily. Standing 2 feet tall, each inflorescence comprises a central sooty-purple truncheon (the “spadix”), cowled by a lime-green, black-mottled “spathe”. Their macabre coloration – and fetid scent – is a clarion call to carrion-feeding insects. Huge horseshoe-shaped compound leaves with fanned lance-shaped leaflets push up from the underground tubers after the flowers collapse. Famed plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas aptly described this as the flower Beelzebub would present to his mother-in-law. Or he might have been referring instead to dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), another dark member of the arum family that is similarly bizarre and slightly more cold-tender (USDA Zone 7 rather than Zone 6). Both are must-have plants for partly shaded Goth gardens. Plant the tubers in early spring.

Black Widow (Geranium phaeum, Zones 4-9)

'Samobor' flowers
Near-black flowers make the early summer bloomer ‘Samobor’ uniquely beautiful.

Given the name – and the shadowy deep-purple flowers with back-swept petals that nod ruefully from 2-foot stems in late spring and early summer – this is another must-have. The relatively large, lobed, maple-shaped leaves form an attractive foil for the flowers. Look for ‘Raven’, which has especially dark-hued blooms, and ‘Samobor’, whose leaves are generously marked with dark purple splotches that echo the flowers. All forms are tough perennials that tolerate shade and drought and are hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Black Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus (black varieties, Zones 4-9)

Black hellebores
Black hellebores look very striking in the late-winter landscape. (Image by Kenpei)

Indispensable shade perennials that bear saucer-shaped blooms in late winter and early spring, the swarm of hybrids known collectively as Lenten roses come in numerous near-black forms. They’re also prized for their verdant, hand-shaped, evergreen leaves, which sometimes are splashed with silver. Many of the blackest varieties – including ‘Black Diamond’, and the double ‘Dark and Handsome’ – can be purchased as seed or plants, and vary slightly in flower color. Give them partial shade, humus-rich soil, and a top-dressing of Fafard Compost for optimum performance.

Persian Lily (Fritillaria persica, Zones 5-8)

Blackish bells
Tall spikes of blackish bells make this arguably the most striking flower of the bunch.

In mid-spring the large, skunky-scented bulbs of this Central Asian native send up 30-inch spikes of nodding chocolate-purple bells dusted with a silvery bloom. The cultivars ‘Adiyaman’ and ‘Senköy’ are especially dark-hued. Persian lily is excellent for combined with “black” tulips such as ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’. All the above appreciate full sun and fertile well-drained soil.

Fall is the best time to plant not only Persian lily but also most of the other black-flowered beauties described above. Get them in the ground now – amending with Fafard compost and topsoil as required – to get your Goth Garden off to a great start!

Fun Garden Jobs for Kids

Fun Garden Jobs for Kids Featured Image

It is natural for parents who love gardening to want their children to share that love.  The best way to grow a future gardener is to get him or her into the garden early and often.  Start off on the right foot by taking the baby basket with you and parking it in the shade when you go out to weed or tend the beds.  The sights, sounds, and smells will surround your child and pave the way for positive associations in the future. 

Start Digging the Dirt

Kids digging in the dirt
Kids simply enjoying following their parents around and digging in the dirt.

Toddlers who are too young to help out in more specific ways may relish digging in the dirt with a small shovel or trowel.  This is not a “chore”, but it will certainly get them in touch with the earth. Toddlers are also naturally curious.  Point out interesting flowers, plants, butterflies, and other insects to give your child a sense of comfort and familiarity with the garden’s animal, flower, fruit, and vegetable denizens. 

Get Growing with your Child

Children gardening
As children gro older, they can take on more responsibilities in the garden

One of the best ways to nurture a future gardener is to give the child a small plot or pot of their own and some seeds to plant.  Kids may be able to help with simple soil preparation, like raking a new bed or filling containers with potting mixes like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix. 

When choosing flower or vegetable varieties for your child to plant, a good rule of thumb is, “the smaller the person, the bigger the seed.”  Opt for big, non-toxic seeds, like those for pumpkin, sunflower, or nasturtium—easy to hold and see—and show how to make planting holes and cover the seeds with soil. If you are planting smaller seeds, like those for cool-season greens or carrots, try to find pelleted seed, which is easier for small hands. (Click here for a list of great seeds for kids.)

Though many a gardener has launched a lifetime passion by starting seeds indoors in flats, egg cartons, or paper cups, direct sowing is a more immediate way of establishing a garden connection.  You just have to be careful what you sow. Once again, large-seeded plants are easier to start outdoors, while some vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, simply perform better when planted indoors from seed.

Whatever you plant, you and your child will have the pleasure of getting out in the garden regularly to watch the seeds grow, and ultimately, harvesting the flowers or vegetables. If the child can hold a small watering can, they can water their own plants with a little initial guidance about where and when to water.

Getting Your Kids to Help Weeding

Child gardening
Planting, weeding, and cleaning tools are all good tasks for budding gardeners.

There is something satisfying about cleaning a garden space of weeds, and it’s a great way to teach kids about competition for resources. The simple removal of weeds will give your vegetables and flowers more water, nutrients, and sunlight!

Older children may be able to help with weeding, especially if it is part of the routine of caring for their own plots or pots.  Even adults have trouble with weed identification, so start by teaching your novice gardener about common, easy-to-spot weeds, like dandelions and crabgrass.  Explain that weeds are not “bad”, they are just plants growing in the wrong places and taking water and food from the sunflowers or squash plants.  Stress good weeding technique—wearing pint-size garden gloves and pulling out the weeds along with the roots, rather than breaking off the tops.  Depending on the child’s age, a child-size or standard-size trowel can help with this.  Kids take pride in having their own special tools.

If you have a compost pile, this is a good time to teach your child about disposing of weeds and other organic garden debris in the composter or on the pile.  If a child is old enough to help with weeding, he or she is old enough to understand basic information about decomposition, or how time and nature break down weeds into food for the soil.

Garden Harvest with Kids

Child with tomato eyes
Harvest time should be fun.

Even the smallest child can help with the harvest, which is the reward for all the planting, tending and, especially, waiting involved in the gardening process.  Like flower picking, successful harvesting needs a little guidance and practice to make perfect.  Show your child how to grasp and gently snap off beans or peas.  Explain how to spot a fruit or veggie that is ripe enough to pick.  Let them enjoy the harvest—the taste of one cherry tomato eaten while it is still warm from the sun may well get your child more enthused about gardening than all the picture books or verbal instruction in the world.

Set a Good Gardening Example

Delighted child in the garden
Garden organically, eat what you grow, teach your children about life cycles and pollinators. These experiences will make lasting impressions on your kids.

Children are much more likely to imitate what we do, than do what we tell them.  Encourage your child to spend time in the garden with you, even if they show little or no interest in garden chores.  Remember that you are planting the seeds of an interest, hobby, or even vocation that may lie dormant for years before sprouting later on in your child’s life.  Be patient.  Every good gardener knows that some seeds take longer to germinate than others.

Artful Gardens: Blending Art and Plantings

Artful Gardens: Blending Art and Plantings Featured Image
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Artful garden blending is combining a diverse collection of plants, hardscaping, and art into a larger, living, inspiring work of art. The greatest gardeners are master blenders that work magic to bring a garden design idea to life.

The Gertrude Jekylls and Christopher Lloyds (two famed and accomplished garden designers) of this world are rare but given a few guidelines, most of us can create visually and emotionally satisfying beds, borders, and container gardens. Incorporate some artful elements and you can have perfect synchrony of color, texture, and structural elements.

Blending Style

Sunny garden patio
This garden patio has formal statuary but informal plantings and lines.

Your approach to artfulness will depend on your individual style.  Do you like formality, with crisp edges and well-defined spaces, or do you prefer something a little less restrained, with drifts of plants blending together in a naturalistic style?  Your first steps may also depend on whether you are taking on a new bed or container array, or modifying one that is already established.  If a planting scheme is already established and you don’t want to start over from scratch, look at it with a critical eye.  Sometimes taking photos will help with this.  Figure out what you like and don’t like.  Does the big picture look like a mishmash of plants or an interesting composition?  If it looks like a mishmash, it’s time to find ways to introduce some unifying themes or elements.

If your garden lacks cohesion, you can often solve the problem by introducing repetition.  This can be as easy as going to the big box store and buying flats or large pots of annuals in a single neutral color, like white impatiens (for shady spots) or white cosmos (for sunny areas), and interspersing those plants throughout the bed or border.  You can do the same thing with silver-leaved foliage plants like silver sage (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’) or lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina).  Foliage plants have the added benefit of providing continuity that goes beyond flower color.

Repetition of textures is another technique that can bring about unity.  The quilted leaves of some hostas sprinkled throughout a shade garden or drifts of catmint (Nepeta species and hybrids) in sunnier areas can knit plant collections together.

Displaying Plants with Art

Green garden gazebo
Fencing and unifying colors evoke a strong sense of structure and continuity.

Think about displaying plants to best advantage.  For beds that back up to something solid—a fence, wall or tall hedge–place the tallest plants at the center back.  Medium height plants go in the middle of the bed and short or ground-covering plants go in front.  For circular beds or beds that will be seen from all sides, position the tallest, most striking specimens in the middle to create focal points.  You can also use a distinctive shrub, small tree or a piece of garden art to do the same job.

Think about displaying plants to best advantage.  For beds that back up to something solid—a fence, wall or tall hedge–place the tallest plants at the center back.  Medium height plants go in the middle of the bed and short or ground-covering plants go in front.  For circular beds or beds that will be seen from all sides, position the tallest, most striking specimens in the middle to create focal points.  You can also use a distinctive shrub, small tree or a piece of garden art to do the same job.

Whenever you rearrange plants or add new ones to the garden, give them a good start by amending the soil with quality organic matter like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend.  Healthy plants always make a more beautiful landscape.

Spring flowers and stone borders
Spring plantings in contrasting colors, textural walls, and walkways, and a simple artful pot blend together in a clean garden composition.

Some artful gardeners unify planting schemes by emphasizing a single color.  English gardener Vita Sackville West did this with her famous “White Garden” at Sissinghurst.  Using many shades or tones of one color, combined with plant choices that allow for long seasons of interest, can create beautiful effects.  Sometimes introducing a few specimens in a contrasting color adds sparkle.

Artists understand the color wheel and so should gardeners.  To create excitement and unify beds or large containers, combine primary or secondary colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel—blue and orange, for example—and choose plants with leaves and/or flowers in shades of those colors.  Mix brighter and lighter shades and use green as a neutral buffer, so that you garden doesn’t suffer from too much of a good thing.

You can also combine colors that are side by side on the color wheel, like shades of green, blue, and purple.  Plants with purple or purple/black leaves, like Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ or Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’, make especially useful accents.  Some artful gardeners choose “hot” color schemes (red, yellow, orange) or “cool’ colors (blue, pink, and purple) to unify plantings.

Plants and art
Plants and art can provide pleasing vertical and rounded elements in the garden.

If you have chosen sculptures, benches or other objects as focal points, use plants to highlight them.  Flank a garden arch with a columnar shrub, like Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’).  Position pots of red cannas on either end of a garden bench and you will have created an eye-catching focal point for a summer garden.  To avoid creating a sensory distraction, make sure that the surrounding plants are a little less dramatic. 

If you are just starting out, remember to keep it simple.  Think about seasons of interest.  Depending on the size of the bed, border, or container, choose varieties that will bloom at different times during the growing season. Remember that leaves, stems, bark, seed pods and fruit all contribute to a plant’s overall aesthetic value.  Nursery plant tags, catalog copy and internet references will help you figure this out.

Bird sculptures by the pond
Simple sculpture can add so much to special garden spaces.

And above all, don’t be afraid to take risks. Gardening is a forgiving art and planting “mistakes” can almost always be fixed by moving things around, introducing visual buffers or even giving away plants or decorative elements that don’t work.  The definition of “artful blending” depends on the taste of the individual doing it.