Sometimes gardening life is just a little too pastel and predictable. A day dawns when all those pale pinks, powdery blues, and dreamy pale yellows look washed out, and you yearn for exuberant flowers that pop out of beds and containers with bursts of bright color. By adding a few “technicolor” flowers with deep, saturated colors, you can create explosions in the garden without scaring the neighbors. (Those same neighbors will probably also enjoy the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators drawn to your vibrant blooms.) Continue reading “Technicolor Gardening: Vibrant Garden Flowers”
Many perennial flowers sulk in damp soil. Plant a lavender near a downspout or a tulip in a boggy hollow, and bad things are sure to follow. On the other hand, some perennials relish soggy sites. It all comes down to “right plant, right place.” You can either sentence a dry-land plant to death in that damp garden corner – or you can literally “go with the flow” and plant glorious flowering perennials that revel in a little wetness.
Here’s our choice of some of the best of the latter. These hardy perennials would be more than happy to settle into that wet garden niche, especially if the soil is not too heavy and standing water is relatively rare. To lighten heavy clay soil, mix in a few inches of an organic amendment such as Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, preferably when conditions are relatively dry. Be sure to consult with conservation authorities if natural wetland areas are nearby.
Spring Flowers for Wet Places
Even standing water is no problem for the earliest bloomer on our list: marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). Its cheerful yellow buttercups on foot-tall stems brighten wetlands over much of the temperate Northern Hemisphere as winter turns to spring. It will happily do the same in your garden in partial shade and any decent, constantly moist soil (no inundation required!). The bold, serrated, heart-shaped leaves are also rather nice.
Another spring-blooming beauty from damp woodlands of eastern North America, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) owes its common name to its tubular, narrow-waisted blooms that open pink and deepen to sky-blue. They cluster on 18-inch stems above broad, waxy, blue-frosted leaves that die back as flowering ceases in late spring. Plants that aren’t deadheaded produce numerous seedlings. Virginia bluebells grow from plump rootstocks that are sometimes dug from the woods by disreputable dealers, so beware of cheap, bare-root plants.
Hybrid globe flowers (Trollius × cultorum) open their bright buttercup blooms a few weeks after those of marsh marigold. The large, deeply cupped, creamy-white to dark orange flowers appear from late spring to early summer on 18- to 32-inch stems, depending on the variety. They arise from rosettes of deeply lobed leaves that go semi-dormant in July but flush with new growth later in the season. Trollius hybrids make delicious companions to blue-flowered perennials such as Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) and Texas blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana).
Late spring to early summer is also prime time for the candelabra flower clusters of Japanese primrose (Primula japonica). Borne on two-foot stems above rosettes of large, tongue-shaped leaves, the flowers come in numerous shades of red and pink, as well as white. This wet-garden classic thrives in partial shade but will manage in full sun in constantly damp soil. It’s especially spectacular when allowed to self-sow into large colonies – but keep in mind that “mongrel” seedlings will produce mixed and diluted flower colors.
Primula japonica is a natural garden mate for another East Asian native known for its love of moisture and its showy pink to red flowers – Astilbe. Although their frothy blooms and ferny leaves are a common sight in shady gardens, astilbes are arguably at their lushest in ample sun and damp soil. Conveniently, their flowering season hits its height in early summer, as the blooms of Japanese primrose are leaving the scene.
Summer Flowers for Wet Places
Early (and mid) summer is also the height of the flowering season of our native American Rudbeckia, most of which are quite happy with damp feet. The most ubiquitous and familiar is Rudbeckia fulgida, which usually goes as ‘Goldsturm’ (even though it usually isn’t). By whatever name, all forms of this butterfly magnet produce a summer-long abundance of golden-yellow, black-eyed daisy-flowers over rapidly expanding clumps of toothed leaves. (It’s also a prolific self-sower). Height at flowering is 15 to 40 inches, depending on the variety. Full sun is best.
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is another colorful beauty that grows in moist ground and has the added benefit of feeding Monarch butterfly larvae and adults. The hardy perennial reaches 3-5 feet and blooms in midsummer. It will truly thrive in very damp garden spaces, even those that have standing water for periods of time.
There are other numerous perennials for summer that are worth including on the list of plants for soggy places, including marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris), queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), ragwort (Ligularia spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). All of these will brighten up any damp summer garden.
Late-Season Flowers for Wet Places
For late-summer and fall color in damp semi-shade, there’s another splendid North American plant: pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii). The common name refers to the plump, oblong, lipped flowers that cluster atop the 2- to 4-foot stems of this Southeast native. Pairs of glossy, dark green leaves clothe the stems below the flowers. The cultivar ‘Hot Lips’ has rich rose-pink blooms on 30-inch plants that emerge bronze-green in spring. Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) also make good perennials for moist semi-shade.
Also ideal for the late-summer, damp, sunny garden is the coneflower that goes by the name Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Autumn Sun’ (or ‘Herbstsonne’, for you German-speaking rudbeckias). Greater in height and less aggressive in root than Rudbeckia fulgida, it hosts green-coned, lemon-yellow daisy-flowers on 5- to 6-foot-tall stems from mid to late summer. Another tall, golden bloomer for late in the season is the 3-6 foot swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). It produces copious stems of bright sunflowers against linear leaves. Both the coneflower and swamp sunflower combine well with purple Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) to make a stately garden statement.
Don’t let low, moist ground get your gardening spirits down. Damp garden niches offer loads of exciting possibilities when it comes to perennials.
Some perennials have major territorial issues. Give them an inch, and they’ll take a yard – or at least a good chunk of it. Allow them a toehold, and their rampant root systems or prolific seedlings will likely haunt your garden for years to come.
Of course, such perennials don’t limit their thuggery to the garden; they also can spread (usually by seed) into nearby natural areas, out-muscling native vegetation. For the scoop on the worst offenders in your region, check your state’s list of banned invasive species. But keep in mind that many species with serious boundary issues don’t appear on most state banned lists. Even if it’s not listed by your state (as is probably true of the species described below), the perennial that’s captured your heart might have designs on taking over your garden.
Just about any list (state or otherwise) of takeover perennials is likely to include a few that go by the common name “loosestrife.” Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – the perennial that ate the Northeast (as well as several other regions) – is the textbook example. Close behind, however, are several species in the genus Lysimachia. Many a gardener has regretted falling under the spell of the arching white spires of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides). Lovely in bouquets, this East-Asian native is a rambunctious bully in the garden, spreading rapidly via fleshy white underground shoots (known as rhizomes). A far wiser (and better behaved) choice for perennial borders is milky loosestrife (Lysimachia ephemerum), which forms 3-foot-tall, gray-leaved clumps surmounted in summer by candles of frothy white flowers.
Also too vigorous for most gardens are yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia punctata, and fringed loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliata (usually grown in its purple-leaved form, ‘Firecracker’). Both make good candidates for damp, isolated niches where they have room to romp. Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) and its hybrids (including ‘Carolina Moonlight’) would be a better choice for situations where good manners and 3-foot-spires of bright yellow, early-summer flowers are desired.
Quite a few other yellow-flowered aggressors are commonly grown (and virtually ineradicable) in gardens. Almost all perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), for example, are rapid colonizers with tenacious questing rhizomes. If the mellow yellow blooms of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ beguile you, you might want to opt instead for Silphium mohrii, which produces summer daisy-flowers of an even softer pastel-yellow, but on 4-foot-tall plants that stay in place. Another popular splashy yellow summer-bloomer to avoid is the double-flowered Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Golden Globe’ (also known as ‘Hortensia’). Take a pass on this common pass-along plant (there’s always plenty of it to share thanks to its romping rhizomes), and seek out its mannerly look-alike, ‘Goldquelle’.
Also often passed along are some of the more assertive yellow-flowered members of the evening primrose tribe (including Oenothera fruticosa and Oenothera tetragona). These might best be passed by in favor of arguably the largest-flowered and loveliest hardy Oenothera, Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa).
In contrast, goldenrods (Solidago) often get tagged with the “invasive” label, even though many of them are model citizens with arresting late-summer flowers. Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) holds dense, flat heads of lemon-yellow flowers above handsome clumps of gray-green foliage, while the equally fetching showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) carries steeples of bright yellow blooms on burgundy-red stems. As for the canard that goldenrods cause hay fever: they don’t.
The common name of Physostegia virginiana – obedient plant – also gives the appearance of a canard, given the relentless rhizomes of this Central U.S. native. The moniker, however, refers to the mauve-purple, turtlehead-shaped flowers that line its 3-foot-tall spikes in late summer. Push an individual flower into a new position, and it compliantly stays put. The white-flowered cultivar ‘Miss Manners’ departs from other physostegias in possessing obedient flowers AND rhizomes. Its flower color is also more compatible.
The domed flower heads of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) share the adaptable, milk-white coloration of ‘Miss Manners’. This prolific ornamental onion isn’t so good at sharing space, however. Neglect to deadhead its late-summer blooms, and it will populate much of your garden with seedlings. The somewhat earlier blooming Allium ramosum also bears showy (and sweet-scented) heads of white flowers atop 18-inch stems, but without the resulting seedling swarm.
Three more invasive perennials to steer clear of (and suggested substitutes) include:
- Plants sold under the botanical name Adenophora, which almost always are the fiendish, tuberous-rooted Campanula rapunculoides. Use peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) or great bellflower (Campanula latifolia) instead.
- Yellow archangel, Lamium galeobdelon. Rather than unleashing the garden-variety species on your yard, substitute its cultivar ‘Herman’s Pride’, which offers even more handsome silver-splashed foliage, sans the infinite spread.
- Butterbur (Petasites). Yes, the romping colonies of immense, heart-shaped leaves are captivating, but the thick rhizomes will not stop until they’ve occupied every square millimeter of available soil. A Ligularia or Rodgersia will give the same foliage effect without commandeering the whole neighborhood.
Whenever you plant a mannerly perennial in your yard, be sure you know its soil needs. Fortifying soil with needed amendments will result in better overall performance. We suggest Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, for starters. Although these and quite a few other perennials are too rampant for most garden areas, they might work in an isolated niche (such as a driveway island) where nothing else will grow, or in an informal planting (such as a cottage garden) that features plants that can fend for themselves. “Right plant, right place” is a garden maxim that never goes out of style.
People who believe there is nothing new under the sun have never looked at spring garden catalogs. Every year plant retailers bombard gardeners with pages of the new and different—or at least the slightly new and the somewhat improved. 2017 is no exception.
Familiar themes abound—color is king, with variegated or uniquely colored foliage augmenting floral displays. Rebloom leads the roster of “most desirable traits” for both perennials and annuals. Old standbys have shrunk into compact sizes that are perfect for containers and smaller garden spaces. Stalwarts, like cosmos and sunflowers, appear in new blossom shapes and colors, allowing plant lovers to set off a few garden fireworks without burning down the establishment.
New Flower Forms
Fleuroselect, the international organization for the ornamental plant industry, dubbed 2016-2017 “The Year of the Cosmos”. Several of these come in brazen new forms. Of these, the double white Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Mini Click White’ won the coveted Fleuroselect Novelty award for 2017. Even more striking is Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes’, which has cupped petals that resemble cupcake papers of white and pale pink. The seed-grown ‘Cupcakes’ have variable flowers that sometimes have an extra row of smaller inner petals. Another unique Cosmos for the market is the Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner ‘Xanthos’, which not only has uniquely colored pale-yellow flowers but a compact habit and good performance.
The familiar perennial coneflower takes on a new floral appearance with the domed, fully double Echinacea PUFF™ Vanilla, an ivory-flowered hybrid new for 2017 that blooms throughout summer with double anemone-type blooms. The Terra Nova Nurseries introduction also boasts a compact habit.
New Compact Flowers
Agastache, or hummingbird mint, has proved to be a favorite perennial for attracting hummingbirds to its colorful, reblooming flowers. Many good varieties have appeared on the market, but diminutive cultivars in the Acapulco Deluxe® series stand out, with the brightest being Acapulco Deluxe® Rose. It offers vibrant flowers of deepest rose (orange in bud) on fragrant, compact, container-friendly plants reaching 12 inches tall and wide. The plants are also heat and drought tolerant!
Another tough perennial now available in a more manageable size is Blue Jean Baby Russian sage (Perovskia atricplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’) features gray-green, aromatic, deer-resistant foliage and relatively short stature (2 feet), which can be further controlled by cutting plants back after they bloom.
This year introduces a true reblooming fragrant Dianthus for 2017, Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1! The compact bloomer reaches 10-12 inches and blooms nonstop from spring to fall, no deadheading required. Its outstanding performance awarded it a coveted AAS award for 2017!
If you decide to grow any of the new, compact annual or perennial varieties in containers, start them off right by filling those pots, window boxes and troughs with quality potting mixes, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed or moisture retentive Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.
New Flower Colors
Plant breeders continue to love bi-colored flowers and peach shades. A perfect example is Tagetes ‘Strawberry Blonde’, a marigold with the familiar pompom shape and petals blushed salmon pink, with golden overtones. Like all marigolds, it reblooms throughout the growing season and works equally well in containers and garden spaces of all sizes. Another peachy bloomer is Viola ‘Mariposa Peach Shades’, an annual pansy adorned with ruffled flowers in the yellow/orange range. It provides early and late season color that is welcome in climates with cool springs and falls.
The past ten years have seen a stampede of new perennial coneflower introductions. This year, with peach tones in the ascendant, one of the best is the Plants Nouveau introduction, Echinacea Butterfly™ Rainbow Marcella. Its colorful single flowers have brown cones surrounded by pinkish-peach petals.
Zinnias have exploded in both popularity and petal count. One of the most unusual of the new zinnias are those on the Queen Lime Series. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds exclusive Zinnia ‘Queen Lime with Blush’, sports pale pink and lime green petals and a central blotch of maroon. Like all tall zinnias, it is easy to grow and reaches 30 to 40 inches tall.
The Rose-like lisianthus usually comes in shades of violet-purple and white but the unusual Eustoma grandiflorum ‘Roseanne Deep Brown’ is a remarkable rich purple-brown. The complex color complements the sun-loving plants that reach 32 inches in height and have great stems for cutting.
Breeders have had a field day with perennial coreopsis or tickseed in recent years, creating versions of this low-growing perennial that boast larger flowers, more repeat blooms, and a wider color range. The traditional yellow has been augmented by eye-catching pinks, reds, and bi-colors. The new Uptick™ Series by Darwin Perennials features three varieties. ‘Cream’, ‘Yellow and Red’, and ‘Gold and Bronze’. The last two bear yellow or gold petals with darker red or bronze eye zones. Shearing after bloom speeds the rebloom cycle for all varieties.
Annual sunflowers play their own parts in the joyful bi-colored act. Among them, Helianthus annuus ‘Florenza’ stands out, with pale to medium yellow petal tips giving way to rings or eye zones of dark red that surround the black flower centers. The stems are short, topping out at about 32 inches tall and the flowers refuse to droop.
The unusually bushy feather Celosia ‘Asian Garden’ is another fabulous performer with impressive color that is listed as a 2017 AAS winner. Bred by the Japanese breeding company Murakami Seed, it produces endless plumes of purple-red above purple-leaved plants all summer long, even in the worst heat. Perfect for cutting gardens, it is also drought tolerant.
New Shade Flowers
Shade gardeners sometimes feel slighted because so many flowering plants love the sun. This year there is a reason to rejoice, as revitalized versions of reliable shade plants strut their stuff in new colors, shapes, and sizes. Ajuga or bugleweed, a perennial favorite groundcover, loves the shade, doesn’t mind being stepped on and spreads effectively to cover hard-to-cultivate areas. Breeders have taken ajuga and turned its traditional blue flowers into Ajuga ‘Pink Lightning’, a Sunny Border Nurseries introduction. Variegated leaves steal the show even after flowers have faded.
Bleeding heart, or Dicentra, is another spring shade lover, with pendulous heart-shaped flowers and deeply dissected leaves. Newcomer Dicentra ‘Amore Pink’ has blue-green foliage and large pink “hearts”. It is also compact–nine inches in height and only 12 inches tall.
And in the new flower celebration, gardeners should never forget hellebores, which have been all the rage for at least a decade. ‘Dark and Handsome’, a Helleborus orientalis hybrid from the Wedding Party™ Series, offers both unusual color—near black—and numerous large, semi-double flowers. With consistent moisture and a shady site, these dark-cloaked newcomers will establish themselves as stars of the spring garden party.
Flopping is often frowned upon in the perennial garden (and quickly corrected with bamboo stakes, peasticks, or other mechanisms, if it occurs). Some perennials, however, make a virtue out of laxity, their trailing growth providing the perfect foil to the upright stems of delphiniums, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). In flower gardens, as in containers, nothing complements a towering thriller better than a contrasting spiller.
Trailing perennials are especially valuable for their ability to knit together with other garden elements, upright or otherwise. Mass them at the fringe of a perennial border, and they unify what lies behind them. Position them near a path or patio, and their tumbling stems interrupt and soften the line between hardscape and softscape. And they’re literally made for walls, producing cascades of texture and color that bring the landscape alive.
Margins and walls are not the only places where trailing perennials do their knitting. They excel at covering the voids left by large perennials that go dormant in early summer, such as oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis). Many will thread their stems through upright neighboring perennials, intermingling their contrasting foliage and blooms. Some ground-hugging sprawlers (including creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum) can even be planted into lawns to form textured, flowering patchworks.
Here’s a sampling of some of the best of these perennial “knitters”.
A native of dry prairies throughout the Central U.S., winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) has just about everything a North American gardener could want, including cold-hardiness (USDA Zones 4-9), drought-tolerance, and a long season of showy blooms. Its lax stems typically form low mats, but will also clamber up neighboring plants or cascade down banks or walls. The bowl-shaped, bright purplish-pink, white-eyed blooms continue for many weeks in summer along new portions of the continually lengthening growth. Several other species of Callirhoe – of various habit – are also well worth growing. All of them prosper in dry habitats.
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is so common as to be dismissed by gardeners who should know better. But, just because a plant species is sold at hardware stores and supermarkets (as well as about every other establishment that deals in plants) doesn’t mean that it’s unfit for sophisticated gardens. Hailing from dry slopes and ledges in the East and Central U.S., this needle-leaved evergreen can’t be beat for draping down a wall, or covering a dry slope, or fronting a xeric perennial planting. Its filigreed foliage would be reason enough to grow it, even if it weren’t also a prolific early-spring bloomer. Gardeners who are put off by brassy-flowered forms of this species have any number of subtler cultivars from which to choose. It’s worth considering for any sunny garden within USDA Zones 3 to 9.
Several trailing bellflowers (Campanula spp.) occur on ledges and embankments in European mountains and take well to similar habitats in gardens. Among the most vigorous of the lot is Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), which in late spring bears starry blue flowers on low, 3- to 4-foot-wide hummocks. The typically sprawling stems will also clamber or drape, given the opportunity. Plants tolerate a wide range of conditions and may become overly rambunctious in moist, fertile soil. Other bellflowers for edging or walls include Campanula cochlearifolia, C. carpatica, C. garganica, and C. portenschlagiana.
Also from Europe is another trailing perennial that excels on sunny dry slopes: bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). A variable plant, it typically matures into a sprawling, 6- to 10-inch-tall mound of deeply lobed foliage, decked in late spring and summer with magenta, pink, or white, dark-veined flowers. This hardy (USDA Zones 5 to 9), a durable perennial is perhaps at its best in naturalistic plantings, where it can be allowed to seed around into informal colonies.
An excellent geranium for threading through perennials and shrubs is the Geranium ‘Rozanne’, prized for its early-summer-to-frost bounty of purplish-blue flowers. This lanky, 2- to 3-footer will also sprawl obligingly across gaps left by early-dormant perennials.
The legendary garden designer Gertrude Jekyll liked to cover such gaps with the lax, non-climbing growth of, a hybrid between the shrubby Clematis integrifolia and the vining Clematis lanuginosa. Its toppling, 7-foot stems bear a summer-long succession of large starry violet-blue flowers that resemble those of its vining parent. Other clematis for this purpose include Clematis recta, a 5-foot, splaying perennial that envelops itself in summer with small fragrant white flowers; and ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, another shrub/vine hybrid whose flopping 8-foot stems carry billowing clusters of pale-blue blooms in August and September.
Hardy perennials for knitting can be planted in fall. Good soil preparation and light mulch will help them become established and protect them through the winter months. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be worked into the soil at planting time and added as a light mulch around newly installed perennials.
It takes all types to make a perennial border, from seasonal thrillers (such as oriental poppies and hybrid tulips) to carpeting fillers. But no type is more valuable than the sort that is tall and trouble-free and has handsome foliage that doesn’t quit. Such dominant, “architectural” perennials are perfect for providing the structural backbone of the border, punctuating and unifying it with season-long form and texture.
Eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), for example, occurs in moist open habitats from the upper Mid-Atlantic to Texas. A variable plant in the wild, in cultivation it typically forms 3- to 4-foot-tall clumps of sturdy upright stems clothed with slender, willowy, lance-shaped leaves. The foliage stays healthy and lush all growing season. Clusters of powder-blue, star-shaped flowers cover the plant in mid-spring, and the leaves glow butter yellow in fall. This long-lived species will thrive for decades in fertile, humus-rich garden soil. (Sandy or clay soil can be amended with a good amendment, such as Fafard Premium Topsoil).
Several other bluestar species are also well worth growing, especially Hubricht’s bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), whose narrow, ribbon-like leaves form feathery 3-foot mounds. It, too, blooms blue in spring and turns buttery yellow in fall. The compact hybrid cultivar ‘Blue Ice’ is likely the best of all Amsonia for the garden, though its tidy, compact stature is less bold and architectural than most species.
Wild indigo (Baptisia australis) shares Eastern bluestar’s general geographic range, bloom time, stature, and longevity. Its spires of violet-blue flowers, however, are a different thing entirely. So, too, are its grayish-green, three-parted leaves and large, inflated seed pods. Plants emerge relatively late in spring, the asparagus-like new shoots developing rapidly into leafy 3- to 4-foot domes (or 18 to 24 inches in the case of subspecies minor). Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) does much the same thing, but with grayer foliage and luminous yellow flowers. It’s also more adaptable to dry sites, making it a good choice for xeric gardens. White-flowered wild indigo species include lofty white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and the relatively compact longbract wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata var. leucophaea), which holds its creamy blooms on gracefully bowing stems.
Yet another lordly legume from the central and eastern U.S., wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) produces bright yellow midsummer flowers on towering stems that can reach 6 or 7 feet in sites with moist, fertile soil. The pinnate, ferny leaves give it a light, airy presence, despite its imposing size.
The same can be said of Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum). Its majestic, 4- to 6-foot stems carry well-spaced, star-like whorls of narrow, pointed leaves, to elegant, almost weightless effect. Candelabras of frothy white or pink flowers develop atop the stems in midsummer. Like wild senna, it grows best in full sun to light shade and moist, relatively fertile soil, and is native to much of central and eastern North America.
The steppes of Central Asia are another hotbed of large, handsome perennials, including the misleadingly dubbed Russian sage. In fact, Perovskia ariplicifolia (and its near-twin, Perovskia abrotanoides) is from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet, rather than Russia. No matter; it’s still among the best architectural perennials for hot, sunny garden habitats with dry, lean soil. Technically a subshrub, it sends up 2- to 5-foot, silvery stems from a low, woody framework. Dainty, fuzzy, aromatic leaves line the stems’ lower reaches, below branching clusters of misty lavender-blue summer flowers. Numerous selections and hybrids of the species are available, including lace-leaved ‘Filigran’ and dwarf ‘Little Spire’.
Two of the finest groups of perennials for shady gardens have both Asian and North American roots. The genus Aralia offers architecture aplenty, comprising some of the supreme foliage plants for partial to full shade. Eastern North American native spikenard (Aralia racemosa) gradually matures into a 4- to 6-foot clump of immense compound leaves that suggest something tropical. Sprays of small, white, starburst flower clusters stand tall in midsummer, ripening to purple berries. Some forms of spikenard have burgundy-purple stems that add to the drama. East Asian aralias include A. cordata and its radiant chartreuse-yellow cultivar ‘Sun King’.
Members of the erstwhile genus Cimicifuga (recently lumped into Actaea) also loom large in the shady perennial border, both literally and figuratively. With their artfully divided leaves and showy candles of fragrant white flowers, bugbanes are perfect for bringing life and light to the garden. Maroon-leaved cultivars such as ‘Black Negligee’ are the current darlings of designers, but perhaps the gem of the genus is Actaea rubifolia, from the mountains of the Southeast U.S. The luxuriant, jagged, maple-like foliage alone puts it in the first rank of perennials, and its showy white wands are the equal of any bugbane.
Hardy geraniums will not cure baldness, ensure world peace or transform a chocolate cake into healthy food, but they are the answer to a wide range of garden questions.
Do you need a perennial ground cover to disguise the wretched remnants of spring daffodil foliage? Try bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), with pink flowers and apple-scented leaves that redden in the fall. Is your garden in need of a flowering plant that will flourish in shade? Waste no time in snapping up the shade-tolerant Geranium phaeum. Does your heart ache for a well-mannered, weed-stomping carpet to plant at the feet of that brand new hydrangea? Try Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, an award-winning white-flowered hybrid with gorgeous lobed leaves.
Hardy geraniums, sometimes called “cranesbills”, belong to the same family as the showy window-box geraniums that adorn outdoor spaces from Memorial Day through the end of summer. Everyone, from your grandmother to your nosy neighbor, refers to those big-headed specimens as “geraniums”, but they are known botanically as Pelargonium.
Lovely as they are, pelargoniums are not winter hardy in much of the United States. Hardy geraniums, on the other hand, are often reliably perennial in cold-winter climates. In place of the large, domed flowerheads characteristic of pelargoniums, hardy geraniums most often bear single, five-petaled blooms in shades ranging from purest white to near black. Many of the most popular varieties feature pink or purple flowers, sometimes with contrasting veins.
Good garden centers and specialty nurseries offer an array of hardy geraniums, making choice the biggest challenge. To figure out the answer to your particular geranium question, take stock of the available growing space and light availability, and consider some of the following beautiful and useful cranesbills just waiting to find homes in your garden.
Horticultural experts in high places, like England’s Royal Horticultural Society and America’s Perennial Plant Association, have decreed that ‘Rozanne’ is nothing short of a miracle plant. The one-inch flowers are among the bluest found in the geranium clan, with five blue-purple petals surrounding a pale blue-white central “eye zone”. Reblooming at regular intervals throughout the growing season, ‘Rozanne’ also provides deeply dissected foliage that turns red in the fall.
“Bloody cranesbill” is an evil-sounding common name for Geranium sanguineum, a lovely law-abiding plant with pink flowers accented by darker red veins. Variety lancastriense features darker pink blooms than the species. Growing only ten inches high, the plants spread into pretty mounds, with dissected, medium green foliage. The spring-blooming ‘Album’ cultivar has all the virtues of other sanguineums, plus pristine white petals. It tends to self-sow, but is never uncivilized in the process. Besides, the flowers are so beautiful that self-sowing is a virtue.
Biokovo cranesbill (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’), a spontaneous hybrid named after the Croatian mountain range where it was discovered, bears lovely rounded leaves that are at least semi-evergreen in many climates. Spreading nicely over time, this geranium, another Perennial Plant Association “Plant of the Year” winner, bears delicate white spring flowers with prominent red stamens.
The garden world would be poorer by far without bigroot geranium and its various offspring. Its fragrant, palmate leaves are a great foil for the numerous pink spring flowers. The blooms of ‘Bevan’s Variety’ are a little darker than the species. All bigroots spread if they are happy and their undemanding nature makes achieving that happiness easy. If bigroot geraniums happen to stray into light shade, they will still perform well.
The hardy geranium tribe is also home to numerous species and varieties that thrive in light to partial shade, with some that will even prosper under trees. One of the best known is Geranium phaeum. Like bloody cranesbill, it suffers from grim nicknames, including “dusky cranesbill” and “mourning widow”.
Native to parts of Eurasia, including Croatia, the “widows” are distinguished by reflexed petals that range in color from the white of ’Album’ through shades of mauve to the deepest purple-black of ‘Raven’. All are attractive without being flashy. Some Geranium phaeum varieties provide extra value by bearing variegated foliage. The distinctive pointed leaves of the purple-flowered ‘Samobor’, for example, are mottled with large, maroon-purple blotches.
Geranium nodosum is another good choice for shady spots. The species features maple-like lobed leaves and purple flowers, accented with darker veins. Making a slightly louder statement, the fashionably-named ‘Svelte Lilac’ variety boasts flowers with lighter “eye zones” and brighter green leaves.
Cranesbills are almost always billed as being deer =or varmint resistant, not to mention tolerant of various soils and climate conditions. Start them right by amending the soil before planting with a high-quality mixture like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost or Premium Topsoil. Water regularly until the young geraniums are established. Once flowering is through, shear back the foliage to keep plants looking attractive and stimulate new flowers in reblooming varieties, like ‘Rozanne’.
In addition to their other virtues, most happy cranesbills will eventually form large clumps that are easy to divide and use elsewhere in the garden or donate to lucky gardening friends. For beauty, ease of care, and the ability to cloth garden beds, containers, and even rock wall niches with loveliness, hardy geraniums are a great investment.
Garden writers in cold winter climates often warm themselves in January and February by rhapsodizing about topics like good garden “bones”, shrubs with bright berries, and the enduring appeal of evergreens. That is all well and good, but many of us are just dying to see a flower—any flower—in the garden. And that is precisely why hellebores are so wonderful.
About Christmas and Lenten Rose
What could be better in the gray weeks after the Winter Solstice than to wade into the garden and see the large, buttercup-like flowers of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) shining out like spring beacons? Just as the white blooms of Christmas rose begin their transition to buff pink, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) unfolds its petals.
If hellebores have been on your radar in the last few years, you know that those substantial Lenten rose petals may appear in an array of colors from palest green through a range of yellows, pinks, and reds to near-black. Not only that, but they may be single or double, with rounded or pointed edges. Bi-colored varieties are common, as are those marked with alluring freckles. Hellebore leaves are usually evergreen, deeply dissected, and medium to dark green in color, depending on species. Sometimes, the foliage is even enhanced with attractive marbling or contrasting venation.
Native to various parts of Europe, western Asia, and China, hellebore species, especially Christmas rose, have been on the horticultural and medicinal radar screen since ancient times.
Large-scale garden use of hellebores has taken off in the last two decades, with the plants’ popularity increasing exponentially. Part of this has to do with modern propagation methods. Traditionally hellebores were grown from seed—a slow process—or increased by dividing established clumps. Modern tissue culture (cloning) has made it much easier to produce large numbers of identical plants.
Breeding efforts in the United States, Europe, and Asia have also resulted in many new, seed-grown varieties. These have been painstakingly bred for specific traits, especially unusual coloration and double flowers.
Hellebores have become catnip to gardeners who love their easy-going nature, long season of bloom and resistance to hungry deer and other garden browsers. Planted in lightly shaded spots with good drainage, most thrive with little care. Though they are reasonably drought tolerant, the plants appreciate supplemental water during dry periods. When planting, enrich the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, to give young plants a good start.
Happy Lenten roses will often mature into large evergreen or partially evergreen clumps that can be used very effectively as ground covers. Their leaves can also provide good cover for the fading foliage of spring bloomers like daffodils and tulips.
Some species, like the unfortunately nicknamed “stinking hellebore” (Helleborus foetidus) also self-sow with enthusiasm.
Hellebores also perform well in spacious containers. Remember to allow enough room for plants that will reach 2-feet in diameter at maturity, and give the roots a good container medium like Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Water containers regularly during summer dry spells. If space is tight, grow hellebores in plastic liner pots that can be dropped into slightly larger containers during the bloom season and removed later to make way for other flowering plants.
Other Hellebore Species
Christmas and Lenten roses are the most frequently planted hellebores, but they are not the only ones available. If you are blessed with a spot that is too sunny for Lenten or Christmas roses, try Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), which grows about 2-feet tall and wide and features large, pale green flowers and lightly marbled, leathery leaves. Mature plants can produce 20 to 30 flowers apiece.
Cloned varieties of the hybrid Eric Smith’s hellebores (Helleborus x ericsmithii) are worth growing for their foliage alone, which is adorned with silvery veining. Many of these hybrids have reddish flower stems that support outward-facing white flowers that age to pink, a testament to their Christmas rose parentage.
For maximum early-season floral impact and sequence of bloom, plant several species of Helleborus in shady garden areas. Christmas rose and its hybrids, bloom first, often followed by bear’s foot or stinking hellebore and the silvery green-leafed Corsican hellebore. The Lenten rose hybrids make a splash afterward. To get the best floral show, especially with low-growing stemless types like Christmas and Lenten rose, clip off old, ragged-looking leaves to allow blossoms and new growth to shine forth.
Berries and interesting tree bark of the winter landscape are lovely, but hellebores make a mid-winter garden party.
When choosing new plants for 2016, it always pays to know the bestowers of plant awards, so you can easily identify the best-of-the-best edibles and ornamentals for the season. Plant award programs are numerous and many are distinct in their selection criteria. What they have in common are great garden plants.
And these programs are reliable. Not only are most based on extensive field trials but they are also driven by third-party entities with the simple goal of promoting outstanding plants for home and garden. So, you can count on award-winners to perform well, if they are recommended for your region. Many are tested and approved for national audiences but others are specifically selected for regions, or by plant societies dedicated to specific plant groups. Here is just a sampling of recommended awards programs and their great plants.
The All-America Selections (AAS) is a respected, independent, non-profit organization that promotes terrific plants for North America. Their mission is “To promote new garden varieties with superior garden performance judged in impartial trials in North America.” Their trials are conducted across the US and Canada and focus on high-performing vegetables and annual garden flowers. Each year a handful of award winners are chosen and promoted. The program began in 1933, and lots of “old” award winners, now technically heirlooms, are still grown today. To learn more about the AAS and their selection criteria, click here.
There are 12 AAS-winning plants for 2016 to include Salvia Summer Jewel™ Lavender, tomato ‘Candyland Red’, and the giant white pumpkin ‘Super Moon F1’.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) program, which highlights plants of great merit for UK growers. Thankfully, many of the selected plants also perform well in North America. Unlike the AAS, this program seeks out all forms of high-performing ornamental include trees, shrubs and perennials. Species and cultivated plants are all fair game.
Recent additions to the AGM program include Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’, sweet pea ‘Mary Mac’ and carrot ‘Artemis’.
The Garden Club of America (GCA) promotes an outstanding North American native plant of the year and bestows upon it the Montine McDaniel Freeman Horticulture Award in honor of longtime member of a New Orleans GCA chapter, Montine McDaniel Freeman. The award-winning native for 2015 is the lofty and beautiful bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), which is long-lived, tough and statuesque.
A “Perennial Plant of the Year”, bestowed by the Perennial Plant Association, has been selected since the program began in 1990. Chosen plants must be “suitable for a wide range of growing climates, require low maintenance, have multiple-season interest, and are relatively pest/disease-free.” Novice gardeners seeking to beautify their landscapes with perennials would be wise to start by choosing plants from this list—to include the 2015 selection, Biokovo geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’).
Plant Select® is a popular regional awards program dedicated to ornamental plants—woody and herbaceous—of the North American high plains and intermountain region, but many are good general performers in other parts of the country. One unique feature is that “Plant Select® leverages a uniquely collaborative model and highly-selective cultivation process to find, test and distribute plants that thrive on less water.” So, Plant Select® are water-wise in addition to being high performing and beautiful. Disease resistance and non-invasiveness are two more important selection criteria.
Notable Plant Select® winners for 2015 are the evergreen Wallowa Mountain desert moss (Arenaria ‘Wallowa Mountain’), perfect for fairy and succulent gardens, Windwalker® Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’), Coral Baby penstemon (Penstemon ‘Coral Baby’), and the stately Woodward Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum ‘Woodward’).
Out East, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been promoting its PHS Gold Medal Plants annually since 1978. The winners represent superior woody plants for the landscape that thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-7. Recent winners include the Rising Sun redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Rising Sun’) and Darts Duke viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Darts Duke’).
There are lots of plant societies offering award-winning selections for home and garden each year. The All-America Roses Selections (AARS) has represented the best from their national rose trials since 1930, but due to a flagging economy this important trial ended in 2014. Fortunately, some have been willing to keep it alive, bringing us several great winners for 2015, which includes the thornless, cerise pink, antique rose ‘Thomas Affleck’ and the fragrant hybrid tea, Deelish®.
Choose to garden smart this season with a few award winners. Pick a few for the New Year and reap the rewards. Fortify them with top-quality potting soils and amendments from Fafard, and you cannot go wrong.
The best way to survive winter is to dress warmly and dream of spring. And the best way to dream of spring is to get acquainted with new plant varieties. For maximum spiritual uplift, start with flowering annuals and perennials.
If you were conjuring up the perfect flowering annual or perennial for 2015, it would possess all the traits that gardeners have come to expect over the last few years. The ideal plant would feature a compact growth habit, making it suitable for both in-ground and container gardening, and it would bloom continuously or rebloom regularly throughout the growing season. On top of all that, the ideal plant would be fragrant, adaptable to varying cultural conditions and resistant to pests and diseases. Shade-loving paragons of perfection would feature interesting foliage or conspicuous flowers, or, ideally, both.
The following are some of the picks of the 2015 introductions crop.
Millions of Petunias: Petunias and their smaller relatives, Calibrachoa, abound among this year’s introductions, with breeders bringing out new colors, forms, and expansions of existing lines. Vivid red-and-yellow striped ‘Caloha Double Trouble’ from Cohen Propagation Nurseries features double flowers and a trailing growth habit. Proven Winners adds to the Super Bells series of single-flowered calibrachoa with the vivid cerise ‘Superbells Cherry Red Improved.’
Foliage Drama: Coleus continues to dominate among annual shade plants. New entries include Ball Seed’s maroon and green ‘Coleosaurus’ and ‘Box Office Bronze.’ Rex begonias also come on strong with the introduction of the Jurassic Series from Ball Ingenuity. The plants feature lobed foliage variegated in shades of green, red, white, bronze, purple and silver.
Tougher Impatiens: For those who have given up impatiens because of disease issues, help is at hand in the form of Selecta’s Bounce and Big Bounce series. Bearing flowers in an array of colors, these impatiens are disease-resistant interspecific hybrids that are able, according to marketers to rebound from fungal disease.
Crazy Daisies: With their colorful petals and blue-tinted centers, floriferous daisy-form osteospermum, native to South Africa, are wonderful for containers and garden beds. New varieties include ‘Blue-Eyed Beauty’ from Ball Seed’s, with golden petals surrounding a blue-purple central eye.
Uptick in Tickseed: American’s love affair with Coreopsis or tickseed continues unabated with many new varieties of this daisy family member. Veteran breeder Darryl Probst of Walter’s Gardens makes a big noise with his compact Little Bang series, including ‘Enchanted Eve,’ which is yellow with red centers; rosy ‘Red Elf’ and white-petaled ‘Starlight,’ which also features rosy centers.
On the Rise: Vertical gardening continues to thrive everywhere and this year’s clematis introductions take it to new heights. ‘Fireflame’s red flowers grow as large as 6 to 8 inches, appearing as single or double forms over the course of the growing season. With raspberry-pink petals edged in white, ‘Maria Therese’ is a compact, large-flowered variety introduced from Pride of Place Plants. Planted in containers in-ground, ‘Maria Therese’ combines big visual impact with a manageable size.
Early and Often: Shade-loving hellebores have caught the fancy of many breeders and gardeners, providing bloom and color in late winter and early spring. Color ranges have increased, with breeders also working on new leaf colors and shapes. One of the better varieties from Plants Nouveau is called ‘Candy Love’ and has blooms in delicate shades of pink and yellow.
Geum Generosity: Cheerful, low-growing geums have come into their own because they suit plots or pots and rebloom over the course of the growing season. One of the most vibrant of the geum tribe is the new ‘Sunkissed Lime,’ from Terra Nova. The 9- inch tall plants feature eye-grabbing lime green foliage and vivid orange flowers. ‘Sunkissed Lime’ offers garden smooches in sun or light shade.
Butterfly Magnets: With plentiful flower spikes that attract butterflies and garden visitors, while repelling deer, ornamental salvias have long been mainstays of the sunny garden. New varieties abound for 2015, including Salvia nemorosa ‘Blue Marvel’ from Ball Seed. The color is similar to old favorite ‘Mainacht,’ but the flowers are larger. The Color Spires series from Proven Winners expands the Salvia nemorosa color range and includes three new varieties: ‘Crystal Blue,’ ‘Violet Riot’ and ‘Pink Dawn.’
With daylight on the increase and green thumbs beginning to tingle for another year, get a good start on the gardening season by making lists of interesting, newly-introduced plants that might work in your garden. Stock up on necessary garden components like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix for containers and Fafard Garden Manure Blend to build soil fertility. The last frost date will come sooner than you think.