pH-The Heart and Soul of Soil

You would never plop a baby in a bathtub without first testing the temperature of the water, so why would you plant a tree or shrub without first testing the soil for its pH level? The baby will wail if the water is too hot or cold, but the plant, lacking vocal cords, will simply languish, maybe even die if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. Death comes from starvation; the plant can’t absorb the nutrients crucial to its health. Acidic soil causes nutrients to leach out rapidly before the roots can grab them whereas alkaline soil ties up the nutrients, binding them so tightly that they are unavailable to the roots. Once diagnosed either of these conditions is easily corrected.

Kits to test the soil’s pH are available at most garden centers or over the Internet. Simply follow the instructions, taking care to draw and test samples from several areas in the garden. Once the readings are taken, interpreting them is easy: a pH reading of 7.0 is neutral, below 7.0 means that the soil is acidic or sour, and higher than 7.0 the soil is sweet or alkaline.

Even if you have no pH kit you can test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil with a simple DIY experiment. Put 2 teaspoons of soil into each of 2 separate cups. Add ½ cup of vinegar to one, and if it fizzes the soil is alkaline, with a pH between 7.0 and 8.0. To the second soil sample, mix in enough distilled water to make a slurry and add ½ cup of baking soda. It the slurry fizzes your soil sample is acidic with a pH between 5.0 and 6.0. If there’s no reaction to either experiment, you’re in luck – your soil is neutral.

Once you have tested the soil and figured out whether it is sweet or sour you’re ready to plant, but before you plunk that pricey specimen in the ground, check the plant’s pH requirements and amend the soil accordingly. Some plants prefer one end of the range or the other; broad leaf evergreens like rhododendrons and azaleas want a mildly acidic soil, but clematis and geraniums hate acidity and will thrive only in a slightly alkaline soil. As a rough rule of thumb, to raise or neutralize the pH of an acidic soil and slow the leaching of nutrients, work dolomitic limestone into the garden, and to lower the pH of an alkaline soil and free up nutrients, apply aluminum sulfate – always according to the directions on the package.

Even without a pH test sometimes the tree or shrub will tell the gardener what elements are missing from its diet, deficiencies that can be corrected once their symptoms are recognized. For instance, if the plant suffers from a shortage of nitrogen, the primary nutrient responsible for green leaves and robust growth, its mature leaves will turn yellow, and the stems tend to be short and reddish in color. To remedy this problem, apply a fertilizer that has a high first number listed on the bag, such as 30-10-10. This means that 30% of the active ingredients in the fertilizer are nitrogen – the other two numbers refer to the percentage of phosphorus and potassium, respectively. If the foliage looks bronze or very dark green and the plant appears stunted, your soil probably lacks phosphorus, the basic nutrient essential for healthy roots and big gorgeous flowers. To correct this condition you need a fertilizer with a high second number, such as 10-30-10, or work a healthy dose of bone meal into your garden. The final basic element is potassium, and a deficiency is marked by curling leaves often mottled with brown spots, symptoms that show up when the pH is less than 6.0 or greater than 7.0. This problem can be alleviated by the application of a fertilizer with a high third number or a compost made primarily from food products – think, banana peels. A balance of these three basic nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, determines the general health of plants, but secondary nutrients, sometimes known as trace elements, are almost as important.

When the soil is acidic three secondary elements, calcium, magnesium and sulfur, flow out of the porous soil too quickly for the plant to latch on to them. To correct the problem, apply dolomitic lime at regular intervals or work crushed egg shells into the soil. If calcium is lacking, the new growth of the plant emerges distorted, but in the case of tomatoes the new growth may look healthy, but the fruit will be rotten on the bottom. The gardener can spot a magnesium deficiency if the mature leaves are yellow and they drop early. A temporary fix is to spray the foliage with a solution of Epsom salts, one cup per gallon of water, but to cure the problem for good give the soil a shot of dolomitic lime. A lack of sulfur shows up as universal chlorosis, a yellowing of all leaves, both new and old, a symptom that can be alleviated with a dose of superphosphate.

The two micronutrients most affected when the soil is too alkaline, or when the pH reads above 7.5, are zinc and iron. A zinc deficiency, known as the “little leaf” symptom, is characterized by increasingly smaller leaves, and to correct for a shortage of zinc, shove several glazier points in the soil around the plant, an old but highly effective cure. If the leaves of your plant are yellow, but the veins are still green then the plant is suffering from a lack of iron that can be corrected by dousing the plant, leaves as well as roots, with chelated iron.

Relying on the plant to tell you what’s missing from its diet can be risky; the same symptoms may signal several different deficiencies. For a more accurate diagnosis test your soil’s pH and avoid all of these disfiguring, life-threatening maladies.

Going Rogue with Grasses

Leaf through any glossy gardening magazine and chances are you will come upon several pages of stylized perennial garden sketches, one for shade, one for full sun, one to attract bees, another to draw butterflies. But do any of those slick garden designs ever include ornamental grasses? Hardly ever. That’s a pity. A garden that mixes ornamental grasses with flowering perennials adds new textures, adds motion, and adds months to the life of the garden long after all those flashy perennials have dropped dead.

Ornamental grasses fall into one of two groups, those that like it cool and wet and those that like it hot and drier. A cool season grass begins growing at the end of winter, putting on its finest show in early spring but going dormant in summer, even browning out and dying back. A warm season grass is slow to show its face in spring but comes into its glory in the heat of summer. This distinction is important when planning your ornamental grass garden. Plant only cool season grasses and you’ll have empty patches of dirt in summer. Plant only warm season grasses and you’ll have empty patches of dirt all spring. Balance is the key – plant some of both for a continuous display through most of the year.

Apart from their growing patterns, cool season and warm season grasses have differing needs. Cool season grasses need plenty of moisture, loving April showers, and require frequent dividing, say every second year, to avoid the “donut hole” look, brown in the center with a ring of new growth around the outside. Warm season grasses generally don’t need as much water or division, but they are slower to get established than their cool season buddies; they should be planted in late spring so they have a chance to put down strong roots before the onslaught of winter.

A cool season grass that does not suffer from the ‘donut hole’ syndrome, Hakonechloa macra, Japanese Forest Grass, is one of the only grasses to thrive in full shade. Named for Mt. Hakone in Japan, this lover of woodland conditions puts out yellow-green flowers above its bamboo-like foliage in mid-summer but dies to the ground in winter. Although it spreads by rhizomes this handsome foot tall specimen (hardy to USDA Zones 5-9) is well mannered, never running amok. Two stunning cultivars are ‘Aureola’ which has a gold stripe running down its green blades

and ‘All Gold’ with bright yellow foliage.

Two other cool season grasses that love moist conditions are Purple Moor Grass and Feather Reed Grass. Purple Moor Grass or Molinia caerulea,

gets its common name from the moors of Europe where it was first spotted and the purple tint of its airy seed heads that emerge in early July. Favoring full sun and acidic soil, this fountain shaped grass stands about 2 feet tall and is hardy to USDA Zones 4 – 9. To set your garden aglow plant it in a spot where its silvery green foliage and plumes are backlit by the early morning or late afternoon sun. The other cool season selection that thrives in wet soil Calamagrostis x acutiflora or Feather Reed Grass is often used to anchor stream banks. This tidy compact grass sports green blades about 3 feet tall and fluffy sandy fronds in June that look like sheaves of wheat. Named Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001 by the Perennial Plant Association, Calamagrostis (USDA Zones 3-9) wants full sun and will tolerate heavy clay soils. A cultivar of note is ‘Karl Foerster”named for a German nurseryman who introduced this grass to the world in 1950.

Rounding out the discussion of cool season grasses, two that prefer dry soil are Blue Oat Grass, Helictotrichon sempervirens,

and Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca, both very similar in appearance although Blue Fescue is barely a foot tall whereas Blue Oat Grass is double the height. These two blues have similar foliage, spiky thin blades forming a porcupine-like clump, and both are semi-evergreen. Blue Oat Grass (USDA Zones 4-9) blooms earlier than Blue Fescue (USDA Zones 4-8) putting out airy beige flower clusters in early June that last well into fall, and for the best steel blue color plant it in a sunny dry spot. The Royal Horticultural Society recognized the value of Helictotrichon by honoring it with the coveted Award of Merit in 1993. If a 2 foot tall grass that grows 3 feet in diameter is too grand for your site, choose Festuca glauca a daintier version that is equally at home in a rock garden or in the front of a perennial border. The variety ‘Elijah Blue’,

introduced by The Plantage Nursery on Long Island, is readily available at nurseries and garden centers. This dwarf, blooming in early summer, should be divided every 2 – 3 years to avoid the ‘donut hole’ look.

Turning attention to the warm season grasses, three selections that can tolerate moist soil are Panicum virgatum, Pennisetum alopecuroides, and Chasmanthium latifolium. Dismounting from the botanical high horse, they are commonly known as Switch Grass, Fountain Grass, and Indian Woodoats. Beginning the discussion, Panicum virgatum or Switch Grass (USDA Zones 5-9) is a tough prairie native that produces an airy cloud of pink plumes from July through February – now that’s longevity for you. For an “Oh, wow!” garden moment choose the stately cultivar ‘Heavy Metal’ whose blades mature to a metallic blue forming a dramatic backdrop for the pink cloud of flowers.

Preferring full sun it can stand a little shade, but do keep the soil lean; too much fertilizer will cause it to flop over. Fountain Grass or Pennisetum alopecuroides

also blooms from July to February, its bottle brush flowers rising above a fountain of green change from whitish purple to copper purple as the days grow shorter. Again, as with many of the ornamental grasses, give it as much sun as possible for the best color. Fountain Grass (USDA Zones 5-9) is known to be invasive in some states, and if this is a concern, simply remove the seed heads to prevent its spread. The final selection for a warm season grass that likes moist soil is another mid-Western native Chasmanthium latifolium or Indian Woodoats (USDA Zones 4-8),

one of the more shade tolerant ornamental grasses. Shaped like Indian arrowheads the seed heads emerge in August changing from green to bronze as the summer wanes, and when stirred by a breeze they make a calming rustling sound. Often used to hold stream banks in place because of its affinity for wet soil, this toughie also can take wind and salt spray a real plus for those who garden at the coast.

Two ornamental grass selections that prefer dry conditions are Miscanthus sinensis and Schizachyrium scoparium or more familiarly Little Bluestem. Introduced in the late 1800’s Miscanthus sinensis

or Chinese Plume Grass needs full sun to remain its upright regal self, but it can tolerate drought and air pollution making it a favorite of urban gardeners in USDA Zones 5-9. The cultivar ‘Gracimillimus’ bursts forth in August with 6 foot pink plumes that will hang on through the winter if you hold off whacking it back until spring. For those in the more temperate climates who fear its invasive nature, applying a heavy layer of mulch will curb the spread of the seeds. Little Bluestem, native to the prairies of North America,

is half the size of Miscanthus but shares many of the same traits; it too produces pink plumes from August to February, and also can withstand drought and air pollution. But unlike Miscanthus Little Bluestem is celebrated for its dramatic fall show when its blue-green blades change to a brilliant bronze-orange.

Finally, most discussions of ornamental grasses generally include two grass lookalikes, Carex pensylvanica and Sisrinchium angustifolium. Carex pensylvanica

is really a sedge, a marsh plant, not a grass at all (hardy in USDA Zones 3-8), and for those who prefer native plants, a Carex is a good substitute for Hakonechloa, thriving in part to full shade. Another native of North America Sisrinchium angustifolium, or Blue-eyed Grass (USDA Zones 4-9),

is a member of the Iris family, and at a dainty 1½ feet it is an ideal choice for a sunny rock garden. Its ribbon-like leaves resemble a grass, but in the spring this little beauty puts out delicate blue flowers surrounding a yellow eye that never fail to induce a smile.

So when planning your perennial garden flip past those sketches in that glossy magazine and create a design that includes choices from the vast and varied world of ornamental grasses, and you will add another dimension to your garden, one that introduces movement, texture and structure.

Plant Sources

Digging Dog Nursery

High Country Gardens

Prairie Nursery

Photo Credits

Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ – The Designing Gardener
Molinia caerulea – Elke Freese
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ – The Designing Gardener
Helictotrichon sempervirens – Sten Porse
Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ – The Designing Gardener
Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ – The Designing Gardener
Pennisetum alopecuroides – Daderot
Chasmanthium latifolium – Eric in SF
Miscanthus sinensis – Miya.m
Schizachyrium scoparium – Montrealais
Carex pensylvania – Chhe
Sisrinchium angustifolium – Meneerke bloem

A Cure for the Winter Blahs

Now that spring has finally settled in with its dazzling display of flashy bulbs and early blooming perennials, we gardeners are quick to forget how we suffered the blahs of winter just a few short weeks ago. But next year rather than wallow in the winter doldrums, dedicate some space in your garden right now for a collection of conifers, those evergreens that bear cones. Although they provide a colorful display all year round, the conifers really shine in winter when the rest of the garden is sound asleep.

Since these evergreens are so different in their colors, textures, shapes and sizes, the garden that showcases those differences delivers the greatest visual interest. The only hard and fast rule of any conifer design is to site the garden where it will get the most sun, at least six hours a day. Although some conifers can take partial or even full shade, their numbers are limited, so if you are stuck with woodland conditions read no further but check out the blog post Putting Pizazz in the Winter Garden for other ideas.

One of the only needled evergreens that can tolerate deep shade, Cephalotaxus harringtonii, or Japanese Plum Yew, is generally grown as a sprawling shrub, but for a more formal look choose the variety ‘Fastigiata’ a great selection for a narrow hedge in a shady area.
In summer it produces an edible plum-like fruit, and for those who garden in the South, Cephalotaxus will tolerate your hot humid summers, (it is hardy in USDA Zones 6-9) and deer won’t touch it; take note you gardeners plagued by browsing Bambis. A close relative, the Japanese Yew, less tolerant of hot humid summers but happy in Northern winters (USDA Zones 4-7), prefers part shade and even moisture, but must have good drainage, so go easy on the mulch. Instead of cones this yew produces fat red berries, a feast for migrating birds.
A good choice for the urban garden Japanese yews can be spreading or upright, and for admirers of the work of Edward Scissorhands this evergreen can be shaped, carved into an elephant or hippo, say, if that’s your thing.

For a totally different look, Abies koreana, or Korean fir,
sports fragrant silvery blue needles that support upright purple cones, a real show stopper in the winter. Like its brethren the yews, the Korean fir also tolerates partial shade, and although it can reach up to 20’ tall, it is slow growing so it takes a long time before it hogs the garden. Preferring cool summers (USDA Zones 5-7), it demands good drainage and despises heavy clay soil.

The False Cypress group, Chamaecyparis in botanical lingo, can also stand some shade, but it must be stressed that with the exception of Cephalotaxus, the more sun you can give any conifer the more vibrant its color and the more robust its growth rate. One specimen that merits a place in any garden, Chamaecyparis obtusa, or Hinoki Cypress, can grow to 50 feet in USDA Zones 4-8, typically too large for most home gardens. A daintier version, ‘Nana Gracilis’
is a fine choice for the front of the conifer garden, topping out at about 4 feet. Its graceful branches resemble deep green ruffled cups and call out to all who pass, “Look at me!” Another False Cypress choice, Chamaecyparis pisifera, has thread-like branches, and a variety that tolerates part shade, ‘Golden Charm’, is a slow growing yellow haystack that only gets to about 5 feet at maturity.
To round out the color palette, add a blue choice to the yellow and green selections and make some room for Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, or Port Orford Cedar (actually not a cedar at all). Although this West Coast native (USDA Zones 5-8) is the tallest of the False Cypresses reaching upwards of 100 feet, fortunately for our home gardens nurserymen have developed smaller cultivars; one handsome specimen ‘Blue Surprise’ gets no taller than 6 feet. This beauty sports silver blue needles that take on a purple tinge as the temperatures drop, a big wow factor in a winter garden. Like all the conifers C. lawsoniana needs good drainage.

Now for those conifer gardens sited in full sun, 6 to 8 hours a day, we turn to a discussion of the spruces, pines, cedars and junipers. One lover of winter thriving in USDA Zones 4-7, Picea orientalis has small dark green shiny needles on branches that sweep the ground.

In addition to full sun the Oriental Spruce likes even moisture but will not thrive in coastal or urban gardens. A delicate medium size cultivar ‘Gowdy’ tops out at about 10 feet, but a shorter variety ‘Gracilis Nana’ gets only 4 feet tall at maturity. If you are looking for a yellow version of the Oriental Spruce choose ‘Aurea’ whose new growth emerges yellow before turning green. Since this spruce can get to be 25 feet tall, site it toward the back of the garden if you have the space to include it.

Another lover of winter’s cold Korean Pine, or Pinus koraiensis,
is hardy to USDA Zone 3 which spans the northernmost part of the country. But if you garden in any USDA Zone greater than 7 this pine is not for you; Korean Pines languish in hot humid summers. Noted for its large cones that contain edible pine nuts (think, pesto), its graceful green branches swoop almost to the ground. Two notable pyramidal cultivars of this pine, ‘Silveray’ introduced in 1979 has silvery blue needles with a metallic tinge and grows to about 8 feet tall and ‘Morris Blue’ introduced by the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia has soft powdery blue needles and tops out at 12 feet.

Although they seem to have fallen out of gardening favor of late, the Junipers deserve a spot in any conifer garden because of their sheer adaptability, tolerating a wide range of conditions in USDA Zones 4-9, and this is especially true of Juniperus chinensis.
To add a formal touch to the sunny conifer garden choose the variety ‘Blue Point’ a stately 12 foot blue-green specimen equally at home flanking a formal entrance or screening an ugly outbuilding. Like all Junipers this is one tough plant, as happy in a city environment as in a seaside garden battered by salt spray and wind. For a more informal look ‘Iowa’ is a good choice whose loose branches are covered with prickly blue-green needles, a stunning backdrop for the silvery blue waxy berries produced in late fall.

No discussion of a sunny conifer garden is complete without mentioning the cedars, and the lead off choice is the national tree of Japan, Cryptomeria japonica, or Japanese Cedar, also a favorite among bonsai enthusiasts.
Despite its common name, it is not a true cedar but shares many of the characteristics of the Cedrus family including blue-green needles that are faintly fragrant and red-brown bark. Two outstanding cultivars selected because of their different uses in the landscape are ‘Black Dragon’ with black-green needles forming a dense pyramid that will be about 6 feet at maturity and ‘Tansu’ a 3-5’ round dumpling equally at home in a rock garden or at the front of the conifer garden. Both varieties grow well in USDA Zones 5-9, and require little maintenance.

Now for the true Cedar family, a perennial favorite is Cedrus atlantica, or Blue Atlas Cedar,

native to the High Atlas Mountains of North Africa (Hardy in USDA Zones 6-9 in this country). Although it grows slowly it can reach 40 feet so it needs a large open space to display its airy branches of blue-green needles. If your garden is not suited for such a large specimen, but maybe you have a rock wall whose austere stones need softening choose a Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar, a specimen that can be trained to grow horizontally. No wall, you say? Well, how about a little spot in the front of your garden for an 18 inch delicate beauty called ‘Sapphire Nymph’ whose powder blue needles grow on fine short sprays?

The final choice for the sunny conifer garden is also a cedar, Cedrus deodara, or Deodar Cedar,
which gets its name from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘timber of the gods’. This cedar, the national tree of Pakistan, is hardy in USDA Zones 7-11 and also gets to be about 40 feet so it may not be suitable for your conifer garden. But if you have a large lawn that cries out for a punctuation mark do consider a Deodar Cedar with its graceful drooping blue-green branches and loose pyramidal shape. Two varieties that can take the winters in Zone 6 are ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Shalimar’, but if you simply have no room for such a large specimen consider planting ‘Devinely Blue’ which gets no taller than 2 feet. Named for a Maryland propagator it sports the bluish needles and upright cones characteristics of all Deodar Cedars.

The three key words to a dynamic conifer garden are: Mix It Up – by color – greens, yellows and blues – by size – dwarf, medium and tall – by texture – soft needles, prickly needles, short and long needles – and by shape – sprawling, columnar, or pyramidal. Give your conifer garden as much sun as possible, good drainage, then plant your choices and enjoy the view all year long, but especially in winter.

Plant Sources

Conifer Kingdom

Kigi Nursery

Evergreen Nursery

Photo Credits

Abies koreana – By Cyrillic
Cephalotaxus harringtonii ‘Fastigiata’ – Meneerka bloem
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ – HelloMojo
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Charm’ – SEWilco
Taxus cuspidata – Alpsdake
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana – Eric Hunt
Picea orientalis – Karduelis
Cryptomeria japonica – Montrealis
Pinus koraiensis – Daderot
Cedrus deodara – Luigi Chiesa
Juniperus chinensis – Chhe
Cedrus atlantica – MUS52

Dainty Plants to Cure the Boulder Blues

Rocks are nature’s acne, some pitting the surface of the earth and others just waiting to erupt. Small rocks are a nuisance, but they are easy to control: sift and dig, dig and sift. A big rock, one that has burst onto the face of the landscape, poses a greater challenge; expensive to remove it is often left to stand alone, unanchored and irrelevant. But a large rock can provide a visual treat if you pack the crevices with soil, plant them with a variety of tiny alpine perennials and create a rock garden oasis.

Alpine plants – a term that once meant the small sub-shrubs that grow above the timberline but today refers to any dwarf or compact rock garden plant – share many of the same characteristics. All are fussy about soil, demanding a well-drained gritty bed that is slightly alkaline. With few exceptions they put on their most spectacular display in the spring, a flower show of pastels – purples, pinks, whites, blues – no shocking colors among the alpines. And, bad news for those of us who toil in woodland gardens, most require full sun, at least 6 to 8 hours a day (not many trees above the timberline), although there are a couple of handsome exceptions that tolerate partial shade.

The first alpine that thrives in light shade, the Dwarf Columbine (Aquilegia flabellata)

bursts forth in early spring with a mass of dainty flowers that look like old-fashioned purple or white bonnets. Blooming a little later than the columbine in early summer, Dalmatian Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana)

was first discovered in Croatia, tucked among the limestone outcroppings of the mountains. This little beauty produces a profusion of flaring violet bell-shaped flowers forming a carpet of color from late spring through the summer. Both of these alpines share a love of light shade and well-drained soil.

Of those alpine plants that demand full sun, spring is their season and the selection is vast, forcing choices – choices by color. If you are partial to white, three fine alpine varieties are Candy Tuft (Iberis sempervirens), Wall Rock Cress (Arabis caucasica) and Sandwort (Arenaria montana). Although its peak bloom time is spring, Candy Tuft,
will continue to flower sporadically throughout the summer and into fall, and for a visual punch choose the handsome cultivar ‘Snowflake’ for your rock garden, a variety prized for its glossy green leaves and showy flowers. Another spring bloomer, the old favorite Wall Rock Cress (sometimes known just as Rock Cress)

forms a neat mound of dense gray-green foliage and can spread as much as 18 inches, so give it some room on the rock. One of the loveliest of all the rock garden plants, the trailing Sandwort

is covered in spring with masses of pure white flowers with bright yellow centers, softening the hard edges of a wall when it spills over the side.

One of the first pink alpines to bloom in spring, Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima)

pops up in April its dense round flower heads dancing on slender stems. Thriving in dry soil this plant has staying power; the sturdy Sea Thrift has been in cultivation since the late 16th century. Blooming a little later, Soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides)

gets its common name from its roots which were used by pioneer women in washing clothes; rubbed on clothes they emit a powerful detergent which dissolves grease and dirt. Soapwort blooms through late spring into early summer and makes a dramatic display when draped over the top of a rock. To add some fragrance to your garden, choose Cheddar Pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus)

deriving its common name not from the cheese but from its original home the limestone cliffs of Cheddar Gorge in England. The hybrid ‘Tiny Rubies’ blooms a vibrant pink and, if you deadhead diligently, it will continue to flower into fall. For a tough vigorous evergreen groundcover that can handle kid traffic, Mother of Thyme (Thymus serpyllum)

emits the familiar scent of the herb when crushed under foot. Another member of the family that deserves a spot in any rock garden is Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox),

a perennial that is covered with pink flowers throughout the summer. Like its cousin Mother of Thyme, Creeping Thyme is associated with strength, courage, happiness and wellbeing (who can resist a plant with such a pedigree?). If you still have a spare spot for yet another pink alpine consider the late-blooming Stonecrop (Sedum seiboldii).

Although it is covered with dusty pink blossoms in the fall, it is the fleshy foliage that commands attention; its blue-gray leaves edged with red during the growing season turn brilliant copper in the fall setting a rock or wall ablaze. This is a great choice for a hot dry spot.

If pink is not your color there are several purple or blue alpines to choose from, and the Mediterranean Rock Cress (Aubrieta deltoidea)

is one of the earliest to flower. Named for a French botanical artist this Rock Cress is easy to grow, thriving on benign neglect; just give it a hot dry space and watch it flourish. Two excellent hybrids are the deep blue ‘Novalis Blue’ and ‘Rokey’s Purple’ which is covered with rich purple flowers all season. Another rich purple alpine to consider is Sprawling Speedwell (Veronica prostrata)

that forms a mossy mat 4 inches high and is covered with clusters of intense blue flowers from late spring into early summer. To tone down the intensity of all that purple, bathe your rock or wall with the bright yellow flowers of Basket of Gold (Aurinia saxatilis),

or if that color is too sharp for your taste, choose the soft lemon yellow variety ‘Citrina’.

So, if you are faced with a naked boulder or a bare wall that screams “boring!” forget the jackhammer and work with nature. Pack the dips and gullies of your rock with mounds of soil and plant a variety of small alpines and transform a barren eyesore into a miniature garden. Or if your challenge is an imposing rock wall, stuff the chinks and crevices with a some soil and trailing alpine plants, letting them spill out over the sides of the wall, softening its stony face with a mass of pastel flowers. Alpine plants won’t cure nature’s acne, but like any good makeup they can help in masking her flaws.

Plant Sources

Wrightman Alpine Nurseries

High Country Gardens

Blue Stone Perennials

Photo Credits

Aquilegia flabellata – Ghislain 118
Campanula portenschlagiana – Wouter Hagens
Iberis sempervirens – Heron2
Arabia caucasica – H. Zell
Arenaria montana – Mtiffany71
Armeria maritima – Wilson44691
Saponaria ocymoides – Tigerente
Dianthus gratianapolitanus – Kurt Stuber
Thymus serpyllum – Jerzy Opiola
Thymus praecox – Marek Slusarczyk
Sedum sieboldii – Digigalos
Aubrieta deltoidea – Stan Shebs
Veronica prostrata – Hans Hillewaert
Aurinia saxitilis – CC BY-SA 3.0

Nature’s Curse

A dry shade garden. What could be worse? No sun. No moisture. You can’t have a cut flower garden, nor a woodland garden. The one wants sun, the other moisture. So is there hope for the gardener cursed with dry shade? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes, and this discussion will focus on those shrubs and perennials that actually thrive in dry shade. But it must be stressed that even these tough plants need regular water until they get established.

Although Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of sadness for Christians, it also signals one of nature’s most welcome events, the flowering of the Lenten Rose or Helleborus (hardy in USDA Zones 6-9). Rising from clumps of evergreen leaves, these blossoms come in a rainbow of colors, a palette that is rapidly expanding as hybridizers rush to satisfy a surging demand. Hellebores owe their popularity not only to their early display, but also to their love of shade and dry soil. Once they have settled in they will self sow, or for more control increase your stock by dividing older plants in late fall or winter. And for those gardeners battling browsing deer, take heart; hellebores contain poisonous alkaloids, a highly effective deer deterrent.

A couple of months after the hellebores have bloomed, the vivid pink and purple flowers of Geranium macrorrhizum emerge, brightening a shady spot or lighting up the shadow cast by a rock wall. Commonly known as Bigroot Geranium for its thick rhizomes that spread vigorously, this sturdy groundcover can tolerate the hot humid summers of the South (hardy in USDA Zones 3-8); their fat roots store enough water to keep the plant vibrant. The flowers, beloved by butterflies, fade in late spring, and that’s the time to give your geranium a haircut. As the summer days grow shorter, the geranium’s spicy scented leaves turn multiple shades of orange and red and lasting well into winter.

Blooming at about the same time another dry shade lover, Bergenia cordifolia also spreads by rhizomes although at a much slower rate than the geranium.
A handsome groundcover, Pig Squeak, so dubbed by the sound made when two leaves are rubbed together, sports tiny showy pink flowers in spring standing tall above glossy green leathery leaves that turn purplish bronze in the fall (USDA Zones 3-8).

Often mistaken for orchids the dainty nodding flowers of Epimediums, the final flowering perennial group chosen for a dry shady area, actually belong to the Barberry family.
Flowering in early spring epimedium blossoms span a vast spectrum of colors including all shades of pink and purple, yellow, orange, red or white, and the leaves are just as varied, purple, green, bronze; only your taste limits your choice. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9 these Asian natives may be grown as groundcovers or as specimen plants, they may be deciduous or evergreen; again the choice is yours. For more information on this remarkable genus see the blog post These Leaves Shine in the Shade.

For a more casual look consider planting the weeping willow of grasses, Carex, a grass look-alike that actually is a sedge.
With over 1500 species in the family the gardener can choose a blue carex, or a green one with ivory stripes, solid green, or green with white margins – the choice is almost limitless. And the uses of this elegant plant are equally varied; plant it to soften a wall, serve as a point of focus, or control soil erosion on a dry shady slope. Holding its color through winter in the warmer climes (it is hardy from USDA Zones 5-9) its strappy leaves turn bronze the farther north you garden. But no matter how it ages through the seasons, the interesting texture of a carex always enlivens a winter garden.

Lovers of dry shade are not limited to perennials; many shrubs prefer those conditions as well, and Kerria japonica is one of the most colorful.
Bursting with vibrant yellow blossoms in early spring long before its puckered green leaves emerge, this graceful specimen is named for an 18th century head gardener at Kew Gardens. A mature Kerria can grow to be 6 feet by 6 feet, but if that size threatens to eat up your garden, whack it back to the desired size right after flowering. Even in winter this beauty continues to delight the eye; bare of leaves its vivid green branches stand out, especially in a garden smothered in snow (hardy in USDA Zones 4-9).

Another colorful shrub that flourishes in dry shade is the Missouri native Physocarpus or Nine Bark, named for its exfoliating bark that peels away in strips.

Blooming in May a little later than the Kerria the pinkish white clusters of flowers are a knockout against the purple leaves of the cultivar ‘Diablo’. For a brighter variety chose ‘Amber Jubilee’ whose orange, yellow and gold leaves will cheer up any dreary spot. Hardy from USDA Zones 3-7 the deciduous Nine Bark tops out at about 6 feet, but if you want to contain it prune it after it has flowered.

No discussion of shrubs that flourish in dry shade would be complete without mentioning the Boxwood family. Everyone knows English boxwood; it’s the most popular landscape shrub in the country, but it does have its drawbacks, slow growth rate and foul odor among them, so this discussion will focus on its lesser known cousin, Buxus microphylla var. sinica or Korean Boxwood.
Not as formal as English boxwood, it is evergreen (USDA Zones 4-9), a big selling point, although in the colder climates it tends to turn bronze and should be protected from winter winds. Search for the cultivar ‘Wintergreen’ if you want a tough shrub that holds on to its green color through the winter. At maturity a Korean boxwood will not get much taller than 4 feet, and although it blooms, the highly scented flowers are sparse and insignificant.

If it’s fragrance you’re after one of the most outstanding choices is Sweet Box or Sarcococca ruscifolia (USDA Zones 7-9). In late winter tiny white flowers peek out from glossy green leaves and fill the air with a sweet vanilla scent, and after the flowers have died bright red berries take their place. Plant this shrub where both the fragrance and the winter display will be fully appreciated, by an entrance door or flanking a walkway. Be sure to give enough space for your Sweet Box; when it is fully grown it will be about 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall. If you absolutely have no room for another shrub no matter how outstanding consider planting the groundcover variety S. hookeriana var. humilis.
A native of the Himalayas this variety of sarcococca grows only 1 to 2 feet tall and differs from its taller brethren only in berry color; it produces black fruit rather than red.

The final shrub selection for a shady dry area is Nandina domestica, Heavenly Bamboo, so named because it was often cultivated by monks in their temple gardens.
Grown in USDA Zones 6-9 it is evergreen in all but the coldest climates, but even there it will drop only a few leaves in winter. Come spring the lacy green foliage breaks out followed by bunches of tiny white flowers, but many gardeners prize it most for its fall color, a rich deep burgundy, and its clusters of drooping red berries. For the best fall color, try to give it some sun and for the best berry show plant several nandinas together. However, if you garden in the southeast and are concerned about its invasive habit select one of the cultivars that produces little or no fruit; ‘Fire Power’ and ‘Gulf Stream’ are two good selections. The foliage of ‘Fire Power’ emerges a bright lime green in spring and turns fire engine red in the fall. ‘Gulf Stream’, one of the bushiest and most compact of the nandinas, sports bronze leaves with orange tints throughout the growing season.

So as this discussion illustrates, by choosing plants wisely and watering them well early on a gardener can break nature’s curse and bring life and light to the most inhospitable of sites, a dry and shady garden.

Shrub and Perennial Plant Resources

Bluestone Perennials

Nature Hills

Lazy S’S Farm


Photo Credits

1. Hellebores – CC BY-SA 3.0
2. Geranium macrorrhizum – Hardyplants
3. Bergenia cordifolia – Christain Hummert
4. Epimedium – Peter Coxhead
5. Carex halleriana – CC BY-SA 3.0
6. Kerria japonica – Jeffdelonge
7. Physocarpus – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
8. Buxus microphylla var. sinica – Sten Porse
9 Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis – CC BY-SA 3.0
10. Nandina domestica – Public Domain

Nasty Plants

Most gardeners have heard the story of the evil kudzu, the “Vine that Ate the South”. Originally introduced as an ornamental plant at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876 it remained benign until the mid 1930’s when it was planted extensively by mid-western farmers to control soil erosion caused by dust storms. Soon kudzu turned into a plague rather than a cure, swallowing up native plants, abandoned houses, broken down cars, telephone poles, in short, anything standing still. Most invasive plants are not quite as aggressive, and some can even serve useful purposes, but it pays to know which plants are likely to give a gardener a bad rep and a hard time. Here are a few of the worst culprits.

One of the top offenders is Euonymus alatus, Winged Euonymus or Burning Bush whose invading range extends from New England through the mid-west.

Brought into the United States in 1860 as a decorative shrub and prized for its brilliant fall foliage and corky stems, the fruit is much beloved by birds who then distribute the seeds far and wide. Once Burning Bush gets established it snuffs out all native plants in the vicinity so just be aware that if you decide to plant a Burning Bush, your neighbors a couple of miles away might be less than thrilled with your decision.

1860 also saw the introduction into the US of another ornamental shrub, Japanese Barberry, Berberus thunbergii (what were the Victorians thinking?).
Highly valued as a hedge it is easily shaped, has rich winter color, produces vibrant red berries and is deer resistant (deer have no taste for the thorns). As with Burning Bush birds disseminate the seeds of the red berries, and once they take root in woods and meadows they grow rapidly, forming dense thickets and smothering native plants. As if that was not curse enough, barberries harbor swarms of black-legged ticks, carriers of Lyme disease among other scourges. Difficult to eradicate with no known predators, the only way to control the spread of barberry is to dig it, burn it or zap it with Roundup. Because of its invasive habit many states have banned the sale or trade of Japanese Barberry.

Then there is a whole family of aggressive invaders, the Bamboos of which Phyllostachy aurea or Golden Bamboo is the black sheep.

A fast growing screening plant that quickly produces an impenetrable forest of slender stalks, bamboo falls into two categories – it can be either clumping or running. Although few nurseries sell the running variety because it literally runs amok, even clumping bamboo requires restraint, demanding either annual root pruning or enclosing the roots with a 30inch deep plastic barrier. Yet taking these precautions does not guarantee that it will behave – bamboo has been known to spring up 50 feet away from the mother plant and even jump driveways. Astonishingly one homeowner reported that bamboo shoots sprouted through his basement floor, not a dirt floor, a cement floor. The only sure fire way to keep it under control is to plant it in a container and treat it as a handsome specimen.

Invasive plants are not just limited to woody shrubs; some flowering perennials have made the hit list as well. The top contender for Evil Perennial of the Century is Purple Loosestrife or Lythrum salicaria, a stately plant with magenta flowers that often is spotted in wide swathes along the nation’s highways causing the occupants of passing cars to ooh and ah.
Perhaps they would hold their applause if they realized they were celebrating a plant that the World Conservation Union has labeled one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Yet despite condemnation by guardians of the environment, Purple Loosestrife still is widely available commercially; only a few states have banned its sale. Thought to have been brought to this country in a ship’s ballast, this self-sowing devil thrives in sunny wetlands, and its only known predator is a European beetle that feeds exclusively on the leaves. In an attempt to control the spread of Purple Loosestrife, many states have instituted programs to release these beetles into the wild, programs that have proved fairly successful thus far.

Another invasive species often sighted and sited beside roadways is the charming Ox-eye Daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, whose bright white petals and golden yellow centers liven up long stretches of highway.

Often confused with its taller sister, Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) which is not invasive, the Ox-eye daisy can produce up to 26,000 seeds per plant, seeds so sturdy that even when buried they may remain viable for more than 25 years. Resistant to many herbicides, the most effective control is to dig the plant and destroy it, and for those gardeners thinking of planting a wildflower mixture, check the contents of the seed packet; often Ox-eye Daisy seeds are included.

An aggressive groundcover, Creeping Jenny or Moneywort thrives in sunny moist locations. Named for a Macedonian king Lysimachia nummularia spreads rapidly, its brutish behavior snuffing out lesser plants in its path. In spite of its reputation as a brute, Creeping Jenny serves as a colorful groundcover with its bright yellow flowers and penny-shaped chartreuse leaves; just be sure to keep an eye on it lest it breach its boundaries.

In spite of its popularity and widespread availability, the groundcover Vinca minor, or Myrtle is on many states’ list of nasty plants.

Introduced in the 1700’s for its medicinal properties, it quickly gained widespread adoption as an ornamental low growing plant – evergreen, easy to grow even in deep shade, and best of all, producing delicate blue flowers in early spring. An ideal groundcover one would think except for one drawback; it roots from the tips of runners forming a dense mat that smothers any plant in its way. Caution is advised when planting a vinca minor bed; it may branch out, spreading its long arms into unwanted places, the middle of your lawn, for instance. Since its waxy leaves repel most herbicides the only sure fire way to eradicate errant plants is to pull them up.

In addition to woody shrubs and perennial plants, two aggressive vines are renown for taking over their neighborhoods. The first, Lonicera maackii, Amur Honeysuckle was initially valued for its fragrant creamy white flowers, black berries and rapid growth,
but later reviled for its invading and marauding habit; many states have banned the sale and distribution of this honeysuckle. Brought to this country in the mid 19th century as an ornamental plant it turned out to be just as nasty as Japanese Barberry and Burning Bush two plants that arrived on these shores at about the same time. As is the case with many invasive plants, birds feasting on the berries can be blamed for the spread of honeysuckles, and with no known natural predators the only control methods are digging, burning or spraying with a glyphosate such as Roundup.

The final nasty plant selection Hedera Helix or English Ivy has been in this country since colonial days brought by the early settlers to add a touch of home to their gardens.
Growing in partial to full shade it makes an ideal woodland groundcover, but it also can morph into a vine, scrambling up tree trunks, blocking the sun and causing the decline and death of its host. In spite of its thuggish behavior many have been awed by the beauty of ivy-covered facades of many buildings on old college campuses (it is reputed that’s how the Ivy League schools got the moniker), but beauty is in the eye of the beholder; just ask any owner of a brick house who has footed the repair bill for the havoc wrecked by the tenacious tendrils of English Ivy.

This discussion only touched on the worst of the invasive plants; the list is extensive with new varieties added yearly – similar to the endangered species list, they both are expanding but one is threatened and the other is threatening. Just as gardeners check the sun and soil requirements before planting any new specimen, so too should they check the growth habit in case they inadvertently create a monster.

For More Information:

Photo Credits:

Euonymus alatus – Chris Borton CC BY-SA 3.0
Berberis thunbergii – Sage Ross
Phyllostachys aurea – Kurt Stuber
Lythrum salicaria – Saffron Blaze CC BY-SA 3.0
Leucanthemum vulgare – Derek Ramsey
Lysimachia nummularia – CC BY-SA 3.0
Vinca minor – Ryan Kaldori
Lonicera maackii – Wouter Hagens
Hedera helix – H. Zell

The Fiery Colors of Fall

In case you hadn’t noticed, fall is in the air. You can smell it; the metallic air of summer has become sweeter. You can see it; spiders spin ever-widening webs. You can hear it; cicadas trill incessantly at dusk. Soon the deciduous trees and shrubs will herald the arrival of fall when their rich green foliage turns to gold and red – a change triggered by warm sunny days followed by a string of crisp nights.

For those partial to the yellow tones, a stunning choice is that classic street tree Ginkgo biloba (USDA Zones 3-8) ginkgo_biloba_fall
whose dainty fan-shaped leaves turn from bright green to lemon yellow as the nights lengthen. One of the most primitive plants (it is thought to have taken root 300 million years ago), but after flourishing for 200 million years, this ancient beauty suffered a decline and began to die out. Saved from extinction by Chinese monks who nurtured it in their temple gardens, today the noble ginkgo thrives worldwide. This graceful specimen must have full sun but tolerates heat, alkaline soil, some air pollution, and even the salt spread on roadways in winter. Although it’s a slow grower it may top 60 feet at maturity, but if you have the space, consider one of two special cultivars, the luminous ‘Autumn Gold’ or the slender ‘Fastigiata’. Do be sure that you select a male tree; the female ginkgo produces a stinky fruit that reeks like rotting flesh, a nasty odor fortunately not encountered often.

Another outstanding selection among those trees that turn golden yellow in fall, is the Katsura tree or Cercidiphyllum japonicum,cercidiphyllum_japonicum_jpg01d
a real beauty that produces a different show throughout the year. In spring its round leaves emerge reddish purple, changing to blue-green in summer, and staging a vibrant golden display for the fall finale. Valued as a shade tree the pyramidal Katsura, hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, does best in full sun to part shade and moist soil, although it can tolerate mild drought once established. A favorite of many horticulturists the Katsura tree wins the award for an easy to grow outstanding ornamental specimen.

Moving from the cool yellows to the warmer orange hues, Cercis canadensis or Eastern Redbud (USDA Zones 4-8)cercis_canadensis_forest_pansy_jpg1fe
is prized among small landscape trees (some actually consider it a large shrub), a treasure for those gardeners with limited land. Growing no taller than 25 feet, redbud branches are covered with hot pink flowers in early spring before its leaves emerge, a vibrant display that shatters the gloom of winter overnight. The cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ sports heart-shaped burgundy leaves, but if pink blooms are not your thing consider ‘Alba’ whose creamy white flowers give way to lustrous green leaves in summer. All the redbuds, native to Eastern and Central North America, thrive in full sun and hot summers, requiring little water as long as they get ample moisture in winter and spring. Choose the site for your tree carefully; the Eastern Redbud does not like to relocate.

To really set your garden aglow, find a spot in full or part sun in your USDA Zones 4-9 garden for a Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidium,A
whose mitten-shaped leaves turn electric orange in the fall. Renown for its fragrance this medium sized tree or large shrub boasts multiple uses first recognized by Native Americans; the leaves are used to flavor teas, the roots give root beer its name, and its shredded leaves are used to thicken gumbo that famous Southern dish. To add to its many attributes the female sassafras tree produces dark blue berries beloved by birds and butterflies, most notably the Spicebush Swallowtail.spicebush_swallowtail_in_august
Give your sassafras regular water, and since it produces a long taproot don’t even think of moving it once it’s been planted.

Now for the reds – those glorious reds. An obvious choice for a spectacular fall display is the queen of all landscape trees, the elegant Acer palmatum, and the selection of Japanese maple cultivars is boundless. You need only choose the shape – upright or weeping – the size – from tall and stately to dwarf – the color – from green to orange to red – the shape of the leaf – from lobed to thread-like;acer-palmatum-ssp
it’s only your taste that limits your choice. But for the most dramatic fall color, three varieties are standouts. If you have enough space to accommodate a 25-foot tree, consider ‘Osakazuki’, a large sturdy grower with finely cut leaves. ‘Osakazuki’ reigns supreme for brilliant fall color, changing from the deep green of summer to an intense scarlet in autumn. A slightly smaller variety, ‘Shishigashira’ is a slow grower rarely attaining more that 15 feet, and, for those of you who indulge your gardening passion on a balcony, this cultivar performs just as well in a container. The leaf of ‘Shishigashira’ is heavily curled and bunched up, hence its name – lion’s mane in Japanese. For those of you who have crammed every possible plant into your garden, but still must have just one A. palmatum, search out ‘Brandt’s Dwarf’ a shrubby variety no larger than 3 feet by 3 feet. The leaves of this little lovely emerge a plum red in spring, turning dark red, then rusty green in summer, and crimson in fall – a rainbow of color throughout the seasons. Most of the Japanese maples grow well in USDA Zones 5-9 and prefer regular water and filtered light to protect them from sunburn.

More pedestrian than the exotic Japanese maples, but still an old favorite for late fall crimson color is the tall street tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, or Sweetgum.
Although blessed by a lovely delicate shape, it is cursed by its spiny fruit, which litters sidewalks, driveways and lawns, so be prepared to keep the rake handy. The Liquidambar (USDA Zones 5-9) also puts on a show in winter when its deeply furrowed bark and corky winged branches are no longer camouflaged by its dense fragrant foliage. This tree relishes full sun and regular water – although it will put on a dramatic display even if planted in dry soil. To encourage a strong vertical trunk, prune the side branches when the tree is young, and your Liquidambar will grow into a regal beauty.

For those who have smaller gardens with no room for large trees you need not be bereft of fall color if you plant Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina domestica,plant-nandina-domestica-imgp1261reduced
a well-behaved shrub that produces shades of yellow, apricot and crimson all at once. Although its colors are most vibrant if it’s planted in full sun, the Nandina can tolerate partial or even deep shade; your fall show simply will be more muted. Semi-evergreen in USDA Zones 6-9 this tough cutie, partial to moist soil, produces dainty white flowers in spring followed by bright red berries in fall and winter, a big draw for birds especially cedar waxwings and mockingbirds. Two of the most colorful cultivars are ‘Firepower’ whose lime green leaves turn fire engine red as the days shorten and ‘Gulf Stream’ a bushier and more compact variety growing 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

So as the days grow shorter and spirits sag at the sight of a flagging landscape, include in your garden a tree or shrub known for its fiery foliage and extend its life well into fall. Be aware though – climate conditions can affect the intensity of color; an extended drought will dampen the vibrancy of color, as will a wet fall or a sudden frost. But no worries; there’s always next year.

Tree and Shrub Sources

Nature Hills
Brighter Blooms Nursery

Photo Credits

Ginkgo biloba – Meneerke bloem
Katsura tree – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
Cercis canadensis – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
Sassafras albidium – Berean Hunter
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly – Haar Fager
Acer palmatum leaves – Abrahami
Liquidambar – ontologicalpuppy

Bulbs That Break Out of the Box

Long before the winter-weary gardener spots the first robin, she dreams of fields of tulips and thickets of daffodils. It is only the flowers of bulbs that herald the dawn of spring, not the perennials, not the annuals – they arrive late to this party. No, it’s the bulbs that give us hope and make us smile. But bulb choices are not limited to crocuses, daffodils and tulips; the bulb world is so much richer and more diverse. So before you succumb to the newest Dutch tulip or double narcissus, pause and consider some of the more unusual members of the family.

What gardener doesn’t thrill to the sight of tiny white Snowdrops poking up through a late winter dusting of snow? Even before winter is shown the door the vigorous naturalizer Galanthus nivalis
braves the cold to greet another spring with nodding flowers and long skinny leaves.

A close relative, the Summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, leucojum_aestivum_2010
has cup-like flowers whose white petals are decorated with a whimsical chartreuse dot. Plant this sweetie in clumps and your garden will be a carpet of white.

A native of Turkey Chionodoxa luciliae, chionodoxa-luciliae-close
Glory-of-the-Snow, also blooms early in the season sending up lilac and white star-shaped flowers. The foliage fades right after blooming and generally goes dormant in late spring. As with all bulbs allow the leaves to ripen; they produce the food for next year.

A shot of yellow lights up every garden, and one of the few yellow flowering bulbs – apart from daffodils, of course, is Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis,

whose buttercup yellow flowers rest atop a collar of deeply lobed green leaves. Soak the bulbs overnight before planting, and set them 2-3 inches deep and about 3 inches apart. Under woodland conditions, that is moist soil and dappled shade, they too will naturalize for you.

Any discussion of spring-blooming bulbs is incomplete without a tip of the hat to the Grape Hyacinth, Muscari spp.,
which hails from Southern Europe and the Caucasus. Compact pyramids of tight royal blue blossoms rise on sturdy stems above floppy green foliage that first appears in fall and lasts through all but the roughest winters.

Another bulb in the cool blue spectrum, Scilla siberica bursts forth with bell-like sky blue flowers right after the Snow Drops. A real toughie Scilla is an ideal candidate for a northern rock garden or plant the bulbs in masses for a dramatic statement. scilla-park_klepacza_lodz

For a vibrant shot of color in the bulb garden consider the Anemone blanda cultivars.
These daisy-like flowers are supported on 8 inch stems and come in a range of hot pink, royal purple and cool white; cut a handful for your first spring bouquet. The hardy Windflower is deer resistant (note: not deer proof – that’s an oxymoron – deer resistant), and to give this Grecian native a good head start, soak the bulbs for 8 hours before planting.

The top of the stately Fritillaria imperialis yellowcrownimperials
is crowned with a ring of bright orange or yellow blooms drooping down from tufts of dark green leaves. Rising 3 to 4 feet tall, this beauty deserves a spot at the back of the bulb garden, or if the garden can’t support such a bold statement substitute the dainty F. meleagris
or Checkered Lily, a charming choice for a woodland nook. Like all members of the Lily family, the Fritillarias prefer cool roots so give them a hefty dressing of mulch.

Another member of the Lily family Ornithogalum arabicum or Arabian Starflower ornithogalum_arabicum_1_corse
puts on the best show in Southern zones; in Northern climes the bulb is “half-hardy”. As May fades into June the Arabian Starflower bursts forth with clusters of highly fragrant snow-white petals ringing a black eye; cut a few to add pop to a late spring bouquet.

The final selection of spring-flowering bulbs that break out of the box is the dramatic Allium giganteum, Giant Onion,
with flower heads as big as pompoms that range in color from deep purple to pale lilac- think giant Tootsie Pop. Relatively drought-tolerant and deer resistant – deer are not fond of onions – they put on their spectacular show in early summer. Another species A. schubertii,
produces flowers that resemble explosions of pale purple sparklers; this fireworks display is a show stopper in any bulb garden.

Now for the basics of planting bulbs: Dig a hole 2-3 times the height of the bulb, and plant the bulb pointed side up – now this may seem like an insult to one’s intelligence but enough encounters with experienced gardeners whose bulbs never emerged because they were planted upside down warrants the risk of insult. For maximum impact plant an odd number of bulbs in a circle, and if you believe in the magic of fertilizer, add a small scoop of bone meal to each hole to help the bulb get started. Once flowering has finished let the leaves ripen and die back naturally; this is the bulbs’ food manufacturing mechanism. One final note: you can plant bulbs as late as Christmas if the soil is not frozen.

By making a case for including some of the more unusual bulbs in a spring garden, this is not a call to abandon those cheerful stalwarts, the tulips and daffodils. Rather it is a call to expand the garden’s horizons and add some visual variety before the perennials and annuals move to the center stage.

Bulb Sources:

Dutch Grown

Blooming Bulb

Bulbs Direct

Photo Credits

Galanthus nivalis- Caroig (David Paloch)
Leucojum aestivum- Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)
Chiondoxa luciliae – Sten Porse
Eranthis hyemalis- Ouderwijsgek
Muscari spp. – Fizykaa
Scilla siberica -Ixtlilto
Anemone blanda – Groover FW
Fritillaria imperialis – UpstateNYer
Fritillaria meleagris – JiM LebsTer
Ornithogalum arabicum – Ghislain 118
Allium schubertii – Simone

Hydrangeas Star in Summer

In the peak of summer when the perennial garden looks long in the tooth, the handsome hydrangea bursts forth to inject new life into a tired landscape. Equally at home in either a formal or cottage garden some varieties may start their flower show as early as June and carry on well into September, so this shrub should be featured in every garden for both its versatility and timely blooming. If you treat them well and prune them correctly they will reward you with a explosion of flowers all summer long year after year.

Hydrangeas all prefer rich, moist soil with good drainage, and most relish morning sun followed by dappled afternoon shade; too much sun and they will fry and too much shade and they won’t flower. In early spring give them a dose of fertilizer specifically developed for hydrangeas or one with a high middle number, that is, more phosphorus than nitrogen or potash, and repeat the dosage in mid-summer. As for the pruning, the optimum time depends on the species of hydrangea – whether it blooms on old wood, that is last year’s growth, or new wood, this year’s stems.

Old Wood Bloomers

As an example, H. macrophylla, or Big-Leafed Hydrangea blooms on old wood so it should be pruned right after flowering, unless it is a repeat bloomer flowering on both new and old wood such as the Endless Summer® Collection (more about these cultivars later) which can be pruned any time. The flowers of the Bigleaf Hydrangea are either mopheads with big showy pompom flowers or lacecaps, more delicate flowers whose centers resemble tiny berries surrounded by a ring of petals. Both types generally range in color from pink to blue (although some white cultivars do exist), and the gardener can deepen or even change the color by altering the soil pH, that measure of the soil’s acidity or alkalinity. If it’s cool blue flowers you prefer increase the acidity of the soil by adding aluminum sulfate, or if you favor the hot pinks and reds add lime to augment the soil’s alkalinity. For ease of cultivation and a profusion of mophead flowers, two outstanding choices are ‘Nikko Blue’ and ‘Forever Pink.’ If the delicacy of the lacecap varieties is more appealing choose ‘Blue Billow’ or ‘Sunset’ whose vivid scarlet blossoms will light up your summer garden.

Shaking up the hydrangea world in the past ten years was the introduction of the Endless Summer Collection®, Big Leaf Hydrangeas that boast bloom times extending from June through September. Developed by Bailey’s Nursery and Dr. Michael Dirr, two outstanding mophead members of the collection are The Original®, a periwinkle blue (or pink, if you choose), and Blushing Bride® whose white flowers take on a pink cast (or Carolina blue, if you prefer) as they mature. Twist-n-Shout®
P1070857represents the Collection’s summer blooming lacecap variety, and all three hydrangeas in the collection prefer light shade and regular water; if allowed to dry out they will not rebloom.

Another species that should be pruned after flowering, the Oakleaf Hydrangea,
IMG_4114H. quercifolia, is prized as much for its stunning dark green foliage as its pendulous white blossoms. As the nights lengthen the leaves turn a deep wine color, and the creamy flowers, first appearing in early summer, fade to rusty red. Before winter blows in and shuts down your garden, gather an armful of blossoms and dry them indoors; unlike many of the other members of the hydrangea family, these flowers will not shatter when used in dried arrangements. Performing well in part shade, a choice cultivar, ‘Snowflake’, is decked out in double blossoms from spring all through summer. For a more upright variety chose the lovely ‘Snow Queen’ whose smaller single flowers are light and airy. Regular water is a must as it is with the other family members.

If you have a rock wall that needs softening, the Asian native
H. anomala petiolaris, Climbing Hydrangea, is a natural choice, and for this rugged beauty it doesn’t matter whether you plant her in full morning sun or deep shade. Even though she is hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, protect her from the blistering afternoon sun in Zone 8. Studded with small creamy lacecap flowers in early spring this rambunctious climber is covered with handsome heart-shaped leaves set against reddish-brown peeling bark. Although she seldom needs pruning, if you must tame her do so in early summer after flowering.

New Wood Bloomers

An ideal candidate for northern gardens H. arborescens, or Smooth Hydrangea, blooms on new wood so even if a rough winter takes it down, it will bounce back and produce masses of flowers on its young stems. Hardy in USDA Zones 3-9 this Eastern native prefers part shade, is not fussy about soil, and unlike most of its relatives can tolerate dry conditions once established. The old-fashioned ‘Annabelle’P1070852
has been a gardener’s favorite since 1962 but is being rapidly upstaged by the newly available ‘Incrediball’® which boasts big fat flowers that open green in the spring, change to white in summer and take on a greenish tint as the days shorten. Unlike the flowers of ‘Annabelle’ that tend to flop over under their weight the upright stems of ‘Incrediball’ can support its massive blossoms. To stimulate reblooming deadhead spent flowers religiously.

Another tough beauty, H. paniculata can tolerate urban pollution and severe winters, and the variety ‘Grandiflora’, commonly known as Pee Gee Hydrangea, is a landscaper’s favorite. Sometimes grown as a shrub, P1070858
this is the only hydrangea that can be shaped into a tree form, and although garden aficionados dismiss Pee Gees as “common” the sight of a stately tree laden with creamy cone-shaped flowers fading to pink as they age draws forth grudging admiration from even the most jaded horticulturist. Another choice cultivar is ‘Limelight’ P1070862
whose flowers sport a greenish tinge. To ensure constant blooming through the summer site all H. paniculatas in full sun except the deep South where they need afternoon protection.

One final pruning note: if it’s big flowers you’re after reduce the number of stems when you are cutting back; the hydrangea’s energy pie is just so big, and it can either direct its growth into many smaller flowers or fewer big flowers. The choice is up to you.

Plant Sources

Wayside Gardens

White Flower Farm

Spring Hill Nursery

Hail to the Noble Hosta

Yearning for a shot of color in a shady garden, we pack impatiens around astilbes, bleeding hearts and columbines, perennials that can bloom in deep shade. Blinded by our passion for color we have given short shrift to the most majestic of all shade lovers, the noble hosta. “Hostas?” you say. “How boring.” Hey, it ain’t necessarily so. Granted, hostas will not dazzle you with flashy flowers, but their elegant foliage creates a sophisticated and serene woodland landscape. Picture a shaded swath punctuated with leaves of blues and greens in a variety of textures and you have imagined the regal hosta garden.

With hundreds of cultivars available and more coming to market every day, picking and choosing among them can be a daunting task. So to lessen the frustration here is a selection of green, blue, and variegated hostas that are favorites among hosta connoisseurs. Most love the moist deep shade of a woodland garden, although some varieties can tolerate a touch of sun and somewhat drier soil.

The Greens

If you have the space, Empress Wu P1070841
is a stunning choice for the back of the garden. With its massive leaves, 18 inches wide, the Empress is the world’s largest hosta and tops out at about 4 feet, the height of an average five year-old child. Give her regular water and plenty of room to spread.

At the other end of the size spectrum is Crumb Cake P1070851
a dainty 4-inch mound of shiny green leaves that emerge in spring as honey-gold, darkening as the days lengthen. Producing lavender flowers in July little Crumb Cake deserves a special spot in the garden or on center stage in a container.

Another solid green hosta Guacamole P1070840
boasts fragrant showy white flowers in July and August. A medium sized specimen Guacamole’s leaves have distinctive veins and are the color of a ripe avocado, of course.

The final green choice, Dawn’s Early Light, P1070837
will knock your gardening clogs off in early spring when it breaks out of its winter dormancy a dazzling neon yellow. Mellowing to a more sedate chartreuse, the deeply corrugated ruffled leaves add interesting texture to the hosta garden. Topping out at about 20 inches it produces light lavender flowers in early summer.

The Blues

Starting with the Big Daddy of them all, Blue Angel P1070838
grows to 4 feet high and as big around so give it ample elbowroom. The rich blue-green leaves of Blue Angel provide a stunning backdrop to clusters of white bell-shaped flowers in mid summer. This hosta is one of the most resistant to slugs and snails (more on that topic later).

A knockout of a hosta Abiqua Drinking Gourd P1070836
sports huge blue-green leaves that sparkle with droplets of water after a rain. Standing 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide, this stately hosta tolerates heat and humidity and resists slugs.. Little wonder it was named Hosta of the Year in 2014 by the American Hosta Growers Association.

No hosta collection is complete without that classic blue giant, Krossa Regal,
P1070842 (1)
whose wavy leaves fan out into a vase-shaped mound, an unusual form in the hosta community. Anchor it in the back of the garden in light shade for the clearest blue color.

Standing only 8 inches tall, tuck little Blue Mouse Ears P1070833 (2)
next to a rock in a trough garden or in the front of the hosta garden. A real cutie its silver-blue leaves curl in at the edges and support showy lavender flowers in mid-summer. Watch the humming birds flock to this charmer.

The Variegateds

To break up the monotony of all those blues and greens intersperse them with some select variegated specimens, such as Dream Queen P1070834
whose bright blue-green leaves with pale yellow centers will stop you in your tracks. About 2 feet tall with a 5 foot spread its corrugated cupped foliage supports stalks of white blossoms in mid-summer.

If you have bright morning sun in your garden consider June P1070845
whose gold leaves are airbrushed with random streaks of blue-green. In deeper shade the gold fades to lime green, but she is still a stunning plant. The American Hosta Growers Association thought so too; they awarded June Hosta of the Year in 2001. Forming a symmetrical mound a little over a foot tall with a 3 foot spread, it produces pale lavender flowers in late summer and is slug resistant to boot.

In contrast to the round leaves of most hostas, the lance-shaped leaves of Pineapple Upside Down Cake P1070839
offer a pleasing break for the eye. Emerging pure green in early spring the leaves quickly change to a white-gold edged by a rippled thin dark green margin. Lavender flowers spring up in late summer, and at maturity Pineapple Upside Down Cake will be about 4 feet wide and 1 ½ feet tall.

The classic Japanese cultivar Tokudama flavocircinalis P1070843
reverses the color pattern of those other hostas; the leaves have blue green centers and wide gold edges. Again, as with most of the variegated hostas, the deeper the shade the darker the leaves so to enhance the gold margins give it some morning sun. About the same size as Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Tokudama is slow to mature but when it does it’s a real show stopper. Handsome puckered leaves supporting pale lavender blossoms in late spring demand the casual observer pause and take notice.

The Scourges

Now about the snails and slugs – good air circulation is a must. If your hostas are still plagued by snail and slug damage an effective remedy is to encircle each plant with a sprinkling of grit, such as sand, crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth. Grit damages the delicate underbelly of the varmints causing death. No more problems.

Deer, now that’s another story. To protect his specimen plants one hosta aficionado pierces plastic 35 mm film canisters with several holes, fills the holes with shavings of Irish Spring soap and mounts the canisters on 6 inch wooden dowels every 6 feet in his hosta gardens. The trouble is it’s hard to find 35 mm film in this digital age. As an alternative there are several products available on the market from coyote urine to pepper spray, but these must be applied religiously especially after a rain. Let’s be real; there is little that can be done to deter a hungry doe short of an 8 foot fence or a couple of barking dogs.

The Promise

Despite the scourges it’s hard to imagine any group of plantings that beats the elegance of a mature hosta garden. Each new introduction simply adds to the beauty, a bonus for that group of gardeners who “pick it and plunk it”, those addicts who spot a plant and simply must have it with no thought to the overall garden design. With a hosta garden there’s no need to worry that the latest purchase will look out of place, clash with its neighbors or invade their territory. Each new hosta will fit right in with its siblings and work with them to add a touch more class to your shady garden. That’s a promise.

Plant Sources

New Hampshire Hostas

Plant Delights Nursery

Green Mountain Hosta

Special thanks to Gerry Hicks of Maine Hosta (Edgecomb, ME) for sharing his vast knowledge of hostas and invaluable help with the photos.