Hakone Grass - A Four Season Stunner

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It can be tough to find perennials that dazzle in all four seasons,  but Hakonechloa macra, commonly called Hakone grass, is a plant that fits the bill. Hakone grass is a beautiful perennial grass with gracefully arching leaves that sway in the breeze. It grows slowly to form a cascading mound of eye-catching foliage and has a strong presence in the garden year round.

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Although most grasses prefer full sun, Hakone grass is a shade-loving grass native to moist mountain and woodland areas in central Japan. Mt. Hakone, gives it both its genus name and common name, and it is also commonly referred to as Japanese Forest Grass. Its native habitat also gives a clue to its water requirements. Although this grass can grow in full sun and deep shade, it needs consistent moisture – not wet feet, but regular watering. 

 Garden of Wayne Mezzitt.

Garden of Wayne Mezzitt.

Hakone grass is a tough, long-lived perennial that is easy to grow and has no serious insect or disease problems. It performs best in part shade and humus-rich, well-drained soil. Leaves may scorch in hot summers, particularly when consistent moisture is not maintained. A winter mulch is recommended, but I have found no need for this. Clumps spread slowly by rhizomes, but are not invasive. The plant ultimately grows to about 24” wide by 18” tall, and produces delicate sprays of green flowers in summer. The leaves have a papery texture that resembles bamboo. Hakone grass is best divided in spring, but because it is a slow grower, division will not be necessary for many years.

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The foliage turns a soft copper color in late fall, and can be left on the plant to provide winter interest. It should be trimmed to the ground in early spring before new shoots emerge.

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There are two popular varieties of Hakone grass. Just as its name implies, ‘All Gold’ gleams in the garden and holds its brilliant color from spring through fall. It will be chartreuse in shade, and yellow gold in full sun.

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‘Aureola’ is a golden-striped form that grows to 15” tall and features gracefully arching green leaves variegated with gold longitudinal striping. It is slower growing and less winter hardy than the straight species or ‘All Gold'. Leaf variegation color is affected by the amount of sun exposure and the growing climate. 

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Hakone grass has many uses in the garden. It can be grown as a specimen in a container.

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It can be massed as a ground cover in the landscape.

 "Grass Painting" at Bedrock Gardens.

"Grass Painting" at Bedrock Gardens.

 Shady entrance area at Tower Hill Botanical Garden.

Shady entrance area at Tower Hill Botanical Garden.

Hakone Grass makes a perfect focal point in the shade garden.

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 At the Elizabeth Park perennial garden.

At the Elizabeth Park perennial garden.

Hakone Grass is brilliant in all four seasons. It adds bright color in early spring, and is a brilliant companion to spring bulbs.

 Early spring with ajuga at Elm Bank.

Early spring with ajuga at Elm Bank.

 Mid-spring with tulips at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

Mid-spring with tulips at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

It adds softness to paved areas and stone elements, and drapes beautiful on slopes and over garden edges.

 Garden of Joyce Hannaford

Garden of Joyce Hannaford

 Garden of Joyce Hannaford

Garden of Joyce Hannaford

Its fine texture makes a lovely contrast with hostas and shade perennials, including heucheras, epimediums, ferns and hellebores.

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Once you start growing hakone grass, you will continue to find new ways and new places to use it!

10 Favorite Mail-Order Nurseries

February is a terrific time to choose new plants for the garden. Here are some of my favorite mail-order nurseries for perennials, trees and shrubs. Do you have other favorites? Please share them with others in the comments section!

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Bluestone Perennials

Bluestone Perennials was one of the first mail-order nurseries that I purchased perennials from when I began gardening. Most of those perennials -geraniums 'Wargrave Pink' and 'Johnson's Blue', lobelias and astilbes, to name a few, are still growing in my garden 20 years later. Bluestone carries a huge selection of perennials, as well as bulbs and shrubs, from reliable standbys to exciting new hybrids. If you need help with plant combinations, you can order pre-planned theme gardens, such as a Butterfly Garden, Cutting Garden or Lamp Post Garden. Robust plants are shipped in 3-1/2" x 4" plantable pots. The nursery has been family-owned and operated since 1972, and provides excellent customer service. Catalog available. bluestoneperennials.com

Brushwood Nursery

If you are looking for clematis or other climbers, Brushwood Nursery is an excellent source. Brushwood offers hundreds of clematis varieties as well as honeysuckles, trumpet vines, passion flowers, wisteria and jasmines. The informative website is a virtual encyclopedia of clematis - you will have a hard time narrowing down your choices! I was inspired to try clematis after hearing Cheryl Monroe's lecture, and she recommended Brushwood. Since then, I have ordered plants for myself and as gifts for friends, and they have all done beautifully. Owner Dan Long takes great care in selecting, growing and shipping healthy, vigorous plants. They now sell all the vines in one-gallon pots with free shipping. brushwoodnursery.com

Flowers by the Sea

I love the spiky form and delicate flowers of salvias, but you rarely find any varieties other than 'Caradonna' and 'May Knight' at local nurseries. Luckily, there is a California nursery called Flowers by the Sea, which specializes in beautiful salvias and has 52 varieties that are hardy to Zone 6. Last year I added salvias in periwinkle blue, soft pink, magenta and white to my perennial border and they bloomed until November! Plants are large and healthy and the website offers a wealth of information about growing salvias. If you sign up for their newsletter, you receive weekly Salvia deals. fbts.com

Santa Rosa Gardens

Santa Rosa Gardens offers an extensive selection of perennials with an emphasis on ornamental grasses - there are 182 varieties of grasses on offer! Most of the plants are sun lovers, and you will be pleased with the number of varieties to choose from - 13 types of agastache, 32 varieties of coreopsis, 14 Gaillardias, 44 Sedums, and more. In addition to standard 3-1/2" pots, you can also order perennials in flats of 72 if you are doing a mass planting. Santa Rosa Gardens is family-owned grower that has been in the horticulture business for four generations and offers excellent customer service.

Santa Rosa Gardens has also started a new subscription service called My Garden Box. The nursery assembles a custom crafted collection of plants and gardens goods that you can receive on a monthly basis or send as a gift. The plants are beautifully packaged and arrive as a lovely surprise.  santarosagardens.com

Pine Knot Farms

Hellebores have a special place in my heart, and there is no better place to look for new varieties than Pine Knot Farms. Judith and Dick Tyler have been breeding hellebores for more than 25 years, with stock plants from the UK, the Balkans, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The couple authored a comprehensive book on Hellebores in 2006. I hope to visit their North Carolina nursery someday, but in the meantime, I try some of their new offerings every year. pineknotfarms.com

Palatine Roses

When I replanted my rose bed last year, I was determined to use hardy, disease-free roses. I ordered bare root rose bushes from several sources, and the best plants came from Palatine Roses in Ontario. The roses had well-developed root systems and strong canes, and flourished during the entire season with no signs of black spot or other diseases. I had blooms through November. Palatine has a minimum order of 3 roses, and the mail order deadline is March 15 for spring shipping. palatineroses.com

High Country Gardens

If you are looking to develop a drought-tolerant perennial garden, look for plants at Santa Fe's High Country Gardens. The nursery has been dedicated to improving the environment "one garden at a time", and has been a pioneer in the concept of xeriscaping - gardening with plants that need minimal water once established. Founder David Salman has introduced unique hybrids for water-wise gardens, and all plants are grown neonicotinoid-free. This nursery is a great source of sun lovers such as liatris, agastache, lavender, coreopsis, monarda and more! The site is also rich with plant description and gardening advice. highcountrygardens.com

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Geraniaceae Nursery

One of my earliest "favorite plants" were the hardy cranesbill geraniums for their long-lasting dainty blooms and ease of care. I recently discovered a book devoted to this family of plants written by Robin Parer which led me to her specialty nursery in Marin County, Cal. While local nurseries sell less then 5 varieties, Geraniaceae offers close to 170 hardy geraniums hybrids, as well as erodiums and pelargoniums. If you love this family of plants, there is no better source! geraniaceae.com

Mason Hollow Nursery

If you have a shady garden or just love to collect hostas, you will enjoy ordering from Mason Hollow Nursery in Mason, New Hampshire. Owners Sue and Chuck Anderson opened the nursery in 2001, and offer an impressive array of more than 800 hosta varieties, as well as ferns, epimediums and other perennials. Plants arrive with good sized root systems and are ready to be planted in the garden. You can also visit Mason Hollow and see their lovely display gardens. masonhollow.com

Lazy S's Farm Nursery

A family-owned nursery in Virginia, Lazy S's Farm offers a huge range of perennials as well as many hard-to-find hybrids of shrubs. Do you like callicarpa? You can find 13 varieties at Lazy S. All plants come in quart pots, so it is an inexpensive way to purchase an unusual shrub if you have the patience to grow it on for a few years before it makes a significant presence in the garden. When delivered, plants are healthy and vigorous and ready to take their place in the garden. lazyssfarm.com

 

The Surprising Beauty of Hosta Flowers

I had the pleasure of touring several Hudson River estates after settling my daughter for her senior year at college. One of the places I visited was the Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield in Hyde Park, NY. Beatrix Farrand was one of the first women landscape designers, whose work defined the American taste in gardens through the first half of the 20th century. She championed the use of perennial plants instead of annual bedding, using color harmony, bloom sequence and texture to create beautiful herbaceous borders. Bellefield is one of the earliest examples of her private work - a small walled garden with long flower borders that show single color combinations from pink to blue, purple and white.

 Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield

Beatrix Farrand Garden at Bellefield

Seeing the garden in late August, I was struck by the white border, because it showcased a beautiful combination of white phlox and the flowers of Hosta plantaginea. I have many hostas in my own garden, and appreciate them for their strong, lush foliage in a myriad of colors and patterns. But I had never thought of planting hostas en masse,  purely for their flowers.

There are more than 58 varieties of hostas that have evolved from Hosta plantaginea. They all bloom in August and are prized for their lovely pure white flowers and strong, sweet fragrance. They need ample sun to bloom, and the flowers open in the late afternoon instead of early morning like most hostas. Some of the most well-know culitvars of H. plantaginea are 'Honeybells', 'Aphrodite', 'Cathedral Windows', 'Fragrant Bouquet' and 'Guacamole'.

 Hosta 'Fragrant Bouquet'

Hosta 'Fragrant Bouquet'

'Venus', another cultivar of H. plantaginea, has striking flowers that are fully double.

Since hostas are members of the Liliacea family, they produce funnel-shaped blooms on scapes that arise from the center of the plant. Like day lilies, individual flowers last for only one day. The plant may produce ten or more scapes with up to 50 flowers per stem, so the bloom time can last of 3-4 weeks. By planting different cultivars, you can have hosta flowers in your shade garden from May until frost.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

Most of us are unimpressed with the lanky scapes and violet blooms of common green hostas. But hosta flowers can range in color from deep purple to white infused with pink.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

If you look at hosta flowers closely, you may see colorful striations.

Others feature unusual flower scape forms, almost resembling scepters, like those of the 'Blue Dolphin' hosta.

 Photo by Joan Butler

Photo by Joan Butler

One of the latest hybridizing trends has been to create branched flowers, as seen in this example created by Tony Avent of Plant Delights nursery.

So as you plan future gardens, give some thought to including hostas purely for their floral display. They can make magnificent additions to your landscape!

Spanish Bluebells Welcome Spring

Also known as Wood Hyacinths, Spanish Bluebellls (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are charming additions to the spring garden. The pale blue, dangling bells complement yellow daffodils, red tulips, white lily-of-the-valley, and many other spring flowers.

Spanish bluebells are bulbous perennials native to Spain, Portugal and northwest Africa. Each bulb produces a clump of 2-6 strap-shaped leaves and a flower stem with 12-15 hanging, bell-shaped flowers. The plants are 12-18" tall. The bulbs are inexpensive, readily available, and easy to grow, so if you are new to bulb gardening, they are great plants to try.

Hardy in zones 3-8, Spanish bluebells will grow in full sun to part shade, and are not fussy about their soil requirements. They are good naturalizes, spreading both through bulb offsets and seeds. Here in New England, they will spread discreetly but steadily, making a cheerful community. Like other spring bulbs, they should be planted in the fall, and will bloom in early April to early May. The leaves will disappear as the plants go dormant for the summer.

Spanish bluebells are versatile additions to the garden. In addition to the classic blue form, there are pink and white varieties available. They look great sprinkled among other spring bulbs in a sunny garden, or combined with bleeding hearts, geranium macrorhizum and epimediums in a shady border. You can plant them around the bases of hostas, and as the hosta leaves unfurl, they will hide the bluebells' yellowing foliage in late spring. They also complement spring-blooming shrubs, and look great massed in a woodland or naturalized in large drifts under deciduous trees. No matter where they are planted, Spanish bluebells create a delightful, cottage-style garden.

 White Spanish Bluebells with Bergenia, Ajuga, and Geranium macrorhizum

White Spanish Bluebells with Bergenia, Ajuga, and Geranium macrorhizum

Sources: Breck's, White Flower Farm

More Hellebores, Please!

Hellebores have become one of my favorite plants since I began growing them about 10 years ago. They bloom at a time when the garden is mostly dormant - from late fall to early spring - and bring a smile to my face every time I see them bravely holding up their blossoms against the harsh weather. They are easy to grow, virtually care-free, and there are wonderful new varieties introduced every year.

 This hellebore Niger began blooming in early December due to our warm winter this year.

This hellebore Niger began blooming in early December due to our warm winter this year.

Hybrid hellebores are expensive to purchase (about $17 for a one-gallon pot) because it takes three to five years for them to bloom, and growers generally only sell blooming plants. You can buy smaller plants through mail order. But the most economical way to increase your collection is to propagate your own plants. You can divide all hellebores except the caulescent varieties (H. argutifolius, H. livius and H. foetidus).

Unlike other perennials, hellebores are long-lived plants that do not need to be divided to remain vigorous. In researching hellebore division, I have found a range of recommendations as to when to divide your hellebores - from dividing them in early spring, to mid spring while they are still in bloom, to waiting until mid-summer, to early fall (September to October). Since opinions on this vary so widely, I think that it is safe to do the division in any of these seasons. I have done it successfully in early summer, while the flowers were still visible on the plant, but after their beautiful display in early spring. The keys to successful division seem to be:

  1. Make sure that there are flower buds in each division
  2. Divisions should not be allowed to dry out after replanting
  3. Divisions should have enough time to establish a healthy root system before winter 

To divide a hellebore, dig up the entire plant, wash the crown free of soil in order to better see what you are doing, and then cut between the growth buds with a sharp knife. Try to leave at least three buds in each division so that the plants will recover quickly.

For your first experience, select a plant that has 5-10 flowers on it. Older plants are very woody in their center. Make sure that you have a very sharp knife. I keep a small pruning saw with a serrated blade just for the purpose of dividing perennials. Make sure that each division has a portion of the center along with the newer growth from the edge of the plant. 

Plant your divisions in full shade to almost full sun. Add compost to the planting hole, firmly tamp down the soil, water, and mulch. I also water with a high-phosphorous fertilizer to encourage good rooting. Divisions should be kept moist throughout their first growing season until frost.

 One of my hellebore gardens with divisions from my own plants.

One of my hellebore gardens with divisions from my own plants.

Another way to add hellebores to your collection is to grow on any seedlings that have rooted around the mother plant. Not all hellebores produce seeds - some are sterile hybrids. But many of the orientalis type do set seed every year, and if you look carefully, you will see little seedlings growing around the mother plant. These seedlings should be moved to a nursery location after they have developed a true set of leaves, so that they will not be shaded out by the mature plants. I grow them on for about two years in a nursery bed, and then plant them out in the garden, eager to see what these babies will look like when they bloom.

 Seedlings with fully formed leaves at the base of the mother plants.

Seedlings with fully formed leaves at the base of the mother plants.

 Two-year old seedlings in the nursery bed where they enjoy beautiful soil and no competition from other plants.

Two-year old seedlings in the nursery bed where they enjoy beautiful soil and no competition from other plants.

Hellebore foetidus produces many seedlings in my garden, and I find them in random places where they have planted themselves. Since foetidus is not a long-lived plant, you should keep some seedling growing by the mother plant so that you continue to have hellebores in that spot. Because they have finely cut foliage, these hellebores do not shade out their babies.

 Hellebore foetidus seedlings

Hellebore foetidus seedlings

I have so enjoyed slowly collecting new cultivars, dividing my plants and growing on hellebores from seed, that I now have about 50 hellebore plants throughout my garden. And when I see them blooming every winter, I know that I will add more!

New Hellebores available to purchase this year

(From top left): Berry Swirl (Plant Delights), Cotton Candy (Plant Delights), Honeymoon Rome in Red (White Flower Farm), Honeymoon Sandy Shores (White Flower Farm), Double Ellen White (White Flower Farm), Love Bug (Pine Knot Farms), Mango Magic (Broken Arrow), Tutu (Pine Knot Farms)

Sources: White Flower Farm, Pine Knot Farms, Plant Delights, Broken Arrow

 

Primroses for New England

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The Primrose is among the first of the flowers to bloom in the spring garden. The Latin name, Primula, means “first”. Primula is a genus of about 425 species that occur in a wide range of habitats, from bogs and marshes to alpine areas. They are widely distributed in the Northern hemisphere, mostly in Europe and Asia. Most are extremely cold hardy, some to Zone 3.

Primula have linear to ovate green leaves in basal rosettes, and attractive flowers that are salvoform (thin tube with flat petals) or tubular or bell-shaped. Many are fringed. The flowers are often produced on slender to thick flower stalks in umbels, whorls or spikes.

 primula rusbyi

primula rusbyi

Primula species that are native to the US are found in the western part of the country, primarily in mountain regions. They require thoughtful placement in garden settings in the New England.  Primula rusbyi, the Rusby Primrose (Z3), is native to the mountains of the Southwestern US. It has rosette-forming, toothed green leaves and salverform rose-red to deep purple flowers. It’s useful in alpine and rock gardens with reliable moisture.

 Primula 'Cabrillo'

Primula 'Cabrillo'

Other Primula species, however, grow very well in our area and provide unique beauty and brilliance to the spring garden. Primula veris, or Cowslip, native to Europe and West Asia, is very successful in my garden in dappled shade in rich soil. I have planted a cultivar named ‘Cabrillo’ in a slightly low area, not boggy at all, but never overly dry. It has sweet-smelling, brilliant yellow blossoms, and is the first primrose to bloom.

 red-flowered cowslip

red-flowered cowslip

Cowslip has a long history of use in herbal and folk remedies to treat a variety of ailments. Its leaves have been used in teas to cure nerves and anxiety, its flowers to treat bruises, and its roots as an expectorant to break up mucus. In 17th century England, applying water distilled from cowslip, or an ointment made from cowslip flowers, was thought to make one more beautiful.

 Primula seiboldii

Primula seiboldii

Another primrose that is exceptional in our area is Primula seiboldii (Siebold Primrose, Z4). It has showy flowers in late spring held in umbels above attractive foliage. Colors range from white to soft pink to magenta or bluish lavender, and may differ on the petal reverse. Petals may be smoothly rounded or as intricately cut as snowflakes. Unlike most primroses, it can go summer-dormant to escape summer conditions that are too hot or dry for it.

I grow a cultivar called ‘Smooch’ and find it to be a beautiful, tough, trouble-free plant with gorgeous textured leaves. I love plants that make me get down on my hands and knees for a closer look – and ‘Smooch’ does just that. Its delicate complexity gets me every time – it is fascinating. It spreads from shallow, branching rhizomes, and has spread nicely in my garden.

 Candelabra primrose

Candelabra primrose

The Candelabra Primrose (Primula japonica, Z4) thrives in moist to wet areas in dappled shade. It can be grown alongside a water feature or pond, or near the house by a downspout that keeps the soil moist. It is a robust perennial with rosettes of finely scalloped or toothed light green leaves. Whorls of red-purple to white flowers appear in mid-May and June.

Candelabra Primrose sets seed readily, and forms lovely colonies that display substantial genetic variation as seen in this garden in Plymouth. New plants can be grown from collected seed and planted elsewhere in the garden, shared with friends, or sold at plant sales.

 primula vulgaris

primula vulgaris

Primula vulgaris (English Primrose Z4) is native to the open woodlands and shady banks of Europe and W. Turkey. It adapts well to the home garden in locations that are not dry. The species has rosettes of bright green leaves and clusters of fragrant pale yellow flowers. It has many hybrids and cultivars displaying a wide range of colors, from purples and reds, to whites and yellows.

 primula vulgaris

primula vulgaris

Primroses are beautiful additions to the spring garden. They combine beautifully with other shade plants such as hosta, bloodroot, and epimedium. Given the right conditions, they will add color to your garden for years to come!

By Joan Butler

Five-Plant Gardens

I recently came across a book in the library called Five-Plant Gardens by Nancy  J. Ondra, which features 52 ways to grow a perennial garden with just five plants. I was intrigued by the topic – it reminded me of the “5-Ingredient Recipes” cookbook that my sister-in-law swears by. The book was beautifully designed and illustrated, so I just had to bring it home for a closer look.

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Nancy Ondra wrote this guide to simple gardening primarily for novice gardeners. As she states in her introduction, “..when you’re new to the process, starting with a manageable-sized space, a clear shopping list, and a simple-to-follow planting plan can make the difference between inspiring success and frustrating disappointment.” I think her five-plant strategy is great for gardeners of any experience level, and may even be very beneficial for those seasoned gardeners who are looking to scale back and simplify their complex, time consuming gardens.

The “Five-Plant Gardens” concept is a great organizing and editing tool. (And by “gardens”, I mean a garden bed, or a small plot, not the entire property.) After gardening on my own property for 22 years, studying landscape design and visiting hundreds of gardens, I can attest to “less is more.” Less variety and more of each type of plant, that is. Not the collector’s approach of “one of this and one of that”, but large masses of the same plant, which create a stronger statement in the landscape. It can be very hard to do, and requires steely self-control, (not to mention a special “collector’s bed” where you can house your impulse purchases), but the result can be very satisfying. And with a small variety of plants, the maintenance is much easier.

I have a “five-plant garden” that I installed 20 years ago, and it still pleases me after all these years. It is a shaded circular bed in the loop of my driveway, with a gazing globe as its focal point. The five perennials are hellebores, astilbes, cinnamon ferns, hostas, and fringed bleeding hearts – low maintenance shade plants that provide four-season interest.

Every month has its own highlight:

  Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

Hellebore foliage in winter gives way to flowers in March

  Emerging fiddleheads in April

Emerging fiddleheads in April

  Hosta foliage unfurls in May

Hosta foliage unfurls in May

  Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

Cinnamon fronds and bleeding hearts steal the show in June

  Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Astilbe blossoms explode in July

Hosta blooms stand out in August, and the changing colors of fall foliage provide interest from September through November.

I’m going to break the five-plant rule by adding snowdrops for February appeal. Since they are early bulbs that completely disappear, perhaps they won’t count?

Top Ten Hostas (For the Moment)

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By Joan Butler

With so many great hosta to choose from, creating a list of ten favorites turned out to be a daunting task. As I strolled my gardens, so many hostas caught my eye and jockeyed for position on my list. Thoughts of hostas I have admired in other gardens added to the delightful confusion.

Finally, I decided to choose five hostas that awe me every year, and five hostas that are awing me at this moment. Already, as I look at my list, I wish I had room for more! Hostas like ‘Paradigm’, ‘Cup of Grace’, ‘Whirlwind’, ‘Dick Ward’, ‘Sun Power’, ‘Salute’, ‘Little Wonder’ are also awing me at this moment and deserve recognition. Maybe on the next list….

1. Hosta ‘Liberty’ 

Large, 4’wide x 2.5’ high, possibly larger. Dark blue-green leaves with a wide margin of golden yellow form an upright clump. Its size, bright variegation and form make it a “wow” plant that is a focal point in any garden.

2. Hosta ‘Queen of the Seas’   

Large, 6’ wide x 4’ high. Forms a beautiful architectural clump of blue-gray leaves, deeply ribbed with pie crust edges. Breathtaking as it unfurls in spring and a commanding presence all season long.

3. Hosta ‘Guacamole’  

Large, 4’ wide x 2’high. This hosta made the list for two reasons. The first: its green-edged chartreuse leaves have a satiny gleam that makes them look springtime fresh throughout the growing season. The second: its large flowers are fragrant! Plus, this hosta is a fast grower, and can take plenty of sun.

4. Hosta ‘Allegan Fog’ 

Medium, 2’ wide x 1.5’ high. Gently rippled leaves with a curved tip and variegation that changes as the season progresses, make this a favorite. The leaves are irregularly margined with dark green; the centers are white in spring, changing to pale green flecked and misted with darker green. Lovely.

5. Hosta ‘Little Miss Magic  

Small, 1’ wide x 6” high. The spring foliage of this little beauty is brilliant yellow! Add to that the lance-shaped form of its rippled leaves, and you have garden perfection.

6. Hosta ‘Duke of Cornwall  

Large,5’ wide x 2’ high. Big, heart-shaped dark green/blue leaves have a wide, feathered pale green margin in spring. The margin changes to ivory, a feature which looks especially dramatic by the light of the moon. Every time I see this hosta at night, I think it would make a great addition to a moon garden because of its large size and corresponding amount of white detail.

7. Hosta ‘Shade Fanfare’

 Medium, 2’ wide x 1’ high. Apple green heart-shaped leaves have wide creamy margins and a pointy tip. The leaf surface is slightly seer-suckered, a detail I am always drawn to in hostas. A delicate overall appearance on a sturdy plant.

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8. Hosta ‘Raspberry Sorbet’

 Small, 1.5’ x 8”. Lanceolate, dark green leaves are very shiny, rippled and twisted, with petioles streaked with red. Its flower scapes do not rise straight up from the center as in other hostas, but emerge at an angle spaced all around the plant. To add to this: the petioles and calyxes are streaked with raspberry pink and the flowers are pale lavender with purple stripes. Wow.

9. Hosta ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ 

Small, 11” wide x 6” tall. Blue-green leaves are shallowly cupped and held horizontally. Charming flowers are held low on the plant, and are lavender with violet stripes. This hosta is very popular, and deservedly so. It is easily grown and likes morning sun.

10. Hosta ‘Little Ann’ 

Miniature, 3” tall. This sweet little hosta is a spreading type, with golden foliage and a narrow cream edge. It is useful as an underplanting for upright hosta and at the front of the border. As with other yellow hosta, its spring brilliance is outstanding.

If you are interested in learning more about these and hundreds of other hosta, visit the Hosta Library website http://www.hostalibrary.org/index.html. Arranged alphabetically, the site features numerous pictures of popular and rare hostas, many photos taken in garden settings.

Joan Butler enjoys her collection of more than 300 hostas in her beautiful half-acre garden in Holliston, MA. She is an active member of the New England and American Hosta Societies and served as co-chairman of the garden selection committee for the 2011 National Hosta Convention. Her own garden was featured in a tour of the New England Hosta Society in the summer of 2011.

Gardening in the Hellstrip

The hellstrip — the space between a street and a public sidewalk, also known as a tree park, boulevard, meridian, and planting strip — is getting a lot of attention these days with the publication of Evelyn Hadden’s Hellstrip Gardening by Timber Press. This comprehensive guide with gorgeous color photographs of hellstrip gardens across the country offers inspiration and visual guidance to anyone ready to tackle this final frontier.

Hellstrip gardening is nothing new to my friend Kathy, who has been adding curb appeal to her home with hellstrip plantings for 15 years. Kathy began her roadside garden when she got tired of trying to keep the lawn grass alive in the hellstrip year after year. Always keen on water conservation, Kathy wanted a low maintenance solution for this long, sunny expanse. Her large backyard garden had also become shaded over the years as the pine trees grew taller and taller, so the sunny hellstrip offered a chance to relocate her sun lovers from the backyard and to try some new plants in this totally different environment.

She began the garden by digging up a small section of sod around her mailbox, amending the soil, and planting various sedums that would be low maintenance and drought resistant. Bit by bit, the hellstrip garden grew, and then expanded to the other side of the driveway. Now it measures close to 100 feet, and boasts a wide variety of perennials. Kathy learned through trial and error which plants to grow, and which plants to avoid. Some perennials, like yarrows, were too tall and floppy. Annuals were too labor intensive, except for the portulaca that self sows and returns year after year. But there were many perennials that acclimated to this dry, sunny area with its relatively poor soil.

Mediterranean plants and herbs – many of which sport silver foliage and prefer a sunny situation with lean soil and good drainage, thrive in Kathy’s roadside garden. Sedums, Lamb’s ears, salvia, sage, alliums, fescues, rosemary, thyme, mint, sea lavender, and catmint bask in the baking hot sun. The garden delights passersby with a changing palette of blooms and foliage. In the early spring, crocus, creeping phlox and species tulips, which love the good drainage, cheer up the border with their blooms. They are followed by stately bearded irises, columbines and poppies in June, and daylilies, helianthus and coreopsis in mid summer. A prickly pear cactus at the base of the mailbox surprises visitors with its yellow flowers in July. Sedums steal the show in August. In a shadier part of the garden, hostas and heucheras provided beautiful foliage from spring to fall.

Gardening in the hellstrip has its challenges. The soil in these areas is usually cheap, compacted fill. Kathy amends it at planting time with compost, and has been top dressing with leaf mulch. Because of the distance from the house, the garden is difficult to water. Although Kathy does not irrigate regularly, newly installed plants need supplemental watering, which amounts to many trips with a watering can. Weeds easily blow into the garden and crabgrass is a particular problem. Since the hellstrip is town-owned property, large sections have been dug up utility companies several times without prior notice.

But overall, gardening in the hellstrip has been a positive experience for Kathy. Neighbors stop by to admire the garden, and Kathy receives many compliments on sprucing up the neighborhood. “The hellstrip builds community,” says Kathy. “People stop by to chat and ask about the flowers. And it gives me a chance to try plants that I couldn’t grow anywhere else in my garden.”

Nine New Perennials for Your Spring 2014 Garden

January is a great time to peruse plant catalogs and choose some new perennials to bring pizzazz to the spring garden. After a long winter, I am outside every day in early spring, watching the rapid changes in the garden as the perennials start poking out of the ground. And every year I wish that I had more plants for this delightful season!

Here are ten intriguing plants to add to our Zone 5-6 gardens this year:

From White Flower Farm

(whiteflowerfarm.com)

Pulmonaria ‘Silver Bouquet’

A silver-leaved Lungwort that shines in shade, this new pulmonaria is mildew resistant with lance-shaped silver foliage and flowers that change from pink to blue.

Blooms in April-May, height 7”, full or part shade, deer resistant

Polygonatum odoratum ‘Double Stuff’

Just what you need to brighten up a shady spot! This variegated Solomon’s Seal has foliage with very broad white margins, and fragrant white blooms in early spring.

Blooms in May, height 18”, full or part shade

Helleborus Winter Thriller ‘Ballerina Ruffles’

A hellebore with fluffy 2-3” double-petaled blossoms in gorgeous shades of pink with purple speckles. This vigorous cultivar features exceptionally large, outfacing flowers and thick, sturdy stems.

Blooms in March, height 18”, full or part shade

From Bluestone Perennials

(bluestoneperennials.com)

Heuchera ‘Paprika’

Heucheras, also known as Coral Bells, retain their brightly colored leaves throughout the winter, so they are wonderful plants for the spring garden. This variety has spicy, hot paprika colored foliage with silver veining that will add bold flair to your garden. White flowers hover above the blazing leaves.

Foliage color all year, blooms in early summer, height 8”, full sun to part shade

Helleborus Winter Jewels Amethyst Gem

A hellebore with amethyst-rose double flowers margined in opal. The finely sculpted blossoms brave cooler temperatures to become one of the first gifts of spring.

Blooms in March, height 12”, full or part shade

From Plant Delights Nursery

(plantdelights.com)

Glanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’

There are more than 70 varieties of snowdrops in cultivation, but only a few are sold in the US. This award-winning snowdrop has a dangling white bell composed of several floral layers, each green edged in white. A delightful addition to the early spring garden!

Bloom in early March, height 6”, sun to part shade

From Arrowhead Alpines

(arrowheadalpines.com):

Beesia deltophylla

I saw this plant for the first time on a garden tour in Boylston in July and was really impressed! Another specimen brought to the US by Dan Hinkley from Sichuan, China, this is a beautiful groundcover for the woodland garden. Glossy, heart-shaped purple-tinged evergreen leaves form dense rosettes, and are topped with spires of white flowers.

Blooms mid to late spring, height 18”, full to part shade

Lathyrus vernus

Lathyrus is a non-climbing, clump-forming perennial sweet  pea with showy pink flowers and light green leaves. A low-maintenance plant that dazzles in the shady border!

Blooms in April, height 12”, full to part shade

Primroses

Arrowhead Alpines features a stunning 57 varieties of primulas (primroses). These are not the primroses that you find in the grocery store and that rarely return year after year. Primroses are a huge, diverse genus with flowers in every color of the rainbow. Although some species prefer cool, moist conditions, there are quite a few that can take the heat and dryness of the summer. It is worth browsing through this large collection of varieties and choosing a few to try in your own garden this spring.

I hope this list inspires you to add a few new varieties to your spring garden!

Creating a Jewelbox Entry Garden

Entry gardens are a challenge to design because they need to be interesting in all seasons. But they also provide a wonderful opportunity to showcase tiny interesting specimens that would be lost in a distant landscape.

We were delighted when our friend Deborah asked for assistance in designing a new entry garden for her suburban home. In addition to new foundation plantings, Deborah needed help with a small entry garden bed that is the focal point of her front yard.

The entry bed is a highly visible triangle bordered by the driveway, the walkway to the front door, and a winding brick path that Deborah installed herself. Mounded in the center, it has good drainage and dappled sunlight for most of the day. Deborah likes Asian-inspired gardens, and wanted to incorporate her ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple, creeping phlox, hostas, and an unusual collection of geodes inherited from her grandfather.

Above, Deborah’s previous garden had included mostly sun-loving perennials that bloomed briefly and then blended into a mass of green. We wanted to give her garden interest throughout the seasons with fabulous colored foliage, different textures and a variety of plant forms.

Because the garden is so highly visible at close range, we came up with the concept of creating a “jewelbox” entry garden – a collection of small specimen plants with intricate details that delight the eye upon close inspection.

We decided to incorporate plants that would evoke an Asian garden. We chose a color scheme of yellows and maroons to complement Deborah’s house colors. And we came up with the concept of a large tufa trough that would serve as a focal point for the bed and unite several groupings of geologic specimens.

Hypertufa troughs look like stone, but are actually made of peat moss, perlite and Portland cement, so they are much lighter than they appear. Ours is filled with hens and chicks, mini hostas and a miniature carex.

Small objects in a garden, like these geodes, are more effective when grouped.

Although newly planted, the new garden already has interest from the variety of forms.

Our plant palette consists of spiky plants such as daylilies, dwarf iris, and blue fescue; low creeping plants such as sedum ‘Angelina’, creeping wooly thyme and Irish moss; large-leaved plants such as hostas and coral bells; and feathery plants such as Japanese painted fern and miniature conifers. As the plants mature, they will create a complex tapestry of colors and shapes.

Shades of maroon from the Japanese maple, red fountain grass, heuchera ‘Stormy Seas’ and the winter color of bergenia complement the home's brick façade and maroon shutters and doors.

Glimmers of gold from hosta ‘Great Expectations’, hanoke ‘All Gold’, heucherella ‘Sunspot’, yellow dwarf iris, and ‘Happy Returns’ daylilies echo the creamy yellow siding.

Four season interest will begin with miniature conifers and hellebores in winter; snowdrops, mini daffodils, creeping phlox, epimediums and bergenia in spring; alliums, irises, Astilbe ‘Key West’ and daylilies in summer; and hanoke grass, blue fescue, black mondo grass and ground-hugging sedums in fall.

Unusual miniatures include alpine lady’s mantle, carex ‘Beatlemania, and mini hostas ‘Stilleto’. 'Kii Hime', 'GinkoCraig', ‘Lakeside Cha Cha Downsized’ and 'Lakeside Baby Face'.

The jewelbox garden is grounded by a simple foundation planting of ‘Green Lustre’ hollies, hydrangea ‘Quickfire’ astilbes and epimediums, along with a hosta hedge that was already on the property.

Shady Partners

Garden tours provide a wonderful opportunity to view private gardens, discover new plants, and meet the garden owners that have created these beautiful retreats. Sometimes the most interesting gardens are the smallest, such as this Sterling garden that I toured on the Garden Conservancy's Worcester, MA Open Day in late July.

The owner, who had served as a docent at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, had accumulated an intriguing collection of plants for her mostly shaded garden. My friend Julie and I were stumped by some of these rare beauties, and had to research them once we got home and add them to our own wish lists.

The real success of the plantings came from her artistic eye, as she grouped these shade plants for wonderful effect. Here are a few glimpses of her shady paradise:

A show-stopping mass planting of hakone grass (Hakonechloa 'All Gold') in the front yard.

An informal path leads the way to a shady backyard retreat filled with arresting combinations of perennials and shrubs.

The round, waxy leaves of Ligularia are set off by the delicate fronds of Japanese Painted Fern

A rough-hewn granite column markes the entryway to the back yard, surrounded by hosta and sineilesis.

he glossy marbled leaves of bessia calthifolia complemented by ferns and epimediums. Bessia is a Chinese native of the Ranunculus family, brought to the US by Dan Hinkley in 1996 and introduced to the American market through Heronswood Nursery.

he large maple-like leaves bearing red fruits of Golden Seal (Hydrastis canadensis) stopped us in our tracks. Golden Seal is native to the Northeast, and is extensively used in herbal medicine.

n unfailing trio for the shade: any combination of heucheras, hostas and ferns. The plants in this garden were incredibly robust thanks to the owner's annual application of a thick layer of home-made leaf mulch.

 

A trio of young Paw Paw trees intrigued me as I had just received a pair of Paw Paw sapplings last summer. Paw Paws are native to North America and produce a large fleshy fruit with a flavor similar to mangoes and bananas.

For more information about the Open Days program, visit The Garden Conservancy's website: https://www.gardenconservancy.org/.

Pulmonaria Pops in the Shade

As a garden designer, one of the questions that I’m often asked is “What can I plant in the shade that the deer won’t eat?” We all know that while hostas may be gorgeous and highly collectible, they are also a tantalizing “salad bar” for grazing deer. Pulmonarias, with their eye-catching foliage and early flowers, are the answer.

Relegated to grandma’s shade garden for many years, Pulmonarias have seen a recent resurgence of popularity as hybridizers have produced wonderful new varieties. Like several other perennials, Pulmonarias are plagued with an unattractive common name – Lungwort, due to the resemblance of their leaves to a diseased lung. But their subtle beauty, hardiness (Zones 3-8), pest and disease resistance make them a great addition to the modern shade garden.

  Pulmonaria 'Silver Bouquet'

Pulmonaria 'Silver Bouquet'

Pulmonarias are low-growing, clump forming relatives of borage, with similar fuzzy leaves and deep-blue flowers. Like hostas, pulmonarias can be collected just for their foliage contribution to the garden. Leaves range from apple-green to olive and deep emerald, and many are spotted in white or streaked with silver. They also differ in shape, from spear-like to oval. The plants range in size from 8-28” high and 12-24” wide. Outstanding cultivars for foliage include ‘Silver Bouquet’ with solid silver leaves, and ‘Milky Way’ with large white spots.

  Pulmonaria 'Milky Way'

Pulmonaria 'Milky Way'

In addition to showy foliage, pulmonarias rival hellebores to be the first flowering perennials in the early spring garden. Clusters of funnel-shaped flowers appear in early spring, and many change colors as they age. My pulmonaria flowers transform from sky blue to lavender and pink, and since they open gradually, you see all three colors on the same plant at once!

While pulmonarias are generally known for their deep blue flowers, there are varieties that bloom in white (‘Opal’), salmon (‘Redstart’) and raspberry (‘Berries and Cream’).

  Pulmonaria 'Opal'

Pulmonaria 'Opal'

Pulmonarias are easy to grow in average, humus-rich garden soil, in part to full shade. Moist soils and good drainage ensure the best success. They spread slowly by creeping roots and can be easily divided in late spring or fall. They also cross-pollinate and self-seed naturally, so you may find unexpected new varieties sprouting up in your garden.

  Pulmonaria 'Redstart'

Pulmonaria 'Redstart'

Eye-catching as specimen plants, pulmonarias are also effective when massed as a ground cover. They can be artistically combined with almost any shade plants, particularly Japanese Painted Ferns, Coral Bells, Hostas, and Black Mondo grass. No matter how you use them, these old-fashioned, deer-resistant perennials will breathe new life into your shade garden.

Dazzling Hellebores for 2013

Hellebores have fascinated me ever since I saw huge swaths of them blooming in a Washington, DC botanic garden 12 years ago. I started with a few plants in one garden bed, and as they faithfully returned year after year, I added more varieties, began dividing my own plants, and growing on seedlings in nursery beds. At this time of year, though, I realize that I just don't have enough of these amazing winter bloomers.

As I scouted the websites for new plants, I thought that I would share with you some of the dazzling varieties available to gardeners in 2013.

From Bluestone Perennials: Harlequin Gem and Amber Gem

From Pine Knot Farms: Pine Knot Pink, Double White with Pink Edging, Yellow Picottee

From Burpee: Onyx Odyssey, Phoebe and Stained Glass

From Arrowhead Alpines:  Potter's Wheel  From Plant Delights:  Golden Lotus, Red Sapphire

From White Flower Farm: Winter Thriller 'Ice Follies', Nite Coaster, Pink Frost

The Mayapple: A Native Woodland Colonizer

During my first visit to Monticello last month, I came across a wonderful book that piqued my interest in native plants. Andrea Wulf’s highly engaging The Brother Gardeners brings to life the science and adventure of eighteenth-century plant collecting, beginning with colonial farmer John Bartram who started shipping seeds of our native plants to English collectors in 1733. English plant lovers were entranced by the hundreds of unusual American trees and shrubs, from magnolias and firs, to rhododendrons and mountain laurels, to the wildflowers of the woodlands and prairies. Since Bartram lived in Pennsylvania, one of the perennials that he must have sent to England was our native Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, which is currently blooming in my garden.

mayapple leaves.jpg

Mayapple is yet another spring ephemeral – a perennial woodland wildflower that blooms early in the spring (May in Massachusetts), sets seed and then disappears by midsummer. Native in eastern North America south to Texas, Mayapple is hardy from zones 3 to 8, and makes a lovely addition to the woodland garden. The plants poke out of the ground looking like shiny little folded umbrellas, and then quickly unfold. From a single stem, each plant grows 12-18” tall, and produces one or two umbrella-like leaves that may be up to 12” in diameter. The leaves are deeply-divided, and a mass of Mayapples looks like a grove of miniature palm trees.

Mayapples are unique in that they have a solitary flower, which forms in the axil of the leaves. The nodding, white flower sports 6 to 9 waxy petals, and resembles an apple-blossom. (A rare new pink-flowered form, ‘Missoury May’, has recently been introduced and is available through specialty nurseries.)

The 2” blossom is usually hidden by the large leaves, so you have to get down low to appreciate its delicate beauty. After the flower is pollinated by bumblebees, each plant produces a fleshy, greenish lemon-shaped fruit (the apple) which turns golden when ripe. The fruit can be used for preserves and jellies, and apparently tastes like an overripe melon. However, since the rest of the plant—the leaves, roots, and unripe fruit—is highly toxic, I have not sampled it myself.

Mayapples are best grown in partial to full shade, in rich, well-drained, humusy soil. They will tolerate dry soil and drought once established. The plants colonize by underground stolons, forming dense mats. They do not like heavy competition from other plants. Although it is recommended that they be grown under deciduous trees, mine are growing well under the canopy of 75-foot tall Norway spruces. They are toughing it out in the company of mammoth hostas, bloodroot and Christmas ferns.

Mayapples may be propagated by root division while dormant in the fall. Each new division should have at least one bud. The plants will also self-sow in optimal growing conditions, but seedlings take several years to mature. Like trilliums, Mayapples should be enjoyed them in the garden, not in a vase. Picking the flowers is impossible without cutting the leaves as well, and the plants need the leaves to supply fuel for next year’s growth.

For gorgeous displays of Mayapples and other native woodland wildflowers, visit Garden in the Woods this month, the Framingham, Mass. home of the New England Wildflower Society. In addition to special programs, Garden in the Woods offers many unusual plant cultivars for sale, and is a great place to start your own native American plant collection.

Woodland Phlox: A Natural Mingler

To many gardeners, the name phlox conjures up images of a fragrant perennial in the sunny mid-summer border. There is another phlox, however, Phlox divericata, that creates a cloud of shimmering blue and violet in woodland shade.

Woodland phlox is a delightful spring-blooming native that forms a creeping mound about one foot tall. As the common name suggests, it is a woodland wildflower, growing in forests, fields, and alongside streams. It prefers light to full shade, moist soil and a summer mulch of shredded leaves or bark. The foliage forms a mat of loosely entwined stems with semi-evergreen oblong leaves. The stems are both hairy and sticky.

Although its foliage does not have a strong presence, Woodland phlox makes up for this with ethereal drifts of flowers, in hues ranging from sky blue to violet, to rose and soft white. The sweetly scented blooms are formed in loose clusters of tubular flowers, each up to 1.5" wide, with five flat, notched, petal-like lobes that appear at the stem tips.

Woodland phlox is a natural mingler, chatting its way across the woodland floor. It weaves in and out of neighboring flowers, complementing spring flowering bulbs and providing a carpet for taller perennials.

As the leafy shoots spread along the ground, they root at the nodes, creating nice colonies. It is a great plant for naturalizing since it also self-sows to create soft drifts that blend well with other woodlanders.

Woodland phlox is what landscape design guru Piet Oudolf would call a “filler plant”. Plants are either “structure” or “filler” plants depending on their form, shape and texture. Structure plants have outspoken personalities that dominate their neighbors, while filler plants, which lack a strong presence of their own, weave around the others and fill in gaps. Filler plants like Woodland phlox, with its creeping form and soft hue, are vital to the garden, creating a seamless flow in the overall design.

Desirable cultivars of Phlox divericata include ‘Clouds of Perfume’ with its pronounced fragrance and  powder-blue flowers; ‘May Breeze’, a soft-white phlox introduced by Piet Oudolf, and ‘Blue Moon’, the favorite dark blue selection of Bill Cullina, curator of the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden.

Erythronium: What’s in a Name?

Every spring, there are a few new plants on my “plant lust” list – plants that I have read about or seen and just have to add to my garden. This year, the spring flowering Erythronium is high on the list. Depending on what part of the country you’re from, you may know Erythronium by a different name – perhaps Adder's Tongue, Dogtooth Violet, Trout Lily, Glacier Lily, Serpent's Tongue, Deer Tongue, or Yellow Snowdrop.

Whatever you call them, the 25 species of Erythronium are among the earliest of our native lilies to bloom in the spring. Most of the species are native to Western North America but there are also a few native to the Northeast and to Eurasia. These long-lived plants can be found in deciduous woodlands, sometimes in sizable colonies that can be up to 300 years old. They grow with other spring ephemerals such as Trillium, Hepatica and Uvullaria.

Erythronium’s distinctive silver or brown-mottled leaves basal leaves resemble the coloring of brook trout, hence the common name “Trout Lily”. Plants typically grow 6-12” tall. Their single, nodding bell-shaped flowers somewhat resemble violets. The flowers may be white, yellow or pink, depending on the species. Petals and sepals are bent backwards exposing six brown stamens. Erythronium’s flowers may last ten days to three weeks, depending on the temperature. The leaves last into June as the bulb goes dormant. They should not be removed until completely dried up, as they provide nourishment for the underground corm.

 Some of the more common species include Erythronium americanum (Trout lily,) with yellow flowers tinged with red, Erythronium albidum (White Dogtooth Violet), and the widely-available native hybrid 'Pagoda' which sports 3-5 flowers per stem in a rich yellow with a contrasting central reddish eye ring. In the garden, Erythroniums will readily hybridize if you plant two or more species together, yielding new combinations of flower color and foliage pattern.

Although Erythronium may be grown from seed, they will not flower for 4-5 years. Quicker and better results are obtained from planting corms, which are sold by many bulb suppliers and nurseries. The tiny white corms have a tooth-like shape, which lead to the common name “Dogtooth Violet”.

Like other spring-flowering bulbs, Erythronium corms should be planted in fall, 2-3” deep and 4-5” apart, and mulched well. The corms will produce stolons, and new plants will slowly spread to form large colonies if left undisturbed in optimum growing conditions. Offsets from mature plants may also be harvested and planted to increase your supply of these lovely plants.

IMG_6917.JPG

Erythronium grow best under deciduous trees in a deep, fertile loamy soil. They should not be planted where the soil remains wet, as the corms may rot. They can also be naturalized in thin lawns or grown in shrub beds around rhododendrons and other part-shade lovers.

Erythronium are beautiful additions to the early spring garden, and combine well with species tulips, epimedium and other early bulbs. Since their foliage disappears for the summer, they can be planted where later growing perennials will take their place. I am looking forward to adding these woodland lilies to my shady border and enjoying their elegant blooms next spring.

Miniature Hostas: It's a Small World

Miniature and dwarf hosta are gaining in popularity. They are widely used in troughs and rock gardens. When planted in the landscape, they look best grouped together, accented with other tiny perennials and conifers.

An elevated position is particularly useful when planting miniature hostas, to bring them closer to eye level. This incredible planter is actually a water trough in a garden in PA. The mix of texture and form and fascinating plant choices give this distinction.

This astounding display is from a garden in Bridgewater: three rusted oil tanks cut in half, filled with miniature and small hosta. Use your imagination! Anything can be adapted for use as a container.

This trio is an example of a variegation connection, pairing plants that have different amounts of the same two colors. In the front we have 'Bitsy Gold', and the ginger is Asarum naniflorum 'Eco Décor'. Labeling miniatures discretely can be difficult. This gardener used flat river rocks with black labels, a creative solution.

'Blue Mouse Ear is a miniature/small hosta. Here it is paired with the variegated dwarf grass, 'Beatlemania', pulmonaria, and the miniature Epimedium 'Liliputian'. Many sports of 'Blue Mouse Ears' have been introduced, including 'Cat and Mouse', 'Country Mouse', Mighty Mouse' and 'Snow Mouse'.

With so many possible uses and occupying such a small amount of real estate, is it any wonder that miniature hostas are gaining in popularity?


Beautiful Bold Bergenia

Plants with “multiple seasons of interest” are all the rage in gardening circles, and for me, Bergenias fit the bill. Most Bergenias are evergreen perennials that remain attractive all year. Their rounded, bold leaves set off the feathery foliage of ferns and conifers, the slender leaves of iris, or the small oval leaves of boxwood.

As cooler weather sets in, the leaves develop rich winter coloring, ranging from purple to maroon, crimson, bronze and even beet red. Popular in Europe, these valuable plants have been largely neglected by American gardeners. If you want to add a lush, elegant, easy-care plant to your garden this spring, look for a Bergenia.

Bergenias are native to central Asia, from Afghanistan to China and the Himalayas, and belong to the Saxifrage family – closely related to Heucheras, Astilbes, Tiarellas, Rodgersias and Mukdenias. Most members of the Saxifrage family have a flower cluster held well above their basal whorl of leaves, and many grow in rocky places, hence the scientific name which means “stone breaker”. Bergenias were named in honor of the 18th century botanist Karl August von Bergen. Like other garden plants, Bergenias have inherited colorful common names that illustrate their traits: “elephant ears” for the shape of their leaves, and “pigsqueaks” for the sound that you get when you rub their leaves with your fingers.

There are ten different species of Bergenia with variations in plant height and flower colors. I grow the most popular species – Bergenia cordifolia, with its heart-shaped leaves. The plants are about 18” tall, with evergreen foliage that turns a rich burgundy color in fall and winter. In late April, red stalks produce beautiful clusters of bell-shaped pink flowers and the leaves turn to a rich glossy green. In my garden, Bergenia’s large, leathery leaves complement the finely cut maroon foliage of a ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple, a small-leaved boxwood, purple coral bells and pink peonies.

I originally planted three Bergenias, which have slowly multiplied to a drift of about twenty-five. The plants grow from long, tube-like underground roots called rhizomes, and can be divided every 2-3 years to avoid crowding and ensure the best blooms. Mine enjoy a partly shaded, sloped bed, which provides excellent drainage. Other than trimming any tattered leaves in the early spring, and deadheading spent flower stalks, the plants are totally carefree. In general, Bergenias are very cold-hardy, thriving in zones 3-7 in the Eastern U.S. They prefer a somewhat protected location, however, since winter winds will scorch and tear their large evergreen leaves. I have two clumps growing on either side of a low evergreen shrub, and the windward clump always looks more haggard in the spring than the leeward clump.

Although Bergenias are outstanding foliage plants, you can find variations in bloom color from white to ruby red and purple. Interesting varieties include ‘Bressingham White’ (white blooms), ‘Baby Doll’ (baby-pink), ‘Apple Blossom (pale pink with red calyx) and ‘Eroica’ (reddish pink).

For something completely different, you can grow one of the recently introduced variegated cultivars. ‘Tubby Andrews’ is green streaked with gold and cream, while ‘Solar Flare’, is similar to a hosta, with a green center and irregular cream and yellow margins. Both sport dark pink blooms. When the cold weather hits, the foliage of these plants takes on various tints of pinks and reds, creating a real showstopper in the garden.

No matter which Bergenia you choose, you will be rewarded with many seasons of beauty in your garden.

Spring Ephemerals: Adapted for Success

There are hundreds of species of flowers that are native to the woodlands of northeastern North America, and nearly 90% of them bloom in the spring. Spring ephemerals are among the first of the woodland plants to emerge, allowing them to take full advantage of the available sunlight, moisture and nutrients of the forest floor. This gives them a head start in the race to fulfill the biological imperative of all flowering plants: the production of seeds for the continuation of the species.

However, blooming so early is not without risk. It requires unique evolutionary strategies and adaptations. Many spring ephemerals have developed complex relationships with other organisms in their eco-niche that encourage successful pollination and seed production. In addition, many have specific physical and structural characteristics that give them advantages in the potentially harsh conditions of early spring.

Small Size

Spring ephemerals are small plants. The forest floor thaws from top to bottom, so water and nutrients are available in the top level of the soil first, allowing smaller plants with their shallow root systems to become active before larger plants. This gives spring ephemerals a competitive edge in successful flower and seed production.

Growth Habit

Many spring ephemerals have physical characteristics that offer protection during the cold nights of early spring.  Bloodroot traps warm air with its thick leaves that envelop the flower bud and the flower stem, shielding them from frost. Other plants, such as Hepatica, have stems that are covered with dense hairs that resemble a fur coat. The hairs prevent ice condensation and act as insulators, thus protecting very early bloomers from damaging frosts.

Pollination

Some woodland plants bloom before most pollinators are active. For example, skunk cabbage blooms so early that the only insect pollinators available are flies. The fetid odor of skunk cabbage is an adaptation designed to attract flies and ensure pollination.

Hepatica is another early bloomer, with blossoms that span the time of available pollinators. Hepatica relies on flies as well as early bees, beetles and moths for pollination.

Our native bumble bees are essential to the reproductive success of many spring ephemerals, such as Dutchman’s breeches.

Seed Dispersal

Many woodland perennials rely on wind, or birds, or water to spread their seeds.  Others, like bloodroot and trilliums, have their seeds spread by ants, a process called myremecochory. Ants gather the seeds and store them in underground nests where they feed upon a fleshy appendage attached to each seed. In this way, the ants essentially plant the seeds in an environment where they stay protected until they germinate the following spring. A single ant colony may collect over a thousand seeds in a season, but they do not move them a great distance. In general, a seed is carried no more than two meters from the parent plant. Because offspring and parent plant remain in close proximity, their existence is easily threatened. When their habitat is disturbed or they are removed from the woodland (by changing environmental factors and human or animal activity), it is rare that they recur.

Deer Resistance

After a long winter, foraging deer are fond of fresh new plant growth.  Most spring ephemerals have developed adaptations that make them unpalatable to deer, including hairy stems and leaves, and poisonous sap.

Spring ephemerals and other early-blooming woodland perennials have developed ecological strategies for flowering, pollination and seed production that are completely reliant on the seasonal cycles of our native woodlands, on the growth patterns of our native plants, and on the availability of our native pollinators. In spring, our woodland floors are carpeted with the blooms of wildflowers that are wondrous examples of the complex inter-relatedness of the natural world.

By Joan Butler