Saturday, April 19, 2008

Low Maintenance Perennials

Years ago I was asked to give a talk about low maintenance perennials to a community group in Orange. I selected ten plants and with slides and handout sheets I explained why I chose those particular perennials. When I was finished a gal in the back of the room asked: “Amanda, do you ever sell those plants that come back year after year?”

Now, when I discuss perennials I start with a definition. A perennial is a plant that comes back year after year ... until it dies. Some perennials live a few years and then fade away. Others, like peonies or dictamnus (gas plant) will probably last longer than the person who planted them.

A low maintenance perennial would be one that it is reasonably long-lived, but not what I call a “bully” perennial. These can take over the garden in a few years. When a neighbor comes over with a paper bag stuffed full of bare roots and says it is “... a really easy perennial to grow,” be very careful!

Low maintenance perennials do not need need to be staked, nor do they have to be pruned of dead headed (although that never hurts). These plants are not troubled with diseases like powdery mildew or prone to insects like aphids or spider mites. And these are plants that look good the entire growing season, not just when they are in bloom.

STACHYS LAMBS’ EARS - ‘Helen von Stein’ --- I don’t care for the lambs’ ears grown from seed, because it sends up what I consider to be unsightly scapes and odd blooms which need to be cut. The foliage also tends to die away in the center. Stachys ‘Helen von Stein’ is grown from cuttings, not seeds, and as such rarely flowers. One common name for this plant is “elephant ears”, as the leaves are twice the size of the seed-grown varieties. It provides nice waves of silver in the garden.

SEDUM ‘kamtschaticum’ --- Most people are familiar with ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, which is nice, but I particularly like the low growing sedum ‘kamtschaticum’. It is a thick green ground cover in the spring that bursts into yellow blooms. When they go by the spent stems and flowers turn a rusty red.

DAYLILIES --- These reliable plants withstand neglect. They can be used as erosion protection or ground cover and they increase in size each year.

If you were to just grow one daylily, ‘Stella de Oro’ would be a good choice. It is a lower growing plant with orange/yellow flowers. It reblooms on and off the entire season. This cultivar is widely used by landscapers.

ASTILBE --- Typically sold as a shade plant, I find in northern Vermont astilbe does fine in full sun, as long as it is not planted in dry, sandy soil. In fact, in the shade it doesn’t bloom much for me. Astilbe has feathery plumes and comes in white and many shades of pink, red, and purple. If I were to pick just one variety, I would stick with ‘Visions,’ which is a lower growing (18”) cultivar that has done well for us in all growing conditions. It has raspberry rose plumes and large clear green leaves.

VIOLA ‘Purple Showers’ --- This plant combines the old-fashioned charm of a violet with modern vigor. Some years it blooms all summer long.

BAPTESIA - (False Indigo) --- Baptesia is one of my favorite perennials. It takes a few years to size up, but then it behaves like a trouble free shrub, about 4 feet tall with spikes of violet blue flowers followed by pods. It has a nice vase shape to it when it’s not blooming and I also use the foliage in bouquets all summer.

AMSONIA (Willow Blue Star) --- This plant has light blue flowers in the spring and is native to the Eastern US. It is totally trouble free. A three foot, upright plant, like baptesia, it almost appears to be a small shrub. The foliage is long lasting in bouquets and turns golden colored in the fall.

SIBERIAN IRIS --- All siberian iris are low maintenance, until four or five years when it’s time to divide them. Then a jack hammer comes in handy, or a strapping young man. Meanwhile, you have lovely flowers in the spring. They bloom around the same time as peonies. If you don’t deadhead the flowers, the seed pods can be used in fall dried bouquets and the foliage looks nice all year, kind of like an ornamental grass.

Hostas are the best selling perennials in the US, but the slugs and the deer love them, so where I live that involves a lot of maintenance.

Every plant needs a bit of attention. A new planting needs moisture to get the roots established and placing some mulch around the base will help with weeds.

What's New in the world of Perennials

Companies selling perennial plants are always trying to come out with “new “ and “improved” offerings. Unfortunately many of these new perennials are developed in warmer climates and don’t survive in northeast Vermont.

Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon has registered 500 new perennials since 1992. I can highly recommend some of their introductions, while I have grown others with no success.

‘Excalibur’ and ‘Majeste’ pulmonaria have attractive silver foliage, and because the leaves have a fuzzy characteristic, deer don’t eat them.

Pulmonaria has many common names, such as “Bethlehem sage” or “Mary and Joseph plant” (because the bloom on the species goes from pink to blue) or “lungwort.” ‘David Ward’ pulmonaria has green leaves with a silver edge and coral red flowers.

Perennials do not bloom all season, so I encourage people to consider the color and texture of the foliage when planting a perennial garden. A planting of maroon foliage next to silver foliage can give the impression of color without one bloom. And foliage color is one place the perennial plant industry has made great advances.

There are many heucheras (coral bells) with maroon and purple leaves. Among the best are ‘Plum Pudding,’ ‘Chocolate Ruffles,’ and ‘Purple Petticoats.’ Ligularia ‘Britt Marie Crawford’ has wonderful large dark leaves and there are numerous new cimicfugias (snakeroot) out there with almost black foliage and names like ‘Black NegligĂ©’ and ‘Hillside Black Beauty.’

I like variegated foliage, but it often reverts back to solid green. The relatively new Jacob's ladder, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ seems to hold its variegation nicely.

I like the way the yellow blooms of heliopsis (false sunflower) ‘Lorraine Sunshine’ look against that plant’s variegated foliage.

Sometimes new introductions get a lot of press and gardeners then ask for these plants. I have not had luck with the yellow and orange echinacea (cone flower) over wintering, nor do the yellow leafed heuchera do well for me.

I have seen plants thriving in Montpelier and Barre that I have difficulty growing here because we are just that much colder.

A few years ago I had a landscaper beg for a new daylily, ‘Rosy Returns,’ which promised “... large (4") bright rose flowers with repeat blooming from June to frost. “ I planted 50 of the expensive new plants to evaluate their performance. The flowers, when they did appear, were muddy and after three years of giving them a chance, they all went to the compost pile.

That said, daylilies are a good place to find something “new” that will stand out in the garden. There are about 50,000 registered cultivars and hybridizers are always trying to come up with something different. Daylilies now come in just about every color except true blue, and all shapes from one inch across to a spread of nine inches. There are doubles, “spiders” and “UFO’s”. There are bright red daylilies and white daylilies. A good time to buy daylilies is when they are blooming, because color photographs are often misleading.

Another perennial which has seen improvement over the years is the perennial geranium. These smallish plants are not the geraniums with big red flowers sold every spring in pots. Those are actually in another group altogether and their botanical name is Pelargonium, not Geranium.

True hardy or perennial geraniums belong to the genus Geranium. You will sometimes see them referred to as cranesbill geraniums, because their seed pods are said to resemble a crane's bill. They are low growing plants that spread by rhizomes. The foliage is often toothed and remains attractive. The flowers float on top of the plant.

‘Rozanne’ geranium has been named the 2008 Perennial Plant Association “plant of the year.” It has violet blue flowers and is long blooming.

‘Splish Splash’ is a newer hybrid that grows into a larger plant than most geraniums, reaching 30". The flowers are like small white petunias with splashes of blue ink.

One of the darkest and most intensely colored hardy geraniums is 'Perfect Storm.' It has magenta-pink blooms with a black center and dark veins, which are set against pale gray-green foliage, making the flowers really stand out .

Sometimes a “new” perennial is rated zone 5 and is fine overwintering in my Cabot garden. Other plants promising zone 3 hardiness don’t survive. A gardener’s best bet is to shop locally from people who have experience growing the plants they sell. (Imagine I should give that advice!) The quality of these plants will be much better than mail order and the price will be less.

While it’s fun to try new introductions, gardeners have a vast choice when it comes to perennials and some of the oldest cultivars remain the best.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New Annuals for 2008

So much to do ... so little time .... before I open my five greenhouses to the public May 1.

Meanwhile, we still have snow on the ground and the possibility of digging perennials seems far far away. This is a photograph of the path to the smaller greenhouses. Fortunately my son has been lugging plants back and forth for me and he is king of the shovelers.

Meanwhile, I have been writing for a local paper and will include the columns in this blog. As a joke, I gave myself the name, "The Garden Hoe" and they are using it!

Here is my first column - - -

Every spring gardeners are deluged with seed catalogues touting “new,” and “improved” or “exclusive” flowers and vegetables. Sometimes new introductions prove their worth, like ‘Big Beef’ tomato or ‘Profusion’ zinnias. Or they fade away into plant oblivion, like ‘Sundrops’ squash and ‘Sunkist’ marigold.

Although I’ve been gardening for 40 years I still fall prey to the lure of glowing prose and pretty pictures.

Vesey Seeds 2008 catalogue features photos of a new tomato, “Applause,” on their cover, promising “exceptional size” and “early maturity.” Johnnies Seeds asks gardeners to try “New Girl” tomato (62 days) which will be “...better tasting and more disease resistant than ‘Early Girl’.” ‘Polfast’ is a new hybrid from Poland that is “extremely early” (54 days) with “flavor similar to good-midseason tomatoes.” Heck, I’ll try them all. Any vegetable you get out of your garden is going to taste better than one you buy at a chain grocery store.

Despite global warming, we zone 4 gardeners are always on the lookout for short-season varieties. Last year was a terrific growing season, but 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 were cold summers, so we shouldn’t get complacent. Unfortunately early season vegetables often lack the flavor of later varieties, so I recommend planting some early varieties for a sure bet, followed up with some later maturing plants.

The All American Selections (AAS) have been around for 75 years. Judges from all over the country trial and then select what they consider the best new plants on the market. This year they have only selected three winners, two flowers and one vegetable. Osteospernum ‘Asti White’ is the first African Daisy offered from seed. Viola ‘skippy XL Plum-gold’ has cute “whiskers” and ‘Hansel’ is a miniature eggplant producing fruit 55 days from transplant.

The viola is worth a try with its pretty “abundant” 1 and 1/2 inch blooms. I’ll pass on the osteospernum, because even the cultivars grown from cuttings bloom sporadically for me.

Park’s Seeds pours on the superlatives when describing the new eggplant. “A breeding breakthrough extraordinaire!,” they write. “Hansel is the first eggplant that lets you choose when you want to harvest it! The glossy, dark purple, mild sweet fruits are ready at 2 inches, yet keep their tender texture and rich flavor as they grow, so you can harvest them at any time up to about 10 inches or so!”

So far, so good, (although I could do without all the explanation points). But then the zone 4 gardener reads with amusement: “At last, no more armloads of eggplants going to the neighbors or to church because you just can't eat any more.” Uh oh - they aren’t talking to short-season gardeners. Still, it’s worth a try.

I order seeds from about 20 different companies, but if I were a home gardener who could just pick from one, I’d stick with Pinetree Garden Seeds out of Maine. Their prices are extremely reasonable, the number of seeds in a packet makes sense for the smaller garden, and the selection is great.

You can find all the old favorites here as well as lots of fun varieties to try. This is where I am getting seeds for ‘polish linguisa’, “a huge sausage shaped tomato that weighs two-thirds of a pound” and ‘sunrise serenade’, a double morning glory.

Of course anyone who lives in the Cabot area could skip buying seeds altogether and go greenhouse hopping and enjoy the great selection offered by their neighbors.

My next column will be about recent developments with perennials.

Pinetree Seeds PO Box 300 New Gloucester ME 04260 (207)926-3400