Fabulous Fountain Grasses: “Temperennial” New Varieties

Fabulous fountain grasses!

While many in the perennial world seem to think that annuals have gone out of style, the “wow” factor they provide is undeniable. Tropical plants and annual flowers are perfect for temporarily filling in the spaces between slow-growing shrubs and trees, which is one of the many reasons books like Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner’s The Nonstop Garden recommend that annuals and tropicals make up about 20% of your garden beds.

New varieties of fountain grass have become the latest trend for those looking for a fast, bodacious blast of seasonal color. You might think of fountain grass as being one of the sturdiest perennials around, even for colder climates. But these new varieties fall under the category of “temperennial” (read it again, I didn’t say temperamental!), which is to say they’re a perennial in temperate zones 9 to 11, but best treated as an annual in cooler climes or areas with a lot of rainfall (i.e., most of the Northwest).

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Grassy Favorites, New and Old

New-grasses-photo-courtesy-Hoffman-Nursery.jpgWhile I won’t go so far as to recommend you take gardening advice from your cat, ornamental grasses comprise such a broadly useful array of plants for the landscape that it’s almost impossible to avoid falling in love with at least a few of them. Some are wispy and rustle in the wind, some are bold and sculptural, while others have a flowing appearance which softens the look of shrubs. New ornamental grasses are coming out every day, with exciting foliage colors, interesting forms, and improved vigor. I recently wrote to some of the growers involved in developing ornamental grasses to ask them what is new and fabulous in the world of grasses. And to make it a little simpler, I’ve compared and contrasted these newer varieties with some familiar favorites so you can get an idea of when to choose which. [Read more...]

Why Grow That When You Can Grow This? Alternatives to Overused Plants

rosemary-photo-by-Geishaboy500.jpgOne of the neatest things about being a plant geek is that it’s possible to find inspiration anywhere you go. In theory, at least. In reality, there’s a short list of plants in each region that are used over and over again until they become boring and dull, and these plants populate our landscapes in such numbers that inspiring plant ideas can seem few and far between. Some of the selections have no real flaw other than being so colorful and easy to grow that everyone uses them everywhere. Others have dangerously brittle branches, are prone to disease, or are so high-maintenance that I can’t think what possesses anyone to plant them at all, much less en masse. As a landscape designer, it’s easy to fall into an over-planting rut. Over the years, I’ve found there are certain plants which always get a rave review from clients, and it would be easy to use a palette of smash hits each time and never go outside the box. But there’s something to be said for trying something a little new, flirting with some lesser-known beauties, and mixing it up so every landscape has its own special touches that aren’t replicated elsewhere. Balance is key. In celebration of my friend Andrew Keys’ new book Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?, I’m tackling this topic head-on and providing some of alternatives to those yawn-inducers seen at your local big box store. Here’s my list:

Australian mint bush or De La Mina Verbena,  NOT rosemary

rosemary photo by Geishaboy500 prostanthera rotundifolia verbena lilacina de la mina
Left to right: Rosemary, Australian mint bush, De La Mina Verbena So I love a nice rosemary plant as much as the next person. I mean, what better shrub to have around come barbecue time? But some landscapers take it a little too far, planting rosemary over and over again, everywhere, whether it’s truly the right plant for the spot or not. This particularly drives me nuts when people plant it in a location where it doesn’t have enough room to spread out properly, so it eventually starts getting hedged off the pathway until you have this flat-sided beast with dead twigs on one side and a tiny tuft of happy rosemary on the top. Gross. Let’s mix it up a bit, people! If you want a plant that’s like rosemary but perhaps a bit more upright, give Australian mint bush, Prostanthera rotundifolia, a try. It smells pleasantly like Vick’s Vapo-Rub, has a richer color to the blooms, and gives more of an upright character to the landscape than the great sprawling mass that a happy rosemary plant makes. The hummingbirds and honeybees dig it. Or, if you want an exuberant groundcover but would prefer it not take over 8′ of garden floor space when mature, substitute SoCal native De La Mina Verbena, Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’, and let its lush foliage and long bloom season charm both you and your local pollinators. Verbena is less brittle than rosemary, so if your dog galumphs through it, you won’t have to look at a hole in the plant for the rest of its life like you would with a rosemary.

Diamond Heights Ceanothus, NOT golden oregano

golden oregano ceanothus diamond heights
Left to right: golden oregano, Diamond Heights Ceanothus I don’t want to seem like I’m slamming the edibles here, because they’re great plants for the right spots. But lately I’ve been seeing them everywhere regardless of whether they’re appropriate. Reality check: Edibles are fantastic for the landscape, but if you’re setting them in a location where they are likely to be pooped on by a dog, then it’s wise to evaluate them on the basis of their habit and performance in the landscape, because their edible nature will be rendered useless. Golden oregano is really pretty, but in most of the landscapes my company maintains, it’s one of the highest-maintenance plants available, and it can turn into a frustrating mess if left unmaintained in a bed with landscaping fabric. It spreads (vigorously if given overhead irrigation), needs shearing after bloom to remove the brown, gets burnt leaf tips if given too much sun or too little water, and then needs to be cut back in fall. What a lot of fuss! In contrast, Diamond Heights Ceanothus, Ceanothus griseus horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’, is a slow-growing groundcover which is evergreen, has a similarly soft habit, covers the ground and suppresses weeds without needing, well, any real care. It likes a little water to get established, but after that prefers a low-water setting and looks good all year. Ceanothus are native, and while it’s hard to say how much wildlife value this variegated, rarely-blooming variety provides, I’d still call it a better choice than golden oregano in most landscaped settings.

Spice bush, NOT Camellia

Camellia japonica calycanthus occidentalis
Left to right: Camellia, spice bush Why do so many people plant Japanese Camellias in coastal Pacific Northwest gardens, when their great ruffly overbred blooms turn brown and fall off the shrub in great rotting clumps at the first hint of rain? It’s not like winter moisture is some great surprise to us here. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a bird or a happy bug visiting a Camellia. The things are like plastic as far as our local wildlife are concerned. I’d much rather plant our CA native spice bush, Calycanthus occidentalis, which has bright cheery red blooms shaped like water lilies, grows easily into a tall shrub, and gives off a light, interesting fragrance like that of the inside of a wine barrel, fruity and astringent. It’s a plant that makes you look twice, yet it’s easy enough for any garden in sun or part shade. Plus, a native like spice bush, which has evolved with Northern California’s wildlife, has more potential to attract birds and happy bugs in the garden.

Sulfur buckwheat, NOT Santolina

santolina photo by orchidgalore on flickr sulfur buckwheat ca native
Left to right: lavender cotton, sulfur buckwheat A great big snore award goes to regular old lavender cotton, Santolina chamaecyparissus, that floppy, woody, high-maintenance denizen of the low-water landscape. It’s all well and good the first year, when the lush foliage is filling in and those cute yellow button-blooms cheer the plant come summer. But once Santolina gets going, it gets woody and floppy and needs a hard yearly prune after bloom to stay compact and attractive. That means it has a significant “off” season where it looks awkward and thoroughly pruned. If you have a low-water landscape, I prefer the larger blooms and compact habit of sulfur buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum. The author of my favorite insect book, Peter Haggard, calls it one of the top ten best plants for wildlife in coastal Northern California. The only caveat here is that buckwheats don’t care for water, so you can kill them with kindness. Don’t let them develop a drinking habit and you’ll have years of happy native bees and pollinators thanking you for adding this cheerful selection to your garden.

Blueberries: Which Ones Taste Best?

Jelly-Bean.jpgWe’re big fans of blueberries here on the North Coast of California, as our damp Pacific Northwest climate and acidic soil make it the perfect setting to grow blueberry bushes. And we’re coming up on the best time to plant them, as most nurseries get their biggest shipment of blueberry varieties in fall. Because blueberries are beautiful plants almost year-round, they’re great for incorporating into landscapes, even low-maintenance or commercial/ business landscapes. And if you forget to eat the fruit, the birds will clean up after you, in stark contrast to many fruit trees which bear an almost-overwhelming harvest sometimes (juicing my apples in fall feels like a part-time job – not that I’m complaining!). But which berries are the tastiest? Over the past two years I’ve taken it upon myself to do a taste-test of the blueberries grown locally here in Humboldt County to see which ones I ought to plant and suggest to my clients. (The sacrifices I make in the name of research, right?) In a general sense, small berries are best for baked goods since they have less moisture, while larger berries are best for eating right off the shrub. I prefer the tart ones for cooking and preserving since they add a stronger flavor in baked goods. Sweet berries don’t taste like much in muffins and pies, but they are delicious eaten fresh. Below, I’ve shared the good, the bad, and the “meh” in the world of blueberries. I’ve starred my favorites. [Read more...]

New Hellebore Flowers Hold Their Heads High

Helleborus-Cinnamon-Snow-from-Skagit-Gardens.jpgI’m a big fan of hellebores, since in my rainy climate so many flowers are dashed to the ground at the first rough rain shower. Plus, some types of flower and color just don’t stand out boldly enough to be visible from a window. Hellebores are tough as nails and shine brightly in the winter landscape. But the problem with so many hellebore varieties is that you almost have to get up underneath them to appreciate the full extent of their beauty. It’s like they’re doing some kind of downward dog yoga thing to hold their zen through the lousy weather. See what I mean? Kinda droopy: downward facing hellebore helleborus orientalis Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a lot of cheer for winter and early spring, and I actually think these older varieties are quite lovely. There’s a delicate woodland grace to flowers that look downwards. But sometimes you want just a little more oomph in your plantings, and most of the new Gold Collection of hellebores have more upward-facing flowers, so you don’t need to plant them at the tall end of a slope to get the full effect of their blooms. Check it: ‘Jacob': Hellebore Jacob from Skagit ‘Cinnamon Snow': Helleborus Cinnamon Snow from Skagit ‘Pink Frost': Hellebore Pink Frost from Skagit ‘Spring Party': HELLEBORUSGoldCollectionSpringParty17 I’ve been planting some of these new varieties anyway just because their foliage is so gorgeous, but now that they are beginning to bloom for the first time and I am seeing what a strong shot of color they’re bringing with those upright flowers, I am doubly excited to plant more this year. Another nice thing is they’re being bred for a longer array of bloom times. According to Skagit Gardens, a wholesale plant grower in Washington and B.C., if you choose your varieties wisely you can have color from November through April – a notoriously tough time for blooms. Here’s the run-down of what starts to bloom when (they usually last about three months): November: Gold Collection Joel, Jonas or Jacob (pictured above), all of which have crisp white blooms with a yellow center. December: Cinnamon Snow (pictured), Josef Lemper and Rosemary, which are, respectively, marbled pinky white, pure white with a yellow center, and a bright pink bubblegum color with a hint of peachy warmth. January: Mahogany Snow, Champion and Pink Frost (pictured), which are dusky rose, whitish-green, and pale pink with vivid pink outer petals. February: Spring Party (pictured) and Merlin, which can bloom through April. Spring Party has marbled foliage and white blooms which age to pinkish beige, while Merlin has pink blooms and very dark green foliage. There’s an awesome bloom-time chart here for the Gold Collection and other new Hellebores (PDF). Hat tip to Yvonne over at Miller Farms Nursery (I recently raved on them over at the Proven Winners site) who gave me the heads-up, so to speak, on these new varieties. All photos courtesy Skagit Gardens.

Perennial Plant Pick for 2012: Jack Frost Brunnera

Brunnera-Jack-Frost-foliage.jpgI have mixed feelings about the Perennial Plant Association’s plant pick of 2012. I mean, I love it and all. Jack Frost Brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’) is one of those shade plants that seems to thrive wherever you stick it, looks elegant and classy in a variety of gardening themes, and is unusual enough that when I plant it, clients say marvelous things about my fine taste for having chosen such an aesthetically-pleasing plant. That, of course, is all over now. [Read more...]

Deep Dark Plants for Halloween and Beyond

nom.jpgPhoto at left: Mackerel showing his love of Phormium ‘Black Adder’ October always makes me want to curl up with my gardening books and highlight the deliciously wicked black plants found within. But you don’t need to limit black and dark plants to Halloween. They can fit into pretty much any garden scheme, from English cottage, Japanese, tropical, woodland, or any style of gardening you’ve got going on.
Acidanthera Helleborus Onyx Odyssey photo courtesy Terra Nova Nursery
Actaea 'Brunette' or Cimicifuga 'Brunette' Chambers (11)

Looking for some goth gardening inspiration?

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Alpine Strawberries – Nature’s SweetTarts

Supermarket-berry-Rugen-Improved-Yellow-Alpine-Golden-Alexandria.jpgPictured: a normal strawberry, ‘Rugen Improved’ alpine, ‘Yellow Alpine’, and ‘Golden Alexandria’ berries Alpine strawberries. Seriously, have you guys tried these things? They’re like little red garden crackberries. They’re definitely one of my favorite things to grow at home, not the least because you can’t actually buy them in stores. Mine start going downhill as soon as they’re picked, and last at most a day or two in the fridge. But the flavor! Tart, rich, and sweet. Fall-apart tender and soft, nothing like those woody things you buy at Safeway. I just wrote an ode to them over at the Christian Science Monitor, and talk about a few of the varieties available: Alpine Strawberries: Perfect in Foliage and in Fruit And imagine my pleasure to see that Stevie over at Garden Therapy has just posted about how to save the seeds from alpine strawberries so you can grow them yourself. They’re about $4 a pop at the nursery, so growing your own from seed sounds like a marvelous idea to me, once you’ve gotten a good selection of varieties growing. Jessi over at Garden Fowl is also a fan, and points out that the white variety has runners, unlike some of the other varieties of alpine strawberry available. My ‘Golden Alexandria’ from Log House Plants is also forming some runners, so I’ll be excited to have more of them in my garden next year. Have you tried growing alpines? Are you all as smitten as I am?

Mediterranean Plants to Rock Your Waterwise Landscape

Mediterranean-Garden-Design-Creating-a-Tuscan-Garden.jpgRecently I wrote about how to design a Mediterranean garden, but I left out one major component – which plants to choose! I just did a follow-up article over at the Christian Science Monitor which discusses just that. And yes, there are more photos of that lovely, lovely garden.  Head on over to read more.

Tomatoes! In Humboldt County! Grafted Tomatoes Beat the Competition

grafted-sashas-altai-tomato.jpgYes, ladies and gentlemen, the title is accurate. And no, I’m not talkin’ about no stinkin’ cherry tomatoes, either. Real, live tomatoes big enough to slice and put in a sandwich! If you live in Humboldt, you know what an achievement this is. Our foggy, cool summers don’t usually allow much of anything in the tomato department – if I get a few bowlfuls of cherry tomatoes, I’m usually pretty pleased. But this year, the bar has been raised. Earlier in the season, Log House Plants sent me three of their grafted tomatoes to test out in the garden. (Learn more about grafted tomatoes here and here.) Being a realist, and also prone to moping about at the slightest disappointment, I told them to please only send me grafted cherry tomatoes, as there was no way in hell a proper slicing tomato would do anything but break my heart. With great confidence in their tomatoes, they ignored my pessimism and sent a ‘Big Beef’ (true to its name), a medium-sized Siberian variety called ‘Sasha’s Altai’ (thanks to Amy Stewart for uncovering the story behind it), and my very favorite cherry tomato, ‘Sungold’. I snorted when I saw the ‘Big Beef’, but the plants were so robust that I put a little faith in the process and popped them all in. Well, a few months later, these behemoths are out-pacing every other tomato plant I’ve ever had. I grew some normal old ‘Sungold’ plants to compare, and while they’re doing pretty well for Humboldt, they’re only about two feet tall, while the grafted tomatoes are about 5 feet tall and busting out of their tomato cages. I planted everything too late, as last year we had a freak June frost which made me paranoid of planting too early, so I am just now starting to pick real, live cherry tomatoes from the grafted ‘Sungold’ (the normal ‘Sungolds’ are still unproductive). And today was the day I ‘d been waiting for: the ‘Sasha’s Altai’ gave me my very first-ever homegrown slicing tomato. Wow! While the ‘Big Beef’ is putting on tons of tomatoes, it’s too soon to tell whether this will be a bumper crop of one of my favorite foods, green tomatoes (OMG – fried green tomatoes – heavenly!), or whether they’ll turn a delightful stoplight color suitable for dousing in fresh basil, fresh mozzarella balls, and possibly a bit of balsamic. I’ll keep you updated. green big beef tomatoes Next year, I’m definitely shelling out for some grafted tomatoes (they were about $13 at our local nurseries), as well as Log House’s newest star, grafted basil. Yeah, you heard me right. I’ve been growing delicate little basils indoors under lights because the great outdoors is too chilly and cold for their basilly little selves to handle. I’m guessing one of those grafted ones would actually give me outdoor basil, and I can’t wait for next summer so I can try! Anyone else try out the new grafted tomatoes? I’m keen to hear whether your experience has been as good as mine has so far.