Plants to Love: New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa arundinacea/ Anemanthele lessoniana)

Anemanthele-lessoniana.jpgAnemanthele lessoniana New Zealand Wind Grass is a stunning low-maintenance grass that keeps its glowing orange foliage all winter long. I occasionally have to prune out some dead bits here or there, which I do by grasping a small clump of dead foliage and cutting it out at the base so you don’t notice it’s been pruned. Anemanthele lessoniana gets to 4’ around and 3’ tall, and will take even the worst seacoast wind. It’s also deer-resistant. It colors up all bronzey-orange in full sun, but is an attractive green grass in part shade as well. They’re gorgeous for highlighting any kind of green foliage, and I think they look great with plants that have purple flowers like Tibouchina/ Princess Flower or Salvia leucantha/ Mexican Bush Sage. [print_link]

Plants to Love: Neon Flash Spirea (Spirea ‘Neon Flash’)

SpireaNeonFlash.jpgSpirea ‘Neon Flash’ (USDA Zones 4-9) is a Bright! Magenta! Pink! flowering shrub to about 4’ tall, which loves full sun and blooms off and on throughout the summer. It does lose its leaves in winter and gets a bit of reddish-yellow fall color, but the fall color isn’t anything to rave about. I love the fine texture of the leaves, the neat, compact habit, and the Bright! Pink! flowers. This is an easy Spirea to care for so long as it has reasonably good drainage, an application of organic fertilizer in spring and regular water. It can sometimes get a bit of powdery mildew around the blooms if it is unhappy, but overall it is a sturdy, easy-care plant that gives a lot more back than it asks from us. I make sure to deadhead it promptly to encourage rebloom, and sometimes I’ll get three blooms in one season from it – a good six months of color. If you’re keeping up with things often, just prune out the individual flowerheads as they go brown and leave the new buds to bloom. If you’re a more casual gardener, just wait until the whole thing is done blooming, then cut the entire flowering stem down into the rest of the foliage so you don’t notice the cut stems. It will rebloom for you soon! Deer-resistant but not 100% deer-proof, I love this Spirea with Hebes, Salvia leucantha/ Mexican Bush Sage, ornamental grasses, and that wild tropical-looking Alstroemeria ‘Third Harmonic’ shown in the photo. [print_link]

Monday Miscellany: Pacific Northwest Plants, Homemade Deer Deterrent, Book Rec’s, and MORE Garden Cocktails


Great Plant Picks

This week I’ve re-discovered a fantastic resource for Pacific Northwest Gardeners: Great Plant Picks. Plant info online can be hard to rely on – either nurseries are stretching the zones and touting a plant’s greatness so they can sell more of them, or home gardeners are giving anecdotal information that is useful, but may not hold true in other gardens. Great Plant Picks LogoIt’s a pleasure to have a strong resource  like this that has been selected by a committee of leading professionals. I haven’t found anything on the site that I disagree with, which is rare and delightful. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and looking for an outstanding and reliable plant, definitely check out these lists of Great Plant Picks. [Read more...]

Plants to Love: Fragrant Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia)

Sarcococcaruscifolia.jpgSarcococca ruscifolia This unassuming little shade shrub is one that people often don’t notice at first. There’s nothing particularly showy about its graceful arching stems, deep green leaves, or the tiny white flowers that hang from its branches in winter. But when those small blooms open, people walk around sniffing all the big, showy flowers in the area, wondering where that glorious fragrance is coming from! After the flowers, Fragrant Sweet Box begins creating pretty little red berries which hang prettily off each stem. The red berries soon turn to black, and the shrub creates a gentle show for months on end. [Read more...]

Bulletproof Rhododendrons: Rhodies for Sea Coast Wind and Other Tough Conditions

Rhododendronsforwindygardens.jpgRhododendrons are tough performers in our Pacific Northwest climate, and have become a standby for landscapers looking for a plant that’s sure to thrive. But not all Rhodies are created equal; some are more suited to tough conditions than others, as evidenced by the horrible-looking Rhodies in so many local parking lots. Finding the right variety for the spot you have is key. Recently, I asked Don Wallace of Singing Tree Gardens, our local Rhododendron expert, for suggestions of “bulletproof” Rhododendrons that I could use in tough spots where other plants might not thrive – like in windy areas, or in poor soils. He came up with a great list of tougher-than-usual Rhodies, which I have found so useful I wanted to share it with you here. [Read more...]

Plants to Love: Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima/ Stipa tenuissima)

stipanassellatenuissimaMexicanFeatherGrass.jpgstipa nassella tenuissima Mexican Feather Grass This waving blonde grass is a great way of bringing a sense of movement to your garden. It looks great massed, and brings a beachy feel to the garden with its bleached straw-colored seedheads. Nassella tenuissima does need to be cut to the ground once a year, but I’ve had great luck doing it at the end of the summer – it comes back just in time to perk up the winter garden. Give it full sun and 3’ of room. Mexican Feather Grass usually gets pruned once yearly in September when they go kind of beige and dreadlock-y, and they come back gorgeously and make a fresh green winter accent for me. Cut the entire thing to 3” tall using your hedging shears. (Check out this article from The Germinatrix with her take on pruning this Stipa!) This grass can be invasive in some parts of the country because it does re-seed. Here in the coastal Pacific Northwest, it will often re-seed in a garden, but rarely become a pest, and I haven’t seen it in any wild areas. But in Southern CA, it is becoming a pest and so I’d check with your local agricultural extension before planting this lovely little grass to make sure it will actually be lovely for you. [print_link]

Plants to Love: Purple Catmint (Nepeta faassenii)



Simple, lush, gorgeous. This sun-lover attracts bees and beneficial insects, resists deer, takes salty seacoast wind, and looks great with any number of plants. All it asks in return is good drainage and full sun. I love it with just about any ornamental grass, pink or yellow roses (it attracts the beneficial bugs that eat aphids, which makes them a great companion plant to roses!), Heathers, Hardy Cranesbills, and anything with purple foliage. I trim individual stems back partway early in the growing season if size needs to be reduced, or remove stems selectively towards the end of the season once trimming stems partway no longer looks graceful. Nepetas get cut back completely in winter once they’ve died down. You can divide them every few years to control size, but it doesn’t seem necessary for the plants’ health – I’ve never seen them die out in the center as many undivided perennials do. [print_link]

Callunas, Ericas, Daboecias, Oh My! Demystifying the Different Kinds of Heather

EricacarneaPortersred.jpgI first heard about the heather plant when I was 10, reading an old-fashioned British book about a group of children who escaped their abusive guardians and made a home together on a secret island. They built a willow house out of live willow stems, so their home grew lush and protected, and they used heather to make their beds soft and cushy. (Can I step onto my children’s lit soapbox for a second, and say that any American parents who haven’t yet read Enid Blyton with their kids should rush right out and do so? She seems to understand how children feel and what they want in a book better than any other author I’ve read.) So anyway, even before I knew anything about plants, I had a vision of what heathers were like – growing in gorgeous flowering expanses, and with a soft, pleasing texture. I was glad when I got into horticulture school and saw my first photo of a large heather garden – it was exactly what I’d imagined all those years ago in my book! Heathers have become a favorite of mine now, because they’re low-maintenance, deer-resistant, most are winter-hardy, they’ll take wind and seacoast wind with no problem, they look great in containers, can tolerate low-water conditions in the ground once mature, and if you plan things right, you can have blooms year-round on evergreen plants with great foliage. All you need is decent drainage and some sunshine to do well with them. [Read more...]

Fall-Blooming Heathers for Autumn Color

Calluna vulgaris ‘Sister Anne’ In all the time I’ve been designing gardens, I have never had anyone tell me, “please, no heathers!”. Thank goodness, because heathers are my secret weapon for extending any season’s interest. By the end of summer many perennials have stopped blooming, but the winter bloomers and fall colors haven’t started in earnest to continue the show. If you’ve got some autumn bare spots in your garden, how about tucking a few heathers into the foreground? They even work in seaside or deer gardens.

Scotch Heather/ Calluna

Most of the Scotch Heathers are amazing from August to October, so if you need some late summer/ early fall interest, you can choose just about any Scotch Heather/ Calluna. [Read more...]

Rhododendrons – Little-Known Favorites for Winter

rhododendrongoldflimmer.gifIf you’ve been following my Fall Planting Series, you’ll know why fall is such a great time of year to plant! This is also the perfect time to see where your garden is lacking in winter interest, and to add some year-round stars to perk things up. Rhododendrons are one of my favorite plants now, but there was a time when I found them boring and overused. Here in Northern Cali, you can’t turn around without seeing some sickly yellowed planting of Rhodies in a parking lot, and I judged all of them by those poor specimens. Luckily, we have a Rhododendron specialty nursery here (yes, they do mail order!), and after one visit to them, I was hooked. The gorgeous dark greens and the snowy white new growth of the Yaku hybrids, the lightning bolts down the center of the variegated varieties, and the sheer variety in foliage, growth habit, and texture blew me away – these plants were nothing like the sorry ones in the Kmart parking lot. Some hardly even looked like Rhodies! We usually think of Rhodies for spring interest since that’s when most of them bloom, but the gorgeous foliage on so many makes them winter standouts, too. And if you are blossom-centric, there are even a couple that will bloom for you in winter!

Here are a few of my favorite Rhododendrons for winter interest:

Rhododendron 'Goldflimmer' Goldflimmer’ or ‘President Roosevelt’ – Two variegated beauties with very different flowers. I am a purple fanatic, so ‘Goldflimmer’, with its warm purple flowers, is my favorite of the two. It gets to 4-5’, takes full sun to part shade on the coast, and is great for brightening up any corner of the garden with its golden splashes of variegation. If you love foliage color, try pairing it in the same bed as Acorus ‘Ogon’  (Variegated Sweet Flag Grass) and Pieris ‘Little Heath’ (Dwarf Variegated Lily of the Valley Shrub). 'Goldflimmer with Acorus 'Ogon' and Pieris 'Little Heath' Rhododendron 'President Roosevelt' ‘President Roosevelt’ has even more striking foliage than ‘Goldflimmer’, with red stems and vivid golden markings. It gets to 5-6’ and blooms a bright magenta-red with white centers. I find its habit is a bit more leggy than that of ‘Goldflimmer’ though, so I’d position it in the foreground and have a full, deep green plant as the backdrop. Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer'‘Christmas Cheer’ – True to its name, this 5-6’ shrub blooms right around  Christmas time! It has big shell-pink bloom trusses on attractive, deep green foliage. This is one I noticed in late summer, thinking what a pretty backdrop of foliage it would provide. When I saw it mid-bloom in January – pink then fading to white – I was charmed! I love that deep green foliage with a sturdy variegated plant like Osmanthus ‘Variegatus’ – Variegated False Holly. ‘Seta’ is another very early bloomer – it usually coincides with the plum blossoms in early February! Rhododendron Yaku HybridYaku Hybrids – The best thing about the Yaku hybrid Rhododendrons is not their flowers, though they are varied and beautiful. It’s not even their habit, which is a low, tight mound of deep green which goes great with all kinds of shrubs and perennials. It’s the new growth, which comes out a bright white color and looks like a fresh layer of snow has fallen on them. My favorite Yaks? ‘Yaku Angel’, ‘Silver Skies’, ‘Hoppy’, and ‘Senator Jackson’. Rhododendron 'Rubicon' ‘Rubicon’ and ‘Noyo Chief’ – the glossy, quilted deep green foliage on these red-blooming Rhodies makes a great companion to any kind of foliage display. ‘Rubicon’ is a compactly-growing shrub to 4-5’ and blooms in April or May. It instantly brings a dignified beauty to any garden bed. They look great with colored-foliage conifers. ‘Noyo Chief’ has a loose, open habit and gets to 6-7’. It makes a stunning show in woodland gardens where a bit of size is required. That glossy, mirrored foliage looks great against Redwood or Cypress trees. Use it with lush, light green tree ferns or our native Giant Chain Fern for a foliage contrast. I hope these guys give you a happy introduction to the world of Rhodies and get you past the horrible ones that are so overplanted here in the Pacific Northwest. Check out the Singing Tree Gardens Website for more info on care, and to get inspired with the sheer number of varieties available!

Small Plants to Enhance Your Winter Garden

tasselfern.jpgWhile the twigs and branches of dormant shrubs have their own interest, if your garden doesn’t have much variety in winter, things can be dull. A quick fix for those bare areas is to tuck a few winter-interest fillers in the foreground, to bring a prettily arching form, bright foliage color, or some cheerful blooms to the winter foliage and stems. Fall is a perfect time to plant, so now’s the time to try:

My favorite accents for a showy winter garden!

Tassel Fern

Tassel Fern – This poor plant was given the botanical name of Polystichum polyblepharum –  a mouthful by anyone’s standards. Fortunately its  glossy fronds and graceful charm more than make up for the tongue-twister when we ask for it at the nursery! This 2-3’ beauty stays mostly evergreen, and you don’t have to cut it back each winter as you do our native Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). I love to use it with Black Mondo Grass and purple Violas, or with a variegated evergreen shrub as a backdrop. It’s great in containers, too! Alaskan Fern – Polystichum setiferum/ P. angulare is deceptively delicate- Alaskan Fernlooking, with its wispy, light green fronds – but it’s hardy to zone four and is surprisingly tough – tolerating lousy soil and root competition in one local garden. It has a really interesting growth habit for a fern  – each spring the old fronds bear new baby fronds along the middle section of each stem, so as it grows it becomes a feathery mound with little shoots here and there. New leaves also unfurl in the usual ferny fashion, with a pretty cinnamon brown color accenting them as they open. Alaskan Ferns stay green all winter and gets to 2-3’+ in time. All it really requires is regular water, but it also appreciates reasonably good drainage and a layer of mulch or compost. An added benefit to using ferns? I’ve never seen them eaten by deer. Helleborus orientalis – If you’ve been a gardener for a while, you’ve probably heard of Lenten Rose. Harry Potter fans will remember it was used in Harry’s failed Draught of Peace, but in fact it’s somewhat poisonous. That’s of little consequence to us – the leaves are so leathery it’s hard to imagine anyone willingly chomping it – the deer certainly don’t! White Lady Hellebore This dignified 2-3’ plant has deep green foliage, each leaf the size of an open hand and divided in five. With blooms beginning in December and often going for months, this is a winter star you won’t want to miss. If you don’t want seedlings, trim off the blooming stems at the base when the flowers begin to lose color and swell at the center (after about 2 months), otherwise you’ll have a lot of slow-growing baby Hellebores coming up each year. Most Hellebore hybrids are sold as a strain (a variety of seedlings which vary in color and form) – so unless it’s in bloom, you don’t know what color you’ll get. This is fine if you’ve chosen a premium strain, but not such a great gamble if you only have access to the common ‘Royal Heritage Strain’, which seems to produce just a few vivid shades mixed with a large proportion of muddy, dull pinks. ‘White Lady Spotted’ (pictured) has a lovely bright white flower with burgundy spots,  ‘Red Lady’ is a rich reddish burgundy, ‘Double Queen’ is a strain of fluffy double flowers that look like little roses in winter, and ‘Brandywine Strain’ has some gorgeous apricots and yellows, prettily outlined petals, and a few ruffles thrown into the mix. Euphorbias -  These alien-looking plants always get a second look in the  Euphorbia characias 'Glacier Blue' garden for their pretty foliage and ginormous flowerheads (which are great as cut flowers). While they won’t be blooming for you in the winter, they are generally putting out a cluster of fresh new growth right now, which depending on the variety may be blue-toned, burgundy, or variegated. These undemanding sun-lovers prefer good drainage, but otherwise don’t ask much – and it’s great for deer-resistant gardens. My favorite Euphorb of the moment is ‘Glacier Blue’, a blue and cream variegated version which gets to 3’ and looks gorgeous with pinks and purples. Scotch Heathers, or Calluna vulgaris, have many varieties with amazing Calluna 'Pat's Gold' winter color. They are evergreen sun-lovers, bloom mostly in mid-to late-summer, and have foliage that ranges from deep green, golden, velvety silver, to flaming reds and oranges. There are low groundcover types that stay flat to the ground, and more vigorous ones which get 2’ or more around. ‘Robert Chapman’ is a 1’ by 2’ Scotch Heather which is golden-orange most of the year, and with the cold goes a fiery reddish-orange. ‘Pat’s Gold’ is a lovely creeper with lavender flowers in midsummer, and a fresh limey gold foliage year-round. ‘Spring Cream’ is yet another favorite of mine, with bright cream-colored new growth in early spring and masses of white flowers later in the year. 'Robert Chapman' Scotch Heather Scotch Heathers are strong, hardy, deer-resistant plants that only need trimming once a year, right after they bloom. I simply trim to right below each dead blossom in autumn, and they perform beautifully all year. One caveat? They’re particularly sensitive to repeated peeings-on by our canine friends, so site it where it won’t attract such attention and you’ll have an awesome low-maintenance performer. If you liked this post, check out this article on ornamental grasses for winter interest!