Favorite Flora: Variegated Solomon’s Seal

Announcing the 2013 Perennial of the Year

Variegated Solomon’s seal  (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’)

Variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’)

By Debra Knapke

A shady garden: a place where you go on a hot day to settle into cool-ness and calm-ness; a place to catch your breath.  This year the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) has chosen one of my favorite shade-loving perennials, variegated Solomon’s seal, as its Perennial of the Year.

As a member of the PPA, I get to vote on a selection of plants that have been nominated by members.   Criteria for selection are straightforward.  Each nominee should have low-maintenance requirements, be relatively pest- and disease-free, have several seasons of interest and be a good garden plant for a range of climates.

Variegated Solomon’s seal  fulfills these criteria.  Irregular creamy-white leaf edges add to the textural presence of this plant.  In April delicate, paired white bells line the stem and in the fall the leaves turn a pale gold.  Polygonatum odoratum Variegatum massing resize

This cultivar does not produce fruit.  In moist, rich soils, variegated Solomon’s seal can spread freely.  In 3-5 years you can have a clump that is 24-36” wide.  As to maintenance, I do nothing to this plant other than to spread some compost in the early spring and cut stems to bring inside for flower arrangements.   In the fall the stems lay down after a hard frost and whatever is left in spring is covered by the new growth.  Thus far, the deer have not put it on their menu – I have 5-7 deer that check my garden year round and I am well-aware of what they eat.

Below are all of the Perennial Plants of the Year since the beginning of the program in 1990.  Here you can see a list of tried and true plants that have become the backbone of the herbaceous plant palette.

Favorite Flora: Hardy Cyclamen

Hardy Cyclamen in October

Hardy Cyclamen in October

By Debra Knapke

Winter is a contemplative time.  In December, we often look back at the year and consider what we have or haven’t done…  In January, we look forward.

We have completed our first year as bloggers and it has been a wonderful experience.  Planning together and writing together has been an incredible learning opportunity.  No minuses; only pluses.   Thank you Teresa and Michael!!

Here is the first plant portrait for 2013: hardy cyclamen – Cyclamen hederifolium

Winter interest: to some it may seem an oxymoron, but I look forward to winter in my garden.  The bed edges create flowing pictures on the land.  Small plants and tree outlines create an other-worldly picture.  One of my favorite small plants is the hardy cyclamen.  A tuberous plant that has its seasons switched based on what we Midwestern-ers define as the garden season.  Imagine hundreds of nodding upside-down flowers emerging, without leaves, in late August /early September.   The marbled leaves create a beautiful tapestry in mid to late September and remain in the garden until late May/early June or whenever our heat hits.   Then they go into a period of dormancy.

Hardy Cyclamen in December

Hardy Cyclamen in December

This is not a plant for the impatient gardener.  I planted my original 15 tubers in 1995.  You will see single flowers and small groupings of leaves for two to four years until the tubers increase in size and seed dispersed from the flowers grow into more tiny tubers.  But the display is worth the wait.

Hardy cyclamen flowers are either pink or white.  Most of my flowers are white, but some are shaded pink to deep pink.  Siting is very important.  These diminutive plants should be nestled under a tree in an area that is sloped and drains well.  Wet sites will result in rotting tubers.  Avoid sunny western-facing sites as the leaves will burn.  Watering is an issue if we have a dry summer – which is the norm rather than the exception.  I will water the area once or twice in August to get a better flower show.

One more tip: when you plant, slightly tilt the tubers so water drains out of the slight depression that can be on the top of the tuber.

Favorite Flora: Poinsettias

Perpetual poinsettias not for me

Suntory’s new poinsettia collection, “Princettia”, in four new colors

By Michael Leach

Every year the question arises: How can I get my poinsettia to bloom again. And I wonder why?

For the price of a bland burger, greasy fries and sugary soda, you can buy a spectacular plant. No work needed. Best of all, a fresh poinsettia isn’t fattening or artery clogging.

Please take note, I use this only as illustration. Poinsettias, like many beautiful plants, aren’t meant for eating. A good rule of thumb on edible plants: If  you can’t find a recipe in a reliable source, don’t eat them. Even experienced mushrooms hunters make mistakes, occasionally fatal.

But back to cultivating poinsettias. After flowers fade, about Mother’s Day, poinsettias will add valuable material to the compost pile. Can’t say that about fast food.

Yet people are compelled to nurture a poinsettia for the ages. You don’t and here’s why.

Brain surgery is only slightly more demanding than tricking a poinsettia into flowering. The process is best left to greenhouse growers and masochistic amateurs.

Should you succeed, you’ll probably be disappointed. I was. So are other gardeners I know who did the voodoo only to find the results less than enchanting.

After weeks of moving the plant in and out of the dark for the prescribed periods to produce the bracts, those colorful leaves we think of as flowers, flecks of red began to appear. Just barely. Instead of eye-popping red blooms at Christmas, I had diminutive flowers all out of scale with the lush greenery.

Instead of putting it on display, I relegated the plant to the compost pile. Next I bought a brilliant example of commercial greenhouse magic to enliven the season.

Bulb Planting

Time to tip-toe with tulips, crocus, daffodils and more

Daffodil Thalia

By Michael Leach

So many worn phrases accurately apply to bulbs: Can’t judge a book by its cover; small but mighty; big things come in little packages; the more the merrier. My mind flounders trying to find a clever new, way to describe them.Certainly the spring-flowering corms, rhizomes and bulbs we plant in fall can’t be judged by their nondescript appearances and size. Their cheery and sometimes fragrant flowers look nothing like the brown and beige knobs we plant now. The tiniest snow crocus creates enormous visual impact on a  late February day.

Crocus tommasinianus

When it comes to the spring flowers, I always rue not planting more of everything. As Wordsworth observed, “a host of daffodils” makes a memory that delights long after summer rolls in.

Whatever the phrasing used in describing bulbs and such, their planting time has arrived.

Trouble is, this end-of-the-season ritual comes when waning inspiration and energy are directed toward shutting down. This year the task will be especially onerous due to my drought-tortured soil  that is dry as flour below a granite countertop crust. Small explosives seem a far better choice than shovel or bulb planter.

To soften things up, I could water the site a few days ahead of planting. But an uncertain schedule means I’ll probably skip a morning workout and muscle my way through the concrete-like soil, all the while ruing the dull shovel blade I neglected to sharpen.

Once I get a hole dug, I’ll add 2 or 3 inches of water and let that soak in hoping the emerging roots chase the water. In “normal” years, I skip this. (As you probably know, only plant in a well-drained site or the bulbs will rot.)

Next comes the bulbs. I usually plant two or three types in layer-cake style. Big ones on the bottom, mediums in the middle and small ones on top, backfilling between each layer. If bulb fertilizer is at hand, I use it as recommended on the package. A lack of fertilizer, however, never seemed to hinder performance but this is recommended. Then I soak the area thoroughly and move on to the next dig.

Bulb experts also recommend:

  • Avoiding bulbs that are shriveled or have soft spots, rot  or green shoots.
  • Making holes about three times deeper than the diameter of the bulb. A 1-inch bulb needs a 3-inch deep hole.
  • Planting pointy ends up. Some types lack a pointy end. No matter, even upside down shoots eventually find their way to the surface.
  • Pairing bulbs with plants that don’t need a lot of summer watering. This also masks homely, fading bulb foliage.
  • Planting in groups — not single file — and buying as many bulbs as you can afford. After all, the more the merrier!

Favorite Flora: Cypress Vine

Cypress vine – Ipomoea quamoclit

By Debra Knapke

Yes, the flowers are that intense scarlet!  The cypress vine is an annual vine that graces the garden in the late summer to mid-fall.  It is shy about opening its blossoms on cloudy days, but a bright overcast day is enough to send it into a frenzy of bloom.  All August and September I have watched a female hummingbird visit in the morning at lunch and at dusk.  She has chased other hummers away; it seems she thinks this is her private stock of nectar.

I really do nothing to for the cypress vine other than guide the initial twining stems onto the various trellises I have scattered in my garden.  It likes a moist soil initially – a challenge this summer – and a full sun exposure.  After the first moderate to hard frost, the vine dies, but it leaves behind its legacy of seeds; lots and lots of seeds.  I scatter them in my garden and share with others who want to enjoy this scarlet beauty.

Favorite Flora: Native Trees

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is
now.” — Anonymous

By Teresa Woodard

Happy October! As this month brings cooler temperatures and hopefully more rain, it’s a great time for planting trees. I recently met with Ed Kapraly of Riverside Native Trees in Delaware, Ohio and gained a better appreciation of the value of native trees.  They not only provide beauty but also offer important food and shelter for backyard wildlife.  To learn more, read the Ohio Magazine story “Living Legacies”.

Favorite Flora: Pansies

Pansies don’t wimp out

By Michael Leach

Pansies are more a part of my fall planting plans than mums. While no visual match for  a plump mum ball, these small plants brighten the scene long after frost and freeze. Scattered blooms even appear in mild winter weather.

Then the kicker — a spring show before garden centers stock pansies. They can flower until hot weather wilts the lettuce. I usually choose tiny violas, because they tend to self-sow without becoming pesky — at least for me.

But I’m hoping to try the new Cool Wave Pansy, from the developers of Wave petunias. They should give mums a run for it.  Introduced this spring, I saw some at the OFA trade show in July — Wow!

Plants grow about 6 to 8 inches tall but spread 2 feet or more. They come in yellow, white, white and violet, and white with pale blue edges. Please visit www.wave-rave.com to find stores near you.

If you’ve tried them, what do you think?

Whatever the type, I’ll plant most of the pansies near the back door (the main entry  for my home) and  near the big windows on the sun porch. This way I enjoy their colorful contribution  coming and going —  or sitting comfortably by a window regardless of the weather.

Give these sun/part-shade troupers good, well-drained soil and even moisture. Plant as soon as possible so roots grab hold before cold weather arrives. Come spring, when you’re trimming back  brown mums, pansies will be welcoming the new growing season.

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Favorite Flora: Novelty Veggies

I grow Easter eggs, noodles and more. How about you?

By Teresa Woodard

When our kids were young I loved planting the most colorful and unusual vegetables all in hopes of recruiting future gardeners and veggie lovers.  Easter egg radishes, ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, Chinese noodle beans, purple pole beans, purple carrots, yellow pear tomatoes, miniature white pumpkins and red-white-and-blue potatoes.  We tried them all.

Now as teenagers, our kids still appreciate garden-fresh vegetables, but it’s me who’s most intrigued by the new and unusual varieties.  In fact, they teased me at dinner the other night as I slipped in a tie-dye tomato variety with their other sliced red favorites.

Please tell me I’m not alone.  We’d love to hear about your experiences in growing novelty vegetables and if you’re trying any new ones in your fall vegetable gardens.

Guest Blog: Justin Hancock

Highlights from Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden

The Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden® is one of the coolest corners of downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Located at BHG headquarters, the Test Garden is a half-acre display of new varieties mixed with tried-and-true favorites.

Because we don’t do much spraying or treating, it’s also a fantastic tool for getting a sense of what really does well here in Iowa and the Midwest. Some reblooming hydrangeas, for example, don’t bloom at all (much less produce multiple waves of flowers) and others are garden rock stars. The hydrangea collection – about 30 varieties – is looking particularly stunning, especially standouts ‘Pink Shira’, Endless Summer ‘Blushing Bride’, and ‘Haye’s Starburst’.

I love walking through the Test Garden in summer and looking at all the different coneflowers. It’s fun to see how new varieties, such as ‘Hot Papaya’ stand up to the tried-and-true varieties. (‘Hot Papaya’, by the way, totally does — the color is a garden showstopper, and it’s delightfully fragrant, too.)

Coneflower (Echinacea) ‘Hot Papaya’

The lilies are also looking outstanding right now; the new breeds of Orienpet (Oriental/trumpet hybrids) offer good looks and a great fragrance. In fact, I smelled the intoxicating fragrance of golden-yellow ‘Belladonna’ before I saw it in the garden this morning!

Belladonna Lily

Like much of the Midwest, we’re well ahead of schedule; it’s weird to be in June and seeing the phlox, Russian sage, and even some asters blooming.

If you’d like to visit the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden®, it’s open from 12-2 p.m. every Friday from May to October and located at 1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa.

Justin Hancock is the garden editor for BHG.com, the website of Better Homes & Gardens.

Favorite Flora: Serviceberry

Serviceberry, Shadblow, Juneberry (Amelanchier laevis, A. arborea and A.x grandiflora)

By Debra Knapke

What makes a plant desirable?  The answer to that question varies with the gardener.  Good fall color, beautiful flowers, winter interest, edible – tasty – parts, and wildlife attractor are attributes that come to mind.  All of these can be found in our native serviceberries (Amelanchier laevis and A. arborea) and their hybrid “child” (A. x grandiflora).

Just before sitting down to write, I went outside to see if there was a chance of a snack.  The birds have eaten most of the berries, and the remaining ones are turning into “raisins”.  But I still remember the taste of the delicious cherry-blueberry fruit that covered the tree in late May to early June.  As I have sipped my morning tea, I’ve watched robins, cardinals, woodpeckers and bluejays trying to grab some fruit on a fly-by.  It’s an entertaining way to start the day.

I’m often asked for plant recommendations.  The serviceberry is my number one tree for smaller spaces.  In most landscapes, serviceberry grows 15-25’ tall and 10-15’ wide.  It is a secondary canopy tree so it grows well in a sun to part sun location.  You have a choice of habit: in nature the serviceberry is multi-stemmed, but it is often pruned and trained to a single trunk.  Both forms are attractive and have different landscape functions, but I confess – I prefer its natural multi-stemmed beauty.

One of the most popular garden trends is to incorporate food plants into one’s garden.  Adding a serviceberry to your yard is an excellent way to start.

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