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Wait Until June

Patience Can Pay Off with a Nice Surprise

yucca color guard, frost damage, plant recoveryI was excited to see a side shoot developing on my Color Guard Yucca plant that acts as a focal point for the carport entrance drive. I had the perfect spot for the new baby plant, so in February, I carefully lifted the mother and sliced off the shoot for transplant. Things didn’t go as well as planned. Almost none of the original root system transferred to the new shoot, and the removal peeled away one side of the main stem. I thought I might have killed the original Yucca. I transplanted the new shoot anyway, with illogical optimism. The new division slowly began to deteriorate, and the stems eventually turned an unhealthy gray before rotting away.

I was excited to find a forgotten Fig tree growing in a shady area of the lower yard. It must have been sunny in that area long ago, but a nearby Holly shrub had grown twenty-five feet tall since then and the tree was struggling to survive. In November, I transplanted what was left of it to a nice, sunny area and gave it some lime, because Figs love lime in the soil. In the spring, after all the other shrubs put out new leaves, the little Fig had nothing but a few, bare stems.

And then, I waited. With experience, I knew how important it was to hold on to hope until the magic month of June. Just as we are deceived every year into thinking it is safe to plant tender annuals during the first warm weeks of spring, only to lose them to a late frost, we are deceived into thinking if we don’t see growth on a plant after all danger of frost is gone, a plant is dead. Not true! Well, not true some of the time. It is most definitely worth it to wait an extra month or two to see if a tiny sliver of hope and spark of a supernatural will-to-live is left in your lost-cause plants.

Awkward Moments in the Off-season

Bad Hair Days for Plants

bad hair day for hydrangea, off-season plants

Plants rarely look pretty all the time. There are off-season times when they look pretty… bad! There is usually a low point during the year for every plant. That’s why writers mention “seasonal interest” as an asset in the garden. During different seasons of the year, different plants will peak. The transient nature of gardens is part of their value to us. The off-season moments remind us of the fleeting beauty of all life.

When I lived in the North, the plant selections were based on cold-hardiness rather than clean shapes. If a plant could survive the harsh winters of Iowa, they earned a place in the limited list of options for landscape design. Precious evergreens were planted in double rows as windbreaks, and foundation plant beds were expected to be bare during the harsh winters. Cold-hardiness was a key requirement for every woody ornamental plant.

When I lived in the Midwest, large, deciduous, flowering shrub borders were the standard in every landscape. With attractive fencing as a backdrop, lots of flowering shrubs were lined up along property lines in long shrub borders. Conifers were often segregated into separate collections in their own display beds. Taxus held the foundation plantings together during the dormant season. The off-season for most plants was after spring flowering, when the shrub borders became plain-Jane plant growth—just messy tufts of uninteresting green.

Mid-Spring Celebrities

Seasonal Plant Syncing

mid-spring plantsMid -spring is the time for a flush of new seasonal growth for plants. For landscape professionals, the calls have started. The retail stores are in full-blown spring fever frenzy, selling anything that is blooming. The awareness of the plant activity around us intensifies the experience of energetic creation within us.

Intense foliage and flower color can be achieved with the right choice of plants. If you want a garden-tour-worthy display in mid-spring, search for deep, dark green leaves mingling with light, bright blooms and foliage. Dark green foliage is a perfect backdrop for spring combinations.

Evergreens, like Cephalotaxus harringtonia prostrata are sending out interesting chartreuse shoots of fresh foliage at the tips of emerald stems, strengthening the contrast of new and old growth. The fresh, tender growth of all the plants is fun to touch. It’s adds a softness to the landscape. The intense green is echoed by the low ground cover, Evergreen Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), a reliable mid-spring stand-out. Instead of chartreuse, Evergreen Candytuft brightens the garden with pure, creamy-white buttons of bloom, almost covering the plant.

Early Spring

Seasonal Plant Sync

Easter plants, early spring plantsThere’s a moment, every year, when you realize that spring did arrive and life will go on. Consciously or subconsciously you are reassured that winter has been pushed away once again. It is the moment when the earth sprouts with chartreuse and lime yellow and pink and purple and white—the Easter colors.

By the time the early spring plants sync, it’s beyond time to do a lot of gardening musts, like pre-emergent herbicide applications and transplanting dormant and bare root plant material. No matter, because the euphoric effect of this color riot is just too cheerful and encouraging to slow you down. Everyone becomes a gardener for a few weeks, planting seeds and buying fertilizer. This is the time we put out new annuals that will be zapped by a late frost, because the hard freeze of the winter is long forgotten. Optimism is the norm. What a great time of the year

Ground Covers

The Connective Tissue of Landscape Compositions

ground covers, low shrubs, ivy growing in ferns

Ground Covers and facer plants complete the edge of a triple-level vegetative screen. They hide unsightly, leggy shrubs and define shrub bed borders. A ground cover is a mass of low plant material that acts to unify the ground plane and protect the bare soil, but it isn’t mowed or cultivated like turf.  Turf provides a walking surface.  A ground cover, in contrast, actually acts to discourage foot traffic and protect tender surface roots of nearby shrubs and trees.  Ground covers provide the finishing edge and unifying connection to the soil for a shrub bed.

Choosing ground cover species for a landscape setting is a complex task. It is important to know which ground covers grow in a uniform, dense mat, and which prefer spotty growth or small groups. The natural vegetation floor isn’t amenable to vast sweeps of uniform plant material.  The unaffected ground plane is a wild mix of multi-layered and diverse plants with a succession of growth and bloom and change.  Native ground covers and grasses prefer to grow in clumps rather than sweeps, and they welcome competition from neighboring volunteers.  The best choice is a tapestry of different low shrubs to fill in the ground plane as a living mulch and provide a definitive edge for plant beds.

Establishing a new ground cover bed often starts with the initial step of killing everything that is growing in the plot and covering the remaining soil with a layer of mulch to prevent new seedlings from trying to return. Avoid tilling near existing shrub and tree roots. Space new plants so they fill in thickly. Many ground covers can be propagated by division, which is great. You can establish new beds with inexpensive divisions from existing plants.

A ground cover planting often acts as a propagation bed for competition from weeds. The natural inclination for ecosystems is to cover and fill every spot of bare ground, and if weeds can grow into place first, they will. The assumption that a ground cover bed can be a self-sustaining, no-maintenance area is overly optimistic.  Natural equilibrium is the lazy gardener’s goal, but ground covers won’t stand for idleness.  The cooler the climate, the longer the wait for a full-grown ground cover bed, but the less work to keep it weed-free. Once established, most ground cover plantings need to be hand- weeded with vigilance and persistence.  Plant and then prepare for battle. Maintenance should focus on removing weeds quickly. Density of coverage determines how easy or difficult the weed patrol will be.

Space new plants so they fill in thickly and quickly. Small, herbaceous ground covers like Mondo Grass can be planted as closely as six inches apart in staggered rows. Herbaceous perennials and woody ground covers need to be one-and-a-half feet or less apart. Large coniferous woody ornamentals like Junipers can be spaced as much as two-and-a-half feet on center. Proper spacing is related to each type of plant, but keep plants as close as your budget and the species allow.

Is That Too Much to Ask?

My Dream List for Landscape Plant Material

pieris, dorothy wycoff pieris

I’d like to see the nursery production industry make some newsworthy new offerings to supplement the amazing variety plants from which we have to choose. Here is my dream list from an ornamental landscape designer’s perspective. I understand I am asking too much, but it would be great to see more of these plants in the trade. Do you have anything to add to the list?

• Smaller, shorter cultivars of native tall shrubs that would be serviceable in ornamental landscapes.

• Any woody plant material that grows well and stays under two feet tall—something to use under windows in foundation plantings that isn’t a Juniper. The current short list selection for sun is either not very vigorous or invasive. An extensive selection of one-and-a-half-foot shrubs could bring back parterre gardens!

• Any sturdy, woody, evergreen plant material that grows well and stays under three feet tall—something to make a nice, perfect, low hedge without the pruning commitment. I’m tired of pruning.

• Anything that grows narrow and stays under six feet tall—something interesting with some slim height to plant adjacent to a front door—more ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ Pieris types.

• Something dense and evergreen for deep shade. Aucuba sp. and Morella sp. need some company to compete with trees in heavy, dry shade. We need more Cast-Iron-Plant types.


A Native Plant Worth Finding

Winecup, Callirhoe involucrata, Purple Poppy Mallow, is a survivor. 

I developed a fondness for Winecup, based on respect.  Winecup is a great plant for dry, partly sunny areas. I know the plant is a survivor based on the abuse and neglect I showered on mine.  I should have planted my Winecup in well-drained soil. Instead, I plopped it into dry clay under some Pines.  It typically suffers crown rot in poorly drained areas. Maybe the fact that I planted it rather high prevented that from happening.  I would suggest better treatment for such a fine plant.

The first year after the blooms were gone and the woody stems were obscured by pine needles, I forgot about it. When new leaves emerged the next spring, I yanked out the struggling stems, thinking it was either a Mugwort or Wild Geranium. Of course, a moment later, I realized my mistake.  It was a delightful surprise to see it return more vigorously later in the year.

See-through Shrubs

Native Azaleas

Native Azaleas are essentially "see through" shrubs for most of the year. Loose, open branches and sparse foliage provide little visual impact in the landscape. There is a brief moment each spring, however, when native Azaleas become delicate, dancing fairies. Floating bits of color are suspended right at eye level like butterflies frozen in time. When native Azaleas bloom, they have all the magic of a carefully constructed floral arrangement.

Most native Azaleas are growing as under story in a woodland setting, where they have to survive in dry shade. Some varieties handle the water stress better than others. I have found that the Sweet, Piedmont, Flame, Florida, and Plumleaf species are the most reliable. The others seem to need special nurturing and attention and languish in the dry heavy red clay of a typical Pine woods.

The Swamp Azalea and a few other high-maintenance species can handle slightly wet feet, but they are very tricky to keep alive.

Some of my favorites are listed below:

Sweet (Smooth) Azalea - Rhododendron arborescens - fragrant, 8' tall, white with red stamens, late spring blooming form and summer blooming form

Piedmont (Hoary) (Florida Pinxter) Azalea - Rhododendron canescens - slightly fragrant, 15', light to dark pink, early spring bloom

Flame Azalea - Rhododendron calendulaceum - 10', red to orange to yellow-orange, mid spring bloomer

Oconee Azalea - Rhododendron flammeum (R. speciosum) - 8', mid spring bloom, orange-red to orange

Florida Azalea - Rhododendron austrinum - 10', slightly fragrant, yellow to orange, early spring bloom

Plumleaf Azalea - Rhododendron prunifolium - 15', orange-red, summer bloom

Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense) – 8’, white with a yellow blotch, late April

The Different Sizes of Shrubs

Enclose, Define, Edge, and Carpet

After you have drawn your base map, included the necessary circulation ways, and determined where the trees will be located, you can start building patterns and definition to your design with shrubs. A good, logical way to do this is to design with shrubs by height category. By incorporating shrub masses by size, you can delineate enclosure and screening to build outdoor rooms within the site. You can establish living mulch areas. You can build color blocks with contrasting backdrops and create multilevel echoes of color that excite the viewer. You can hide naked stems and hide messy plant beds. You can prevent maintenance burdens. You can open views. Categorizing shrubs by size is a really handy tool for landscape design!