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Ajuga is one of the most indispensable groundcovers around. It has many uses and looks great much of the year.
Also known as carpetweed or bugleweed, ajuga forms a 6-inch-tall mat of glossy leaves that always seem to look neat and fresh. In many cases, the leaves are colored with shades of purple, white, silver, cream, or pink. Individual plants grow as a rosette, but they intertwine to form a solid carpet that withstands some foot traffic. Blue, lavender, pink, or white flower spikes adorn plants spring to early summer.
Ajuga is great in rock gardens, in the front of beds and borders, under leggy shrubs or small trees, along paths, and just about any other place in the landscape you want to cover the ground with attractive foliage and little flowers.
Angelonia is also called summer snapdragon, and once you get a good look at it, you'll know why. It has salvia-like flower spires that reach a foot or 2 high, but they're studded with fascinating snapdragon-like flowers with beautiful colorations in purple, white, or pink. It's the perfect plant for adding bright color to hot, sunny spaces. This tough plant blooms all summer long with spirelike spikes of blooms. While all varieties are beautiful, keep an eye out for the sweetly scented selections.
While most gardeners treat angelonia as an annual, it is a tough perennial in Zones 9-10. Or, if you have a bright, sunny spot indoors, you can even keep it flowering all winter.
Arrowhead vine is a lush foliage plant that holds its variegation well in low light. Young plants usually remain compact mounds of foliage in various shades of green, bronze, and pink. As plants age, they develop more of a vining growth habit. Cut them back to keep them compact, or train them onto a moss pole. Arrowhead vine grows well in low to medium light with average room temperature. Keep the soil evenly moist. It is sometimes called nephthytis.
Barberry paints the landscape with arching, fine-textured branches of purple-red or chartreuse foliage. In fall, leaves brighten to reddish orange and spikes of red berries appear like sparklers as the foliage drops. The mounding habit of barberries makes for graceful hedging and barriers, and the thorns protect privacy.
Japanese barberry is considered an invasive plant in the Eastern U.S. and the species is banned from cultivation in some places, so check local restrictions before planting.
Barrenwort is a rare plant -- one that thrives in the dry shade beneath shallow-rooted trees! It spreads at a moderate rate, forming a graceful, dense groundcover. Almost as a bonus, it also produces dainty flowers shaped like a bishop's miter -- prompting another common name, bishop's cap. Its colorful foliage dangles on slender stalks, providing yet another moniker: fairy wings.
A versatile, handsome tree, the beech takes center stage in the garden come fall when leaves change to red, gold, orange, or brown. Beech trees stand proudly upright or bend and weep; jagged leaves vary from deep green to variegated rose, white, green, or bronzy-purple. For the best leaf color, plant beeches in full sun. The hardy American beech is a U.S. native with larger leaves and light gray bark.
Add bold, tropical notes to your yard with beefsteak plant. Don't let its common name fool you -- the plant offers beautifully variegated foliage and is incredibly adaptable, as many varieties do well in both sun and shade. It's a great pick for containers or adding a bit of drama to beds and borders.
The glossy green leaves of bergenia look outstanding all year long. In fall they take on a magnificent reddish-bronze hue. The thick, leathery foliage squeaks when rubbed between your fingers, giving this plant the other common name of pigsqueak.
The pink, rose, or white blooms that appear on sturdy stalks in spring are just a bonus compared to the usefulness of the foliage. Not surprisingly, this is often used as groundcover. In cold regions, the semievergreen leaves are often damaged by spring frosts and can take much of the spring to recover.
Providing color pizzazz in dim places where flowers can't, caladiums have come into their own recently with the craze for tropical plants. The clumping, heart-shape leaves are available in a variety of veined patterns in colors from cream to neon pinks, reds, silvers, and greens. Newer introductions bring caladiums out of the shade. The more substantial leaves of the Florida series, with greater heat tolerance, give the splashy caladiums their place in the sun. Plant caladium tubers shallowly in pots, and water sparingly until sprouts appear. They begin to grow vigorously once the weather warms in late spring to early summer.
Cannas bring tropical splendor to gardens in all regions. These bold plants feature clustered, flaglike blooms in a brilliant color array on tall stems. Recent flower breeding has created canna foliage that is even showier than the petals, with variegated leaf combinations of orange, yellow, and greens that glow in the summer sun. Dwarf cannas are also available for container gardening and other small spaces. Cannas are usually grown from tuberous roots but some newer varieties can also be raised from seed, with flowering guaranteed for the first year.
Cannas provide architectural interest in summer borders and they also flourish along the damp margins of a pond. If you garden in a climate colder than Zone 9 (7 for the hardier types of cannas), you'll need to dig canna plants up and store them bareroot for the next season or overwinter potted specimens indoors. A destructive mottling virus has threatened canna stock in nurseries across the U.S., so be sure to buy your plants from a reputable source.
Plant a castor bean and then stand back. This is one of the fastest-growing, giant annuals in the garden, rivaled only perhaps by giant sunflower. By midsummer, you'll have a huge (it can hit up to 20 feet) tropical plant sporting burgundy foliage. It's a great plant to grow with kids. Be careful, though. The seeds are extremely toxic.
Wait to plant it outdoors after all danger of frost has passed; castor bean hates cool weather and won't grow well until temperatures heat up in summer.
Exciting new selections with incredible foliage patterns have put coralbells on the map. Previously enjoyed mainly for their spires of dainty reddish flowers, coralbells are now grown as much for the unusual mottling and veining of different-color leaves. The low clumps of long-stemmed evergreen or semi-evergreen lobed foliage make coralbells fine groundcover plants. They enjoy humus-rich, moisture-retaining soil. Beware of heaving in areas with very cold winters.
Purple ornamental cotton is a showstopper. It bears rich purple heart-shape leaves and delicate hibiscuslike flowers in a soft, creamy pink color. If pollinated, the plant will develop purple cotton bolls filled with white cotton.
Gossypium can be tricky to find in garden centers, but if you do, grab it and give it a try! It's a heat-loving plant that thrives in full sun and rich soil.
Nothing beats a dahlia for summer color. Growing these varied, spiky flowers is like having a box of garden crayons at your disposal. The flowers form on branching, fleshy stems or open in solitary splendor on the bedding-plant types in mid- to late summer. Several different flower categories, from the petite mignonettes to the gigantic dinner-plate dahlias, offer possibilities for any space.
Expert dahlia growers recommend pinching off the first crop of side flower buds to encourage vigorous plant branching and larger flowers in peak season. All dahlias are fodder for brilliant seasonal cut bouquets and are always one of the most popular cut flowers at local farmer's markets. Their blooming season extends into fall and is only halted by the first frost.
Gardeners in climates colder than Zone 8 should cut back the withered foliage after the first frost and dig up tubers to store over winter. For a fast start with dahlia plants before it's safe to plant outdoors, pot the tubers up, water sparingly and grow in a sunny location until sprouts appear, and then transplant outdoors after the last frost.
Elders are attractive shrubs that offer several seasons of color thanks to their clusters of spring or summertime flowers, attractive foliage, and fruits that attract birds. In fact, black elder, also called elderberry, produces fruits that are edible to people.
The shrubs are easy to grow, thriving in a variety of soil types, including wet areas. They seem to do equally well in full sun and part shade.
Elephant's ears are big, dramatic, tropical-looking plants grown for their bold foliage. Aptly named, many bear triangular leaves that are leathery and uniquely textured. These tropical plants enjoy the boggy soils around water gardens and can also be grown indoors as houseplants. The clumping foliage adds lush effects in the landscape and is especially effective in large containers. The plants sprout from large bulbous roots and achieve maximum growth in warm, humid summer temperatures.
Highly ornamental shrubs that feature mottled bark and attractive winged fruits or showy foliage and white berries, varieties of euonymus can climb as vines or form small trees or low-mounding shrubs. The wintercreepers offer the most dramatic foliage, usually variegated white and green or gold and green. White berries persist on the plants through the winter, enticing resident birds. For fall color, the burning bush sets the standard for flaming foliage among shrubs. Euonymus in all its forms appreciates a fertile, moist soil that's well drained.
Note: Some euonymus varieties are considered invasive pests in some regions; check local restrictions before planting them. Others, such as eastern wahoo, are native to North America.
Thank goodness for kale. It's one of the few plants available to add a fresh burst of color and life to the fall landscape! Its leaves come with beautiful variegations in pinks, purples, and reds that blend beautifully with changing autumn foliage. Plant it in spring or in the fall after you tear out tired or frost-damaged annuals such as marigolds and impatiens. It likes rich, well-drained but moist soil.
Shown above: 'Red Pigeon' flowering kale
A favorite of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, hens-and-chicks are popular once again with gardeners looking for drought-tolerant, easy care plants. Darlings of today's xeriscape gardens, trough gardens, and rooftop gardens, these plants are appreciated for their easy care and tolerance for extremely dry conditions. The neat rosettes multiply freely by runners that form dense colonies. Flowering rosettes die after bloom time, but are quickly replaced. They are excellent between pavers on patios and walkways.
A stand of Japanese bloodgrass backlit by the evening sun is a sight to behold. Its beautiful mid-green leaf blades appear dipped in crimson paint and remain colorful through summer and fall. While grasses typically are drought-tolerant, Japanese bloodgrass must have sufficient water to thrive. In fact, dry conditions are usually the culprit when this plant struggles.