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Among the most architectural plants, agaves feature bold succulent leaves that set the tone for wherever they're planted. They're incredibly heat- and drought-tolerant and most are long-lived. Many varieties bear sharp spines along leave margins and at the leaf tip, which adds to their dramatic presentation. The bluish-green rosettes naturally spread by producing offsets at the base of the plant. It is an excellent choice for sunny, hot, dry areas, especially desert regions, with good drainage.
Alliums may be in the onion family, but these top-notch garden plants are anything but utilitarian vegetable-garden residents. Among the most carefree bulbs you can grow, alliums bloom in a wide range of colors (including shades of yellow, white, pink, and purple), seasons, and sizes (from inch-wide heads to volleyball-sized bloom clusters).
Alliums offer whimsical structures and great textural contrasts unique to the late-spring bulb garden. Clustered florets in a globe-shape flower head are held aloft on a thick stem. In the species, loose bouquets of flowers sprout from clustered, hollow stems. The larger allium flower heads are fun focal points for dried arrangements. Plant alliums in any well-drained garden soil in full sun. The smaller types are especially well suited for growing in rock gardens. Plant a few larger hybrids in a pot for a flowering surprise in early summer.
Anemones naturalize easily in good garden soil, spreading their early-spring cheer in the ephemeral garden under bare trees and shrubs that later leaf out. These daisylike blooms feature thin, silky petals that quickly disperse in the breeze after flowering. A color range of white, sky blue, pink to the velvety reds and purples of poppy anemones provide jewellike tones for early in the season before the tulips open.
Soak anemone corms in warm water overnight before planting to speed sprouting. These hardy Mediterranean natives flourish in a well-drained, lighter soil in full sun to partial shade.
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.
Arborvitae will flourish where no other evergreen does, spreading a lush screen of fan-like foliage that provides privacy and gives winter shelter to the birds. For garden sculptors, arborvitae offers just the right texture and growth habit for topiaries. Many dwarf varieties are available as fillers and vertical accents for smaller gardens. Arborvitae prospers in deeply cultivated, moist and fertile soil in full sun.
Baptisia is one of those tall plants with beautiful spires, often in a showy blue, that draws everyone to it for an admiring closer look. It's a native prairie plant that bears long, tall spikes of pealike blooms in late spring. As the flowers ripen, they turn into interesting black seedpods often used in fall arrangements.
It is a drought-tolerant plant that forms a deep taproot. Choose its location carefully; it is difficult to transplant once established.
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.
A key plant in American prairies, big bluestem is so named because it has attractive blue-green foliage through the growing season. As summer fades to fall, it takes on golden, red, and purplish hues, complementing the rosy forked seed heads. As you would expect from a native prairie grass, it thrives in poor, dry soils and in full sun.
One of the most elegant garden trees, birches make a graceful statement with open, airy branches and roughly textured trunks. They're especially dramatic when planted as an allee (in rows on either side of a path), in a grove, or near water where their impact is doubled in reflection. River birch is a U.S. native that's among the easiest to grow.
One of the most versatile ornamental grasses, blue fescue can be used in many different ways. Plant it at the base of leggy shrubs or tall perennials, such as lilies, to help them blend with the landscape and offset the other plant's flowers or foliage. Plant in masses as a groundcover or in rows as an edging plant. Use as an accent in a rock garden or flower border. It even looks fabulous in containers!
Blue fescue is evergreen in all but its northernmost range. The fine bluish foliage looks best when it is fresh in spring and early summer. Seed heads turn tan when mature. You may want to cut them off to keep plants tidy.
An evergreen shrub ideal for sculpting, boxwood can take the shape of a neat mound or grow into small green clouds of foliage if left unmanicured. It's one of the most popular choices for garden topiaries. This fragrant shrub is frequently used as an outliner and definer around garden beds and path; it forms graceful short hedges. Garden neat freaks will want to wield the pruning shears frequently to keep boxwood in bounds. Provide a well-drained soil for boxwood to prevent problems with root rot.
Although your garden visitors may not believe you, this horticultural kaleidoscope is only one rosebush -- even though it blooms in three colors and varying shades thereof all at once. New foliage and bud sheaths are a coppery-bronze, and the established foliage is clean green and shiny to boot. And adaptability? The butterfly rose is disease-resistant, shrugs off humidity, and grows taller the more shelter it is given. This arching shrub is at its best covering a wall or tall fence, with its splayed, wrinkled petals flitting in a soft breeze. Spiffy, huh? That said, one proviso -- this is most certainly not the hardiest rose in the galazy. Mutabilis is almost exclusively a southern or western beauty.
Here's how the petal coloring works: At first a vivid orange, the buds open to a honey yellow, then the next day, after pollination, they become pale pink, deepening in the following day or two to nearly crimson.
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.
Adaptable and easy to grow, California bay laurel is native to the West Coast. It grows best in full sun to part shade, and when planted in full sun and watered regularly, it can grow as much as 4 feet each year. In partial shade with less-frequent watering, it is a slow-growing yet lovely plant. Its clean, green foliage is aromatic and often used in cooking. California bay laurel is a great choice for many areas of the landscape: Plant it in a container to enjoy it as a lush patio plant, add it to a mixed border for a pleasing touch of evergreen foliage, or use it as a shade tree.
California poppy, a native wildflower, adds an easygoing dose of color hot, dry sites. Beautiful, satiny flowers in sunset colors wave above ferny, blue-green foliage. They like poor soils, especially sandy soils. If soil is too rich and moist, they won't bloom well. California poppies are a cool-season annual, which means they offer great color early in the growing season but fade once the heat of summer hits.
Plant them from seed in the fall or very early spring. They like moist conditions at first, but they are drought-tolerant once established. They dislike transplanting. When the plants start to brown and fade, pull them up. However, California poppies will reseed easily; for more plants next year, allow some flowers to ripen to seed on the plant and scatter when you tear up those plants. Replant in fall if you like, especially in warmer-climate areas.
The waxy, perfectly shaped blooms of camellias plant cheer late winter landscapes, opening against dark, glossy green leaves. Thousands of double camellia hybrids offer a large palette of colors from snowy white and bicolors to the deepest coral-red. The upright plants develop into small trees in warm climates. A camellia looks stunning when espaliered against a warm wall; avoid full sun situations to prevent summer-scorched leaves.
Perfect for cottage and woodland gardens, old-fashioned columbines are available in almost all colors of the rainbow. Intricate little flowers, they are most commonly a combination of red, peach, and yellow but also blues, whites, pure yellows, and pinks; they look almost like folded paper lanterns.
Columbine thrives in sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. Plants tend to be short-lived but self-seed readily, often creating natural hybrids with other nearby columbines. If you want to prevent self-seeding, deadhead plants after bloom.
It's hard to find bright color for shade, so it's a puzzle that brightly colored corydalis isn't more widely planted. It's is an outstanding shade plant. Blooms are small, but they appear in clusters. Leaves look similar to those of fringe-leaf bleeding heart. Plants self-seed readily, but excess seedlings are easy to remove. Provide the plant with moist, organic soil for best growth.
Shown above: Yellow corydalis
Cotoneasters are some of the most versatile shrubs in the garden -- you can choose from compact, upright shrubs to groundcovers to big plants ideal for hedges. Most deliver bountiful red berries in autumn that persist into the winter. These fruits deliver cheer in a winter-drab landscape and attract birds for more winter interest.
Most cotoneasters do best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Some tolerate drought well; others do fine even in shade.
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.