Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.


Last November I wrote a blog post on starting a chocolate garden because I thought it was a fun topic, and quite frankly, I was craving chocolate (and didn’t have enough change on me to make a trip to the vending machine for a candy bar). Thinking about plants like the ‘Dark Chocolate’ coleus helped get me through…

It turns out I may have been ahead of the curve a little on a trend: black plants. Plants with dark foliage or flowers certainly aren’t new, but just last year publisher Timber Press released a book on the subject. And next year, our friends at Ball Horticultural are releasing a petunia called ‘Black Velvet’, the world’s first black petunia, as well as a black-and-cream sister variety called ‘Phantom’.

And this year in front of BHG headquarters, BHG Test Garden Manager Sandra Gerdes is planting a black border — full of richly hued plants such as Mystic Dreamer dahlia, ‘Purple Majesty’ ornamental millet, Illusion Midnight Lace sweet potato vine, and a host of others.

Why are dark foliage and flowers becoming so sought after? One reason, I think, is that it’s easy to use in the garden. Rich dark blackish-purples and reds pretty much go with every color (I’m especially fond of mixing them with sky blue) and look great as long as you don’t plant them in the shade where they tend to disappear in the dim light. Plus, I think there’s something intriguing about them — it’s a refreshing change from bold and bright reds, oranges, and yellows.

Watch for updates on our black border here on The Everyday Gardeners — and let me know by commenting below what you think of black plants and if you plan to grow any in your garden this year!

I love easy-growing perennials, fun foliage, and the color blue. So it’s really no surprise that perennial geraniums (also called cranesbills for their beak-shaped seedheads) are among my favorite flowers.

The mourning widow geranium (Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’) is currently in full bloom in my shade garden. This beauty grows about a foot tall and has clusters of dark purple-black flowers rising above the mounds of purple-splotched foliage. It’s a real winner because the foliage looks great from spring to fall.

It’s not blooming yet, but I’m already appreciating the tidy mound that is bloody geranium (Geranium sanguineum). I know its may sound a little morbid, but the moniker actually stems from the fact that the foliage turns bright red in autumn. This great perennial puts out a big flush of purple, pink, or white flowers in early summer, then continues to offer a spattering of bloom until autumn.

The real winner among perennial geraniums, though, is ‘Rozanne’, the stellar selection pictured here. ‘Rozanne’ offers lovely blue-purple flowers in late May or early June and continues to be in constant bloom all the way until frost. Plus it has marbled foliage that looks great in the garden while you’re patiently waiting for its blooms.

Geranium hanging basket

Millions of geranium (Pelargonium) baskets will be purchased this weekend to honor Mom, and to adorn decks and patios everywhere. Now you have another good reason to purchase these colorful flowers. Researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service report that the brightly hued petals of this landscape staple are deadly to Japanese beetles. More accurately, after eating geranium petals, the beetles become paralyzed for several hours. In the lab, the beetles recovered after 24 hours, but presumably in nature, paralyzed beetles would be easy pickings for birds or other predators who would devour the pests before they could revive.

Japanese beetle

Researchers provide no indication of how to force feed geraniums to Japanese beetles. However, if your yard has ever been infested with them, you know that the beetles are not picky–they’ll eat hundreds of types of plants. Admittedly, geraniums in the garden won’t likely keep Japanese beetles at bay in your yard, but they certainly can’t hurt. The ultimate goal of the scientists is to develop a natural botanical control for the pests derived from floral extracts of the geranium.

In the meantime, you can buy geraniums for Mom this weekend and know that they’ll be safe from attack by Japanese beetles.

Flats of bedding plants for sale in Haarlem Tomorrow marks the opening day for the 2010 season of the Des Moines Farmers Market. This Saturday morning gathering of 200 plus vendors has become an event that attracts 10,000 to 15,000 people weekly, eager to purchase fresh-picked produce, buy beautiful flowers, and snarf fresh-baked goodies. It’s a party atmosphere where you’re almost certain to run into other people you know. It’s even a tourist attraction! My sister-in-law and one of her friends are visiting this weekend from two hours away so that they can join in the festivities.

This early in the season asparagus will be at peak production, along with salad greens such as lettuce and spinach. Visitors will also be sure to find lots of annual flowers for sale as hanging baskets or bedding plants. (Need to know how many plants to buy to fill your flower bed? Try our handy bedding plant estimator that will make the calculations for you.)

Do you have a farmers market in your town? They have nearly universal appeal. The shot at left is from the Market Square (Grote Markt) in Haarlem, Netherlands. I recently stayed just a few blocks from the market, and was able to see the beautiful flowers that vendors had for sale. Here are a couple more shots of the blooms to buy. And even though I don’t speak Dutch, I was able to figure out the translation for boeket! These bouquets of gerberas, mums, freesias, and hypericum were selling for just under 5 Euros (about $6.50 at current exchange rates)—a great example of the wonderful bargains you can find at farmers markets.

I just returned from a press trip to the Netherlands, courtesy of the International Flower Bulb Center. Thanks to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, my stay in Europe was nearly extended indefinitely. However, after five days in Holland, I continued on to Barcelona–just before the volcano shut down air travel. This proved to be a fortuitous choice of locations for getting a return flight to the U.S.

Colorful spring landscape

I saw lots of outstanding color from traditional plantings such as these sweeping monochrome beds of tulips paired with flowering cherry trees at Keukenhof Gardens. This theme park of flowers annually dazzles millions of visitors during its display of springtime splendor from late March through late May. The cool temperatures (daytime highs in the 50s F and nighttime lows in the 30s and 40s) during this time in the Netherlands keep the colors vivid for weeks on end. But even with the favorable climate, no spring bulb blooms will last for the entire show. So organizers plant late bloomers in the same beds with early bloomers to take over when the first flowers begin to fade.

One of the trends I saw in the Dutch gardens was interplanting different types of bulbs that bloom at the same time. The photo at right shows a gorgeous combination of crocus ‘Remembrance’ with ‘Heart’s Delight’ kaufmanniana tulip (also sometimes called the waterlily tulip for the shape of its flowers). Who wouldn’t love this burst of color in their own yard?

Another evident trend is combining and interplanting bulbs with later-blooming perennials. Rather than creating a mass of color, this technique evokes a cottage garden look, with splashes of color and texture intertwined in a informal display. The example mixed border at right uses glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), daffodils (Narcissus), and checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) planted among heuchera, bleeding heart, ferns, and hellebores.

Yet another trend I observed was widespread use of spring bulbs in containers gardens. This is the perfect way for those with limited space to enjoy these spring beauties. By raising the flowers above ground level, they’re easier to see up close. As the bulbs’ blooms fade, replant the pot with colorful summer annuals. The container pictured includes deep purple Triumph tulips, checkered lily, and golden sedge (Carex).

I may not be returning to the Netherlands anytime soon, but I plan to recreate the spirit of those gardens by planting more bulbs in my own garden, using some of the ideas I picked up in Europe.

One of the advantages of being a garden editor is that I get to see and grow new varieties before they’re widely available. Yesterday our friends at Ball Horticultural made a visit to our offices to let us know about some of the new varieties they will be introducing this year and next. It sparked a feeding frenzy as editors grabbed samples to try in their gardens this summer. If these varieties pass muster in our yards, you’ll hear more about them from us in the future.

Double Wave Red petunia

Double Wave Red petunia

One variety of petunia that you’ll soon be able to get for your own garden is Double Wave Red. It will be released on May 1, just in time for summer planting. It’s a new color in the Double Wave Series of petunias. This year also is the 15th anniversary of the original Wave Purple spreading petunia. Ball is celebrating by introducing an upgrade to the original with larger flowers and earlier bloom.

Divine Orange Bronze Leaf New Guinea impatiens

Divine Orange Bronze Leaf New Guinea impatiens

You’ll likely have to wait until 2011 to get your hands on Divine Orange Bronze Leaf New Guinea impatiens. This large-flowered heat and shade lover is reported to grow well in baskets or in the ground. Most New Guineas impatiens with blooms this large are vegetatively propagated (from cuttings). This one is grown from seed. Commercial growers can order seed this year, but consumers won’t find them in the garden centers until next year.

Phantom petunia

Phantom petunia

One of my favorites at first glance from the presentation was Phantom petunia. This near-black flower with a chartreuse-yellow star pattern really caught my eye. It’s one of several “black” petunias that Ball will introduce in 2011. Pinstripe is similar to Phantom except that the star pattern consists of narrower white bands edged in purple. Black Velvet is the truest black petunia I’ve seen, and as its name suggests, has a lovely velvety sheen. Our Test Gardener manager, Sandra Gerdes, is planning a black garden border for this summer, and Black Velvet will be prominent in the mix.

With the arrival of summerlike weather this week in central Iowa, I’m anxious to plant these new annuals to see how well they’ll grow in clay in my windswept garden.

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