perennial

Justin W. Hancock

Five Fab Plants for Early Spring Color in Shade

I had the opportunity to spend some time in the yard this weekend and enjoyed beautiful blooms right now from some favorite early perennials. If you’re looking to add a spot of color in your landscape, try these easy-growing plants!

Hellebore

King of the early-spring shade garden, hellebore (Helleborus) is a deer- and rabbit-resistant perennial that opens up beautiful blooms in shades of white, cream, pink, red, and purple. Many have dark green, leathery leaves that are evergreen and look great in areas with winters a little more mild than what we see here in Iowa. Some hellebores offer foliage that bears a beautiful silvery overlay; others show off fancy double blooms with two or three times the normal number of petals.

Need another reason to love it? The sepals stay looking good even after the petals fade, so hellebores look as thought they’re in bloom for months.

Note: The reason hellebore is deer and rabbit resistant is that all parts of this plant are highly poisonous.

Vinca

Also called periwinke, vinca (Vinca minor) often blooms alongside the crocus. It blooms of shades of purple, blue, and white — and many varieties bear attractive white- or gold-variegated foliage. One of my favorite varieties is ‘Sterling Silver’, which grows a little more slowly than the other varieties under my big sugar maple, but is worth the patience because its dark green leaves are edged in bright white — and contrast beautifully with the soft violet-blue flowers. I’ve also seen a very fun variety  that offers violet-purple flowers with extra petals, so they almost look like miniature roses or camellias. Vinca is very hardy, resists drought well, and is rarely browsed on by deer or rabbits.

Note: This low groundcover can be aggressive when it’s happy, so be sure to plant it where it has room to roam. Also, in some areas, vinca is considered an invasive species and should not be planted. Check local restrictions before adding this spring-blooming perennial to your yard.

Bergenia

One of those great plants a lot of gardeners have never heard of, Bergenia is also evergreen. In fact, most winters the foliage takes on tones of red and purple and is quite attractive. The pink, purple, or white flowers come in early spring, on stalks well above the foliage. This is a particularly nice perennial to plant with early bulbs such as Chionodoxa or Scilla.

Surprisingly, bergenia has never been nibbled on by deer and rabbits in my yard. The leaves are thick and rubbery, so the texture may turn off the pests. Or perhaps I’ve just been lucky….

By the way: Bergenia also sometimes goes by the name pigsqueak because if you fold a leaf in half and rub the two flaps together, the rubbery texture makes a cute little squeaking sound!

Bloodroot

One of the charming woodland wildflowers I grew up with in northern Minnesota, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is ultra-hardy does a great job of spreading without being a pain. The white, daisy-like flowers appear right away in spring as the leaves unfurl. That fun foliage is deeply lobed, and as a child, I thought it looked like some kind of monster’s footprint.

I know the common name bloodroot doesn’t make the plant sound so appealing, but it earned that moniker because the roots have an orange-red sap that can stain your fingers.

Wood Poppy

A charming woodland wildflower, woodland poppy (also called celadine poppy — Stylophorum diphyllum) shares bright yellow blooms with us. It blooms longer than most of its early-spring companions; I’ve seen the yellow flowers appear as late as June. The yellow blooms are a great contrast to the blue-green foliage, and to other cool-color spring flowers such as Virginia bluebells, lungwort, and white bleeding heart.


Justin W. Hancock

Plant of the Day: Anemone

I’ve been really busy lately, and I have to confess I’ve not spent as much time in the garden as I should have. It really took me by surprise the other day when I looked out the window and was greeted to a big burst of color from my Japanese anemones.

If you have plenty of space for it, Japanese anemone is a great pick for the fall landscape. A well-established plant produces tons of blooms that are cheery and held on tall stems that make them perfect for cutting.

Japanese anemone can be a bit of a thug, spreading rapidly, so don’t plant it next to delicate or dainty plants that could be overrun.

It does best in partial shade and moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. It can take quite a bit of shade, though less light will mean fewer blooms.

The flowers appear in white or pink with cheery yellow centers. They last just shy of a week when cut and brought indoors for arrangements.

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Justin W. Hancock

Plant of the Day: Switchgrass

SwitchgrassIf you’re looking for an easy-care ornamental grass for summer, autumn, and winter interest, look no further than switchgrass.

It’s a versatile grass that thrives in full sun or part shade, and doesn’t seem to care too much about the soil it’s in. Switchgrass thrives in clay, doesn’t mind being wet from time to time, and looks great during drought.

There’s a lovely selection of switchgrasses to choose from. Some have lovely silvery-blue foliage in spring and summer; others turn burgundy or gold in autumn. Some stay short (around 3-4 feet) while others grow quite tall (‘Thundercloud’ can reach 8 feet in height!).

Switchgrasses attract birds and their fluffly, cloud-like seedheads are great for using in fresh or dried flower arrangements.

Switchgrass is hardy in Zones 5-9, though I’ve also seen it thrive in Zone 4 when given some winter mulch.


Justin W. Hancock

Meadowsweet Rocks

Filipendula rubra 'Venusa'Meadowsweet (aka queen of the prairie, or in Latin, Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’) has long been one of my favorite perennials.

This beauty features fluffy flowers that look like cotton candy in June and early July. It’s great for attracting butterflies, too! And it’s native to North America.

The foliage has a fun texture — the leaves are divided and toothed, so even when meadowsweet isn’t in bloom it looks great.

I took this picture in the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden® this morning — you might be able to get a sense of size if you look at the arborvitae in the background; this meadowsweet can grow to 6 feet tall!

It grows best in full sun or light shade and moist soil. It’s handled drought okay in my yard, but performs best when kept moist. Like many perennials, meadowsweet forms a clump as it matures, so it’s easy to divide and share with friends or create more summertime pink exclamation points in your yard.


Justin W. Hancock

Hot – Hot – Hot

I was walking through the Test Garden the other day when I came across this beauty in full bloom. Do you recognize it?

A number of our Test Garden visitors are suprised to know it’s a coneflower! The variety is ‘Hot Papaya’ and it’s a showstopper, eh?

‘Hot Papaya’ offers blooms in a bright shade of orange-red, and wiht a frilly cone. It bears all the other attributes of coneflowers: A long bloom season, it attracts butterflies, and it holds up well to heat and drought. Oh and one other thing? ‘Hot Papaya’ is also fragrant.

It’s part of a new generation of coneflowers. Plant breeders have gone far beyond the traditional purple; you can find doubles like this in shades of orange, orange-red, white, and pink — and we’ll no doubt be seeing lots of other cool ones at our local garden centers in the future.

Stop by the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden this summer to see other cool varieties like ‘Coral Reef’ and ‘Milkshake’!


Justin W. Hancock

Quick Shot from the Test Garden

Stachys 'Pink Cotton Candy'

One of the great things about perennials is that there’s such a wide variety — it seems like there’s always something new to discover!

Take this plant: It’s common name is betony (Stachys ‘Pink Cotton Candy’ for those of you who love plant names in Latin). It’s closest common garden relative is lamb’s ears. Like lamb’s ears, it has great foliage — though it’s dark green and quilted instead of soft and silvery. Betony’s blooms are prettier, too — a delightful shade of soft pink.

The ‘Pink Cotton Candy’ variety blooms from June to August and grows 2 feet tall and wide. It loves full sun, tolerates poor soil and droughty conditions, and deer and rabbits pass it by. I’ve not tried it as a cut flower, but it seems like it would make a good one.

I’m thinking it would make for a great groundcover, too — the foliage stays relatively low so if you cut the dead flower stalks off you’d have an undulating carpet of those dark green textured leaves.

If you’re in the area, come by the BHG Test Garden on Fridays to see it in bloom for yourself!