Toronto Star column – published August 24, 2013
“There’s nothing to match curling up with a good book when there’s a repair job to be done around the house.” ~Joe Ryan
Julie Andrews, star of the film The Sound of Music, certainly had it right when she started her famous song ‘My Favourite Things’ with the line, “Raindrops on roses.” If you are going to deliver a message about all of the stuff that turns your crank, it is hard to go wrong with roses. Or plants generally, for that matter.
Louis Armstrong starts his little ditty ‘What a Wonderful World’ with the words ‘I see trees of green, red roses too’. There is a theme here that is inescapable. When we reflect on what is most important to us, we don’t write or sing about our new sports car or the addition that we built onto the family cottage. No, we begin with reflections of a botanical nature.
Which brings me nicely to a few of my favourite things. It is late summer and the autumn planting season is on our threshold. Soon we will be tempted by the new plants that growers deliver to retailers: we will be drawn to their colour and fragrance; the pollinators in our neighbourhoods will be drawn in as well. Bees, songs birds, hummingbirds [back from a vacation in the Boreal forest], and of course butterflies will enjoy your new additions, no doubt.
It is my policy to write about plants that are generally available this time of year as I do not get pleasure from sending you on a wild goose chase. If you find that your favourite is sold out, I urge you to put it on your shopping list for spring next year. In my ongoing efforts to help you prioritize your plant buying decisions, here are some of my favourites:
When we built our home in my dream garden 8 years ago I had an image of a giant mass of Annabelle hydrangeas nesting their metre-high blossoms at the foot of our front porch. They would stand sentry over the rest of the garden, making the statement in a monochromatic fashion that this is not just a home in a farmers field. It is a garden with a house in it. There is a big difference.
To accomplish this, however, I had to plant big. Twenty-seven new plants were placed about 80 cm apart and nurtured into a mass planting that actually, when they grew in, came very close to the mental image that I had of them before I put them in the ground which, frankly, seldom happens.
Annabelle hydrangea was introduced around 1888 and stands as a stalwart perennial shrub bloomer. Virtually no insects or disease are a problem and they stay put for the most part, not travelling across my yard seeking to take over like many other perennials do. Winter hardy to Zone 3 [Winnipeg].
My attitude towards many of the new hydrangeas is softening as I was sceptical for a while. I have about 6 varieties in my 10-acre garden that have their own special attributes. Here are a couple of my recent favourites:
Incrediball Hydrangea [arborescens ‘Abetwo’]
Note the play on words, ‘IncrediBALL’. This variety is part of the growing family of ‘Proven Winners’ which are sourced out of the United States but very often the plants that you buy here are grown in Canada. As the brochure says, this variety has ‘massive white blooms from mid-summer to fall on strong stems. Blooms start lime-green and change to white/green.’ I will not argue with the copy writers as the blooms are ‘massive’. A little less hardy than Annabelle: Zone 4 [Ottawa/Montreal].
Endless Summer Hydrangea [h. macrophylla ‘Bailmer’]
This is the hydrangea that started all of the hype a few years ago. It flowers on new and old wood, which is rare as the traditional varieties generally flowered on new wood only. It features large pink flowers in our alkaline soil of Southern Ontario and blue flowers in acidic soil, like that found in the Maritimes and coastal B.C. Hardy to Zone 5 [Barrie].
Black-eyed Susan ‘Goldsturm’ [rudbeckia fulgida]
Time was no one cared much for this late season flowering plant. In early September they could be relied upon to bloom for a couple of weeks.
But in 1999 ‘Goldsturm’ became the perennial plant of the year and that changed everything. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get in on the action. And why not? It blooms for up to 3 months. Three months! What perennial does that? And has virtually no enemies in the bug and disease departments. I do get some aphids on mine from time to time but I just blast them with a stream of water from the end of the hose to fix them. They love the sun, grow to 60 cm tall and they do spread from year to year. I find that I can control their spreading habit by cutting out the new root with a sharp spade in spring. Otherwise, plant away and take a long vacation. This is a plant that is so independent that many gas stations have started using it. And no one ignores their street plantings like gas stations.
Another perennial that comes back year after year in my garden, only this one gives me two seasons in one. It produces a 50 cm spire of blue flowers in early to late July, which I cut off with hedge shears the first week of August. Then they re-flower in September and the flowers last even longer, due to the cooler temperatures that time of year. You can cut Speedwell flowers and bring them indoors. Hummingbirds and honey bees like them.
Stonecrop [Sedum and sempervivum]
I performed an experiment with these indestructible plants three years ago. I used the roof of a garden shed on my property as a garden in which I planted the lowest maintenance flowering perennials known to humankind: sedums and sempervivums. The results were a little slow in coming but now, in the 3rd season on my shed roof, they are a show stopper. I planted about 12 different varieties, each blooming at slightly different times for a succession of bloom. The first year I watered and weeded quite diligently, last year much less so, and this year I have done nothing. They have rooted in and provided a great show with virtually no work. Plant them in containers, rock gardens, wall planters, and of course on your roof. They like a soil medium that is at least 40% sharp sand and 60% compost/soil.
I have lost count of the number of hosta plants that I have in my 10-acre garden. Lots. And I love them all. This family of broad-leafed perennials includes some mammoth varieties. Sometimes their name says it all: ‘Wide Brimmed Hat’, ‘Big Daddy’, ‘Skywalker’, and ‘Blue Mammoth’. Others are very small and considered appropriate for the hosta collector but otherwise these may get lost in your garden. Look for ‘Flash Forward’ and ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ which only grow to 15 cm high and wide.
My real favourites are the tough ones that tolerate shade, thrive in the sun, and can take the competition of mature tree roots. One of my favourites is ‘Halcyon’, featuring bluish leaves and August flowers. Another is ‘Fragrant Bouquet’ [the 1998 American Hosta Growers hosta of the year] featuring a long flowering plant in July/August that smells wonderful with lime/ivory leaves. Grows to 50 cm high and wide.
With over 7,000 varieties in the hosta family there must be a few that would appeal to you. The flowers of hostas all attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. Another bonus.
Next week? More of my favourite plants.
Question of the Week
Q/ I found a patch of mushrooms growing in my lawn. How do I control them?
A/ Mushrooms develop as organic matter decays under the lawn. Fallen branches and old tree roots are the most common cause of mushrooms in the lawn.
Mushrooms will continue to appear until the organic matter is removed or fully decayed.