Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
February, 2006
Regional Report

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This is a favorite combination: purple columbines with dwarf golden thread falsecypress, at Chanticleer in Wayne, PA.

Reflecting on Favorites

Winter weather in the Northeast has been such a roller coaster. Yes, some warm, sunny days feel so delightfully springlike! Who'd have imagined we'd be able to slip a spade into soil as soft as butter in early February? Yet the unseasonable temps carry the cloud of something amiss -- likely global warming? While cheered by April in January, I'm unsettled at this mixed blessing.

The warm, moist days are hospitable to fungi (mildew, mold) and destructive insects that normally would die in a winter deep freeze. This year those critters may live to haunt our gardens and yards big time come real spring and summer. Yikes!

As consolation, I turn to something enticing to anticipate. Which brings me to perennial (and shrub) favorites -- solo players and combinations that always bring a smile.

One lovely, dependable favorite perennial brightens any dark corner with dangling white flowers in spring and creamy white and green striped foliage till frost. Variegated solomon seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum') has arching stems that spread as if flowing in moist woodland soil, more slowly in dry soil. For a glimpse of fairyland, front a stand with coral bells (heuchera) for texture and early-blooming, 8-inch blue clusters of native Phlox stolonifera 'Blue Ridge' or pink 'Home Fires'.

The perennial Astilbe chinensis 'Purple Candles' ranks high for Vicki Fox, owner of Green Team gardeners in Philadelphia, PA. She likes its June/July show of vibrant red-purple flower plumes, which are the color of beauty berry shrub (Callicarpa americana). Vicki transformed an ivy patch into a woodland walk, dotting sweeps of color and texture with these very tall (about 30-inch), late-blooming astilbe. She also planted them to peek softly over the fence at the back of a square vegetable garden.

Trees and shrubs are considered bones of a garden. Creative garden designers strive to find alternatives to commonly used woody plants. The majestic, soft-needled evergreen Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino') is tops for Susan Galka of Romancing the Garden and Look East in Wyncote, PA. 'Yoshino' is elegant, fast-growing, pale blue-green, easy to grow, and even more impressive planted in drifts.

Susan also likes the evergreen male Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica) for its "wonderful, mounding, low habit. It can take black shade. Its domes of grape-purple buds persist in winter and are ideal for holiday displays. The female Skimmia produces red berries. Both work well in planters and window boxes for winter interest."

Elizabeth Dailey, who also offers horticultural services, is experimenting with an Asian dwarf species of hydrangea called smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea involucrata). "It's doing very well in a container with part sun. The medium green leaves are bristly with white fuzz. The lacecap flowers are blue-purple in my garden but may be pinkish, and bloom midsummer into fall," Liz said. It needs steady watering and protection from afternoon sun. She's testing it for urban gardens that provide a microclimate of zone 6 or 7.

At the Wyck National Historic Landmark house and garden on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, Missy Randolph couldn't pick just one. Although the Wyck is renowned for its collection of old roses, Missy painted a dynamic picture with her favorite perennials and annuals. "I would have to say Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield's Pink' was an outstanding performer in the Wyck garden this fall," she said. "It matched well, oddly enough, with the red dahlia, 'Bishop of Langsdorf', which has bronze foliage. And I loved how certain plants self-seeded all over the place to a very pleasant effect: Nicotiana sylvestris and Verbena bonariensis. And WOW! Chaix mullein (Verbascum chaixii)! Beautiful, delicate flowers on slim, tall stems. Blooms all summer if deadheaded. Comes in yellow, purple, and pink," Missy added.

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