Arts & Culture

Plant This, Not That

  • By Tony Avent
  • Illustration by Jack Pittman

10 little known or new plants you can use to improve your lawn and garden.

tony avent web 700

When it comes to plant selection, there seems to be two distinctive groups of gardeners: those stuck in the proverbial gardening rut who grow the same plants their grandparents grew, and those at the opposite end of the horticultural spectrum, who try every new variety that hits the market.

I’ll gladly admit to falling into the latter. Yet something you quickly realize is that many of the exciting new plants can be inferior to the old standards, while others are dramatic improvements.

A good nurseryman should serve as a filter between the breeders, marketers, and the gardening public. As the old Russian adage says, “Trust but verify.”

Here are 10 little known or new plants you can use to improve your garden.

1. Breeding developments for hostas have created a whole new set of industry standards in the past decade. Most gardeners may still be growing ‘Hosta Undulata,’ which despite being tough as nails, becomes quite unsightly by summer and has the least attractive flowers of any hosta. Instead hosta stained glass and cathedral windows are two sister introductions that are dramatic improvements. Their vigor is equal to ‘Hosta Undulata,’ but they form more symmetrical clumps, look great all summer, and have attractive, large, fragrant flowers.

2. Many bulb catalogs sell a plant known as fall yellow false crocus or ‘Sternbergia Lutea.’ While it looks great in photos, I’ve never been able to do much more than get it to limp along or bloom flowers. Instead I suggest you try the Argentine false crocus, ‘Nothoscordum Sellowianum.’ This easy-to-grow bulb starts flowering in late January and flowers into early April with fragrant, bright yellow 2- to 3-inch-tall flowers before going dormant for the summer. This variety is also easy to grow in a wide range of sunny conditions.

3. As much as I love the fragrant ‘Daphne Odora,’ it has a bad habit of turning up its toes because of a common soil-borne fungus that thrives in poorly drained soils. If Daphne has worn out its welcome in your garden, try its larger and much easier to grow cousin, ‘Edgeworthia Chrysantha’ or paper bush. It is the same shape and equally fragrant, but it stands seven feet tall with bright yellow flowers that bloom from late January into April. Paper bush is another easy-to-grow plant that thrives in all but the coldest parts of North Carolina.

4. Who cannot love the Christmas rose, ‘Helleborus Niger,’ which starts flowering around Christmas time in the woodland garden with large, outfacing, white flowers. The problem with Christmas rose is that most are grown from seedlings. The quality of these seedlings varies widely. Additionally, the flowering times of seedlings range from starting in December through February. Thanks to scientific advancements in plant cloning, an exceptionally vigorous variety of ‘Helleborus Niger’ called josef lempers is now available. It starts flowering reliably in late October and continues into February, which is a dramatic improvement.

5. Everyone likes bee balm. Most gardeners use the common varieties ‘Monarda Didyma’ and ‘Monarda Fistulosa.’ However, these varieties run vigorously, and seem to attract every scrap of foliar mildew in the region. Instead, try monarda Peter’s purple. This exceptional hybrid variety was found by Texas plantsman Peter Loos and introduced when he noticed it didn’t mildew or take over the garden. The 4- to 5-foot-tall clumps are topped with hundreds of lavender flowers. The heads start in late spring, produce great fragrant foliage, and are a delight for beneficial garden insects.

6. ‘Stokesia Laevis’ or stokes aster is a southeast native plant that has been grown from seed up until recently. I tried them many years ago and was never impressed by the lanky growth and floppy stems. Finally, back in the 1990s a new stokes aster appeared on the market under the name peachie’s pick. This selection was an amazing improvement over the seed strains with its rigidly upright stems topped with large, blue flowers and a much longer flowering time. Also, unlike the seed strains, this one has never seeded around the garden. Peachie’s pick is quite easy to manage and grows in conditions from dry shade to sunny, soggy soils.

7. As with the ‘Stokesia,’ there are still people growing and selling some of the earlier and dramatically inferior forms of ‘Pulmonaria,’ also known as lungwort. For many years in the 1980s, the only lungwort variety available was the seed strain, Mrs. Moon, which got more mildew than an abandoned house in Florida. Fast forward three decades later, and the lungworts on the market have improved dramatically. This group of shade perennials are led now by varieties like Silver Streamers, which have non-mildewing foliage, better blue and pink flowers, and more vigor in the garden.

8. If you’ve tried and failed with many of the fancy snapdragon hybrids, most of which don’t live long after you take them home, try the Spanish snapdragon, ‘Antirrhinum Hispanicum.’ While most snapdragons sulk or die in the summer, this is the peak season for Spanish snapdragon. The three-foot-wide mounds of fuzzy, green foliage are topped with pink-and-yellow bicolor flowers. Good drainage and plenty of sun are the keys for all snapdragon varieties.

9. I still see people planting clumps of the old native ‘Yucca Filamentosa.’ This isn’t a bad plant in its green form, however there are other exciting yuccas to use, including the lovely variegated form, ‘Yucca Filamentosa’ color guard, which has lovely yellow-centered leaves. Another striking accent plant to use in all regions of the state is the southwest native ‘Yucca Rostrata,’ which has powder blue foliage.

10. Finally, there are peonies. Anyone who moved south from further north probably brought peonies along to their new home. Some peonies sulk in the South, while others grow equally as well as they do in colder climates. Two exceptional selections for the South are ‘Paeonia Ostii’ and ‘Paeonia Bartzella.’ ‘Ostii’ peony is a wild Chinese tree peony that will truly rock your world. First, it flowers in March, despite the weather, with eight-inch fragrant white or blush-pink flowers. The clump in our garden always produces more than 100 flowers. The other is the intersectional peony hybrid, a tree peony crossed with an herbaceous peony, named ‘Bartzella.’ The double, yellow flowers on this deciduous clump are enormous, reaching more than 10 inches wide and sprouting more than two dozen per plant. Both of these peonies help dispel any garden myth that peonies can’t thrive in the South.

Tony Avent owns Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh. He was recently featured in the April 2013 issue of Our State.

Plant Delights
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603

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One Response to Plant This, Not That

  1. Tom Snyder says:

    I purchased a PDN edgeworthia years ago and at this time of year it is the showpiece at our home. Visitors not only are taken by its appearance but also its fragrance. We just made our spring visit to PDN and loaded up with hellebores, ferns, daphne et al. Not only are these plants stunning, but the many deer that wander our grounds at night will not dine on them. Although we have not met Tony, my wife and I are most appreciative of what he brings to gardeners of all levels who share the interest and passion to try his offerings. We say our thanks to Tony by loading up during our trips to PDN.

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