Spring has FINALLY arrived and even the most reluctant homeowner will head out to buy a few geraniums or fresh basil for their garden. “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” has become a clarion call for farmers. Your local plant growers warrant similar support- with good reason. Growing plants is labor intensive and requires skill- and most local growers aren’t doing it for big money. It is their passion. The choices at big-box stores pale in comparison to what your local nursery offers and their wisdom is indispensable for choosing plants that will thrive once you get them home. Why go local before you head to a big-box store? Where does a plant obsessed Master Gardener go for plants?……
- The selection of plants at big-box stores is skewed to those easy to propagate, cheap to source in quantity and shippable from long distances with little plant loss. That mind-set means you can get a crappy Bradford pear prone to ice damage, a mis-marked rhododendron or a tomato plant in late April on the cheap. A local nursery owner might not even stock Bradford pear (thank you Best Feeds!), will know that the rhodie they’re selling is purple not pink, and would caution you that soil temperatures aren’t warm enough for tomatoes until late May.
- Local nurseries can be tuned into the zeitgeist of their horticultural community. They may have plants that are native and perfect for pollinators and VERY hard to source. Thank you Quality Gardens.
- If you ask for a plant you have a chance that the nursery will order it in for you. Try that at the big box- where one size fits all. Thank you Dan from Michael Brothers Nursery. I could soak in his knowledge for days and he’s never steered me wrong.
- If you live in deer infested areas many local nurseries sell plants that they’ve installed in local gardens and have thrived i.e. they know the palate of the local herd. Thank-you LMS Greenhouse and Nursery. (Sad post-script- I just learned they are closing because they can’t get anyone to work the hard labor of garden maintenance. The H2B Visa program has fizzled away).
- When you walk into a greenhouse whose owner has lovingly selected each and every cultivar of plant, grown them from seed into nice healthy specimens, carefully placed them in a greenhouse and watered, fertilized, cut-back and tended them like their own children, you’ll be planting with the very best head start. Compare that to the rack upon rack of hastily potted annuals shipped to the box store and meant for purchase within 5 minutes or the odds of watering or liberation from their stacked confines can be days or weeks. Pisarcik Greenhouse, pictured above has some of the healthiest, stockiest young plants and one of the most neatly organized greenhouses I’ve ever seen.
- Sometimes you’ll read about new plants and won’t be able to find them. One of Pittsburgh’s rock-star nurseries is Brenckle’s Greenhouse. They always have the latest offerings from growers and the younger generation has taken up the mantle of their parents. Their selection is always amazing- if you read about a flower in a magazine you’ll find it at Brenckle’s.
- Every nursery I’ve mentioned above has staff that knows their plants. For a novice gardener, that expertise is indispensable. We’ve got to support them or they’ll be gone. Our only plant choices will be that suck-y Bradford pear, invasive barberries and flats with barely rooted baby annuals. We can’t let that happen.
If you head to the nursery in May, clouds of white and pink flowers bedecking cherry, crabapple and Bradford pear trees dominate the scene. Rhododendrons clad in purple and raspberry flowers will vie for your attention, making a perfect palette for a pretty spring garden. That’s fine, but think about when you are actually IN your garden. Grilling on the the July 4th? Playing badminton on a sunny weekend in June? That pretty purple rhododendron calling your name in the spring will be a quiet spot of green in the summer or early fall, when you are likely hanging out in your yard. Meanwhile, languishing in the nursery are the plants like bottlebrush buckeye (described below) that will take center stage in mid-summer.
Take a look at this beauty! It’s bottlebrush buckeye or Aesculus parviflora, a grand shrub reaching a height of up to 8-10 feet with about equal girth. It tolerates full sun through nearly full shade. For the giant candelabras of buckeye flowers in this image, give it at least 4 hours of sun. Unfussy about soil and usually unbothered by deer, the coarse foliage creates a weed-proof spot perfect for the woodland edge or tucked under large deciduous trees. In my landscape, a sunny hillside with unamended clay soil was planted with gallon pots of bottlebrush buckeye over 20 years ago. Today, they create a dramatic show, covered with bees and butterflies, making the garden gorgeous when we’re outside sipping rose’ and listening to the BOOM of fireworks on the 4th of July. The bottom line- ask your local nursery staff to steer you toward plants that will make your garden shine when you are outside enjoying it with your family and friends.
Plants that shrug off a late snowfall and frigid temperatures
Helleborus orientalis, commonly known as hellebores or Lenten rose, have been a feature in my garden for almost 20 years. They are tough plants, thriving in shade or sun. Deer leave them alone. Hellebores begin to bloom in my garden around mid-March and continue well into May, an exceptionally long bloom time for a perennial. When crisp, cloudless late winter days are followed by night temperatures into the mid-teens, hellebores show their true mettle. The flowers can be lying on the ground in the morning, yet perk up by mid-day once temperatures reach back into the thirties. Plants don’t get tougher than that!
They self-seed, not in an annoying way, but creating a weed-proof patch, providing a small spot of winter garden interest or a big swath if left to their own devices. Allow the flowers to mature; the fluffy yellow stamens develop a prominent seed capsule. Consider it a reward for not bothering to deadhead! The seeds ripen and the following spring you’ll see lots of seedlings at the feet of the mother plant. Flowers aren’t true to type, meaning that they are not identical to the parent plant. Depending on what you start with, the babies, which can take a year or two to develop into mature flowering plants, range in color from cream, to pale olive or mauve, burgundy to a deep plum. Some are speckled, others are solid. All are beautiful. After the first year they are very easy to move and their adaptability make them perfect adding to other parts of the garden or giving away to friends.
A seedpod of Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) backed up by the seedheads of Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) provide moody beauty at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. While it’s not the kind of day one might choose to venture out in, making the effort is worth it to see remnants of the summer garden and the fog encased trees along the river. The birds see it. For them this spot is a perfect spot for lunch- the native plants in this bed are a favorite for them. We need to see it too. If only for the reminder that spring is around the corner.
Purple. I don’t think it’s a color associated with being “tasteful”. Maybe it would be acceptable to the taste-police if combined with soft silver foliage, or some gentle pastels…but I love it paired with chartreuse. This portion of my garden would be considered “part-sun” to “part-shade” with some spots getting 4 hours of sun and others getting mostly dappled light in the early morning. Bottom left is Bletilla striata or Chinese ground orchid. It’s been happy in my USDA Zone 6 garden for over a decade, expanding happily in clay-loam which rarely dries out. The pops of chartreuse in this spot include the flowers of Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) as well as the arching blades of Hakonechloa macra aureola (Japanese forest grass). I’d like to also proudly point out the effective combination of the grass with an Acanthus (bear’s breeches)- species unknown-purchased 3 years ago and finally becoming a presence in the garden. The contrast between the two plants does not require any flower and will add interest to this spot from now until hard frost.
Orlaya grandiflora or Minoan lace flower came tucked inside a seed order decades ago as a “bonus”. I don’t even remember which seeds I originally ordered, but this freebie brings cottage charm to my garden and is a welcome addition from late spring through mid-summer. Orlaya is a pretty wildflower which has the feeling of Queen Anne’s lace without being too weedy. It makes a long lasting cut flower, adding fine texture to a few cut peonies, or just plunked into a simple vase where its foliage and flowers can be enjoyed up close.
- Self-sowing annual.
- Full sun preferred, will tolerate part-sun, well-drained to dry soil.
- 24 inches high and about as wide. Does not require staking.
Geranium. The word brings to mind the ubiquitous red flowers growing in clay pots with the requisite “spike” and vinca vine for a classic summer display. The common name “geranium” is given to the genus of plants that are actually Pelargonium species. A true perennial, geraniums are a very large genus of plants comprising both fussy little rock garden specimens to tough plants that shrug off clay, drought and deer. One of the best of the latter type is Geranium macrorrhizum or bigroot geranium (also known as cranesbill). A perennial which actually earns the epithet “low maintenance”, Geranium macrorrhizum makes a pretty edging plant in both sun and part-shade- whether in the perennial border or as an inspired choice surrounding shrubs in a traditional foundation planting. Topping out at around 15 inches high, it has lobed leaves which turn reddish in the fall. The species and its cultivars have pale pink to warm purple flowers, which bloom heavily in mid-spring and may re-bloom throughout the summer. Its aromatic roots dissuade deer, and plants will naturalize and form a weed-proof ground cover even in dry shade. Easily divided and simple to grow, Geranium macrorrhizum is a stalwart perennial plant which belongs in every garden.
If you’ve never visited Chanticleer- a public garden in Wayne PA (just outside of Philadelphia)- you are missing a treat. The container combinations alone are worth the visit. Rather than displaying specimen after specimen of neatly labelled plants without any context for how to make them look awesome in your home garden, Chanticleer’s horticulturalists combine plants in inspiring vignettes. Loved this pairing of dusky purple Fritillaria persica and a buttery yellow tulip. Tulip time at Chanticleer is special. They added a frilly edging of spring green leaf lettuce. Tulips aren’t truly perennial, but with good drainage the Fritillaria is- albeit for years rather than decades (experience in my Zone 6 garden). In this formal courtyard the tulips will most likely be removed and, while the Fritillaria foliage ripens, a planting of annuals will take center stage for the remainder of the growing season.
The components of this arrangement are simple and seasonal. Emerging leaves of Hosta ‘Sagae’ are slipped into a very narrow, contemporary vase. A couple branches cut from a terrific quince- Chaenomeles x superba ‘Cameo’, plus a few flowers of the small-cupped daffodil ‘Verona’ create a pretty arrangement.
Having a perennial garden allows you to cut flowers that are not available at the local florist. Pulmonaria saccharata “Sissinghurst White” (lungwort) is an early spring bloomer that has pure white flowers and deep green mottled lives. Today is a raw, cold spring day that doesn’t encourage spending time outside. Bringing a few cuttings indoors is the perfect way to enjoy the flowers and foliage. I love to see them at eye level, as they top out at a foot tall in the garden.
Details: Perennial. Part-shade. Likes it a bit damp. Can brown out with summer drought, but will rebound later in the year. Pulmonaria cultivars abound and flower color range is white/blue/pink/raspberry. Foliage can be solid green or splashed with white, making it a perfect plant for a shady spot, its leaves adding a glow to the garden after bloom time.