Epimedium also known as barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, and horny goat weed, needs a makeover. An excellent plant for dry shade and deer proof, it deserves a better place in the pantheon of ground covers. Under used, overlooked, and ignored, this little ground cover is so important when I work on landscape designs, because there is a limited palette of plants that deer leave alone, especially ground covers. Native to Asia and occurring in moist humousy soils, Epimedium also flourishes in dry shade, the nemesis of gardeners everywhere.
I prefer the name “fairy wings” as the delicate flowers resemble fairy wings which are held on slim stems in early spring before the foliage appears. I have a large stand under a Saucer Magnolia which has the double whammy of full shade and very dry soil.
It performs beautifully and the only maintenance involved is whacking it back in early spring, because in my area of the mid-Atlantic, it is deciduous. In more southern climes, this ground cover would be evergreen. But don’t think that being deciduous is a drawback for me. Epimedium looks good until December and then once you trim in early March, the beautiful flowers emerge to flutter in the lightest breeze.
This is not a specimen plant. You would plant this by the dozen to form an impenetrable mass of plants that weeds can never pierce. And I really mean that! I never weed this once the plants knit together to form a mass. spreading via rhizomes, Epimedium is a tight clumper.
Coming in all kinds of colors – yellow, pink, red, white, and orange – I just planted one hybrid called ‘Orange Queen’. A medium to fast spreader, this little charmer has larger flowers and performs well under the deep shade of an evergreen spruce – a very tough spot!
Plantsman are working on introducing new varieties and there has been an explosion of new Epimediums to suit any garden. In the Plant Delights catalog, there are over 50 varieties to pick from.
But nine times out of ten, if you talk to a gardener, they have never heard of this plant. Usually listed in nursery catalogs as ‘Barrenwort’, I am not surprised! Not a plant with large showy flowers, but a ground cover workhorse for me. And I will repeat, that deer don’t touch it!
After a long cold winter, gardeners are itching to get some color outside, even as early as St Patrick’s Day, here in the mid-Atlantic region. Most hardy annuals tolerate light frosts, but not freezing. April 1st marks the start of my container season, but I have to be careful what I plant. Hard frosts are still on the horizon and I don’t want to lose my plants or have them frost burnt. Including edibles such as kale, lettuce, and spinach gives my containers double duty. And the leafy greens are attractive too.
My Top 10:
Pansies/Violas-technically not an annual, but I treat it like one
English Daisy-comes in pink, white, and red, singles and doubles
Lobelia-a small flowered blue or white trailer that is a non-stop bloomer. It creates masses of flowers that cascade or trail out of a container
Alyssum-honey-scented white or purple trailer
Dusty Miller-good foliage foil with felted grey leaves
Nemesia-comes in a variety of colors and the scent is fabulous
Ranunculus-multi-petaled flower which loves the cold; looks like a rose
Snapdragons-upright flower used for height, seen in cottage type gardens
Ornamental Cabbage-Yes, this looks like a full grown cabbage!;Great foliage in pinks, greens, and whites
Dianthus-The quintessential cottage flower, pinks are treasured for their blue-green foliage and abundant starry flowers, which are often spicily fragrant. They come in pinks, whites, and reds and are sweetly scented
Some flowers can take ice and snow, like Ornamental Cabbages and Pansies; others can take a light frost and temperatures in the thirties, like Nemesia, English Daisy, and Primroses.
Yes, it is temporary color, but for a few dollars, you can extend your container season. I compare it to buying fresh cut flowers, but these last a lot longer. Lasting for 6 to 8 weeks, the containers will have run their course by mid-May, and it will be time to plant for the summer using heat tolerant plants. Most people wait to plant their containers until May in the mid-Atlantic region when the danger of frost is past. But why wait? You are missing out on all the wonderful cold hardy varieties that will be done in by the coming heat, like Ranunculus and Violas.
Ranunculus is actually a corm, a small type of bulb, and the flowers look too perfect to be real. Exquisite, rose-like blossoms, they are often seen in wedding bouquets. Silky petals are layered like a rose in bright, paint box colors.
Buying my plants from a variety of sources- big box, wholesale nurseries, and independent nurseries with a good selection – I hold my plants in my cold frame during March. Staying about 10-20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, it is convenient to stash the plants somewhere and to look at all my color combos before planting. Sometimes, when I place them in my cold frame without any thought for color, a new pairing of texture or color will leap out at me. If you don’t have a cold frame, storing in an unheated garage or shed will work too.
It is really important to acclimate your annuals to the cold by gradually exposing them to colder temperatures than the warm temps in a greenhouse. Unless you are buying your plants that are already sitting outside in a holding area, the plants will be coming out of a greenhouse.
Using accessory elements like statues, balls, and twigs, will make the container pop.
Having flowering plants out in March and April is extremely important for the pollinators that are flying in chilly weather and have trouble finding nectar sources. You are providing a vital source of nectar and pollen for these important native bees by planting out early, as well as giving yourself a boost of color therapy after our cold winter. See my post on Winter Aconites for another early season pollinator nectar source.
Trailing white Alyssum makes this container look lush
Perennials like Coral Bells, Carex, Bergenia, Hellebores, Scabiosus, Lamium, and Evergreen Ferns, can be used in the early spring container as accents and fillers. Later, worn out annuals can be pulled out leaving the still performing perennials and newer heat tolerant annuals inserted in their place.
Table planted with early spring annuals and perennials
Only on display at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania for two to three weeks, the Himalayan Blue Poppies are stunners and considered a rare garden treasure. Almost extinct in their native habitat of Bhutan, photographers flock to Longwood to capture some photos of these amazingly true blue spectacles. Sporting deep sky blue crepey petals with mauve highlights and a ring of golden stamens and anthers, the plant is much sought after to add to gardens.
Unfortunately, in North America it can only be grown in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and parts of New England successfully. Meconopsis grandis is the national flower of Bhutan, a country high up in the Himalayas, above 10,000 feet, and wants cool, cool temperatures, like 45 to 50 degrees F. The conservatory at Longwood Gardens is certainly warmer than this so the flower is fleeting in its beauty.
Once considered a myth and brought back to the west by plant hunters, the Blue Poppy is a challenge to grow for the most experienced gardeners and a mark of distinction for any gardener succeeding in its cultivation.
Requiring moist and cool conditions, Longwood Gardens, one of the few places to see them, forces the variety Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’ into bloom every March and increases their number each year because of their popularity.
Drawing large numbers of people, especially photographers getting that perfect shot, the colors are unbelievable-saturated blues with streaks of mauve plum tones- on a large 4-5 inch flower.
A shade of blue rarely seen in other flowers, the foliage is also stunning with grass-green hairy stems and leaves. Longwood Gardens gets their Blue Poppy plants shipped to them from an Alaska grower in the fall and they grow them in perfectly controlled greenhouse conditions to force them into bloom for display in the spring. Longwood has two different batches that it refreshes the flowers with so they can extend the brief bloom time for visitors.
Growing in the warm clime of the conservatory, the mauve highlights were evidence as a sign of stress. The ephemeral quality of their blooms is part of their attraction and charm and visitors flock to see them.
Demanding a rich loamy well draining soil in partial sun in cool conditions is the primary ingredient to successfully growing this garden gem. Way too hot in my mid-Atlantic climate, I get to photograph them and enjoy them at Longwood Gardens in the spring. For more information on how to grow them if you are in a better suited climate than mine, go to Himalayan Blue Poppy Care.
You know the phrase-“Your home is your castle!”. For a gardener, just substitute “Your potting shed is your castle” and you understand what gardeners hold near and dear. A comfortable place that you can store your garden implements, tools, and other horticulture paraphernalia in an attractive and functional manner.
A well-appointed garden shed can be a great way to organize your tools, store gardening supplies and set aside a work space for potting, seedlings, and other garden activities. Here are some important ideas to consider when thinking about your garden shed.
Location— Siting your garden shed is paramount. Conveniently located, yet away from other back yard areas like decks and swimming pools, but close to the main house to make wiring and plumbing easier to accomplish. Because it will be the first stop for your garden work, position the garden shed relatively close and convenient to flower beds and vegetable gardens.
My potting shed is also close to my beehives situated in a meadow, so I am not hauling heavy equipment across the yard. A rain barrel takes care of runoff and I water my nearby veggies with it.
Although usually small, a potting shed can serve as a focal point as well as offering storage for gardening and lawn tools. It’s also a “canvas” for collections.
Easy Access—A ramp at the entryway to allow your wheelbarrow to roll in and out easily is essential. Doorways should be wide enough for your wheelbarrow and other heavy equipment. Adding a double door can open up one side of the shed and make the interior a pleasant place to work on summer days and allow breezes to enter.
Figure out your storage options for potting sheds before building one and you have mastered half the battle, because storage is a big part of the reason you have a potting shed. I don’t know many people who actually “pot” up plants in their potting shed, but for relaxing and storage, the potting shed is at it’s best.
Light — Include windows or skylights to allow natural light inside. Just realize that windows will take up valuable wall space for shelves and hangers for storage. If your shed will be used to store rechargeable garden tools, like edgers and lawnmowers, make sure you have plenty of convenient outlets.
Potting Table— If your gardening includes lots of containers like mine does, a potting table is a good choice. Make sure you’ve included shelves and a handy spot for potting soil so it’s all within reach. My potting table is outside under an overhanging roof to save on space inside. I rather use my potting shed interior for storage than working. Working outside gives me freedom to get messy!
Having electricity and heat are the ultimate for a potting shed, and it really makes it a year round work station.
Hang It Up — Tools like rakes and hoes can be hung from the walls to keep them organized and within reach.
I buy over sized hooks for things like garden hoses and pegboard for small tools.
You could even trace around each tool and label it so they’ll return to the right spot every time, just like Julia Child did in her kitchen. A strong magnetized knife holder can be re-purposed it to hold smaller metal hand tools.
Clutter Begone — Shelves, bins, and baskets can provide a neat way to store all the items that make their way into your garden shed. The most ingenious way I have seen is using an old crib frame for storage.
Use stainless steel commercial shelving for a long-lasting rust resistant storage solution. An old crib, crates, chairs, ladders, and knife racks can be employed to solve storage problems in small areas.
There are many styles of pre-manufactured garden shed kits so try to select one that keeps the look of your house. Or go wild with staining or painting it to stand out.
If you plan to start seedlings, some racks with either natural light or grow lights might be a smart addition. Combining the potting table with the sink can make clean-up and watering a breeze.
Each and every surface of my potting shed is fair game for hanging and decorating. If you are like me, I gather lots of articles which are interesting, but I really don’t use, but I want to display them.
Love-in-a-Mist, aka Ragged Lady, or Persian Jewels, is a hardy annual with fine, thread like leaves and intricate 1½ in. flowers at the end of each branch. An excellent cut flower, Love-in-a-Mist, Nigella damascena, forms interesting horned seed capsules surrounded by ferny mist-like foliage and are beautiful in dried arrangements. Plants grow to 1½ ft. tall and prefer cool weather. If you let the flowers go to seed, they will often self slow and come up the next year without any work on your part.
Aptly named, Love in a Mist, is only available by seeds, and has become one of my favorite cool weather flowers. For more on growing early spring cold loving flowers, go to my post on Cool Flowers. Direct sow the seeds and press into moist soil in early spring, and you are sure to have a nice clump of Love in a Mist.
Blue, mauve, pink, purple, and white blooms clothed in a lacy netting of greenery, this is an old-fashioned heirloom favorite for fresh or dried flowers.
Scattering the seed in a cleared area that has been raked to loosen the soil, is the easiest way to sow the seeds. I walk over the area to press the seeds firmly into the ground so there is good soil contact.
Where winters are mild, like USDA zones 8 or 9, seed can be sown in the late winter or fall, and by making successive sowings, you can ensure a continuous supply of cut flowers. Flowers are excellent for cutting, with the horned seed capsules highly decorative in dried arrangements. Deer tend to leave this little beauty alone.
The black chunky seeds contained in the seed capsule have a strong aroma and taste, and have notes of onion, oregano, and black pepper, thus are used in cooking. The seeds have many health benefits. They carry antioxidant properties helping with several inflammation issues, especially on the skin.
Love in a Mist seeds also have an antihistamine element and can aid in assisting with sore throats. Used in the traditional Naan bread of Indian cooking, they are also called black cumin. If you aren’t interested in using them in your culinary adventures, save some for sprinkling in the garden in the spring.
Whenever I see a fantastic container combo that stops me in my tracks, I study it and visually take it apart to figure out how a designer came up with the recipe. Each designer has their own way of putting together colors, textures, and styles, to come up with a winning formula, so I thought I would reveal my techniques. Some combos are serendipity but more than likely, I obsess and fiddle with a container until I come up with something that satisfies me. Go to Containers With Pizzazz to see some examples of Wow containers.
Have you ever taken a swatch of fabric to a wallpaper or paint store to match the colors? Or been inspired by colors found in nature? I love tropical bird colors, like parrots and peacocks and when I see something l like, I take a photo and hope to duplicate it to come up with a winning combination.
Signature Plants & Containers
My starting point is to find that signature plant. This means a plant that I love and want to build on the colors and textures of the special plant I have chosen. The combo below started with the Flap Jack Succulent, also known as paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) which has a ruby-red coloration. Picking up that red color from the flapjack plant with the ‘Red Head” Coleus was my next step and then I picked a lime Coleus to add contrast. Follow that with the rest of the plants, choosing something that contrasts well with the color combination.
Likewise, if you have a special container and want to work off of that, then choose your plants to match and/or contrast. My favorite color containers are orange and blue. Both colors seem to set off plants with a big boost. But if your plants are really striking, you might want to go with a container that is an earth tone color and doesn’t dominate.
Choosing each plant was also predicated on similar light requirements. Below, I was designing a container for partial shade so made sure that I used plants that needed about 5 hours of sunlight or less. I spread the plants out in a carrying crate that I transported them in and picked the ones that worked.
Another technique I use is to pair bold gigantic leaves with fine foliage. It always works!
Mix & Match
Usually when I arrange a container, I pick out more than enough plants that meld well with the signature plant. Once I am at the job site I like to pick and choose from my selections to fit the container size. Extras are used for different containers to make other combinations.
We all love our flowers, but think about other things that you can add that make a container special- glass balls, sticks, drift wood, and statues. Accessories can calm down a container with a lot of flowers, and give the eyes a place to rest.
Hoses last a few years and then wear out, leaving you with pinhole leaks, wasted water, and wet feet. When it is time to retire my hose, I think of ways to up cycle it. I never throw them away! The more varied the colors you have the better. Here are some ideas to use those old hoses that won’t be filling up the landfill.
Starting with an old door mat- again don’t throw them away!- I cut the hose into lengths and used E6000, an industrial strength adhesive to glue them on top of the mat. Available on Amazon or Wal Mart this adhesive is totally waterproof and my mat has lasted since 2013 in the outdoors with none of the hoses breaking free. Tough and durable, this look gives a retro feel to the outdoors.
For a fresh look to a door wreath, try using hoses as a base instead of a grapevine wreath. Simply wind the hose around and fasten it together with bind wire the size that you want and you are ready to decorate. Wiring the tools onto the wreath with bind wire (paper covered wire) securely fastens everything together.
Bumblebees are extremely important pollinators for agriculture both in the field and in greenhouses. Unlike honey bees, they are able to forage under cold, rainy, and cloudy conditions, so it is possible to see them in all kinds of weather. Even on an early chilly morning, you can see a bumblebee sleeping inside a flower blossom, waiting for some warmth to arrive.
The crops that bumblebees can pollinate include tomatoes,peppers, raspberries, blueberries, chives, cucumbers,apples, strawberries, alfalfa, blackberries, soybeans,sunflowers, beans, cherries, apricots, plums, almonds,nectarines, peaches, rosehips, eggplants, and cranberries.
Bumblebees are also extremely important pollinators of many flowering plants and are generalists, which means they pollinate by visiting hundreds of flowering plants.
There is evidence that in North America some of our bumblebee species are declining and a few are threatened with extinction. Species that seem most vulnerable are those with smaller climate tolerances, those at the edge of their climatic niches, and later emerging species. Many species in North America and around the world, are declining at a rapid rate.
Most bumblebees nest in underground nest, or old logs or crevices. You can help the bumblebees come to your property and nest by providing a ready to move in nest, just as you would to mason bees.
Since most bumbles nest in the ground or a dry, dark cavity, you can provide a simple ground nest with a clay pot, a saucer, some straw, piece of chicken wire, and a short piece of garden hose for an entrance. The low-flying zig zag flight of a nest-site searching queen can be seen in the spring and is very distinctive.
A mature nest of a bumblebee can contain up to 400 residents, as compared to 50,000 to 80,000 honeybees, so the nest is quite small. It should be located in the shade in a dry location. The straw used preferably should be obtained from a mouse’s nest, as a queen will be attracted to the smell. For complete instructions and diagrams, go to Hartley Botanic.
Basil, one of my top herb favorites, is getting some bad knocks lately. Normally a cinch to grow, Basil has been plagued by fatal downy mildew, which makes it unusable.
The latest malady to hit ornamental and food plants is BasilDowny Mildew, which has appeared in the last couple of years and is sweeping through the country like wildfire. It starts with leaf yellowing, which looks like a nutritional deficiency and then spots appear and can make the entire plant inedible. Under the right weather conditions (wet, warm weather), Basildowny mildew can spread rapidly and result in complete loss of all your Basil plants. Although Peronospora belbahrii, the pathogen that causes Basil downy mildew, cannot survive our mid-Atlantic winters, it can be reintroduced on infected seed or transplants or by windblown spores. So, it is here to stay.
Disfiguring my Basil plants by late spring/early summer, I despaired of growing this stalwart of my kitchen again. See my post African Blue and Downy Mildew for more information on this scourge.
Using Basil in many of my dishes, I always like to have some growing Basilplants on hand, but it can be hard to keep alive indoors. I had almost given up growing it in any form and was buying the hydroponic plants at the grocery store as needed. Dried Basilis not the same flavor and addition to my cooking that I wanted.
Basil is an excellent source of vitamin K and manganese, copper, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), and vitamin C; and a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. I had no idea this tasty herb was so good for you!
I was delighted to find a new cultivar of Basilcalled Amazel, a game changing plant, which is resistant to Downy Mildew. Growing in my greenhouse now, it will be planted outside as soon as the frosts subside so I can enjoy it fresh from the garden. Amazel is a hunky vigorous plant that I already have cut back twice in my greenhouse since January for pesto. Once I cut it back, fresh shoots sprout up and are ready in about 10 days to use again. I am back in the green with Amazel Basil from Proven Winners!
Amazel has excellent resistance to Downy Mildew, which will keep plants growing and producing for home gardeners throughout the entire season. Unlike typical basil, Amazel is seed sterile and therefore continues to produce leaves and shoots even after starting to flower unlike other basilvarieties that focus most or all of their energy into seed production.
For other basil varieties that are resistant to Downy Mildew, go to my African Blue Basil post. I am back to pesto making again!
Cerinthe major atropurpurea , featured at Sissinghurst Castle in England, is actually a native of the Greek Islands. This hard to find annual is definitely a much sought after easy to grow annual from seed. Not available as transplants, you can get the seed from Renee’s Garden Seeds.
An unusually colored flower with indigo-violet drooping flowers that dangle gracefully above gray-green leaves. A great plant for containers or for the border, it is easy to start from seed.
Pop in the seeds and a few days later, juicy succulent-like shoots appear above the soil and quickly grow into robust plants for transplanting. Wonderful as cuts for fresh flower arrangements, you can always spot them at Sissinghurst in the UK as their signature plant.
Also known as honeywort, the flowers attract bees and hummingbirds. The one inch long flowers produce honey-flavored nectar, probably leading to its common name. As the plant matures, the bracts change from green to purple to blue. Deadhead to encourage continued bloom. If you wish to use honeywort as a cut flower, the ends of the stem need to be either flamed or dipped in hot water.
Cerinthe is a good filler plant, with its blue-green foliage and succulent texture contrasting nicely with other greens in the garden. To bring out the other colors in the bracts, such as golds, yellows, bronzes, interplant cerinthe with plants that have purple or bronze leaves, such as Caramel Heuchera or Euphoriba ‘Chameleon’. Reseeding in my garden happens frequently which I encourage.
TO START OUTDOORS
In spring, once all danger of frost is past, sow seed directly where plants are to grow in ordinary well-drained soil in full sun. In mild climates, Cerinthe can also be sown in fall for spring blooms. Poke the large seeds into the soil about 3⁄4 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart and firm soil gently over them.
TO START EARLY INDOORS
Start seeds indoors in 4 inch pots about 4 to 6 weeks before last frost date. Keep moist, but not soggy and provide a strong light source. Once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall, acclimate to outdoor conditions and transplant into a sunny spot, in well-drained garden soil. Thin or transplant seedlings 8 to 12 inches apart. Avoid disturbing seedling roots.
GROWING NOTES (from Renee’s Garden Seeds)
Cerinthe prefers full sun, but can take dappled shade, although plants will be more rangy in habit. Be patient; plants are undistinguished until they come into bloom. By late spring, the dramatic blue bracts will turn more purple at the tips, then the clusters of purple bells trimmed with a white edge unfurl. Grow near pastel cleome or cosmos for an exciting color contrast.
Today, it is not commonly offered commercially in the U.S. The plants are not particularly stunning from a distance unless plant in mass; the enchanting flowers are best appreciated up close as the coloring is subtle. The variety ‘Purpurascens’ is the most commonly available type and was selected for its stronger coloration than the species.
Looking like a butterfly bush on sterioids, Vitex agnus-castus, or Chaste Tree, is enjoying a comeback in gardens with some compact varieties that fit into smaller gardens. It’s easy to grow in well-drained soil and drought-tolerant and disease resistant.
Not the tidiest plant in the garden, the newer varieties, like ‘Shoal Creek’ will top off at 10-12′ tall and wide. But with cutback pruning in the early spring, you can keep it much smaller. I treat it like my butterfly bushes and cut it back to about 2 feet tall in the early spring/late winter. Winter hardy to zone 6, this beautiful large shrub or small tree blooms profusely and for a long period in July and August. Foliage is very aromatic- compound, palmate, grayish-green leaves with 5-7 lance-shaped leaflets-similar to marijuana!
Bumblebees adore this plant and cover the blossoms and will even spend the night on the flower. Deer resistance adds another attribute to this valuable late season sun-loving plant. Native to China and India, Vitex has been in the U.S. since the 1600’s and has a long history as a medicinal plant.
The common name of ‘chaste tree’ refer to the beliefs that parts of the plant reduce libido. Known as a spectacular, butterfly-attracting plant, the 12″ fragrant flower spikes are a beautiful deep lavender blue and very showy. ‘Shoal Creek’, the cultivar that I am growing, is a deeper more vibrant lavender color than the species and I would advise seeking out this variety.