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Heck Yeah Hellebores!

13 Oct

By Earl Nickel
Special contributor

We gardeners are always looking for something tough and beautiful for shade. But in the never-ending search for the “latest and greatest” we sometimes lose track of the tried-and-true classics – like beautiful, dependable, shade-loving Hellebores. Fall is an excellent time to plant these long-lived beauties, giving them time to establish for their Winter and Spring bloom season.

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Helleborus ‘Peppermint Ice’

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Helleborus ‘Peppermint Ice’

Mega-tough and tolerant of neglect, Hellebores can handle quite a bit of shade but they’ll be happy in dappled light up to full morning sun. No need to hide these beauties away in a dark corner – but if a dark corner is what you have, they’ll handle it with aplomb (if fewer flowers). I find that bright, indirect light or a bit of morning or late afternoon sun is ideal for these nearly evergreen perennials.

Infinitely useful, Hellebores shine in a variety of settings. They make great understory plants in a part shade bed, planted around Camellias, Azaleas or smaller conifers. They complement part shade bulbs such as the native Iris douglasiana or late Winter blooming Snowdrops. Massing them makes for a sophisticated and virtually effortless late Winter show.

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Helleborus ‘Yellow Lady’

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Helleborus ‘Yellow Lady’

Tender, mint green shoots in late December or early January develop into a handsome mound of dark green palmate foliage, followed by the first flower buds. Blooms appear late Winter through Spring – hence their common name “Lenten Roses” – looking for all the world like dew-sparkled jewels when few other plants are up, much less in bloom. Most varieties open into 2-3” five-petaled, saucer-shaped flowers that persist for weeks – making an extended late Winter show. As plants mature, they’ll gradually colonize to fill about a 2’ foot diameter area.

The world of “Lenten Roses” has expanded greatly over the last decade, thanks to breeders who have developed a fabulous selection of colors and forms. In addition to a kaleidoscope of pinks, reds, burgundies, apricots, yellows, whites and even blacks, gardeners can choose from a host of alluringly spotted singles and frilly doubles. Blossoms generally nod, to keep the pollen from getting wet in extreme Winter weather, but some new varieties sport outward facing blooms.

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Helleborus ‘Onyx Odyssey’

Three of my favorites are the brilliant pure red H. ‘Red Lady,’ looking almost so inviting you want to eat its flowers, and H. ‘Yellow Lady,’ a  shade brightening, vivid yellow orientalis hybrid whose flowers are especially large. And the double forms of ‘Peppermint Ice’ (featuring prominently pink-veined white flowers) and breathtakingly deepest wine-black ‘Onyx Odyssey’ are simply gorgeous.

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Helleborus ‘Red Lady’

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Helleborus ‘Red Lady’

Resistant to both deer and drought, these long-lived perennials are far from a flash in the pan. Once established, they use little water and in milder zones like ours here in the Bay Area, hold on to their foliage well into Fall. I suggest cutting them to the ground in November. This removes the less attractive older leaves, allowing plants to sprout fresh new growth in a month’s time.

Top 10 Reasons to Love Verbascums!

25 Jun Verbascum Southern Charm CLOSE PRETTY CROP

Do you grow Verbascums? If you haven’t yet, it’s totally understandable as you rarely see them in front yard gardens, you never see them in garden centers, they’re not sold by the branded plant companies, they don’t bloom in 4″ pots and are rarely sold in gallon containers. Under-recognized, they are often the unsung heroes of my gardens and one of the first plants I recommend to beginning gardeners as well as long-time gardeners.

In my opinion, everyone should grow Verbascums, common name “Mullein”, and here’s why!

1) They’re so EASY my dog could grow them.

AUGIE & Verbascum 2 NO HAT

If Augie Doggie can grow Verbascums – so can you!

You can grow most Verbascums anywhere – from sun to shade and they’re not fussy about soil. Growing in infertile soil to loamy, compost-rich soil, they’ll even grow in clay with no complaints. Deer don’t eat them, snails don’t eat them – they’re completely pest free.

2) They’re DROUGHT TOLERANT requiring little water once established.

3) They provide that often neglected but so important vertical accent to your garden. And some do it fast, blooming just a few months after planting.

4) They are LOVED by bees! Bumblebees, honeybees, you-name-it bees.

Verbascums are positively irresistible to bees of all stripes!

5) Verbascums self-sow! Not hideously but just the right amount to complete the garden. They just seem to know where to plant themselves to make your garden look more interesting and feel more garden-y. And hey, free plants! Now I know that some folks complain over self-sown volunteers. Here’s what I say: A: They’re a cinch to remove if you don’t want one in that spot and B: well, you’re already weeding your garden, right? What’s a few more volunteers?

Self-sown Verbascum nigrum ‘Album’ growing out of rock wall.

6) There are so many different varieties to choose from! There are perennials and biennials (biennials bloom the fastest – within a month or two here in California, like annuals). What’s so rewarding about the perennial Verbascums, especially here in long growing season California, is that they are “cut and come again” or repeat bloomers. After blooming for up to two months, you just cut the spent flower spikes down to the foliage and they’ll soon bounce right back with more gorgeous bloom spikes.

7) They never look bad. You’d really have to try hard to make them look bad.

8) They combine so well with so many – they look great in cottage gardens, rose gardens, understated gardens, drought tolerant and rock gardens.

8.5) Did I say they self-sow? If you love them as much as me, know that you’ll never have to do without the surprising charm they bring to your garden.

9) They’re medicinal and aha! You can smoke it! 

10) And my favorite thing about Verbascums is that when they bloom (and they bloom a lot), you feel so successful and happy with your garden, even though you’ve done nothing to maintain them!

Now, let’s highlight some of our favey-faves:

Verbascum nigrum ‘Album’ – This one’s perennial, living for many years, happy in sun or shade, creating a lovely, robust rosette to 30″ across and featuring felty, rich-green, spade shaped leaves. Not long after planting from 4″ size, they’ll begin to bloom with numerous erect spikes to 3′ tall or up to 4′ tall in shadier conditions. Densely studded spikes of creamy white 1″ blooms sport surprisingly flashy fuzzy bright caterpillar-like violet stamens ending in neon-orange anthers. Repeat bloomer! Hardy to USDA zone 5.

Verbascum chiaxii Album Habit ADJ CROP

Verbascum chiaxii album  My garden 06-15 ADJ .jpg

Verbascum chiaxii ‘Wedding Candles’ – Much like V. nigrum ‘Album’ above, except that it creates these outrageous candelabras. May not live more than 2 years but self-sows reliably. Repeat bloomer! Hardy to USDA zone 5.

Verbascum chiaxii 16 candles my yard ADJ  06-15

Verbascum 16 candles - Ploygonum orientale & Brugmansia Charles 06-15 ADJ

Verbascum nigrum – Long-lived like the white variety V. nigrum ‘Album’, this one’s an especially pleasing bright primrose (not golden) yellow with the same cool violet and orange eyes. Repeat bloomer! Hardy to USDA zone 5.

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Verbascum nigrum my Garden B   06-15   ADJ

Verbascum nigrum & JapananeseSilverleaf Sunflower OCT 13b ADJ

Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’ – Probably our most popular Verbascum because it comes in such sophisticated shades of chamois, dusty rose, soft primrose and apricot centered with fuzzy purple eyes. Grows from 2′ to 30″ tall, it’s almost ever-blooming if you cut spent spikes. Prefers sun to half-day sun here along the coast. Lives 1-2 years generally, but self-sows. Hardy to USDA zone 5.

Verbascum Southern Charm CLOSE PRETTY CROP

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Verbascum Southern Charm  & Garden angle  BEST  ADJ & CROP

Verbascum olympicum – The grand marshal of Verbascum-land! You want drama, we got drama. This one grows up to 8-10′ tall with a positively immense candelabra of golden yellow spikes easily 3′ across. Huge foliar rosette of wavy, gray-green, felted foliage to 3′ or more across. Thrives in poor soil. Not a cut and come again Verbascum but blooms for months. Traffic stopper extraordinaire!


VERBASCUM OLYMPICUM HABIT SHOPPED CROP

Verbascum olympicum FOLIAGE

Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Arctic Summer’ – Speaking of traffic stopping, this drop dead gorgeous Verbascum creates a basal rosette up to 5′ across with stunning large silvery leaves that are wavy-edged and coated in a soft down. Wonderfully tactile and a bold garden statement plant! Loads of branching spikes 3-5′ tall – up to 20 at a time – emerge blanketed in a snowy white fleece from which large bright yellow 1.5″ blooms appear. This one requires good drainage, best on the edge of a bed or in a container, and prefers (which means it will die without) very low water.

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Verbascum arctic sumer FOL ADJ & CROP

Wigandia & Verbascum 'Arctic Summer' CROP

Verbascum sp. ‘Cotswold King’ – Probably our second most popular Verbascum. Considered a biennial, it’s our fastest-to-bloom, flowering within a month to month and a half if planted in Spring or Summer, so really it acts as an annual here in California because it will die after blooming. But what bang for the buck! Growing quickly to 4-5′ tall, it has the largest and most amusing scented flowers. To 2″ across, bright lemon yellow and cartoon-like, they remind me of Yosemite Sam! Each plant bears up to 10 erect spikes and blooms for several months. You’ll be glad this one’s a reliable self-sower as it really brings a fun and cheerful quality to your garden.

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Verbascum Cotswold  ADJ

Papaver Orange Chiffon - Verbascum Cotswold & Delphinium HORIZ     ADJ & CROP  05-15

So go forth my gardening friends and do try one of these good natured, effortless garden accents. They’ll tolerate neglect and give so much back. But ha, of course it’s me talking, so what will I say to make your Verbascums grow perfectly (all except for V. ‘Arctic Summer’)? Yes, compost! Side dress with a 1/2″ to 1″ of some good compost after planting and each Spring thereafter for extra robust growth and flowering. And yes, even if you’re planting them in a low-water garden.

Thanks for tuning in!

Annie

Combination Nation!

21 Mar

A garden is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s about getting some of the sum to party together at the same time!

Over the years, we’ve come across some pretty dependable – and dependably pretty – bloom-at-the-same-time plant combinations. And each year, it seems we discover new ones! For us, that’s a huge part of the fun of gardening – and of course, we love to share our tried-and-true, can’t-go-wrong favorites with you!

Our Springtime gardens wouldn’t be the same without our  favorite California wildflower and #1 stunner , Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes.” Once you’ve edged your Spring garden in this little slice of sky-blue heaven, you’ll be hooked! Which is fine because it looks great with everything, especially other natives that bloom at the same time. Here it looking perfectly perky with Malcolmia maritima and  fellow natives Platystemon californicusNemophila menziesii ‘Snow White’ and Limnanthes douglasii “Meadow Foam.”

Nemophila menziesii scene

Yup, looks great with the fiery red of Eschscholzia californica ‘Red Chief,’ too!

Nemophila "Baby Blue Eyes" & Cal Poppy 'Red Chief'

“Baby Blue Eyes” looking extra fine with red hot Cal Poppy ‘Red Chief.’

Another knock-out and goof-proof duo we return to again and again is Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’ and Eschscholzia californica ‘Apricot Chiffon.’ You just can’t beat the alchemy between the radiant Poppy and the luminous, almost turquoise Penstemon. Not shy in the bloom department, these two will go to town for months! Deer and drought resistant, they’re fine in low fertility soil and even more bodacious in regular garden soil with some compost!

Cal Poppy 'Apricot Chiffon' & Penstemon heterophyllus

Cal Poppy 'Apricot Chiffon' & Penstemon heterophyllus
Okay, so say pastels aren’t really your thing. We can work with that! One of our favorite combinations pits primary gentian blue Anagallis monellii against the solar flare sunshine of Ursinia anthemoides. Throw in the peachy-amber foliage of Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ and you’ve got a fantasically contrastic combo that does great in low water gardens.

Anagallis monellii & Ursinia anthemoides

From left to right: Heuchera ‘Marmalade’, Anagallis monellii and Ursinia anthemoides. BAM.

Ursinia anethoides & Anagallis monellii

Dreamiest spikes of creamiest apricot-blushed-rose blooms make this properly 3′ tall Snapdragon a perfect companion to so many other Spring (and Summer!) bloomers. Here it is canoodling with the long-blooming frothy lace caps of Orlaya grandiflora “Minoan Lace.”

Antirrhinum 'Chantilly Peach' and Orlaya grandiflora

Antirrhinum 'Chantilly Peach,' Orlaya  grandiflora & Nicotiana 'Lime Green'
If we handed out awards to our favorite bloomers, Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ would probably sweep the floor, winning “Most Congenial,” Most Stylish” AND “Most Versatile.” Easy and exceptionally long blooming, it gets along with EVERYBODY and looks chic and fabulous doing it.  Plant it in containers or in the garden, it’ll thrive in sun (along the coast) or shade, its lime green flowers providing the perfect foil for more vibrant bloomers like Agrostemma githago ‘Milas.’

Nicotiana 'Lime Green' & Agrostemma g. 'Milas'

Agrostemma githago 'Milas'

So there you have it, folks – some simple and stunning combos you can try at home. AND, since so many of these luscious lovelies self-sow, you’ll enjoy future generations of combinations next Spring and beyond!

Let’s Play Favorites!

15 Jun

I’m about to make a very strong statement – please don’t be alarmed. My statement will be concerning my favorite Salvia – the Salvia I would choose over all other Salvias (and there could be around 900 of them, and that’s species, not cultivars) which, as a gardener, is a pretty difficult decision, know what I mean?

By no means is this my favorite plant – don’t even go there!

Ok, ready? (is there a drumroll I can put here?)

Salvia pomifera

Salvia pomifera looking its best for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

Salvia pomifera. Yep – Salvia pomifera, I’m calling you out. You’re the one for me.

There are other honorable and distinguished and beautiful Salvias & I love a good number of them (shout outs to Salvia carduacea, clevelandii & semiatrata – I LOVE YOU GUYS) but Salvia pomifera is my lasting favorite & has been for many years. It’s preposterously gorgeous in flower, not monstrous in size, super tolerant of drought & it’s useful. Stir these fine qualities together and add whatever sentimental attachments I’ve made to the species, and you have the one Salvia. There’s some skill involved in growing it, but I’m going to tell you all of that here and now, so no big deal. By the time you leave this blog you will be a Salvia pomifera PRO and you can take one home without any anxiety over potentially killing The Salvia that Claire Would Choose Above All Others.

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Somehow this dear sage is both handsome & frilly all at once.

No pressure. I’m a firm believer in pushing the envelope – if a plant grows like a weed that can be delightful, but there’s also a joy in taking on a plant with a little bit of challenge. It’s not always true that the effort expended is rewarded in kind, and my compost pile tells of many sad failures, but success can be sweet!! I believe that the key lies in the following three things.  Here goes:

1.       This plant can drown. Most plants can, but this one’s particularly sensitive to it. What that means is that you should water it carefully – watching that things aren’t overwatered particularly, and keeping the soil on the dry side – plant it on a mound, or at the edge of a bed, as increased drainage will help protect the plant against The Soggy Death. Got a slope? Well drained soil?

2.       Once it’s established, STOP WATERING. This should be after the first winter. You’ll know if the plant is failing to take because it will shrivel and die. Really, that’s the symptom. Once the plant gets to that rotten point, there’s a very good chance it won’t revive. Sorry. It’s true. It’s very similar to a lot of the woodier Mediterranean sages. Once the plant is established you can just let it run wild, with occasional deep watering *maybe* – but in these first few seasons, it helps to keep a careful eye.

3.       Grow it lean! Nutrient heavy soil is going to do you no favors, so don’t plant it in the vegetable bed. Overfeeding will cause weak growth and more breakage, and more breakage=unhappy plant.

Now you know!

Salvia pomifera

Say AAAAAAAHHH!!

In addition to huge purple blue glowy flowers, a long season of bloom, the showy bracts that stay on the plant well after bloom and keep things interesting, the silvery leaves, the LONG SEASON OF BLOOM (did I mention the long blooming?) and the plants resistance to drought & deer, there’s also this fascinating bit that I haven’t been able to appreciate in person: there’s a wasp that has a special relationship with this plant. The wasp isn’t here in CA, it’s back in Greece, Salvia pomifera’s original stomping grounds, but this wasp makes big wooly galls on the plant that are preserved in sugar and eaten as a delicacy. We’re not about to import the wasp to try to replicate this ourselves, but it sounds potentially delicious, and definitely curious. Not much is known about the herbal properties of the plant hereabouts, but it’s said to be similar to our common friend Salvia officinalis, but stronger. Hrmmmm.

I hope that some of you out there in the blogosphere take it upon yourselves to attempt this amazing sage! It’s been one of my favorite things (again – that word – “favorite” – but I do mean it!) that we’ve grown in the last few years, and I would be downright tickled to start seeing it out in the world more!

Claire Woods
Propagator 

As always, big ups to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day! See what’s blooming on other folks’ gardens this June!

Bloomin’ Bloom Day

15 Feb

All that gorgeous 80-degree weather that we were, um, NOT gloating about last week, has turned to lovely, lovely rain, which is exactly what the gardens need right now. One of the stand-up, stand-out bloomers pretty much year-round here in USDA zone 9-10 is Aristea inequalis.

Aristea inequalis

This incredibly tough South African Iris relative is planted in a 12″ parking strip in front of Annie’s house. There’s nice soil for maybe about 4″ and then it hits hardpan. In the rainy season, there’s a culvert up the street that often overflows, sending a river of water right past this guy and eroding all of the soil around it. Does it care? It does not.

Aristea inequalis in parking strip

In fact, each year it seems to get bloomier and bloomier, with a tidy 3′ x 3′ foliage clump that never needs cutting back. It’s the plant we most recommend to beginning gardeners because it’s virtually indestructable! Bonus points for being hardy to USDA zone 8 and clay, heat and drought tolerant! Oh, AND deer resistant!

Aristea inequalis habit

Thank you Aristea inequalis! And thank you to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day! See what’s blooming on other folks’ gardens this February!