Alliums in your garden

Allium is a large and happy family - there are about 700 assorted aunts and cousins, all of whom are related by blood or marriage to the humble onion. Most are pretty hardy and there are varieties to suit almost every growing condition and the caprice of every gardener.

Allium flowers vary in size from cabbage (A. schubertii) to ping-pong ball (A. caeruleum). Height ranges from waist-high (A. giganetum) to little ankle-biting plants (A. forrestii). Colors range from bright yellow to many shades of mauve and purple to pure blue, and white.

Apart from A. schonoprasum (chives) most alliums are planted in the fall. They enjoy sun but hate wet feet in winter. Don't plant the large-flowered varieties too close together as they need room for those giant flower heads. Small-flowered ones can be closer together and left to form a clump.

Allium leaves look rather floppy and take time to die down in the fall, but planted among hostas, rhododendrons, other shrubs, or with ornamental grasses they are not too noticeable.

You can grow them from seed - your own, if you wish - for those big seed heads are loaded with little black seeds in the fall.

Leopard's Bane Daisy

Leopard's Bane (Doronicum spp.) is a curious sight in the springtime garden. We tend to think of yellow daisies as a summer and fall plant, and they seem out-of-place among Bergenia, Aquilegia, and late tulips. That being so, they are welcome and cheerful sight when spring days are dull and rainy.

They are not fussy as to soil, just moisture retentive, but well draining, a nice mix of sand and humus suits them fine. Even though they mostly go dormant during the summer, they should not be allowed to dry out, and if planted in light dappled shade that should not be a problem.

They will naturalize in a woodland garden, and several of the named varieties do come true from seed. The rhizomes can be divided in early fall to share or replant. In fact, they improve if divided every four years or so. The blooms also last well when cut for the table.

Flowers come as single or double daisy forms, in various shades of yellow. Dwarf forms, such as 'Gold Dwarf' at only 10 inches tall, tend to bloom earlier in April. Blossoming then progresses through the doubles, such as 'Spring Beauty' and 'Gerhard', to some of the large flowered ones like 'Miss Mason' and 'Harpur Crewe' which bloom into June, and stand to 2 feet tall.

The heart-shaped basal leaves are a nice shade of soft green that contrasts well with dark rhododendron leaves, and if planted among Hostas, Astilbes, or Campanulas, their foliage will fill in spaces for the summer months.

Aren't we so lucky to have so many choices of undemanding plants that can fill gardens with color and beauty, and we hardly have to lift a finger to make them thrive?

Happy planting!

Cardiocrinum giganteum

This summer I've had lots of nice things in bloom, but the plant that made my summer was Cardiocrinum giganteum, as my plant finally bloomed after six years. It was lovely to see and worth the wait.

The first time I saw Cardiocrinum in bloom was in a New Zealand rhododendron garden where it was growing as a companion plant. Well, everything grows in New Zealand, so there were seedlings coming up everywhere as well as having plants in all stages of growth throughout the garden. I remember tip-toeing along a path trying to avoid stepping on plants when the garden's owner said not to worry, they were something of a weed for him. The next time I saw the plant was in its native habitat in the Himalayas. Again, just a spectacular thing and it stuck in my memory as one of those "wouldn't it be nice to try and grow". So, when I was given a one-year old seedling in the spring of 2014 I planted it immediately.

The site I chose gets morning sun, but is shady by early afternoon. Soil is on the heavy side and holds moisture fairly well, only requiring watering towards the end of summer when drought really takes hold. The first couple of years, I put some copper strips around the leaf perimeter to deter any slugs, but by year 3, the plant was strong enough to take care of itself.

Cardiocrinum giganteum


As you can tell from the species name, Cardiocrinum giganteum eventually gets big. The heart-shaped leaves are held on a central upright stem. The stem dies down in the fall and each spring, the new stem grows taller and holds more leaves than the year before. This year, the stem emerged, set out some leaves, as per usual, then it took off and grew vertically fast. There were times I imagined I could actually see it growing. At about 8ft, flower buds formed at the stem apex in June with flowering in July.

Flowers are white flushed with red in the center, trumpet-shaped and spectacular. My plant only had about a dozen flowers, but I've seen pictures where an individual flower stalk has up to 20 or so. Apparently, the bulb can set offsets, so I'll leave everything alone until next summer to see if I'm lucky enough to get some new plants. However, this is one of those plants that blooms once, sets seed and then the old bulb dies. So, I will try to collect some seed and once ripened, I'll try starting some new plants.

Companion Plant: Mahonia

The Mahonias, or Grape Holly, are attractive plants, that are easy to grow, have evergreen leaves, bright flowers, colorful fruits that are not poisonous or injurious, and have few pests. From groundcover to low shrubs to stately background specimens, there is a Mahonia for nearly any place in the garden. The flowers are most always some shade of yellow, often fragrant, sometimes powerfully so. Berries, in clumps or pendulous clusters, are in the blue-purple-black range, and make good jelly. Foliage is leathery, pinnate, spiny to one degree or another, often red-tinted when young, and sometimes coloring purple-red in winter,

For the very smallest groundcover type, look for M. repens (Creeping Mahoni), a suckering form only 12 inches tall that's very tough. A bit bigger, to 18 inches, with shinier, longer leaves, and also a spring to early summer bloomer, is M. nervosa (Cascades Mahonia). Taller again, 4 to 6 feet or so, also suckering into thickets of stems and blooming May-June, is M. aquifolium (Oregon Grape).

Vaccinium - Rhododendron Companion Plants

Huckleberry, blueberry, cranberry - that's what I think of when I consider Vaccinium, but actually throughout the world there are as many as 450 Vaccinium species, ranging from tiny creeping vines to large tree-like plants. We may not think of them as landscape material because of their more obvious food/farm value, but they have features that make them very attractive in any mixed garden.

My favorite is Vaccinium parviflorum, the red huckleberry (Zone 5). I can't walk through any of our local British Columbia forests in winter without marveling at the way they sprout from the tops of old cedar stumps like fanciful hats. The tracery of the delicate branches is magical in the early morning frosts. If I were lucky enough to have a woodland garden, I would surely have a stump upon which to seed one.

The highland blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum (Zone 4) is native to eastern North America, and has been hybridized extensively for commercial food production in many parts of the continent. Red winter twigs to cut for Christmas decoration, apple-blossom pink flower clusters in spring, glossy foliage and luscious blue fruit in summer, and brilliant leaves of red and gold in fall all combine to offer more than many cultivated ornamental shrubs. There are early, mid-season and late fruiting varieties, and flavors from mild to sweet/tart for your discerning palate. They will all grow easily in moist acidic soil that drains well in winter, preferably in full sun, and need roughly a 5 x 5-foot space to mature. Pruning is rarely needed except for dead or damaged wood.

Another favorite is Vaccinium vitis-idaea, the lingonberry. A very hardy evergreen species (Zone 3), widespread in Arctic and alpine regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, it grows only about 10 inches tall and suckers to form a small thicket in sun or part shade. Typical tiny pinkish bell flowers turn to shiny red berries. The larger fruited form 'Koralle' is a prolific producer, and a smaller overall version, V. vitis-idaea ssp. minus, has deep pink flowers, and grows only 8 inches tall. Even if you don't care to eat these tart little beauties, they are highly decorative in the garden.

Happy Planting!

Calla or Ethiopian Lily

The Calla or Ethiopian Lily has long been grown as a florist flower, popular at weddings and funerals alike, and easily recognized by the elegant, white trumpet-like spathes. Originating in several parts of Africa, the hardiest species, Zantedeschia aethiopica, can be grown in the garden in rich humus soil in full sun, with ample summer water, and is hardy to Zone 4. Growing from tuberous rhizomes, the glossy, arrow-shaped leaves stand upright to 3 feet, and a long succession of large, white blooms from late spring through summer emerge among them. The "bloom" is actually a modified leaf or bract up to 10 inches long, and the true flower is merely the yellow spadice arising from its center.

Selections have been made for more compact forms, as in 'Little Gem' and 'Apple Court Babe', only 18 and 24 inches tall; an extra hardy, stout-growing type, 'Crowborough', and the unusual 'Green Goddess', with bright green and white handkerchief-like flowers.

There are now interesting colored forms available, but these should be grown as potted plants or lifted in fall, as they are not all hardy. The Golden Calla, Z. elliothiana, has 4-in. blooms in a color range from cream to yellow through orange to deep rust and crimson. Leaves are heart-shaped, often spotted white, and stand 2 to 3 ft. tall. The Pink Calla, Z. rehmannii, has more linear leaves and has 2 to 4-in. blooms from blush thru pink to deepest royal purple. Wow! These make excellent accent plants for patios or conservatories, or may be planted in borders and lifted for winter.

The rhizomes of all can be divided in fall for plants to share, or plant again about 4-in. deep. Be careful to provide good air circulation to avoid fungal diseases, especially in cooler weather, and use caution when handling. The sap can cause skin irritation and all parts of the plant are poisonous to eat. The blooms make excellent long-lasting cut flowers and have no fragrance to compete on the dinner table.

Companion plant: Hamamelis

Winter flowering shrubs in a garden can really help to lift your spirits on those dark, dreary...and often incessant rainy days from December to the end of February. Some of the very best winter flowering shrubs are the Hamamelis or witch hazel plants.

These plants start blooming after the leaves have dropped in the fall and carry right through into March. Many of you may be familiar with Hamamelis mollis which is yellow in color. The flowers have four petals which are very small short straps of color close to the stem. These flowers are remarkably weather hardy and withstand cold spells...even snow. They bounce back after mild frosts although long periods of exposure to frost can turn them to brown mush.

Many different varieties of Hamamelis are available at your local garden center. The best time to shop for these plants is during the winter months when the garden centers usually showcase what is in bloom. They will often have Hamamelis plants in full bloom at the entrances to the sales area in order to attract customers. Who wouldn't be tempted? Hamamelis plants are not cheap! One has to pay a fairly high price compared to other plants...but they are worth it. Hamamelis are easy to grow and reward you each year with an excellent display of winter color. Small one-gallon plants can cost about $10-$14, while a two-gallon about $20-$24. Plants that have been field grown and recently dug can cost about $35 to $60, depending on size.

The witch hazels come in a variety of flower colors...ranging from the pale yellows ('Pallida') through burnt ambers ('Jelena') to a deep red beauty ('Diane'). Many varieties have a strong and pleasant fragrance. 'Arnold Promise' performs well in the garden, flowers heavily, and its light yellow flowers are scented.

Witch hazels can be grown in most soils that are slightly acid or neutral. They should be grown in either full sun or light shade. They are a natural woodland plant, can grow to around 4m with age, and require very little attention by way of pruning. Witch hazels have gorgeous fall foliage color...ranging from yellow to orange and even red depending on the variety.

Hamamelis species come from North America (H. virginiana), from China (H. mollis), and from Japan (H. japonica). The Chinese and Japanese Witch Hazels are the parents of many hybrids that are available in the nursery trade today. Early settlers in America used the whippy stems of H. virginiana for water divining. Its powers are considered to be derived from its similarities to Corylus, the hazelnut.

Companion Plant: Viburnum bodnantense

The winter-flowering Bodnant viburnums are tall, fairly narrow shrubs which have bunches of tubular pink flowers on leafless stems. They bloom in late winter and have frost-resistant blooms which stay for weeks and are quite fragrant.

The species name 'bodnantense' refers to Bodnant Gardens, North Wales, where the hybrid was raised in 1935. The Bodnant vibumum grex (a grex denotes all the offspring of a particular cross) is a cross of the Chinese viburmum farreri with the Himalayan viburnum grandiflorum and, includes the cultivars 'Dawn', 'Charles Lamont', and 'Debian'.

'Dawn'...often called 'Pink Dawn'... is commonly grown and is widely available. 'Charles Lamont' has dark pink flowers which are somewhat larger than 'Dawn'. 'Debian' is tall and has a stiff habit with slightly fragrant whitish flowers which turn red with age.

'Dawn' is a deciduous upright shrub, 2-4 m. (6-12 ft) in height. It blooms in Fall and Winter after the leaves have fallen. Before they fall, the leaves turn a burnished bronze color. Red buds open to fragrant pink flowers that fade to white flushed with pink as they age. Wet weather and frosts may limit flowering display. Branches can be forced inside for a winter bouquet. The fragrance indoor may be somewhat overpowering.

Photo by Giraffenigel

'Dawn' is not particular as to its location, liking sun, but also doing well in partial shade. It enjoys acid, well-drained soil, but does well enough in other soils. It is fairly cold-hardy...but requires a protected placement where the chilliest winds won't hit it at temperatures below zero degrees F. Overall, this hybrid is very adaptable.

Since the plants are fragrant, grow them near a path you are like to use frequently. You will be rewarded! Otherwise, you won't appreciate the scent at a time of year when you're less inclined to go down a damp cold garden to smell it. The flowers have a pleasing perfume. The new leaves get so large that the blooms occurring the rest of the year can pass unnoticed. The leaves smell like citrus if crushed or bruised.

Success With Heathers

The singular species, Calluna vulgaris, inhabits large portions of Europe and northern Africa, from Siberia to Morocco, in vast tracts of open land and hillsides. The predominant flower color is purple...but it sports out in pink, red, and white. For well over 100 years, avid plants men have made over 500 selections of form, bloom, and foliage variations, and some of them are real eye-poppers!

Now, if you are one of those people that think that they always look so ratty, I am about to show you the error of your ways. Site selection is probably the most important factor. These are ericaceous the same family as rhododendrons...and like them, we should take our lessons from Mother Nature. Full sun is an absolute must and some slope to the ground is very beneficial. Soil should drain well, but retain some moisture, especially in summer during bloom time, anywhere from July to November depending on cultivars. An acid, humus-rich soil with no manures or strong fertilizers is necessary...a lean media keeps the growth compact. If you cannot engineer even a bit of a slope, then be sure that the soil is deep and loose. And then...prepare to PRUNE!

Ok, ok, and ok! I know no busy band of elves prunes on the moors, but truth be told, if you took aside only one or two of those million of plants, they probably would be ratty...but there's safety in numbers and distance. We do not have that advantage in our get out the hedge clippers. March is a good time to do this...trim just to the bottom of last year's flower spikes to make a somewhat mounded shape. Now, was that so hard? Once a year is all it takes, and a spring pruning still lets you enjoy all that wonderful winter foliage on the colored forms.

Choosing varieties for your garden will be by personal preference. With that many to pick from, it is like roses or rhodos...grow the ones you like to look at. I can only give guidelines of the forms that are available. The flowers can be single or double on long or short spikes. I have taken full open spikes of 'Peter Sparkes' and 'H.E. Beale' and hung them to dry, and they make wonderful bouquets...unfortunately, not too durable...but so easy you can do new ones every year. Colors range from white and pale pink to bright pink, crimson, and purple. There are varieties like 'Marleen' that seem to bloom forever since the blossoms don't ever actually open, just show outer color.

The foliage on some is so spectacular that even if they didn't bloom, no one would notice. Red-gold ones like 'Firefly', 'Blazeaway', 'Boskoop', and 'Sir John Charrington' are bright all year round. Silver ones like 'Jan Dekker', 'Silver Knight', and 'Grey Carpet' will gleam against dark backgrounds. Some like 'Spring Torch' and 'Spring Cream', have colored foliage on new growth only...almost like an early bloom...and then the proper flowers come later. Very dwarf ones can be used in troughs or rockeries, as 'Foxii Nana', 'Dainty Bess', 'Humpty Dumpty' and 'J. H. Hamilton'.

The list is endless...but this should give you an idea of the lovely ones there are to choose from. Visit gardens and plant centers in summer when they are in bloom. I only wish I had more room in my garden to have an entire bank devoted to drifts of all year color.

Happy planting!

Weigela...a companion plant

Once the main splash of rhododendrons is over, there is a charming group of plants that fills the color gaps in our landscapes quite nicely. Named after a German botanist, Christian von Weigel, Weigelas are deciduous shrubs of open woodland areas in parts of Asia which have a multitude of foliage and flower features.

Most of our available varieties are selections or hybrids of two species: W. florida and W. praecox, although the wild forms are rarely offered. The blooms, in May and June, are tubular, in small clusters along older stems, often with nicely contrasting stamens. In blossom, they attract hummingbirds by the flock.

The "in" thing these days among plant introducers is purple leaves, starting back with 'Foiliis Purpureis' ('Java Red')...on to 'Victoria', then 'Wine and Roses' ('Alexandra'), 'Ruby Queen', and now 'Midnight Wine'! The color is getting darker, and the plant habit is getting smaller...what's next...a black groundcover Weigela? Attractive and useful plants nevertheless...most of them have pink to bright pink blooms.

The 'Dance Series', developed by Agriculture Canada, have all been selected for very compact habits, extra hardiness, and richly colored blooms. Foliage variations are from green to burgundy, with deep pink or red blooms. Look for 'Tango', 'Polka', 'Samba', 'Rumba' and 'Minuet'.

Gold-leafed forms are a bit more finicky...they need partial shade to avoid foliage burn but too much shade makes them go green so it's a fine line. 'Looymansii Aurea' has pale pink blooms, while the newer 'Briant Rubidor' (aka 'Olympiade' or 'Golden Ruby') has dark ruby flowers that offer a striking contrast. Variegated leaves, with cream to light yellow margins, occur in both species, and have pink flowers. The variegated areas take on rich pink to red tones in fall, for extra punch.

White-flowered forms are available as 'Bristol Snowflake', 'Candida', 'Mont Blanc', and others...but I must admit I don't really care for them...although 'Mont Blanc' is highly rated. Possibly I just haven't seen one at the right stage or in the right setting. A new introduction, 'Carnaval', has blooms of white and two shades of pink all at once on the same plant. That's kind of neat! For deep red, the old 'Bristol Ruby' and 'Eva Rathke', although good and reliable, have been superseded by newer, tidier, non-fading varieties like 'Red Prince', 'Lucifer', and the even smaller 'Nain Rouge'.

Weigelas grow easily in any well-drained moderate soil...and old bloomed-out stems can be cut to the ground to allow new ones to take their place. Trim right after blossoming in the early summer to keep leggy branches in order, and to give time for the wood to ripen and set bloom for next year. Some varieties will bloom off and on throughout the summer, and other appear in early summer and again in early fall.

Two unusual species, W. middendorffiana and W. maximowiczii, have light yellow flowers in late spring...most "un-weigela-like", but truthfully I have not seen either offered for sale locally. Good for you if you can fine one!

Look around in the plant centers when you've gotten all your beddings settled and your rhodos are on the wane...and you'll find one of these to be a delightful addition to your garden...big or small!

Happy Planting!