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Notes from a Perennial Optimist

Clockwise from upper left: goldenrod, aster, rudbeckia, purple coneflower.

Once Again, our Larry Hurley is Out Standing in the Field

Fall is here, and we encourage you to break the football habit, get out into the garden, and enjoy the weather. Soon, summer will just be an ugly, dry little blur through the rear view window of life. Autumn is a great time to become acquainted with some new perennials-some brand new, and some that you may have overlooked in the flurry of spring.

Ornamental grasses are mostly full-sun plants, but for the “grass look” in a shady spot, try one of the sedges (Carex). Two new ones for fall are Carex `Silver Sceptre’, variegated sedge, a short, clump-forming plant with ¼-inch narrow leaves with white margins. This really helps brighten up a dark corner. Another is Carex `Gold Strike’, growing to 10 inches, with golden-variegated leaves. For sun, look for cultivars of the native Panicum virgatum, or switch grass. Besides the popular `Heavy Metal’, there is `Shenandoah’, `Dallas Blues’, `Northwind’ and `Prairie Sky’.

All are tall, late-summer to early-fall bloomers with airy plumes of bloom. Differences tend to be in intensity of leaf color (green to blue to purple) and fall color (yellow to red). Perennial geraniums are staples of the garden, and a couple of new ones have great potential. Geranium maculatum `Espresso’ was recently released by Dale Hendricks of North Creek Nurseries in Pennsylvania. This cultivar has pale lavender-pink flowers over red-brown foliage. “A bold new look for our native cranesbill, useful for groundcover or shade garden feature plant”, according to Dale. Another geranium with some “buzz” is Geranium `Rozanne’. Growing 20 to 24 inches tall, it has deep blue flowers, and is said to have a much longer blooming period than most perennial geraniums.Brunnera, or false forget-me-not, is a spring bloomer which performs well each year and then sits back and sort of calmly waits until next year.

Appreciated by gardeners for its nice blue flowers, we are happy to note that there is also a white-blooming cultivar, `Marley’s White’. Horticulturists being what we are, we are also always looking for a little leaf-action in addition to breakthroughs in flowers. Until a few years ago, it was difficult and expensive to get variegated brunnera; now it’s only expensive. ‘Jack Frost’ (“This plant displays a frosty silver overlay with light green venations. Leaves resemble crackled porcelain and shimmer in the garden creating a shining contrast against companion plants and its blue spring flowers.”) Pennsylvania perennial potentate David Culp attests that `Jack Frost’ looked terrific in his garden all summer and enthusiastically endorses it. Spigelia marilandica (“woodland pinkroot”; that’s catchy) isn’t “new” per se; in fact it is a native.

But until recently it has been hard to propagate so it wasn’t seen frequently. The code has been cracked, and now you too can plant this summer bloomer with intense red and yellow tubular flowers that look almost tropical. Growing best in light shade, spigelia is a “hummingbird magnet” according to West Virginia plantsman Barry Glick. A slow grower, spigelia needs a couple of seasons to look really top notch.

For those of you with sunny gardens, you might like to try Achillea `Red Velvet’. Unlike many of the yarrows, it holds its color (that would be “red”) and does not fade out as the weather turns hot, a complaint lodged against many other yarrows. Fans of tall garden phlox will appreciate Phlox paniculata `Becky Towe’. (This was found in 1990, but because I am a shade gardener, it’s new to me.) This is a golden-variegated tall garden phlox with cherry red flowers. It’s a very striking plant, and is said to be powdery mildew resistant (which a real gardener knows is different than powdery mildew proof). Nepeta x `Joanna Reed’ is a new catmint, a three foot tall hybrid with darker violet flowers than other Nepetas. Nepeta is an easy care plant that bees and butterflies love, great for the new gardener and wildlife gardener.

Meanwhile, looking ahead to next year, we intend to have our usual assortment of new heuchera and other Terra Nova introductions in April (who can resist a golden spiral rush called `Blond Ambition’?), many additions to our Baysafe (native plants) selection, a good selection of tree peonies in multiple price ranges, and many more double-flowered primrose cultivars.


Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Spigelia marilandica may be a slow grower, but I find that most slow growing perennials are long lived and this is no exception. It will also gently self sow itself into a lovely colony.

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