Bright, colorful and ever-changing, our garden favorites come in a variety of fantastic blooms this year. Discover which are worthy of your backyard landscape this spring.
What a joy it is to get outside and fill our landscapes with beautiful plants! As with any industry, plant growers are always looking for ‘the next big thing’ to offer consumers; a rose is a rose by any other name, and it sure has a lot of names these days. Northwest Quarterly Magazine checked in with a few local greenhouses – K&W Greenery in Janesville, Wis., and Gensler Gardens in Davis Junction, Ill. and Loves Park, Ill. – to learn what newer plants local experts are excited about.
Like shooting stars, these beauties put on an amazing show during their brief existence. Most provide color spring through fall, then perish with first frost, unless brought indoors. Many are workhorse bloomers, like petunias, geraniums and impatiens. Others are prized for interesting foliage color, texture or shape, such as heuchera (coral bells) or succulents like cactus.
Chris Williams, plant manager at K&W Greenery, is enjoying a showy new lantana named ‘Skittles’ which has warm-hued petals and multi-colored leaves. “It’s kind of different and very striking,” he says. He also likes the new ‘White Knight’ lobularia, a bigger, stronger version of the plant our grandmothers called sweet alyssum. “White Knight’s predecessor, ‘Snow Princess,’ was good, but a bit too vigorous,” Williams notes. “‘White Knight’ is more compact and tame.”
Scott Gensler, co-owner of Gensler Gardens, likes ‘Sunbini,’ a small, creeping zinnia with cheery, bright-yellow, daisy-shaped flowers. “This is a great container plant that blooms all season long,” says Gensler. “It loves the heat and keeps a nice, tight shape.” He also likes the ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia, with its cloud of dainty white flowers that look delicate, “but really stand up well to the worst summer heat. I love it.”
Few species entertain plant-watchers more than the once-simple petunia, which has become quite a sophisticated player in recent decades. Gensler is impressed by the 2014 ‘Johnny Flame,’ a full-sized, hot pink/burgundy bicolor petunia. You’ll see it paired with a light blue cousin and lime green foliage in many hanging baskets throughout Rockford this summer, as part of the ‘America in Bloom 2014’ theme.
Its popular mini-cousin, calibrachoa, or million bells, makes a big splash every year, too, with exciting introductions like 2013’s ‘Lemon Slice,’ a cheery little number dressed like a beach cabana in yellow and white stripes. Million bells are prized for their prolific small blooms and willingness to play well with friends in mixed containers and hanging baskets, both as fillers and spillers.
Williams expects good things from two new calibrachoas introduced this year, ‘Spicy’ and ‘Pomegranate Punch.’ He describes the latter as “a cranberry red with a darker throat and an outstanding flowering habit and form.” Such prolific bloomers require regular water-soluble fertilizer to keep them luscious all season long; pinch them back to encourage a broader branching habit. Williams also likes the Crazytunias series, such as dramatic dark red and star-shaped ‘Mandeville,’ or whimsical pink and lime-green ‘Kermit.’
Another plant that breeders love to tinker with is coleus. “Every year they come up with another four or five colors and textures,” says Gensler, who often builds a container around a central, taller-growing coleus. From velvety dark purples to vibrant rusts, lavenders, hot pinks, lime greens and reds, no-fuss coleus are rapid growers that can play center stage or backup roles. The new varieties are endless, like magenta/lime ‘Hottie’ or mustard- yellow ‘Piper,’ which has narrow, spiky-edged leaves.
Fuchsia plants, most often used in hanging baskets, drip with exotic-looking blooms in shades of pink, lavender and white. Williams has his eye on the 2014 ‘Golden Gypsy,’ so named for its goldish foliage with red stems. “It’s a little different and I like it.”
Williams also likes the newer verbena plants, such as 2014’s Royale Plum Wine or Violet Ice, which are part of the color-saturated and trouble-free Proven Winners Superbena series. Also noteworthy is the ‘Twister Pink’ verbena, part of the pretty Lanai series, with a dark pink center surrounded by white petals edged in pale pink. Similar patterns in shades of purple and red are emerging on the market, as well.
“A very under-utilized category of plant is the succulent,” says Gensler. We associate cactus, sedum, aloe and other succulents with arid environments, but they thrive wonderfully here, too, and provide interesting shapes and structures. “They couldn’t be easier to maintain and can go 10 days without needing water. How many plants can you say that about?” They make trouble-free houseplants during winter and some even bloom. Examples of newer succulents are Lemon Coral Sedum and Fred Ives echeveria. But good old hen-and-chick plants are still fun, too.
In stark contrast to thicker-fleshed succulents are airy ferns, and Gensler is stocking a new one that amuses him. The ‘Pony Tail’ looks a bit like the common asparagus fern, but has a column shape that makes for a fun contrast to other plants.
It’s hard to know how well a new introduction will thrive until a season or two has gone by, but Gensler was so enamored by ‘Pink Zazzle,’ a 2014 newcomer he spied at a grower’s convention, that he added it to his inventory this year. “It’s a member of the amaranth family and has brilliant hot pink blooms that come and go all season long,” he says.
Growers haven’t neglected the beloved geranium, either. Still the staple of many Midwest gardens, its color purity and good health are stronger than ever, such as ‘Fidelity’ by Syngenta.
Like annuals, most perennials die back with first frost; unlike annuals, however, they make a strong comeback each year, giving you your money’s worth and then some. Many also provide food for wildlife, including pollinators like bees and hummingbirds. Among the best of that sort are asters, the agastache ‘Kudos’ series, digitalis ‘Foxlight Ruby Glow,’ single-flowered coneflowers, Knockout roses, ‘Balmy Purple’ monarda (bee balm), salvia, sedum, lobelia and many kinds of phlox.
When planting for wildlife, it’s important to plan for a series of blooms at intervals, so there’s “something on the table” during all weeks of the season. (see our related feature about landscaping for wildlife on p. 122.)
Sometimes, plants are bred in ways that enhance beauty, stamina or other characteristics, with a trade-off of reducing food value to wildlife. For example, some plants are bred to be sterile, so their energy will go into blossoms rather than seeds; wildlife needs seeds for food. Still, the selection of plants today is so broad that a little research can help you to find plants that offer the best of both worlds, for both beauty and beast.
Here are some newer versions of old favorites recommended by local greenhouse experts.
Heuchera (Coral Bells): Once grown only for their spindly pink flowers, heucheras are one of the fastest-expanding perennial categories in the U.S., thanks to breeding programs that amped up foliage colors and textures. Williams likes ‘Glitter’ for its mirror-bright silvery foliage with contrasting black veins and purple underside; ‘Lipstick’ for its bright red flower spikes that rise above silver-green leaves; and ‘Pear Crisp,’ “because it has an elegant, ruffled leaf cut in a golden pear color.”
Popular with Gensler’s customers are bright red ‘Fire Alarm’ and ‘Galaxy,’ which has purple leaves with hot pink splotches. “People also like ‘Zipper,’ which is orange/amber with very ruffled leaves.”
Agastache (Hyssops, Hummingbird Mint): Although this perennial needs a little more cold-weather protection than some, Gensler likes its fragrance and many colors, which range from blues and purples to pinks and oranges. “I would plant it near a house or structure that provides some protection.” This member of the mint family has a neat, tall habit of 3 to 4 feet, attracts butterflies and blooms from July to October, when many other perennials don’t. Williams agrees this plant is worthy of attention, and points to the 2014 ‘Kudos Coral’ or deep violet-blue ‘Blue Boa’ from Terra Nova as good varieties to try.
Echinacea (Coneflowers): Williams is a big fan of the many new varieties of echinacea developed by Terra Nova Nurseries. They have luscious color saturation and sturdy character. He cites ‘Supreme Cantaloupe’ and ‘Meteor Yellow’ as examples. “The recent ones are just better plants. The colors aren’t washed out, they’re very drought-tolerant and every year they get larger and larger.”
Veronica longifolia (Speedwell): Easy to grow, attractive to butterflies and ideal for a near-border edge, a speedwell such as purple ‘Veronica or pure white ‘Charlotte’ is a welcome friend that grows more beautiful each year, says Williams.
Pulmonaria (lungwort): This no-fuss, compact plant is a welcome sight each spring. It has speckled foliage and blue/pink springtime flowers that deer don’t find tasty. Newer varieties have silvery foliage that shimmer in the moonlight. “It’s like a hosta plant in that it’s very, very dependable,” says Gensler.
Hosta: Speaking of hostas, did you know there are at least 2,000 varieties? Williams’ favorite newcomer is ‘Curly Fries,’ a 6-inch tall mini with very narrow, rippled chartreuse leaves. It’s a perfect foil to a blue, wide-leafed hosta and sports lavender flowers mid-summer.
Baptisia (False Indigo): This tall wildflower, a member of the pea family, offers tall stalks of color in blues, purples, yellows and chocolates. It’s easy to grow, tolerant of both dry and wet conditions, and very hardy. “It loves sun, grows about two-and-a-half feet tall, and gives you nice blooms around the end of June. Everybody should have some of this in their landscape,” says Gensler.
Coreopsis (Tickseed): Breeders have been working to develop a rainbow of new colors and forms for this traditionally yellow perennial, says Williams, and the work is really starting to pay off. He likes ‘Bengal Tiger,’ a 2013 introduction that blooms in red and gold from June to October, in an extra-hardy and mildew-resistant neat clump.
Hellebores: These unusual evergreen perennial flowering plants are often the first blooms you’ll find in your garden, long before winter ends. The blooms are stunning, in colors that range from pinks, whites and lavenders to burgundy and yellow. “They’re tough as nails and easy to grow,” says Williams.
There was a time when we thought showy hibiscus, or rose mallow, could only grow as an annual in these parts, but recent hardy hybrids are doing well and producing plate-sized blooms that show up from long distances. Try new ‘Berrylicious’ rose mallow or ‘Cranberry Crush,’ advises Williams.
Sedum (Stonecrop): The 2014 addition of ‘Thunderhead’ promises a much brighter deep-rose flower head than older varieties, plus stout, grey-green foliage. ‘SunSparkler’ is a new groundcover form with shiny cherry-red foliage from April to November. Sedum are ultra-hardy and drought-proof. “They’re always trying to improve on sedum flower color, so I’m trying out a few new ones this year,” says Williams. And that speaks volumes. After all, isn’t “trying out a few new things this year” what the joy of gardening is all about?