February 19, 2012

Maine Gardener: Garish, chancy, new ... bring it on, Avent says


Opinionated people expand your horizons. You don't have to agree with their opinions, but you at least have to think about what they say, and sometimes that will open your horizons.

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“Peppermint Twist” phlox

Courtesy photos

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“Hot Papaya” echinacea

Additional Photos Below

Tony Avent, founder and owner of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, loves bright and gaudy plants, loves to push the hardiness zones -- the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture revision backs him up on that -- and likes to bring new plants to the market.

He is also using more native plants, he told a packed room at New England Grows in Boston earlier this month during his lecture, "100 Perennials I Wouldn't Garden Without."

"We have to celebrate native plants not because they are native, but because they are great plants," he said. "Other plants are good too. I mean, what would they say if someone said only native people could come into your garden?"

Avent really likes bush clematis, as opposed to the vine clematis that are more popular.

"There is a whole series of native bush clematis than no one even knows," he said. 

One of them is Clematis ochroleuca, which blooms in late spring with pendulous, fuzzy creamy white bells, and then has a wonderful ochre-colored seed heads in the fall. It grows to about 15 inches tall.

But there also is a bush clematis from Asia, Clematis integrifolia "Rose Colored Glasses," that offers pink flowers.

Seven of Avent's top 100 plants are echinaceas, a native plant that has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades -- since varieties began being developed through tissue culture rather than by seed. Tissue-culture plants allow you to have the shape and color you want, but they do have a disadvantage.

"Using plant clones, you have to plant in the right spot," Avent said. "With seed-grown plants, they might die back, but they will reseed themselves in a better location."

He praised "Fragrant Angel" as the top of the white echinaceas, and says it will rebloom. That led to a comment about fragrant plants.

"There is fragrant and there is horticulturally fragrant," he said. "With horticulturally fragrant, the catalog says it is fragrant, so you get close and think you can smell it. The really fragrant flowers, you can smell." ("Fragrant Angel" is a truly fragrant echinacea.)

"Fatal Attraction" and "Solar Flare" have black stems, and Avent says "Solar Flare," which is new, has an unusual color -- not pink and not peach, but something in between that is highly unusual.

A final echinacea I will mention is "Hot Papaya." It is 3 feet tall; double flowering, which means slightly fragrant, bright-orange pom poms; and continues through the summer. "You think, 'A plant can't look like that,' " Avent said.

Baptisia, another native, comes in a wide variety of styes. Avent said it is a plant in which "it doesn't matter where they come from. In this case, provenance doesn't matter."

He said Baptisia "Carolina Moonlight" looks as good as a lupine. He thinks B. "Cherries Jubilee," a new introduction with cinnamon-colored flowers, is "the best bicolor. It beats them all, hands down."

For something different, he recommended Baptisia leucophaea "Butterball," which, at a foot tall with pale yellow flowers covering the plant, is a rock-garden plant.

Phlox "Minnie Pearl" is a naturally occurring hybrid discovered in Mississippi and sent to Holland, and the Dutch are now selling them back to the United States. They are white, grow to about a foot tall, and are mildew-free.

Avent advised people not to trust catalogs when they say plants are mildew resistant, because they usually aren't. And most phlox are susceptible to mildew.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Clematis ochroleuca

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“Bartzella” peony


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