February 3, 2013

Maine Gardener: Straight talk from the perennial police

By TOM ATWELL

Echinacea -- the purple coneflower -- is native to the United States, and is drought-tolerant and very tough.

Yet gardeners keep killing them, says Allan Armitage, a herbaceous plant specialist at the University of Georgia.

Armitage, who has written more than a dozen gardening books, was keynote speaker at the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association's annual meeting and trade show in late January.

"Coneflowers lose a lot in the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth generation," Armitage said. "Purple coneflowers aren't purple anymore."

Beginning gardeners should stick to the purple and white echinaceas because they are closest to the species plant, are true natives and are most likely to survive.

"Breeders are going to breed; it's just what they do," Armitage said. "They are introducing echinaceas higgledy-piggledy." 

In addition to introducing a wide variety of different flower colors, from green and yellow to gold and more, they are introducing double-flowering echinaceas in a lot of different colors.

"If I were to plant just one echinacea, it would be 'Kim's Knee High.' It was actually discovered in Jimmy Stewart's garden," Armitage said.

The plant gets its name because it was introduced by Kim Hawks in North Carolina, and at 15 inches tall, it's a little shorter than a lot of the other echinaceas.

If you want a double echinacea, he said, "Double Scoop Bubble Gum" is the best of them, but there are a number that are quite good.

The echinacea was just one species Armitage mentioned in his talk on perennials. He began his talk with what he called the definition of a true perennial: "A perennial is a plant that, had it lived, would have bloomed year after year."

For a lot of the perennials other than echinaceas, Armitage prefers the newer introductions to the earlier versions. In most cases, the new plants are improvements.

He likes a lot of the new achillea, or yarrows, even though they are the Rodney Dangerfield of perennials in that they get no respect. There is a whole group of these called the Seduction Series that are very good, and one of his favorites is "Saucy Seduction," which comes in a deep pink color.

For actaea (which used to be called cimicifuga and has the common name, which no one uses, of bugbane), the dark-leaved ones are the most popular, and one called "Black Negligee," with black, lacy leaves, is one of the most stunning.

"And it would go really well with 'Saucy Seduction,"' Armitage said.

He likes aquilegia, but -- going back to the definition of perennials -- it is going to last only two or three years. The Canadian hybrids, including "Little Lanterns," are better.

If you want a ground cover that will work in shade and isn't vinca, Armitage recommends asarum, or false ginger, and again, asarum canadensis (the ones from Canada) are likely to do better -- and that is not just because Armitage grew up in Montreal.

For astilbes, a great plant that does well in shade, he said the chinensis (Chinese) varieties are best. "Color Flash" is great because it has variegated foliage.

Baptisia is another native that looks great in the garden, but it is hard for nurseries to sell because it looks awful in the pot. In fact, it doesn't even look that good in the garden until it has been there two or three years, Armitage said, but after that time, it can be substituted for a shrub.

Heuchera, or coral bell, used to be grown for its flowers, and then was grown for its foliage. And now it is being grown for its flowers again, with "Rave On" and "Pink Lipstick" being among the best.

Armitage said there are really too many different heucheras on the market, but each garden center should sell only five -- one black, one caramel, one silver, one other color for foliage and one for flowers.

"They are all good, but just pick five," he said. "When your customer asks why you picked those, just say, 'They are the best.' You're the expert, and they will believe you."

For sedums, Armitage said a couple of new varieties should be grown by everyone.

One called "Autumn Fire" is better than the old standard "Autumn Joy,"  because "Autumn Joy" lately has been blooming too early.

The other is "Maestro," which has big flowers and foliage that starts the season bluish-green but turns purple as the year progresses.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

tomatwell@me.com

 

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