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The Dirt: Fresh faces in the garden

Sweetshrub and flowering quince

Photos courtesy of Proven Winners and Walters Gardens


Garden industry professionals and gardeners share a common problem. The pros regularly attend meetings and seminars to figure out which plants to buy, grow, and recommend for home gardeners. Home gardeners read, browse websites, take classes, and haunt their favorite garden centers to see what’s new. And then we all hit the same wall of uncertainty:

•Which plants will live up to the promotional marketing by hybridizers and growers?
•Which new plants are actually better than their predecessors (and therefore worth a slightly higher price)?
•After we get excited about a plant we’ve read about, will we even be able to find it? When will it be available—and where?
We’re lucky that a thriving plant production industry is always working to improve upon the varieties of yesteryear. Competitive hybridizers cross species to create irresistible flower and foliage colors and patterns, useful shapes and sizes (compact, upright, trailing), disease resistance, shade or sun tolerance, and general toughness.


Annuals, container plants

You’ll find an endless stream of genuinely original, interesting container or garden annuals if you look around, and it would be foolish not to try some plants beyond your old favorites. The recommendations listed here came from Western New York growers who sweated over countless choices for their 2014 investments. (You will notice an increased focus on begonias and other shade-tolerant plants, as growers try to offer alternatives to the old familiar impatiens—Impatiens walleriana—that has been plagued with downy mildew disease.)

•Begonia ‘Unstoppable’ (new in 2014): If you liked ‘Sparks Will Fly’ in the shade, try this one for the drama; its dark leaves contrasting with dynamic orange-red or white flowers.
•Begonia ‘Gum Drop’: This has small double rosebud-like flowers, reminiscent of some impatiens types.
•Geranium ‘Calliope’: This at first offered dark red flowers, but now has fire-orange, lavender, and pink choices.
•Petunias: Possibly the most improved genus over twenty years, these hybrids continue to impress. This year, look at ‘ChiChing Cherry,’ which features red with yellow stripes—as well as a cute name.
•Gomphrena: Grandma grew this plant for its fuzzy dried flowers; now it is mounding and spreading. Check out ‘Pink Zazzle.’



In this category, there is a truly exhaustive selection of exciting new plants. In recent years, we’ve been bombarded with a dazzling array of new Heuchera (coral bells) and Echinacea (coneflower) cultivars—many indeed worthy of our love. Now there are a few other perennial genera that have risen above the multitudes to earn well-deserved attention:

•Helleborus: Always desirable as a long-lived, deer-resistant, shade dweller, hellebores are flooding the market with more flower colors and many with upward-facing, bigger, or double flowers. They can thrive all over this continent. Many thanks go to hybridizer Barry Glick (Sunshine Farm & Gardens), “king of the hellebores.”
•Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’: This switchgrass is the 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year, as determined by the Perennial Plant Association, a good source for dependable and high-performance perennial recommendations. While native Panicum may be ungainly in some landscapes, ‘Northwind’ is neatly upright (to six feet) with slender, blue-toned leaves and yellowish plumes that turn beige in fall. Also look for Panicum  ‘Cheyenne Sky’ (a Proven Winner selection) as a good substitute for the beloved but nonhardy container plant Pennisetum ‘Rubrum.’ Panicum ‘Cheyenne Sky’ turns wine-red in fall, produces showy red panicles, and stays under three feet tall.
•Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ has rich, maroon-colored foliage—it’s even more effective than the excellent P. ‘Husker Red.’ Several other Penstemons offer many flower colors, and hummingbirds love them all.
•Perennial geraniums have continually offered up winners since the blue cultivar ‘Rozanne’ got our attention. Plant maven and Master Gardener Barbara Evans cites ‘Perfect Storm,’ ‘Azure Rush,’ and ‘Dark Reiter’ as desirable cultivars. Do heed Evans’ warning and read labels carefully—trust that when they say “spreading,” they mean it.
•Leucanthemum (shasta daisies) could be nominated for the most-improved award, since the once floppy, sometimes thuggish shastas now have sturdier stems, many heights, extended flowering, controlled behavior, and several creamy and yellow flower colors.
There are many more wonderful cultivars among lavenders, Baptisia, Perovskia (Russian sage), Nepeta (catmint), and several of their perennial  brethren.



Finally, shrubs are hot. Consumer demand and producer initiative have come together and sparked excitement about old-but-improved or truly new shrubs. A handful of plantsmen and breeders have led the movement, but I credit the ColorChoice plant introduction program and branding by Spring Meadow Nursery for the breakthrough moment. When they formed a partnership with Proven Winners—a company that evaluates and markets plants—they catapulted the Proven Winners ColorChoice brand into nearly universal awareness.

•Calycanthus floridus (sweetshrub) ‘Aphrodite’: This cultivar is a couple of hybridizing steps removed from our native Carolina allspice, but it has all the ease of the parents (part-shade tolerant, tolerant of many soil conditions) and has a truly gorgeous flower that is worthy of the goddess.
•Chaenomeles speciosa (Japanese flowering quince), Double Take series: ‘Scarlet Storm,’ ‘Orange Storm,’ and ‘Pink Storm’ are wildly improved over the old-fashioned rusty orange flowering shrubs that were plunked next to farmhouses decades ago. My ‘Scarlet Storm’ flowered prolifically for many weeks last summer, as the disinterested deer meandered by.
•Hydrangea macrophylla: Too many hydrangeas, not enough time. We can’t keep up with the new compact and re-blooming cultivars that arose on the shoulders of dear old ‘Endless Summer.’ But jump in, with the Cityline, Edgy, or Let’s Dance series. Expect to be seduced by some new rebloomers such as ‘Bloomstruck’ with red-veined leaves, or ‘LA Dreamin’ (available later this summer) with blue and pink flowers on the same plant with no soil amending required.
•Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’: Oakleaf hydrangeas are among the world’s best shrubs (most shade tolerant of all hydrangeas), and ‘Little Honey’ (three-to-four feet) is typical of the trend toward smaller ones. Leaves are sunny gold all season until they turn bright red in autumn. I acquired one as a rare find four years ago, and it has been beautiful and enduring in an East Aurora neighborhood.
•Blueberry (Vaccinium) ‘Blueberry Glaze’: You can grow blueberries for many reasons—pies, jam, happy birds—but did you know they are also great ornamental shrubs? All blueberries feature red leaves in fall and sweet spring flowers, but Blueberry Glaze is different: it is petite, resembles a boxwood, and can be pruned as such. This is useful for containers, hedges, or as a landscape specimen.


If this plant list has tantalized you, I hope you’ll go shopping for them in Western New York. If you can’t find a particular cultivar though, do not blame your nursery or garden center person. Sometimes new recommendations are so heavily marketed that the retailer must be wait-listed. Sometimes the buyer chose a different new cultivar to offer. Be sure you are talking with a plant professional, and then ask, “What do you recommend for (this particular landscape situation)?” The smart ones know their plants and should be able to recommend what’s new and truly improved—and tell you why they think so.

Great plants are available; enjoy the discoveries.  




Sally Cunningham, CNLP, has joined AAA/Horizon Club Tours to produce Sally Cunningham’s Garden Discovery Tours—for garden-themed travel throughout WNY (including Garden Walk Buffalo Anniversary Tours) as well as out-of-state and abroad: HorizonClubTours.com. Sally also consults with gardeners at Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg, N.Y. and gives advice on WIVB-TV, Channel  4.

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