Garden Talk: December 30, 2010

From NGA Editors

A Starring Role for Arkansas Bluestar

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If you're looking for an easy care addition to the flower garden with lots of interest as the seasons change, look no further than the Perennial Plant Association's 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year™. Amsonia hubrichtii, which goes under the common names "Arkansas bluestar" and "thread-leaf blue star," forms a three foot tall and wide, shrub-like mound of bright green, ferny foliage that is covered with two to three inch wide clusters of pale blue, star-shaped flowers in late spring and early summer. But it puts on its biggest show with the approach of fall, when its leaves change to an eye-catching, bright yellow-gold.

The billowing, fine-textured, "feather-duster" foliage makes an excellent contrast to plants with bolder leaves. A pairing of this bluestar with the large, felty leaves of 'Helen von Stein' lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) adds months of low-maintenance visual excitement to the garden. The subtle tones of its flowers mix well with other bloomers in both hot and cool colors. Contrast them with the bold reds and oranges of Oriental poppy blossoms for some garden sizzle, then let the bluestar's expanding leaves cover the bare spots left behind when the poppies go dormant. The gilded fall foliage plays off well against the late season show of coneflowers, asters and ornamental grasses, especially when planted in masses, and really pops against a backdrop of dark foliage like that of 'Black Lace' elderberry or purple-leaf smokebush.

Arkansas bluestar grows best in full sun and well-drained soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9. It rarely suffers from insect or disease problems, is usually passed over by deer and can go for years without needing division. What more could a gardener ask for?

The Perennial Plant Association is a trade association dedicated to the improvement of the perennial plant industry by providing information to enhance the production and use of garden perennials. Every year, their experts choose an outstanding "perennial plant of the year" that is suitable for a wide range of climates, requires low maintenance and exhibits multi-season interest.

For more information on Amsonia hubrichtii and the Perennial Plant Association, including information on past "Plant of the Year" winners, go to: Perennial Plant Association.

Midwinter Fire

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Snow now blankets many parts of the country and winter's cold has spread a palette of browns and grays over much of the landscape. But with some thoughtful plantings, you can still have spots of bright color in the garden to catch the eye and lift the heart in the bleakest weather.

As you can probably guess from their names, red-twig or blood-twig dogwoods (Cornus spp.) light up the winter landscape with their colorful branches. These shrubby relatives of dogwood trees are fast-growing, low maintenance additions to the landscape. When they drop their leaves in autumn, the vivid hues of their twigs come to the fore, making an exciting contrast against a blanket of snow, especially when these shrubs are planted in groups. Cornus sericea 'Cardinal' competes with its avian namesake for color; the cultivar 'Isanti' is equally bright, but is smaller in stature. For winter gold, plant the cultivars 'Flaviramea' or the more disease-resistant 'Budd's Yellow' with bright yellow stems.

For some real drama, add a medley of colors with Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire,' whose yellow stems tipped with orange and red will really heat up the garden during the cold months. Chosen by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) as one of it 2011 Gold Medal award winners, 'Midwinter Fire' forms a large shrub that spreads by suckers to form a dense clump. Its green leaves take on purple, red and yellow hues in autumn, then fall to reveal vivid stems that look especially nice against a backdrop of dark evergreens. Abundant clusters of white flowers in mid-spring extend its seasonal interest and are followed by dark purple berries that will entice birds to the garden.

Adaptable to many soils, except ones that are wet, and tolerant of urban conditions, 'Midwinter Fire' is an easy-care shrub that grows well in zones 4-7. It will exhibit the brightest colors when grown in full sun and given a hard pruning every spring to force lots of new growth.

Gold Medal Plants are chosen yearly by the PHS for their ease of cultivation, resistance to pest and disease problems and beauty throughout the seasons.

To find out more about 'Midwinter Fire' bloodtwig dogwood and other Gold Medal award winners, go to: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Garden Jewels

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While visiting hummingbirds may only be the stuff of summer memories at this time of year, it's not too soon to begin thinking of ways to attract these tiny beauties to our gardens when warm weather returns.

A great plant for attracting hummers, as well as for adding a dose of strong color to the garden is red salvia, also called scarlet sage. And one of the best cultivars is the 2011 All-America Selections Bedding Plant Award winner, Salvia coccinea 'Summer Jewel Red,' bred by Takii & Co. This cultivar was chosen for its early and abundant flowering that continues until fall frosts, as well as its dense branching habit and relatively low stature. Plants stay a manageable 20 inches in height.

Each flower spike is packed with half-inch, bright red blossoms that will not only lure hummingbirds into the garden, but will attract butterflies as well. And if you let some of the flowers go to seed at the end of the season, you're likely to have goldfinches stopping by as well.

Red salvia is a tender perennial that is grown as an annual in most parts of the country. 'Summer Jewel Red' will bloom from seed in only about 50 days, two weeks earlier than other varieties. Give it full sun and well-drained soil for best performance.

For more information on 'Red Jewel' salvia, go to: All-America Selections.

Grow Biointensively

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Ecology Action is a non-profit organization whose mission is teach people around the world to better feed themselves by growing their own food while building the soil and conserving resources at the same time. To this end, they have built upon age-old cultivation techniques to develop their own scientifically-tested, biologically-intensive, organic food raising approach called the Grow Biointensive® Sustainable Mini-farming method.

When properly used, this method results in the building of topsoil sixty times faster than in nature. Water consumption, fertilizer and energy use are greatly reduced, while soil fertility, production and the income from crops produced show a large increase.

To help spread the information on these techniques, a free, downloadable self-teaching handbook is available at their website. Written by Margo Royer-Miller, this 16-page guide contains information on deep soil preparation, composting, intensive planting and companion planting and how to integrate all the various techniques into one effective system. Also included are chapters on carbon farming (raising crops to provide material for composting) and calorie farming (how to grow the food for a nutritionally complete diet on the smallest amount of land).

With worldwide Internet access these days, Ecology Action hopes that this information can reach around the globe to help improve the lives of people everywhere. But even if you are not planning on small-scale farming, the information contained in the guide can help you make your own garden more productive and environmentally friendly.

To download the self-teaching handbook on Sustainable Mini-Farming, go to: Grow Biointensive.

 
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