February is a wonderful month for planning. It’s chilly outside, but warm in the Potting Shed and greenhouse where we hunker down for the winter. The greenhouses are stuffed full with plants and our brains are stuffed full of ideas for the gardens this year. This is the time we plan it all out. As we look forward, we also begin to look back at our successes and failures from the previous year. Last year was hot and dry – testing both our own resolve and our plants ability to tough it out in the extreme weather conditions. (We’re crossing our fingers for a more moderate weather year this time.) The intense conditions spotlighted a few stellar plants that impressed us with their ability to survive heat, humidity and very little rain.
First on that list of awesome plants is Alternanthera (common name Joseph’s coat). We used Alternanthera ‘Little Ruby’ in containers throughout the Rose Garden. It was one of the few plants that we didn’t worry about over a long hot weekend. We would water it Friday afternoon and, if it was at all wilted by Monday, it would bounce back to life with a fresh drink of water. It seemed we could not kill this plant no matter how many times we forgot a particular pot on our watering rounds (which wasn’t too often, thankfully). Besides its resilience, Alternanthera is a beauty. ‘Little Ruby’ has deep maroon leaves that are both unusual and lovely. I wouldn’t need to think twice about using it again considering how well it managed our tough summer.
Alternanthera ‘Little Ruby’ in a container in the Rose Garden with Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’ and Ageratum ‘Red Sea’
Second on our list of favorite plants is sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). We grew our alyssum from seed last year. It was such a pleasure watching it bloom its heart out all summer and way into December too! We only infrequently watered the Herb Bed (where most of our alyssum plants were placed), which means that those little plants were pretty darn drought tolerant. I’ve always had a soft spot for alyssum. It’s just such a lovely little plant. It is also known to attract flies that feast on aphids – so plant some of these sweet flowers near your leafy greens this summer.
Sweet alyssum blooming in both white and purple on the outskirts of the inner circle of the Herb Bed.
One of my personal favorite plants of the last year is fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). We had quite a bit of it in our display beds by the greenhouse (perhaps too much, but we will edit that for 2017). There are several characteristics that make me love this plant. One, it has unusual lacy foliage. Two, if it is deadheaded (or just plain cut back hard), it will bloom and bloom and bloom. Three, pollinators love it. This plant was constantly abuzz with insect activity. And, even though bees, wasps and flies were all over it, I was never stung because the insects were all happily gobbling up the pollen and wanted nothing to do with me. Four, it’s edible. The pollen of this plant is delicious to us humans as well! We learned this interesting fact from Champe Speidel, the head chef of Persimmon, when he spoke at Gardener’s Day here at Blithewold in October. Gail and I headed out to the garden the very next morning to taste the pollen – and it sure is sweet! Five, it works beautifully in flower arrangements. I spent the last year challenging myself to do an arrangement every couple weeks to hone my skills, and this plant was my standby. I always knew it would fill in just perfectly where I needed it. And six, it’s the host plant for swallowtail caterpillars. If you see a pretty caterpillar eating your fennel, don’t fear! It’s a sign of a beautiful butterfly to come.
Yellow jacket harvesting pollen from fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
A new favorite in the North Garden is Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’. This plant really surprised us with its flowering ability. It simply bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. It did eventually peter out towards the end of the season, but Gail and I feel that we got plenty of bang for our buck. It has quite a nice color and big, lovely foliage as well. Our gardening friend Pam recommended this plant to us over the winter and we are so glad that we took her advice. When you visit Blithewold this summer, be sure to notice this plant blooming in the North Garden beds.
Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Dahlia. These tubers are currently wintering in our Potting Shed basement, biding their time before being planted in the gardens in May and June. I often find that, just when the brutal heat and humidity of a New England summer is getting me down, the dahlias start to bloom. They always turn my spirits around when I first see their faces. I know that the cooler temperatures will eventually arrive and all is not lost. For this reason alone Dahlias would be a favorite, but these plants are available in such an impressive range of colors and sizes that I believe I will never tire of them.
Close on the heels of the Dahlias are the Salvias. These, too, are available in a wide range of colors and sizes. Their flowers attract bees and hummingbirds, which makes them even more awesome. They are also some of the last plants to bloom in the garden, extending our season of color later into September and October. This past year we added several new varieties of Salvias to our collection. Many of the new varieties (and old favorites) are not hardy here, so we dig them up in October and bring them into our greenhouses. They are definitely worth the effort and I’m sure we will continue to use these lovely plants for many years to come.
What are some of your favorite plants in the gardens here? Do you have a new variety you tried at your house that worked out especially well? As you dream up new ideas for your garden in 2017, I hope you are inspired to try new plants and share some favorites with fellow gardeners. Happy garden planning!