Monday, May 30, 2016

"Swamp Dwelling" Plants

There's a creek bed running through my property that's as apt to have standing water throughout the year as it is to be dry. With the rain we've had lately the creek has jumped its bank at the lower end and flooded what I call the "delta". This, unfortunately, is not an unusual occurrence. It's a big area of soil adjacent to gardens so leaving it unplanted isn't an option.

Before going on let's underline there's a big difference between wet and periodically flooded. There are many plants that will perform and please in wet soils (defined as often saturated, but rarely with standing surface water). Floodplain sites, on the other hand, will have standing surface water for one or more days at time, multiple times per year.

I'm always entertained by customers, who upon questioning, smilingly say: "Well, water does stand in that area for more than a day at a time- but it's only a handful of times a year." That's like saying you can only drown in the bathtub if there's water in it :) It's as important for roots to get oxygen as it is for our lungs. So, always go for the worst common denominator and realize that if you have these delta-like sites you need to use flood-tolerant plants, such as:

Swamp White Oak
Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) -  A majestic shade tree that eventually forms a broad spreading crown. Leaves are like green polished leather, most often with yellowish fall color. 50-60' tall at maturity. Moderate growth rate.

Baldcypress leaves, tree pictured at top
Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) - A very defined ship mast-like central trunk that supports a very predictable conical silhouette. The foliage is citrus green and hangs on late in the fall before turning flaming rust. Interesting orange fissured trunk with age. A floodplain tree that grows really, really fast and yet has strong durable wood. 60-70' tall, 20-30' wide. Dwarf and columnar varieties exist as well.

River Birch
River Birch (Betula nigra) - One of the first plants to sulk when soil gets dry, just loves moisture. Glossy green leaves, yellow fall color. Year 'round interest with the buckskin colored peeling bark. Check out the cultivars 'Heritage' and 'Fox Valley' (a cute shrub form that gets 10-12' tall and wide).

Arctic Blue Willow
Arctic Blue Willow (Salix purpurea ' Nana') - A naturally domed shrub with fine-textured silvery blue leaves on slender stems. Grows like a son-of-a-gun when wet. It is, after all, a willow. Have seen them 7' tall and 8' wide when moist, but can be pruned frequently to contain.

Black Chokeberry
Viking Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking') - White flowers, glossy summer leaf, striking red fall color and large black fruit that are edible! Expect 5' tall, 6' spread. It widens by suckering.

Red Sprite Winterberry
Winterbery (Ilex verticillata) - A hardy deciduous holly. Small white spring flowers are produced on both males and females. The female flowers that are pollinated produce green berries that ripen to bright red by late August/early September. The beautiful berries really stand out against the clear gold fall color. Birds gobble up the ripe berries. Consider the dwarf varieties such as 'Red Sprite' or 'Berry Poppins' that reach only 4' or so. Must have a male for every 3-5 females if you want the awesome berries. Will tolerate part shade.

Royal Fern
Ferns - Many ferns will tolerate periodic flooding and standing water. My particular favorite is Royal fern (Osmunda regalis). Perfectly happy with some sun/some shade, as well as damp (or even wetter) soil, Royal can grow into magnificent clumps 3' or more tall and wide. Clear pale gold fall color. A beauty!

The Rocket Ligularia
Ligularia - If you've ever tried Ligularia and found it lacking maybe it was sited in too much hot afternoon sun and a soil that was perhaps too well-drained. Some morning sun, for example, will enhance the varieties with colored foliage and those big leaves thrive in constantly wet sites. Check out: 'Britt-Marie Crawford', 'Desdemona' and "Bottle Rocket' to name a few for your swamp situation.

Sweet Caroline Hardy Hibiscus
Hardy Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) - The colors of these dinnerplate-sized mammoths can only be described as luscious. Brilliant red, raspberry, pink and white (often with colored center eyes) grace the summer perennial garden with their cool demeanor. Do know that Hibiscus is one of the last things to wake up from winter and show signs of life. maybe not dead, just dormant until early June.

Over the years I've tried and lost a lot of plants in the delta. The above have all survived flood "tides" with flying colors.  


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Spring Garden Musings

If you have roses in the upper Midwest one of the first spring garden tasks is taking rose inventory. What survived, what didn't? This is one of those daunting projects undertaken with fingers crossed and a prayer in your heart that winter wasn't as horrible as you know it was. Do you get out your black suit? Are you going to a funeral? Mounding can dramatically reduce rose carnage, but doesn't guarantee 100% survival.

Grafted rose on left, own root rose on right
Courtesy Easy Elegance Roses
Rose winter hardiness has been dramatically, and favorably, impacted in the last decade with the introduction of "own root" versus "grafted" roses. At its most basic roses have been propagated for decades by grafting the desired variety (Ex: 'Peace', 'Double Delight') on the root system of a vigorous winter hardy rose, most often 'Dr. Huey', a rambling climber. The idea is to produce a larger, more vigorous plant in a shorter period of time. The downside is the golf ball-sized graft union where the canes (stems) originate is a point of weakness. Cold temperature damage to the graft and the plant may be toast in the spring. Aspiring rosarians, please heed the warning (regardless of what books may say) that grafted roses must be planted with the graft union 1-2" below the soil surface in northern climes. This is after all Chicago, not southern California.

Hardy and lovely My Girl Easy Elegance rose 
Sound the trumpets, hail the phenomenon of "own root" roses. Many roses can now efficiently be propagated by cuttings, thus surviving on their own biological roots. Upside? These roses are more innately winter hardy and won't produce 'Dr. Huey' suckers. Another difference is a two year "own root" rose will typically have fewer and smaller diameter canes than its same-age grafted counterpart. "Own root" roses can be planted at the level or a little deeper than they're growing in the pot when you purchase them.

Easy to prune clematis Etoille Violettte
Moving on, clematis pruning: The most important thing a gardener should do when buying a clematis is to record somewhere, anywhere, the name of the variety. I guarantee that in the future when you go to your local garden center to ask how to prune your clematis they will/should ask you the name of the variety. Why? There are three different classes of clematis, each with its own distinct method of pruning. Prune at the wrong time and you may be eliminating flowers for the entire growing season.

Group I: Spring flowering types that flower on buds from last year's growth. So, pruning should be minimal until after spring bloom. Any "tidy up" pruning you want to do should be accomplished within a month after bloom.

Group II: Some early through mid-season flowering varieties, that is two potential flushes of flowers.  Bloom on current season's growth from last year's stems and possibly a late summer bonus flowering from current season's growth  So, spring prune dead wood or weak stems to the plumpest, uppermost buds on whatever growth you decide to save. 

Group III: These varieties flower in summer from the growth they made in the spring. These varieties can be cut back within a foot or two of the ground late winter or early spring. Another way to put it would be to prune just above the lowest buds nearest the base of the plant.

If you're like me you'll put the name in at least two places just as insurance. There's nothing more irritating than being the party responsible for turning your clematis into a foliage plant for the year because it was pruned improperly!

Light the dark with Silveredge pachysandra
A plant you may want to know: 'Silveredge' pachysandra. Don't stop reading because you see the word pachysandra, please. 'Silveredge's' height and white flowers are identical to its green parent. The thing that makes it special is the foliage is gray-green with strong, regular cream edges. It will visibly brighten the shady areas it loves to inhabit. While perfectly winter hardy (Zone 4) it's slightly slower to fill than standard pachysandra, so space no farther apart than 6" centers, or 4 plants per square foot. Not appealing to deer- nice!

After rereading and reflecting maybe this post should have been called "mutterings" rather than musings. Just sayin'....