Top Ten Plants for 2008

It’s that time of year-you know, list time. “Best of” lists, “worst of” lists. Everybody’s making them: film critics, book critics, gourmands, travelers, and in this case, a gardener. I’ve been thinking about plants that really pay the rent, plants I’m really enamored of this year. Some are old favorites. Others are new discoveries. Some are oldies that I’ve been able to think about in a new way. All of them will make big contributions to next years’ garden. So without further ado, my highly subjective list of the 10 best plants from 2008.

Magnolia 'Ann'--I guess everybody’s got a genus or two they are especially fond of. For me, it’s magnolias. Which I love in part for their antiquity--magnolias were among the first flowering plants on planet earth. I’ve got about 20 in my garden, from little ones, like M. ‘Golden Gift’, to brawlers like M. obovata. Whatever, I value their spring flowers, for profusion, beauty and in a few cases scent. I even like them after they’ve gone by—their litter of fallen petals creates one of those goosebump-inducing transitory beauty moments. The trees are wonderful in winter when their silvery bark shines against an icy blue sky. Even the swollen fuzzy buds are attractive, like giant pussy willows. Among my very favorites are those in the Little Girl series of hybrids, which are sized for home gardens and reach somewhere around 15 x15 or so. I’ve got Ann-(which dominates the cluster pictured above); who fools all who see it by blooming, ever so lightly, throughout the summer. Jane’s a looker too.

Brugmansia ‘Charles Grimaldi’--If ever there was a plant worth fussing about, it’s this angel's trumpet. Having them in my garden is quite an effort as they need to be hauled in each fall--in a process a described here—and set out again in spring. Then they benefit from babying—lots of water, plenty of fertilizer. But they repay those efforts handsomely with each flush of bloom—and I usually get at least four a season, each one bigger and better than the last. Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the scads of foot-long flowers is their scent –utterly transporting.

Cigar flower (Cuphea ignea)—I’ve always liked cupheas, as elements in mixed containers, as edging and even, now and then , as a kind of specimen. But this year is the first year I grew them from seed, and I’m here to say that is something I’ll be doing again. Sure one or two or three cupheas is good, but 20, 30 or 40 is even better. I’m going to be using cigar flower (Cuphea ignea) as edging, as groundcover, and just generally in abundance . Getting the plants from seed makes that proposition inexpensive enough to be possible, and cutting costs is going to be a priority for me this coming season. Plants my not grow quite as large as a nice 4-inch nursery specimen but they cost pennies apiece instead of $4 or $5 four. I’m also going to be starting seed of another tender favorite Hibiscus acetosella, with its glossy, Japanese maplelike leaves. I hear it’s also fast and easy.

Woodland Tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)—there’s no such thing as too many flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana spp). The species I grow may change from year to year, but I’ve always got several representatives of the genus going. One I am never without is woodland tobacco, a statuesque plant to 5 or so feet tall, it boasts big broad leaves about the size of a dish towel, and its stems are topped by a fireworks burst of long white tubular trumpets, each one blaring a sweet, sweet scent from dusk on into the night. I’m not that fond of white in the garden, but I take room for these guys. The flowers look better during the day than those of the even more fragrant Nicotiana alata, and the plants are bigger too. To know them is to love them. BTW, another Nicotiana always in my garden is ‘Ondra’s Green Mix’. I get seed for these green flowered hybrids through the Hardy Plant Society/mid-Atlantic Group, which in turns gets it thanks to my fellow Gardening Gone Wild blogger Nan Ondra, who donates enough to share. Thanks, Nan!

I lust for anything bromeliaceous-Alcantareas, Aechmeas, Guzmanias, Neoregelias, Vriseas, heck, even Tillandsias. I find their strappy foliage irresistible, and oh so easy to use in combination with other more finely textured plants. And they have an architectural grandeur of their own, so I always have a few in pots all by their lonesomes. Most folks in my part of the world grow these—if they grow them at all—as indoor plants prized for their colorful flowers. Not me, I go for the cultivars with colorful foliage, and any bromeliad-type thing that’s got it is fair game. Orangey, bronzy Aechmea ‘Patricia’, for example. Wowsa!

Another type of plant I’m enamored of—a type with a certain "look" as opposed to a specific genus or species—is any that call to mind a star on a stick, Cordylines being the best examples, though many Dracaena are good too. What I like about these things are the unexpected blast of texture they provide to almost any planting. I was first intrigued by this look after planting some Allium christophii, which make a similar starburst, though on a smaller scale. The easiest way to get these is to go to a Home Depot or a Lowes and get some Dracaena, which are usually sold as houseplants. The tricolor version, with pinks, creams and whites, is a stunner. And so are any of the cordylines, though you often need to grow them a few years before they are tall enough to have impact in a border—the good news is that you can use them early on in containers.

What’s a garden without Japanese maples? These four-season beauties have fantastic structural branches, beauteous summer foliage , great fall color, and if you get the right cultivar—Golden full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’), for example-spring buds and, later, seedpods that are attractive as any flower. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Cousin It maple, shaped like the hirsute mound from the Addam’s family, or a more upright variety. It’s hard to go wrong with any of them.

Tulips are another plant I just gotta have. I plant several hundred every fall, and when their swaths of bold color erupt in spring, I’m glad I made the effort. After our long monochromatic winters, by spring I’m simply starved for color. And tulips provide plenty. Not only the tulips themselves, but they compliment emerging colored foliage of other shrubs and perennials, which is usually at its best early in the season. I like planting the bulbs in clusters of 5 to 15 or so in order to create blocks of color. I also usually plant only a few cultivars, so the colors repeat through the garden. Using about half early flowering varieties and half late tulips really spreads out the season. I treat them as annuals and yank the bulbs after the show is over. Planting new ones each fall makes it easier to change color schemes from year to year.

Cannas are key players for me. The broad architectural swaths of their paddle-shaped leaves make these plants indispensible as building blocks in all kind of combinations. I don’t grow them for flowers. In fact I often clip of the sometimes garish blooms, since their outlandish hues can wreak havoc with delicately wrought color combos. No, I grow cannas for the leaves alone. Favorites include hybrids such as 'Tropicanna', 'Pretoria'-love the burgundy pinstripe along the edge of each leaf, and 'Australia', and straight species Canna musafolia, the lofty, mighty leaved Paul Bunyan of the canna clan.

Ever heard of variegated tapioca (Manihot esculenta 'Variegata')? I can’t imagine why not. It must surely be one of the most beautiful plants in cultivation. Its gorgeous hand-shaped leaves, lushly variegated with irregular creamy yellow centers, are attached to the plant’s upright stems by red petioles- you know, the little thingies that link leaves to whatever they’re growing out of. These color suggest all kinds of zingy plants for making utterly awesome color combos. Tender, hard to find and kinda pricey, but well worth it.


Eden All Aglow

Light as a garden ornament...who'd a thunk it? But this winter there's a glow in the night skies over the Eden Project in Cornwall, England thanks to Bruce Munro’s magical Field of Light installation. The British lighting maestro was inspired by a trip through the Australian desert, where the mysterious rhythms and ephemeral blooms were totally re-imagined in this vast illuminated sculpture, with some 6,000 bulb-topped fiber optic light stems connected almost 15 miles of fiber optic cable.

“The idea was originally conceived fifteen years ago during a trip through central Australia," says Munro on Eden Project's website. "I wanted to create a field of light stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would quietly wait until darkness falls, and then, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, bloom with gentle rhythms of light. One's attention is thus drawn to the nature that surrounds the installation as well as the Field Of Light itself.”

Munro's lights recall, to me anyway, the luminous glassworks created by Dale Chihuly that have in recent years become all the rage at cutting edge gardens. Maybe those two should work together. The Eden Project, BTW, is a fairly new public garden and environemental education center in Cornwall, a series of huge, dome-shaped greenhouses--one of which is the world's largest, called biomes, which house recreated, idealized ecosystems from all over the world. Because of its unusally temperate climate, Cornwall and its many unlikely gardens have been on my wish list of horticultural travel destinations for years; here's one more reason to go. But, I don't think I'll make it before Field of Light closes this spring.

Another Side of Serbia

I just happened on a remarkable Flickr portfolio of otherworldy images of Serbia. They are mostly landscapes, and for the most part exude an unearthly beauty. Who'd have guessed it, from a place so recently in the news for all the wrong reasons? The photos are all richly captioned with intriguing factoids and fascinating historical details. Thanks to Dark Roasted Blend for pointing the way.


Fab Foliage Friday

Golden elderberry (Sambucus racemosa 'Sutherland Gold') sends its gold-filigreed foliage across a sprawl of round-leafed leopard plants (Ligularia dentata 'Desdemona'). In early spring the ligularia leaves are deep bronzy green, providing a dramatic backdrop for the finely textured fronds of the elderberry. Elderberries are one of the easiest shrubs out there, and you can keep them at a manageable size-and pump up the color of the foliage in spring, when its hue is most vivid--by cutting plants to the ground early in spring.


New Beauties, New Beasts

The tragedy of our times--one of them anyway--is the discovery of new species who may be threatened with extinction even before they've been known long enough to get a common name. Global warming, habitat destruction, and a host of other threats endanger rain forest denizens all over the world. We're taking inventory while the store shuts down. It's urgent work.
In the last decade researchers in the Mekong River system, which flows through parts of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China's Yunnan Province, have discovered nearly 1,000 new-to-science species. There are some weird ones, like the pink, cyanide-spewing dragon millipede (that thing looks dangerous), the poisonous Gumprecht's Green pitviper (ditto), and that spooky spider, big as a dinner plate but harmless. Still, I wouldn't want to run into that spindly arachnoid in the dark cave where he was found.

But there are some beauties alongside those beasts. Roughly half of the discoveries are from the plant kingdom, including finds such as the fiery Aeschynanthus mendumiae and the purple-kissed blue Gentiana khammouanensis, both of which were discovered in Laos. For the straight scoop on the World Wildlife Federation's Greater Mekong Programme (the source for these photos), check this news story.

Iceman's Back

When I wrote about Ole Man Winter's brief visit to Clatter Valley last week, I knew he'd be back. And I knew he'd mean business. The guy's relentless. But I wasn't expecting him quite so soon. He roared through here on a three-day bender over the weekend, darkening the shortest day of the year and leaving about 16 inches of snow in his wake. The good news is that I think I caught a glimpse of the old coot. I think that's him leering at me from the woodland edge. Gardening 2008 is definitely over.


Fab Foliage Friday

This compelling trio of woodlanders shows just how many colors green can encompass, from the greeny green of the hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), to the burgundy-flushed green of purple wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea'), and on to the multi-colored foliage of Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum'). Varied shapes and textures add punch to this combination. Photo taken at Joe Keller's Garden of Ideas, in Ridgefield, CT.


A Visit From The Iceman

Old Man Winter came calling last night, and left his signature in the backyard. His first visits have a gentle, teasing beauty. The icy lace he left behind drapes across clumps of Japanese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light') and the twisting branches of a cut leaf sumac (Rhus typhina 'Laciniata'), outlines a false cypress 'Fernspray' (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray'), encapsulates the bright red berries of a 'Rosy Glow' barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Rosy Glow'), and dusts a few coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seedheads. The Old Man will be back soon, and he'll mean business. But for now, his visit is just something to enjoy.


Three Ways to Wear Plants

Clothes make the man, or so it's been said. But what about plants? The Irish talk about the wearin' of the green, but long before there was any concept of Irish, or really, any concept beyond tribe, fops flaunted foliage and flowers as finery at just about any significant gathering, just as these kids are doing in this set of phenomenal photographs by Hans Silvester taken among the Surma and Mursi tribespeople of Ethiopa's Omo Valley. Loads of these dramatic images are collected in Silvester's book, Natural Fashions.

Anyhooo, I'm thinking that, as far as fashionable foliage goes, this look represents the traditional, having been part of humanity's attire for thousands of years. Foliage and flowers, in fact, were the first kinds of clothing ever worn, and these young men and women have mastered the art of accessorizing.

Let's make the leap from Africa to present-day Paris, where fashion-forward models are strolling the runways in their own little leafy get ups. Actually this dress is the creation of plantsman extraordinaire Patrick Blanc, best known for his remarkable wall gardens gracing buildings all over the world (See examples of his work and read an interview here.) A few years ago, he turned to fashion, and designed a wedding dress, which he called the "Robe Vegetale", for couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier. This is definitely a high-end, haute couture approach to wearing plants.

Lastly, there's the fusion approach to the wearin' of the green. This takes us both back and forward in time. Back to the Green Man, the emblematic manifestation of humankind's kinship with the natural world as expressed by dieties and mythic figures linked to agricultural cycles and the plant kingdom. The Green Man has been linked, conceptually at least, to figures such as Osiris, John Barleycorn, Godin, and the Celtic god Viridios, whose name means green man. The Green Man's image-a face emerging from a swirl of leaves and vines, is often depicted on churches and has become a popular garden ornament. Here are several interpretations of the Green Man, including the traditional masklike motif, and a dandefied version painted by Kathleen O'Connell.

Finally, we race back to the future with this post-modern looking Green Man, whose vague sense of unease may reflect a deep seated uncertainty about contemporary humanity's relationship with nature. Or the image (sorry, no idea who created this intriguing photograph, or the drawing-love to credit them if I could) may simply reflect the understandable angst of waking up one morning to discover that you are half plant.


When Winter Comes...

A superlative explanation of plant adaptation to winter can be found in the current New England Wildlfower Society newsletter. Penned by plantsman Bill Cullina, currently of the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden and formerly a stalwart hand at the New England Wildflower Society, this first installment of a two-part article examines what happens to plants when temperatures drop; part two, to appear soon, will shed light on how plants reawake in Spring. Bill's a New England guy, but with fast-growing national reputation, thanks to his frequent lectures and four excellent books, with a fifth on the way. BTW, the garden above is at the Hill-Stead, a historic home turned museum in Farmington, Ct. We're looking at its Sunken Garden, designed by Gertrude Jekyll.

Fab Foliage Friday

A tapestry of foliage textures lines a walkway at Wesley Rouse's Southbury, CT garden. The purplish blades of a pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy') and the silvery spears of an agave add sharply contrasting spikey notes to the greenish mounds and mats that make up most of the scene.


Chicken Post #1

Looks as if chicken-blogging is shaping up as the blogosphere's break-through sensation of 2009. Their antics are endlessly entertaining to watch and, perhaps, to post. I first got wind of this on Andrew Sullivan's most excellent blog The Daily Dish (which has absolutely NOTHING to do with gardening), and followed his link to Alex Massie, who first crowed about the trendlet at The Debatable Land. Maybe Massie's just yolking (sorry!), or he's just laid an egg (ditto!), but, just in case, I'm getting out front on this one. That's my son Birdboy's bantam, Frosty. We'll be hearing more about him and his friends.


Oh So Succulent

One of my recent garden passions is making little dish gardens of cacti and succulents. They're great for tabletops, since it always bugs me when some centerpiece is so big I can't see the person on the other side of it. And since I use mostly rather small plants --anywhere from an inch to less than foot in height--a tabletop provides a good display spot where it's easier to admire them close-up. These mini mash-ups are very low maintenance: they need virtually no trimming or deadheading, no fertilizing, and they don't care much if you skip watering now and then. Plus they take me back to my garden roots-some of the first plants I grew and loved were cacti and succulents, which I admired for their outlandish sculptural shapes and exotic textures, and for their ironclad constitution-even neglect never seemed to threaten their rugged nature.

Color is another fun component for designing these dish gardens, which look, as Thomas Hobbes once remarked, like little pizzas. While in the old days the palette for these botanic wonders was limited, far as I knew, to greens and silvery greens, it's now possible to find beauteous burgundies, awesome orangey or bronzey hues, and even a few with shadings of chartreuse. I'm always in the lookout for these little treasures, and have found all sorts of great players in unlikely locations such as Home Depot. Good candidates include Kalanchoes, Euphorbias, Echeverrias, Aeoniums, Agaves, Sedums, Aloes, and whatever cacti might catch your eye. I'm looking for everything but flowers. I even collect these guys in the dead of winter, the better to have a grand assortment when spring--and pizza time--comes round again.

Drainage and sun are really the only things these plants demand, so I usually need to drill a few extra holes in the bottom of whatever container I'm using. I especially like using saucers, you know the low dishlike things you'd nomally place under a more traditionally shaped pot. For soil, I use my traditional container mix of 1/3 compost, 1/3 good commercial potting soil, and 1/3 bark mulch, but add to that an equal part of pea gravel. So it's half mix, half gravel. I usually mound the soil on the container so the crowns of the plants are above the edge of the saucer or whatever, so they stay high and dry.

When it's design time, I just play around, moving this plant in, that plant out, until I get a good mix of shapes, textures and colors. Then I just mash them into place-since the pots are usually shallow, there's not a lot of room and I just cram it all together. Hey, cram and jam is my preferred garden style anyway. Low growing sedums--'Angelina' is a good one-- make a great groundcover and are often a welcome addition, then sometimes a mulch of fine gravel or a cool looking stone or two provide a finishing touch. As an alternative, you can go more for a one plant/one pot approach and arrange the pots, as in this scene from Chanticleer

Then I'm free to enjoy my creation all season. Since I use a mix of tender and hardy plants, fall's arrival means I usually bring them indoors and try to overwinter the little gardens. In winter's limited light, some stuff gets leggy or otherwise unappealing. So I might try some cuttings of any real favorites, but the idea is to keep at least some of the plants going so the next season I can tear those planters apart and add their contents to my collection of candidates for a new dish of goodies.


Compost Zombie

It came from the compost, says Indonesian blogger Fendy. This very strange plant, which Fendy says smells like dead fish or a dead rat, clawed its way out of the ground, so to speak, at his garden in Surabaya, on the island of Java. He surmises the fungusy, mushroomlike plant grew from seed laying dormant in some compost he'd spread in the garden. It looks, he writes, like the hand of a zombie trying to dig its way out of the grave, so he dubbed it Zombie Hand. In spite of the stench, Fendy is going to leave the plant in his garden. "Our curiousity however, doesn't let us to remove it, because it may turn out to grow into some interesting plant," he writes. Um, Fendy--it already has. Thanks and a tip o' the hat to Dark Roasted Blend.


Fab Foliage Friday

Hostas like they oughta be. Rivers of hosta, punctuated by Ligularias and Arisaemas, create a free-flowing groundcover at Chanticleer, the superlative public garden in Wayne, PA. Scenes like this, and all manner of inventive plantsmanship, make Chanticleer one of my favorite gardens. For an out-of-season glimpse at Chanticleer, head to Fran Sorin's recent post at Gardening Gone Wild.


Lovely Labyrinths

Go get lost in the fantastic hedge maze and plant labyrinth post over at WebEcoist. But let me warn you--it may take a while to find your way back out. The puzzler pictured is at Longleat in England; its 16,000-plus yews are spread over an acre and a half.


Chrissie's Cool Dragon

My friend the indefatigable gardener Chrissie D'Esopo is always full of surprises. I don't think she ever sleeps. I can't believe how much she gets done each day. Her ever-expanding gardens are always weed-free, immaculate and edged crisply as fresh-pressed pants. All that in spite of the fact that she kicks off each season by singlehandedly planting 20,000--yes, 20,000--annuals and 500 containers. Then she has to water the pots every day, and they are ALL OVER her garden. But she still has time to concoct and complete new projects. Like this topiary dragon, a mossy monster guarding the side of her house. It's been lurking there for a few years, and looks better each summer. Chrissie's been threatening to make a one-of-a-kind water feature--a life-size topiary elephant rearing up on its hind legs and spouting water from its trunk. Can't wait to see that one.