Tuesday, January 19, 2021

14 years ago Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ ORANGE MEADOWBRITE arrived on the market and the world of coneflowers was changed forever. This hybrid of E. purpurea ‘Alba’ and E. paradoxa opened the floodgates of hybridizing this genus of stalwart garden plants. Soon hybrids from Richard Saul and Terra Nova nursery started hitting the market.
‘Sunrise’ from Richard Saul

‘Tomato Soup’ from Terra Nova

But these colorful new hybrids weren’t without their problems. Many gardeners had trouble keeping them alive, especially in areas with heavy soil and wet winters. This has a lot to do with E. paradoxa being found primarily on very well-drained soils rather than a lack of hardiness.

Large clumps of ‘Sunbird’ (left) and ‘Flame Thrower’ (center) with E. purpurea ‘Showoff’ (on the far right) 

Subsequent years of further hybridizing have made the newer hybrids a little easier to grow, but they still do best in well-drained soils. Provide proper drainage and they will get just as large as, or even larger than, old fashioned E. purpurea.

The best performers for me have been ‘Firebird’, ‘Sunbird’, and ‘Flame Thrower’ from Terra Nova nurseries. These are 4th generation hybrids bred from E. paradoxa and E. purpurea ‘Ruby Giant’.They’ve done very well in several gardens for me, with the ‘Flame Thrower’ pictured above at 7 years old.


‘Flame Thrower’


‘Flame Thrower’

I’ve also had fairly good luck with the Sombrero series from Ball. This is a compact series with plants reaching 18-24″ in height and several varieties in shades of orange, red, and yellow are available.
Sombrero mix

Sombrero ‘Salsa Red’

Sombrero ‘Tres Amigos’

If you’ve tried some of these fantastic plants before but struggled with them, don’t be afraid to give them another try. Improve your drainage by creating a raised bed or planting on a slope. Use aged pine bark or pumice as a soil amendment to increase porosity and improve drainage. Visit public gardens and see which varieties are doing well in your area. Don’t be afraid to fail and try again or try new varieties. Experimentation is part of the fun of gardening.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Heuchera Species and Hybridizing History

Heuchera wasn't always the garden rock star we know today. For almost 100 years, selections were simple green foliage with variable amounts of silver veil, possibly with small but nicely colored flowers. The flowers tended to be on quite tall stems (a trait that I like, but isn't always what you want in a design!) and short-lived.

Heucheras these days come in a various shades of green, silver, burgundy, purple, red, orange, yellow, and nearly any combination of these colors. Flowers can be a range of colors including green, white, pink, and red. Flower stems now tend to be shorter, more in proportion to the foliage, and can be long lasting or even rebloom all season. Heuchera breeders have mostly concentrated on using just 5 species. Knowing which species are used in a variety's background will help you know it's tolerances.

H. americana 'Marvelous Marble'
H. americana is a hardy woodland species.  It likes a humus rich soil and some afternoon shade and is heat and cold tolerant. Foliage ranges solid green to green with silver veil and burgundy veins. I find that hybrids with a lot of influence from this species (and others in the same subsection) do best here in the upper midwest. Zones 3-9

It should be noted that we understand Heuchera very differently now compared to the 17th century when they were introduced to horticulture. Six species were lumped under the name H. americana at the time and are likely in the background of many early cultivars. These species consist of H. americana, H. caroliniana, H. pubescens, H. alba, H. longiflora, and 
H. longiflora
H. richardsonii
H. richardsonii

H. micrantha
H. villosa is another woodland species, it also likes a rich soil.  It is very heat and humidity tolerant and seems to tolerate clay soils fairly well. Foliage tends to be somewhat fuzzy (villose) and is green. There is also a naturally occurring burgundy form, H. villosa f. purpurea Zones 4-9.

H. micrantha is a western species and prefers good drainage.  However it is also tolerant to moist soils during the growing season. Green foliage with somewhat ruffled margins. Zones 5-9, possibly colder.

H. cylindrica is a western species tolerant to harsh winds and temperature extremes, it tends to be a crevice dweller. Flowers are tightly packed on the stems.  Zones 3-8.

H. cylindrica var. glabella
H. cylindrica var. glabella

H. sanguinea is a south-western species that is extremely heat and drought tolerant. Foliage ranges from green to green with silver veil. This is where great flower colors comes from as well.  Despite its southwestern heritage it is very hardy, but requires excellent drainage to grow successfully in wet climates. Zones 3-9.

H. 'Coral Cloud' from Alan Bloom
Hybridizing Heuchera first began in the very late 1800s. Victor and Emile Lemoine introduced the first hybrid, 'Brizoides' (H. sanguinea x H. americana var. hispida f. purpurea), in 1897 and then 'Gracillima' ('Brizoides' x H. micrantha) in 1900. Many more were introduced by Lemoine et Fils over the next 20 years. George Arends (known for Astilbe hybrids, the Arendsii group) introduced 'Rosamonde' ('Gracillima' x H. micrantha 'Rosea') in 1903. These 3 represent the oldest and most popular varieties of the time and can still be found in collections to this day. 

Alan Bloom started trialing and breeding Heuchera in the 1930s and continued this passion into the 1990s. He introduced many selections originating from 'Brizoides', 'Gracillima', and others that can still be found on the market today. 

H. 'Canyon Duet'

While most breeders concentrated on the five species I talk about above, Dara Emery of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden went a completely different direction. He used various California native species, such as H. elegans, H. meriamii, and H. hirsuitissima, crossed to H. sanguinea to create a group of lovely compact cultivars that are suitable for rock gardens. 'Canyon Duet' is the most readily available of them and has proven surprisingly hardy. 

Edgar Wherry collected seed that went on to become the selection 'Palace Purple'. This plant is largely sold as H. micrantha 'Palace Purple', but that is incorrect. Wherry never collected within the range of H.micrantha and no purple form of that species has ever been discovered. It's actually a superior form of H. villosa f. purpurea. Sadly, it has mostly been seed propagated and you can get inferior forms pretty easily. 

One of the most important hybrids to ever come about is 'Montrose Ruby' from Nancy Goodwin in 1990. It's a hybrid of H. americana 'Dale's Strain' and H. villosa f. purpurea 'Palace Purple'. 'Montrose Ruby' is the foundation plant for several modern hybridizing programs and most of today's cultivars can trace their lineage back to this plant! It's the basis of Charles Oliver's great selections, originally crossed to his 'White Marble' (which is H. pubescens x H. sanguinea 'White Cloud'). Oliver also worked with H. hallii and H. pulchella to produce garden worthy compact plants like 'Petite Pearl Fairy'. 

H. 'Georgia Peach' from Terra Nova
'Montrose Ruby' is also in the background of Terra Nova's program, crossed to H. sanguinea as well as backcrossed to H. americana. Later, they would use H. cylindrica, H. micrantha, and H. villosa; as well as recently using H. richardsonii. Terra Nova has been responsible for the bulk of modern Heuchera hybridizing and lots of innovation in the genus. I would say their most important variety is 'Amber Waves'. It was the first amber-colored Heuchera to be made available and its genes are responsible for broadening the color range to include orange, yellow, and true red. They've done really great work with plants for very colorful foliage as well as great flowers. One of the best varieties ever introduced for flowers is 'Paris', from their "city series". Maybe my favorite plant of theirs is 'Georgia Peach' which goes through seasonal color changes and has proven reliable across a wide range of the US. Some of their varieties can struggle in the upper midwest. This is most likely a result of the selection pressures in Oregon being very different from the climate here and may also involve some of the different genetics they've used. Making sure you have good drainage goes a long way to ensuring success; I find that most do well here provided drainage. 

H. 'Caramel'

Thierry Delabroye has done a lot of work with hybrids involving bringing H. villosa to the forefront of hybridization. 'Caramel' is his most popular cultivar and is a nice rich amber that is fairly reliable here in the upper midwest. He's also breeding a really nice line of larger cultivars, 'Mega-Caramel' being a larger version of 'Caramel'. 
H. 'Pink Panther' from Walter's Gardens Inc.

Walter's Gardens in Michigan has recently been breeding some real knockout cultivars that are performing well in the upper midwest. They've introduced several really nice purple varieties with improved vigor and size as well as some great plants with long-lasting flowers. Many of their varieties are part of the Proven Winners brand as well, as Walter's is the breeder and marketer of their perennial line. 

H. 'Carnival Watermelon' from Ball Hort.

Another series of plants I should mention is the Carnival series from Ball Horticulture. These are widely available mass market plants that can be found affordably at box stores. They seem to be performing fairly well in the midwest, which isn't surprising since they're bred and selected in Illinois. The standouts are 'Carnival Watermelon' and 'Carnival Peach Parfait'. Other than that, I'm not too excited by the series. Most of the varieties resemble plants that were released from hybridization efforts in the 90s and I don't find them to be improvements in any way. This isn't to say they are bad plants; I'd happily sub 'Carnival Peach Parfait' or 'Carnival Watermelon' for 'Georgia Peach' or 'Carnival Plum Crazy' for 'Plum Pudding' in design work if there was a significant price or availability difference. This applies to most of the series as well. If you're a landscaper or home gardener looking to do a mass planting without breaking the bank, this series is a good option. If you're a plant collector looking for novel plants, probably best to skip most of these as there are more unique plants out there. 

I'll go into more detail about specific varieties and how they've performed for me in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!

Friday, December 4, 2020

Growing Heuchera

It's been ten years since I originally wrote about Heuchera, and an update has been a long time coming. I'm scrapping my old posts and updating them with some slight revision for clarity. This post is going to be on just general culture and species, I'll post more about hybrids and history at a later time. 

Heuchera 'Caramel' with Hostas 'Stained Glass' and 'Fire Island' and Lamium 'Purple Dragon'

Nearly everyone (including me) mispronounces Heuchera; proper pronunciation is HOY-ker-uh. I've been pronouncing it WHO-ker-uh for 25 years, and it's hard to change! The genus is exclusively American in origin, with around 37 species in the United States and Canada and another 5 found exclusively in Mexico. 

Heuchera species fall into two basic categories. The mountain dwelling species are suitable for the rock garden and well drained soils. They tend to be heat tolerant and are more sun tolerant, but still appreciate some afternoon shade as they tend to grow in the shadows of boulders or scrub. The woodland dwellers are more suitable for shade gardens. They want soils that are consistently moist but well drained with adequate organic matter. They tend to be found on woodland edges, savannahs, or grasslands. Montane species are more heavily represented in the west and woodland species more so in the east; but both groups exist across their range. Regardless of crevice or woodland, all species tend to be found in well-drained locations. 

In general, loose well-drained soil is important. Few varieties will last long in heavy or compacted soils.  Most varieties appreciate morning sun, with shade in the afternoon. Provided those 2 conditions, most varieties will do well. A little research will help determine which varieties will truly thrive in your location. Knowing where and when they were hybridized is also useful. I find cultivars bred on the west coast are less likely to thrive compared to cultivars bred in the Midwest or Northeast. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Round Pegs and Square Holes: Proper Planting

I've been seeing some advice making the rounds lately from many sources via social media. Plant your trees in square holes to make them grow healthier and faster. This info is being re-blogged and re-shared over and over and I'm seeing a lot of discussion about it. There may not be anything specifically WRONG with doing so, but I highly doubt it's beneficial. I planted some things in square-ish holes this fall; not because I think it's beneficial, but because it was faster to just strip a couple sections of sod off and not worry about rounding the hole. I had a lot of plants to get in the ground and time was of the essence.

What I didn't take shortcuts on was proper preparation of plants for planting. This meant root-washing or root-shaving. Because of the circumstances of the last several years, many of my plants have been potted for an extended period. Some as long as 10 years. So many have dense root systems and girdling roots. For healthy, long-term growth it's important that the root system can grow properly. Roots need to be straightened, and even pruned if necessary. Many of the plants you purchase at nurseries have been in containers for extended periods of time. They may have several layers of girdling roots and they may be planted too deeply. Rootwashing is the best way to fix these problems.

This Hydrangea arborescens was in this pot for 3 years. I use a hose end sprayer set to jet to wash off as much of the loose soil as I could.

After washing, I removed large girdling roots that were on the interior of the root mass, hidden by the soil.

This Abies concolor 'Compacta' wasn't rootwashed before being planted in the last garden, and then spent 3 years in a pot. I completely root washed it (sadly I didn't get a final picture that turned out well) and straightened most of the roots. I did have to prune a few of the worst girdling roots out.

 Even herbaceous plants will benefit from root washing and correction. Look at the girdling roots on this young perennial! They were easily straightened during planting.

This Hosta 'Bridal Falls' has a wonderful root system. A quick root wash and the roots were easily straightened out. This is how most perennials should look before you backfill the planting hole.

I mentioned root shaving as well. This is where you shave off an inch or so all the way around the root ball to eliminate outer circling roots. This is a good method for plants with dense fibrous root masses but no larger girdling roots. I did this for some azalea cultivars and a few other things that just don't easily form large support roots. Doing so ensures that the roots will grow outwards into the surrounding soil instead of staying in the shape of a pot. 

Speaking of soil, what about soil prep? Elsewhere on this blog, I talk about amending soil. Mostly I no longer recommend it. The best thing for plants is to skip amending soil with peat, compost, or other organic additives. Native soil is your best option. There are some exceptions to this, like when you create raised beds. If you're planting something that needs better drainage (I like Primula for instance) consider creating a raised bed with an appropriate soil mix for them. Some organic amendments work well for mulches, and mulch is something I strongly recommend.

How about fertilizer? Most in-ground plants need a lot less fertilizer than we give them. A soil test is essential to making decisions about fertilizer. And I don't mean a store-bought test you do at home. Contact your local university extension office for a proper soil test. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

New Beginnings

Remember back in 2016 when I was so optimistic about our move to the north? I thought we'd have a new property and have the business moved by spring 2017. Life has a way of not working out how you'd like. It's been 3 1/2 years, but we finally closed on a house 2 weeks ago in Antigo, WI! I now have 12 acres of trees and prairie and an old farmhouse. 

We have most of the plants moved up here from the nursery now. We still need to move the poly house, benches, equipment, etc. I don't know if I'll get the house put back up this fall, but we do have a shed that's suitable for plant storage. This shed will become our retail building in the near future. We may have some limited open days as soon as next year!

It's been a struggle having room for my personal collection AND stock for sale at the nursery. A focus this fall is getting plants in the ground so I don't have to deal with shifting things around to make room for new product. Today I put in the first garden bed. It's a small bed bordering one side of our back deck and patio. 

I started by cutting an edge and then manually removing the sod. Our soil here is nice loam and removing sod is fairly easy. I'm not opposed to using some glyphosate in larger areas with difficult to control plants (I have many such areas!) but manual removal is still the fastest way. 

There were some existing Hosta 'Francee' that I've removed. They were likely from a box store and there's a good chance they're infected with Hosta Virus X, even though they don't show symptoms at this time. They will be disposed of and this bed consists mainly of non hostas. I also removed those keystone blocks and properly graded the area so they aren't needed.

With everything removed and graded, it was time for plant selection. This area gets late afternoon sun, so it's suitable for an assortment of neat shade plants. It's also one of the more protected sites here so it was perfect for Enkianthus campanulatus and Clethra alnifolia 'Crystalina'. I'm really not sure how well the Enkianthus will do here, but I'm hoping it will survive. The Clethra should do ok. I also chose only two Hosta for this area, 'Frisian Pride' and 'Foxfire Irish Moon'. They'll provide some nice texture and color contrast to the plants around them. There are 10 seedlings from my Heuchera breeding program. 9 are crosses of 'Berry Timeless' x 'Stainless Steel' and one is a yellow 'Southern Comfort' x 'Stainless Steel' (this one may get moved into a bed with all of its siblings). I also included 'Berry Timeless' and 'Stainless Steel' in this bed for comparison. Other plants in this bed include: Astilbe 'Amber Moon', Astilbe 'Chocolate Shogun', Cimicifuga simplex 'Black Negligee', Iris tectorum ex. 'Slippery Slope', Carex platyphylla, Salvia koyamae, Geranium 'Phillipe Vapelle', Carex muskingumensis 'Oehme', Atractylodes ovata, Epimedium 'Spine Tingler', Eurybia divaricata 'Eastern Star', Athyrium niponicum 'Applecourt' and a spot is being saved for Athyrium niponicum 'Crested Surf'.

An important note about planting here. I'm fortunate that we have good soil. I don't intend to do any kind of amendment here. I'm also making sure to root wash all of my trees and shrubs and at least remove most of the soil from my perennials. My plants have been in containers far too long and It's important to fix any root issues that may be present. For trees and shrubs, this means removing all soil, pruning out any girdling roots, and making sure all the roots are laid out straight away from the plant. For perennials, I'm able to shake out most of the soil and do the same thing without aggressively washing them. I'm also able to see any pest or disease issues that may be present this way. I highly encourage you all to do this! 

I have many, MANY, more plants to get in the ground. I'll be updating more frequently now that I have a place to garden! I also have a whole lot of other projects in store, including a gradual prairie restoration and re-building a retaining wall. Expect more regular (but still intermittent!) blog posts. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Learning Plants in a New Region

If  you've been following this blog for any amount of time, you know that I recently moved 200 miles from south-east Wisconsin to north-central Wisconsin. While we still haven't sold our house and life is still somewhat in limbo because of that, I've still managed to have an interesting time here in the north. 

A lot of people may not be real familiar with this area of the state, or where I moved from, or even Wisconsin at all! So I want to give some comparisons for those who don't know. Where I grew up and gardened my whole life, soil tended to be clay or clay-loam. Closer to Lake Michigan, soil could be sandy loam and I was fortunate to garden on two different properties with this soil type. But at my house the soil was clay loam and I extensively modified it with compost and pine bark to have better drainage. Our soils tended to have higher pH as well due to limestone bedrock. 

Here in the north the soils are primarily sand. There are areas of good soil with some clay, but it's mostly sandy. Being over granite bedrock our pH tends to be lower. This area of the state was more heavily influenced by glacier activity during the last ice age and boulders are extremely common as well. The topography here is much more hilly. The water table is also closer to the surface, and this fact coupled with glaciation means we have lakes. Lots of them; over 600 in this county alone. 

In the south near Lake Michigan I was gardening in a solid zone 5b and our average frost free period was May 11-Oct 6 (150 days). Here in the north it's z4a and frost free is May 20-September 24 (125 days). This means we have 25 fewer growing days and it gets significantly colder here. It's gotten to -28 F° multiple times each of the last two winters. We rarely got below -15 in the south. We also get more snow here. As I type, there is pretty much no snow in the south but we have close to 18" on the ground here. Of course as much as I don't like snow, that's a blessing. More reliable snow cover means reliable winter protection for the plants! 

As for summer temperatures, they're fairly similar. We actually warm up a little faster in late spring when we finally do thaw out as we don't have Lake Michigan keeping us cool. But in mid-summer it is slightly cooler here. I like it warm, so I'm actually not real happy about that. There were days last summer that it was above 80 degrees back home but not even 70 here. 

While it's easy to think about a shorter and colder season and get discouraged, these differences in climate and soil actually offer some compelling reasons to be excited to garden here. I'm able to grow a fairly significant number of plants that I couldn't grow in the south. Pretty much anything that likes sandy acid soil is fair game here; things like Rhododendron, blueberries, wintergreen, or bunchberry. Add in the cooler summer climate and reliable snow cover and things like Cypripedium guttatum or yatabeanum and most of the Primula species become much more possible to succeed with here. So while I may mourn the loss of ability to grow Japanese maples, I'm also celebrating the ease with which I will be able to grow birches and hemlocks. 

Another exciting thing about this area is we have an outstanding diversity of native flora. I've been enjoying getting to learn all kinds of new plants and finding plants that were only rare in the southern part of the state but are common here. Here are a few I've taken pictures of. 

Asclepias exaltata is fairly common here in the north and rare in the south. I've been visiting parts of northern Wisconsin for 20 years so I'm quite familiar with this species and we grow it at the nursery for sale. In fact this picture was actually taken in my old garden, but it was raised from seed collected here in the north. It prefers light shade as it's naturally found on the edge of woodlands and is currently my favorite species in the genus. A. incarnata while common in the south is even more common here as well and it seems to have more diversity in flower color as I've found a good assortment of very dark flower forms. 

Clintonia borealis is quite rare in the southern part of the state, I've only ever seen one plant and the next year it was gone. Here it is abundant. I've seen colonies of hundreds of them. I collected some seed, hopefully I get some decent germination and we can offer some for sale in the future. 

Bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, is also locally common and non-existent in the south. It needs sandy acid soils to thrive.

Linnea borealis, or twinflower, is also locally common. It's less common in the south but I have seen it. This is a nice low growing spring bloomer that forms nice patches in the woods. I think it will be nice in gardens and I will have to propagate some in the future. 

Partridge berry, Mitchella repens, is common throughout the state but it's always nice to find this cute little woodland gem. 

Polygala paucifolia is one that had me stumped. I spent quite awhile trying to figure out what kind of orchid I'd found that was blooming so early. Eventually I had to call in a favor from a friend who correctly identified it for me. Polygala aren't orchids at all but are in a family of their own and this species is an absolute gem of the woodland. We have 7 species in the state and this is the only one common in the north. Each species is drastically different from the others in my eyes and you probably can't confuse them. 

The ferns. Oh my god THE FERNS! There are so many here in the north. Pictured above is long beach fern Phegopteris connectilis. I'll be searching out many of them and hopefully growing them from spores. 

Worth mentioning along with the ferns are the spikemosses and clubmosses, in Lycopodiaceae. This appears to be a Lycopodium species, maybe L. lucidulum? 

I mentioned the incredibly high number of lakes we have here. We also have a ton of other wetland habitats including marshes and bogs. This year was the first time I've seen Calla palustris. It's very common in some of the areas I walk.

Lysimachia thyrsifolia is one of our native loosestrife species that is found in wetlands. Seems to be cute, not sure if it's incredibly invasive in garden conditions or not. You can see it growing with Iris versicolor here. 

I've found pink lady's slipper, Cypripedium acaule, on multiple occasions now and it's always a joy to find them and take pictures. I've found them growing in bogs and on higher ground along open water. These are now being produced from seed, NEVER collect wild plants. They don't reproduce well in nature to begin with and more often than not they don't survive being transplanted. Seedlings are available from Spangle Creek Labs and I'm sure you can find larger nursery-propagated plants for sale if you look. 

Cotton grass in the genus Eriophorum was entirely new to me. I believe the above is Eriophorum vaginatum. I also came across E. virginicum. We have several species in the state and they're all inhabitants of bogs. I intend to try growing some of these from seed.

 Another bog denizen is bog laurel, Kalmia polifolia. This is related to mountain laurel and looks similar but likes wet soils rather than well-drained. I've only come across this twice in the southern part of the state, but here it's common.

Another common bog plant here is Rhododendron groenlandicum. Yep, we have native Rhododendron species. This one is common in the northern 2/3 of the state. The other species, R. lapponicum, is endangered and only found in two counties far south of here. 

I've seen tons of other plants as well but haven't yet taken pictures. Expect more posts like this as I find exciting plants!