All posts by Alan

Aucuba Japonica 'Gold Dust'

All gardens have problem spots – those areas where it seems that nothing will grow. Often, this tends to be in the shade – either under a large tree or the eves of a house. This week we are featuring an evergreen that will solve the problem of bare, shaded areas and will add eye catching color and interest to your garden – Aucuba japonica ‘Gold Dust.’

Unlike most garden plants that only tolerate shade, Aucubas prefer shade and will thrive in the shadiest of spots, even under trees where no grass grows.

Native to Japan, Aucubas are a small group of evergreen shrubs that belong to the same family as dogwoods, but look nothing like them. ‘Gold Dust’ is one of the most popular of the Aucubas, named for its speckled leaves that look as if someone had sprinkled gold dust on them. These handsome leaves are the reason why most folks add this shrub to their garden. ‘Gold Dust’ will flower in late March and produce red berries in October, but neither is very noticeable next to the striking foliage.

Planting and Care
‘Gold Dust’ will mature as a rounded shrub six feet to eight feet tall by six feet wide. It can be kept severely pruned to a compact three foot by three foot shrub. ‘Gold Dust’ grows almost one foot per year. It is ideal as a dense screen; also in difficult spots in foundation plantings. Very pollution tolerant; excellent for urban sites.

  • Very easy to grow.
  • Plant in a shady location. Will tolerate morning sun. In Zones 6 and 7, avoid exposure to cold winter winds.
  • Prefers well-drained soil. Once established ‘Gold Dust’ is extremely drought tolerant.
  • If needed, prune in the spring before new growth begins.
  • Hardy in Zones 7-10 (6 with protection). ‘Gold Dust’ is one of the hardiest of the Aucubas.
  • Fertilize in spring with Plant-Tone or Cottonseed Meal.
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    A Hardy Little Orchid

    orchidA number of years ago I was asked to re-design a very large semi-shaded patio area. The house was huge and the patio ran the entire length. The client specifically asked for unusual perennials to interest her garden club friends. Because of the close-up viewing from the patio, used primarily for entertaining, I decided that each clump of perennials needed to be a small intimate cluster, not a large mass as we used in the background. And, based upon previous experience with this client I knew that whatever we put in needed to be easy to care for and just about fool proof.

    I ran out of plant ideas before I filled the entirety of this huge space. At that time I was barely familiar with the perennial Chinese terrestrial orchid (Bletilla striata); but from everything I had read, it seemed like a good choice. Hardy Chinese Ground Orchid was reported to be very easy to grow, shade tolerant and appeared to be handsome even when out of bloom. And, having a perennial with blooms that looked like true miniature orchids certainly would get the attention of the garden clubbers. The light sweet fragrance was an added bonus. I decided to try a small grouping.

    I happened to go back to this garden in late spring about three years after we installed the plants. In three years, the seven hardy orchids had expanded to a solid yard-wide clump with over a hundred flower stalks – truly a spectacular sight.

    Since then I have had several more successes with hardy orchids (and no failures). I particularly like the white variety – the form we are featuring today. Hardy Orchids add a touch of class to the woodland garden or any partially shady nook. I have no idea why they are not better known.

    Bletillas are the easiest of all orchids to grow. Bletilla striata Alba features sprays of about a dozen lightly fragrant, pure white flowers that appear for about 6 weeks in late spring. The blossoms resemble miniature cattleyas, but with unusual pleated tongues. Its ribbed, palm-like arching leaves flutter in the slightest breeze and make an excellent backdrop for the white blooms. Bletillas are superb, unconventional additions to the garden. They reach a height of approximately 18 inches, and they have a preference for partial shade in compost-enhanced, well-drained soil that doesn’t dry out in summer. They can be grown in containers and also as indoor houseplants in a sunny window. As such, they bloom in February.

    Cultural Instructions

    Hardy in Zones 5 (with protection) – 9.

    Place the tuberous roots just below the soil surface.

    Choose a semi-shaded location.

    Plant in compost-enriched, well-drained soil.

    Water regularly in dry periods until established. To ensure good bud-set, pay particular attention to summer watering.

    Fertilize in early spring and late fall with Cotton Seed Meal and Kelp Meal. (Holly-tone can be substituted for Cotton Seed Meal after the first year.)

    Cut foliage back to the ground in late fall or very early spring.

    Mulch well for winter in Zone 5.

    Blooming Bonsai!

    azalea by walter pallSome azaleas and rhododendrons occasionally bloom twice – in the fall, as well as spring, depending upon the weather. For years, breeders have been trying to amplify this repeat bloom trait to achieve azaleas and rhododendrons that will bloom reliably every fall and spring. We have trialed several of these fall blooming azaleas and the results here in Zone 6 have been disappointing, although our trials continue and we have high hopes for one new variety which we are just starting to evaluate. However, we happened upon one deciduous azalea, with no reputation for reblooming, that blooms for us reliably every fall and spring year after year. This week we are featuring that azalea, the Northern Lights hybrid ‘Lemon Lights.’

    Beginning about 20 years ago, The University of Minnesota began developing a new super hardy series of deciduous azaleas called Northern Lights. Their goal was to allow gardeners in colder areas to enjoy azaleas in their gardens. This series is also known for being extremely floriferous, putting on a stunning floral show in late spring. Coincidentally, a few cultivars in the series turned out to be quite fragrant and foliar fungus resistant.

    ‘Lemon Lights’ has striking two-toned lemon yellow flowers which are lighter at the outer edges of the petals and deeper at the throats. The flowers emit a powerful sweet citrus fragrance. The dark, glossy foliage has excellent resistance to powdery mildew and provides a beautiful contrast to the clear yellow blooms. Fall foliage color is maroon bronze. Expect ‘Lemon Lights’ to reach 5-6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

    Planting and Care

    Deciduous azaleas prefer more sun than evergreen azaleas, although they do best with some protection from the hottest afternoon sun. When planting ‘Lemon Lights,’ select a site with almost full sun to light shade that has well-drained, acidic soil. Azaleas have a very shallow, fibrous root system and can dry out rapidly. For that reason, be sure to water during dry periods and hot summer days.

  • Does best in an area with well-drained soil in full sun to light shade.
  • Do not plant too deeply; place the top of the root mass level with the soil surface. Dig a shallow hole and backfill around the plant with equal parts mixture of organic compost and the existing soil.
  • Until established, do not allow the soil to dry out.
  • Fertilize with Kelp Meal when planting and again every year in early spring and late fall.
  • Hardy in zones 4-7.
  • The Crape Myrtle

    crape-myrtleCrape Myrtles are a popular choice for gardeners because of their low maintenance, beautiful colors and extremely long bloom season, lasting nearly three and a half months.

    Crape Myrtles are most popular in the south, gaining the nickname the lilac of the south, but are enjoyed by gardeners across the country. Their scientific term, Lagerstroemia, was coined in 1759 in order to honor Magnus von Lagerstroem, an avid naturalist. The common name in America, Crape Myrtle, is derived from the crape-like appearance of the flower and the resemblance of the foliage to the real myrtle, Myrtus Communis. This week we are featuring a hardy Crape Myrtle tree with incredible huge ruby red blooms without even a hint of pink- ‘Dynamite’ – – the truest red of any Crape Myrtle tree.

    Developed by Oaklahoma’s Dr. Carl Whitcomb in 1998, ‘Dynamite’ produces abundant clusters of absolutely spectacular deep red flowers from crimson buds they will enliven your garden from mid summer until autumn. The blooms can reach 15 inches long and of course have the crape paper look that we love.

    The foliage starts as a deep burgundy in the spring and changes into a dark green by the end of summer. The leaves are very large, semi-glossy very thick and mildew resistant. In the fall the foliage turns from orange to red. ‘Dynamite’ exfoliates it’s old gray bark to reveal the new light brown smooth bark underneath. Plant as a specimen tree; prune into a large multi-stemmed shrub, or plant several in a row to create a unique privacy hedge.

    Planting and Care

    ‘Dynamite’ has a very expansive and upright growth habit and matures to a height of 20 feet. It prefers to be placed in full sun with well-drained soil and good air circulation. Dynamite requires little maintenance and does best when it is not pruned. It is also drought, disease and insect resistant once it is established.

    • Plant 15 feet apart in well-drained soil.
    • Prefers full sun in an area with good air circulation and good soil drainage.
    • Water regularly until established.
    • Hardy in Zones 6-9 (protect the first winter in Zone 6).
    • Fertilize with Plant-Tone and Kelp Meal in early spring.
    • When necessary, prune in spring just as the new leaves emerge

    The apple pie of shrubs

    dwarf korean lilac
    dwarf korean lilac

    When you choose a lilac you are planting a shrub that is part of our American heritage – some have even called the lilac the “apple pie of shrubs.” Thomas Jefferson planted lilacs at Monticello and lilacs greeted guests as they entered George Washington’s flower garden at Mount Vernon. Poet Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” evokes an image of a lilac bush that may be familiar to many:

    In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
    Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
    With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
    With every leaf a miracle – and from this bush in the dooryard,
    With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
    A sprig with its flower I break

    French and Dutch colonist first introduced lilacs to the United States, carrying them during their long journeys across the Atlantic Ocean. Lilacs soon found themselves all over North America, arriving by saddlebags and coach. Today there are over 2,000 named varieties of lilacs thanks to many industrious and passionate breeders all over the world. Our feature plant this week is the Dwarf Korean Lilac – the most useful of all the lilacs, and Alan’s favorite of all the shrubs we grow. It is easy to grow and maintain, making a beautiful and welcome addition to your garden.

    The Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri Pablibin)
    The Dwarf Korean Lilacs’ parent, the Syringa meyeri, is named after Frank Meyer who discovered it in a garden in Beijing, China in 1909 and sent cuttings home to the United States. Many lilacs are offspring of the Syringa meyeri, but the palabin Dwarf Korean Lilac is the smallest and most delightful. The clean, dark green foliage provides the perfect backdrop for the exquisite powerfully fragrant, lavender pink florets that will cover the dense bush from head to toe. Expect it to bloom in May-June, with lighter rebloom in later summer and fall, extending the season and allowing you to enjoy its beauty and fragrance twice during the year. Foliage turns bright yellow in autumn.

    Unlike other common lilacs, the Dwarf Korean Lilac blooms profusely at an early age and is not susceptible to powdery mildew. Expect it to grow four to five feet high and wide, the perfect size for a perennial border, foundation planting or shrub border foreground. No matter where the Dwarf Korean Lilac is planted in your garden, it is sure to be a standout year after year.

    Planting and Care

    The Dwarf Korean Lilac is one tough plant, a real survivor. Over ten years ago we planted some in wooden planter boxes that were fabricated over a black top parking lot in full sun. These planter boxes never get any supplemental water, only what mother nature provides. Every year the lilacs bloom profusely, hold their leaves all summer without browning, rebloom in the fall and never suffer any winter die back. After the drought of 2002, I expected the lilacs to be totally dead. When I drove by in the spring of 2003 they were in full bloom, just as they have been every year.

    • For best results, plant in early spring.
    • Lilacs require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
    • Plant in good, well-drained soil.
    • Water regularly until established and during the summer.
    • Prune old blooms away immediately after flowering to encourage more blossoms.
    • Fertilize with Bulb-Tone at planting and again in the spring.