“51 of the hottest of the hot plants” from Garden Design magazine

In the early Spring 2015 issue of Garden DesignI was immediately drawn to Jenny Andrews’ article: “51 hottest of the hot plants.” Ms. Andrews compiled the suggestions of 12 garden pros and organized them into 7 categories. I perused the article and considered my own favorites for the Southeast.

In the “Sturdy & Stylish” category, I was attracted to the reddish-brown, chocolate-scented flowers of chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus), a tender tuberous-rooted perennial from Mexico (USDA Zones 7-11). ‘Chocamocha’ is a burgundy-flowered selection that is considered to be more floriferous and more compact than the species.

The multicolored IntRose01 Calypso rose (Rosa ‘IntRose01’ Sweet Spot™ Calypso) whose flowers sport shades of pinkish-red, yellow with dark pink centers. This two-foot tall beauty is reported to bloom from spring to fall (I would expect a floral rest in the heat of mid-summer in our region). (The number 1 plant in this category is Blonde Ambition blue grama grass [Bouteloua gracilis]With the two side-by-side photos of IntRos01 Calypso rose and Blonde Ambition, I was not attracted to the blue grama grass, despite its native southwestern heritage and interesting yellow-gold seedheads).

The “Shady Characters” that I’d like to include in my garden are variegated Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ Camouflage™) and the Japanese camellia from Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena, California, Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’.

For “Bountiful Blooms”, I love the old-fashioned flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa Double Take™ series (USDA cold hardiness zones 5-8). Developed by NC State professor, Tom Ranney, Ph.D. et al., their early spring (February to April) camellia-like flowers borne on branches that have few to no thorns are guaranteed to give you “spring fever”: Scarlet Storm (scarlet), Orange Storm, and Pink Storm (hot pink).

The herbaceous perennial foxglove hybrid, Ruby Glow, which is an intergeneric hybrid—a cross between Digitalis and the Mediterranean shrub Isoplexis (a.k.a. Digiplexis), is part of the Foxlight Series from Darwin Perennials, a division of Ball Horticultural Co., which includes Plum Gold and Rose Ivory. I’d like to see how Ruby Glow and its mates stack up against other foxglove hybrids, such as Berry Canary and Illumination Flame.

For “Fun Foliage” I’m attracted to Godzilla Japanese painted fern (Athyrium ‘Godzilla’), a 3 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide gargantuan fern that—according to Tony Avent—is a probably cross between Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) and lady fern (Athyriuim filix-femina). For its sheer size and red, silver, and green foliar highlights, it’s a must-have fern for the shade garden.

In “Sun Lovers,” I was immediately drawn to the blue leaves of whale’s tongue agave (Agave ovatifolia). Blue is my favorite garden color, and this blue-leaved succulent that’s native to Mexico in the words of Tony Avent: “Has proven to be one of the best agaves for cold, wet climates, for outperforming almost all other species.”

In “Little Lovelies” I’m fond of Pink Icing™ blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), a new variety of BrazelBerries® blueberry from Fall Creek Farm & Nursery in Oregon. Here’s another blueberry that should be included in the edible landscape. It joins Fall Creek’s other blueberries, Peach Sorbet™ and Jelly Bean™.

In the “Uncommon Cravings” category, Madi-II Chinese dogwood leapt from the page. Introduced in 2014 by Brotzman’s Nursery in Ohio and discovered as a chance seedling, Madi-II’ Cornus kousa var. chinensis ‘Madi-II’ Mandarin Jewel™) bears white floral bracts in late Spring, typical of kousa dogwoods. However, it differs with the production of pumpkin-orange drupes—not red–that persist against a backdrop of yellow-orange fall color.

To see the entire list of 51 plants, see the article (p. 80-95) by Jenny Andrews in the Early Spring 2015 issue of Garden Design.

Structural pruning improves the longterm stability and health of trees

ice on contorted willow

A corkscrew willow with flexible limbs that easily accommodate the ice without snapping.

Punxsutawney Phil was right: six more weeks of winter. Just when I was putting the finishing touches on a blog entry regarding winter annual weeds, the henbit, chickweed and wild garlic quietly disappeared beneath a blanket of ice yesterday.

The shrubs and trees weren’t so lucky. Some of them looked like reluctant contortionists bent into painful shapes. Those whose branches refused to bend simply broke beneath the weight of the ice.

Unlike snow, which can be brushed off without damaging the limbs, ice requires a hands-off approach. Be patient and do nothing; allow the ice to melt naturally.

For trees the best defense against storms is a strong, weather-resistant crown and trunk. This can only be achieved with structural pruning for the first 15 to 20 years of a tree’s life. That’s right: 15 to 20 years. Like raising a child to adulthood, a young tree must be structurally pruned to develop a pyramidal form with a dominant central leader. Smaller branches must be distributed vertically and horizontally around it. Codominant stems of equal diameter must be removed or subordinated (pruned to supress their growth and eventually removed) because they are often poorly attached as evidenced by the included bark; they split apart like wishbones during ice-and windstorms.


A contorted loblolly pine (sadly, the contortion is due to ice accumulation and not genetics).

Structural pruning develops a framework of well-spaced, strongly attached limbs. These biomechanically sound trees reach middle-age and are less likely to burden you with costly tree failures.

Ideally, structural pruning begins in the nursery and continues in your landscape. Individual branches should be spaced around the trunk and not clustered together at one point. Single branches create strong attachments with the trunk: as the branch and trunk grow radially (produce annual growth rings), wood from the branch and trunk overlap. Over time the branch looks like a threaded dowel that was screwed into the trunk.

Oftentimes you’ll see a swollen area at the base of limb: this branch collar results from the overlapping of branch and trunk tissues, which indicates a strongly attached branch.Most importantly, the collar houses a natural protective region called the branch protection zone. This unique zone of cells, which develops at the base of the branch and extends into the trunk, resists the invasion of decay-causing organisms into the trunk when the branch dies or is removed—providing that the branch was removed just outside of the collar. Remember this: the branch protection zone develops on individual branches that are less than one-half the diameter of the parent stem which are also less likely to break-away from the parent stem.

Finally, you need to know that pruning creates wounds. The openings created by the removal of branches seal more rapidly on small diameter branches than large ones. So, if you experience empowerment and gratification from sawing through large, hefty branches, consider pruning dead trees.

Despite the woodchuck’s dire forecast, I trust that our winter will be interspersed with brief warm spells. During the next spate of warm temperatures, go outside and examine your living investments. Think about structurally pruning your dormant trees to improve their strength, health, and longevity.

© 2015 Bob Polomski

Wild garlic are blemishes in the winter lawn.

Wild garlic and wild onion are two common lawn and garden weeds that are a lot like teenage acne:  they appear where you don’t want them and, in some folks, cause lots of anxiety and concern.  At this time of year these weeds look like green splotches on the beautiful brown canvas of dormant centipede and bermudagrass lawns.wild garlic 1

Wild garlic (Allium vineale) is a herbaceous bulb that was probably introduced to the U.S. from Europe by early settlers in the early 1700s.  This cool-season weed appears in the fall and matures and dies down in late spring.  Wild garlic reproduces primarily by above- and below-ground bulbs.

Wild onion (A. canadense) is not as common as wild garlic in our state.  Unlike wild garlic which has hollow leaves and greenish-white flowers, wild onion has flat, solid leaves and pink flowers.
wild garlic 2
Wild garlic and wild onion pose no harm to your lawn.  However, you may find it unsightly.  If these weeds have invaded your landscape, there are a few things you can do.
1.  Do nothing.  Once your dormant lawn turns green and the wild garlic and wild onion begin to dieback, you will forget about them until next fall when they will reappear.  Some people feel uncomfortable with the “do nothing” approach.  In fact, they feel as if something should be done for the neighbors’ sake.  O.k., then, here’s what you do.  Since wild garlic looks so much like cultivated onions, tell your neighbors that you’re growing fancy French scallions in your lawn.  Yeah, tell them that they make their best growth in the lawn, especially when they’re planted in random, haphazard rows .  Who knows, maybe a neighbor or two will believe you.

2.  Spray-paint the wild garlic brown to match the color of your dormant lawn.  Hey, if women can get away with using cosmetics to hide a few blemishes on their faces, you should be able to camouflage the clumps of wild garlic in your lawn.
3.  Pull them out by hand.  Pick a day when the soil has been moistened by a nice, soaking rain.  With a flat-headed screwdriver, loosen up the soil around a clump of wild garlic.  Then, grab the base of the weed and slowly tease it out of the ground.  Since wild garlic produces a bunch of underground bulblets, try to lift them all of them out.  I do it bare-handed because I love the heavenly aroma of garlic.
4.  Apply a herbicide.  Wild garlic is difficult to control with herbicides because it produces several bulblets that do not sprout all at once.  Some bulblets will sprout one year and others will not emerge until the following year; therefore, it can take 2 or 3 years for a postemergence herbicide to control the entire plant.  An effective herbicide for controlling wild garlic and wild onion are the “three-way” types that contain 2,4-D, MCPP, and dicamba (such as, Weed-B-Gon® and Trimec®).  Treat wild garlic and wild onion now–in late November to December, which is when they’re most susceptible to herbicide applications.

If necessary, make a followup application in late February or early March.  Please read and follow the label directions when using any pesticide.

If wild onions and wild garlic are growing in your flower borders or among your azaleas and other shrubs, refer to approach #3.
Fortunately, we’ll lose sight of wild garlic and wild onion in late Spring.  At that time, no one will know if you accepted or got rid of these blemishes.

Be kind to your crepes


Crepemyrtle before pruning. Credit: Paul Thompson, Clemson Extension.

Have you pruned your crepemyrtles yet? No, I didn’t ask: have you cut them into broomsticks or hat racks? Have you pruned them? Did you maintain a vase-shaped form with arching, outward-growing branches? If you cut the trunks back to an arbitrary height, then you committed “crepemurder.” The large open-faced wounds that result from this mutilation do not “heal” or callus over rapidly. They provide entry points for fungal organisms that can infect and kill limbs and trunks. The butchered crepemyrtle doesn’t die immediately; a few parts die over a period of time–a limb here and a trunk there. Eventually, the hatracked crepemyrtle looks so miserable that it begs to be pruned at soil level.

If you perpetrated crepemurder in the past, atone for your actions now. The first step to properly pruning a crepemyrtle involves removing any broken, dead, and diseased limbs.

The next step is to stop, step back, and look. Imagine a vase-shaped tree with arching branches that flow outwards. Visualize those long, sun-drenched limbs bearing 6- to 12-inch long clusters of flowers in the summer.


Crepemyrtle after pruning. Credit: Paul Thompson, Clemson Extension.

Now begin pruning. With a sharp pair of loppers or pruning shears, start at the bottom and work up.  Remove any suckers sprouting from the base of your crepemyrtle.  Also, thin out any side branches from the lower third of the trunk to expose the attractive bark.  Thinning refers to the removal of entire shoots or limbs back to their branch points–the point of attachment of a branch to the trunk or limb.

Now work your way to the top. Thin-out any inward-growing branches. With the center of your crepemyrtle opened up to sunlight, focus your attention on rebuilding the structural framework of your tree. If you headed-back or topped your crepemyrtle last spring, you destroyed its structure. Bunches of spindly shoots emerged from nooks and crannies around and below the cuts. Keep a few of the thick, well-attached outward-growing shoots and remove the rest. As you selectively thin-out the top, visualize the space occupied by the remaining structural limbs. Imagine a fountain-like canopy with limbs that rise upwards and arch outwards. Finally, head-back or tip-prune any wayward or unbranched limbs to make them fuller-looking.

Now your pruned crepemyrtle should appear treelike instead of like a collection of sawed-off broom handles. But wait–you’re not done yet. When it starts leafing out, come back a few times in the spring and early summer to fine-tune its framework. Pinch out any green shoots growing in the wrong direction and thin out any shoots you had missed earlier. By midsummer your crepemyrtle should come close to looking like the image you had in mind in midwinter.

Pruning crapemyrtles the right way this winter takes a little bit of skill and a whole lot of patience. But the rewards this summer will be priceless.

James Dean and shrubs and trees that bloom in winter.

When I teach my students how to identify and use landscape plants (HORT 3030), I occasionally mention the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. When I introduce them to fall-flowering plants, I tell them that these plants don’t get any respect. This Rodney Dangerfield metaphor epitomizes a collection of plants that are often overlooked in the nursery or garden center bySpring fever-stricken folks. “You’re doomed without blooms” is the credo of plant merchandisers. These delectable fall-bloomers with flowers that may be fragrant and inconspicuous–holly tea olive, Fortune’s osmanthus, fragrant tea olive–or bodacious and aromatic like Japanese fatsia, remain unnoticed in the garden center. They’re upstaged by sumptuous flowers of a multitude of spring-blooming shrubs and trees that include azaleas, dogwoods, and deutzias.

Fall-blooming shrubs and trees don’t get any respect. What about plants that bloom in the winter? Despite the everpresent danger of losing their flowers to freezing temperatures, these stalwart plants bloom with attitude. These James Dean plants (yes, I know I further alienate myself from younger generations) display a devil-may-care attitude with gorgeous—sometimes even fragrant—flowers.

From fall through winter I enjoy the semidouble pink flowers of autumn-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’).  Expect the largest floral display in early spring before the leaves emerge.

In late January and February I imbibe the spicy sweet-smelling blooms of Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume). This tree was one of the late J .C. Raultson’s favorite trees. Over 300 named cultivars offer single or double flowers in white through shades of pink to red.

The most famous winter-blooming trees are the many cultivars of Japanese camellias. Rightfully they’ve earned the nickname of “winter rose.” While only a few cultivars are endowed with fragrance, we appreciate them for their eye-candy blooms:  beautifully sculpted flowers that defy the imagination.

Chimonanthus praecox

Fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) in bloom.

A species in bloom right now is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Avoid gazing at its gaunt leafless constitution and admire the attractive thimble-sized pale yellow flowers with purple centers. The fragrance has been described as lemony and spicy. To me, the flowers smell like lemon-scented furniture polish.

Witchhazels offer an entertaining floral display in winter:  their spiderlike flowers are comprised of four straplike petals that look like strands of confetti which have exploded from the bud.  Among the best choices for the garden are the hybrids between the Asian species (Hamamaelis  x intermedia).  These produce the showiest flowers and become multistemmed shrubs ranging from 6 to 15 feet high.  My favorites among the two dozen cultivars include ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Primavera'; and ‘Ruby Glow’.

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing and smelling the extremely fragrant creamy-yellow flowers of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). After it blooms in midwinter, bold, tropical-looking leaves emerge in the Spring from this uncommon deciduous shrub.

I am a big fan of winter-flowering shrubs and trees that can only be appreciated in the dead of winter and on their own terms. They provide me with a brief escape to my happy place away from the short, cold days of winter.

Bob Polomski (c) 2015

Save some “green” this year

Even before the Global Recession, I learned to become a frugal gardener.  Here are a few money-saving tips that will help you garden inexpensively:

Grow your own plants from seeds, divisions or cuttings. Share or trade open-pollinated heirloom plants with friends and acquaintances. Layering is a simple, foolproof way of propagating these “pass-along” plants.

Create seed-starting “pots” from foam coffee cups, paper cups, cottage cheese tubs, yogurt containers, margarine containers, and cut-off milk cartons by poking holes in the bottom for drainage. The clam shells with clear lids at salad bars make ready-to-use mini-greenhouses for seed-starting or rooting cuttings.

When shopping for perennials, look for potted plants that contain several divisions or offsets that can be easily teased apart at planting. For the price of one pot, you can acquire several plants.

Mulch your plantings.  A shallow, 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and supplies nutrients as it decomposes. Covering bare soil with mulch reduces erosion.  Fallen leaves make an attractive fine-textured mulch when they’re shredded with a lawn mower or leaf shredder.

Harvest rainwater to irrigate your landscape and garden this spring and summer. Attractive rain barrels, clay urns with spigots at the bottom, or makeshift pickle barrels make excellent vessels for capturing and using rainwater.

Compost. Recycle organic yard trimmings and kitchen wastes and return them back into the landscape or vegetable garden as a soil conditioner or mulch.

These are just a few economical “green” techniques that will save you some “green” this upcoming gardening season.

Bob Polomski (C) 2015

My New Year’s Resolution: conduct a seed inventory

In January and February I carry out one of my New Year’s resolutions:  I take inventory of my seed collection.  First, I gather up all of the seeds that I’ve squirreled away in a variety of places like the refrigerator crisper, the pockets of jackets and sport coats, and dresser drawers.  Then, over several evenings and weekends, I decide what to save, trade, or toss out.  Strengthening my resolve is the constant flow of seed catalogs into my mail box which boast about vegetable and flower varieties that are “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better.”  I just have to make the room.

To help me decide what stays and what goes into the compost heap, I ask myself several questions:

  • How old is the seed? Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  Here are the ballpark ages of several vegetable seeds that when stored under cool, dry conditions should be expected to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:

1 year or less:  Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify

2 years:  Corn, Okra, and Peppers

3 years:  Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas

4 years:  Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons

5 years:  Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.

•  Is the seed viable?  Perform a simple germination test.  Count out at least 20 seeds and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels.  Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  If few seeds germinate, you may want to discard the seed and buy fresh seed for the upcoming gardening season.

•  Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save? If the vegetables are self-pollinated like beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes, expect to have true-to-type varieties.  However, expect surprises when planting the seeds from insect- or wind-pollinated varieties.  Cross-pollination will occur between different varieties of insect-pollinated vegetables such as cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin.  The same goes for wind-pollinated beets, sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.  You may want to discard these seeds.

•  Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you preferred the original hybrid, discard these seeds.  The offspring from an F1 hybrid will be a mixture of plant types, most of which will be inferior to the original parent.

•  Do you have any seeds or varieties that a fellow gardener would be willing to swap for?   In the eyes of some gardeners, a “Mickey Mantle” or “Joe DiMaggio” could take the form of a Sweet Baby Blue corn or a Super Italian Paste tomato.  Perhaps you can save these seeds and trade them for something else.

When I answer these questions, I find that very few seeds ever get composted.  Probably because I always ask myself one final question:  “Are you really sure that you can’t find any room for this little packet of seeds?”  The answer is always, “But of course.”  My wife has eight dresser drawers with plenty of room!

Bob Polomski (c) 2015