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Great Gardening: Exciting New Spring Plants

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Home gardeners aren’t the only folks anticipating the spring introductions of new annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. Janine Pumilia asks our local greenhouse experts which ones they’re most excited about.

yellow-slice-calibrachoa

Yellow Slice Calibrachoa (Proven Winners photo)

Rejoice, gardeners! Jubilant days of overfilling our greenhouse carts are near! After long months of sensory deprivation, we’ll soon be feasting our eyes on neat rows of potted eye candy, from pussy willows to pansies, calibrachoa to coral bells. The sweet scent of humid potting soil will fill our lungs and we’ll feel the familiar urge to dig-plant-water! Plants we’ve never heard of will suddenly become “gotta have it!” necessities, from huge hostas to slender oaks, Coral Cove roses to conifers.

Home gardeners aren’t the only folks excited about what’s latest and greatest at the greenhouse. Anticipation is rising among greenhouse managers, too. We asked a few to dish about the 2013 introductions catching their interest, as well as recent ones that have earned their approval.

Annuals

“I’m always excited to see the new colors of Superbells calibrachoas,” says Christa Bormann, horticulturist at Heinz Brothers Greenhouse Garden Center, 2010 E. Main St., in St. Charles. “Just when you think they’ve come up with every color, there’s another stunning introduction.”

Bormann looks forward to Superbells Yellow Slice, a cheery new mix of sunny yellow and white stripes, reminiscent of beach umbrellas. Calibrachoas look like small petunias and have a compact, bushy form that produces hundreds of blooms from early spring through light frost. Their trailing habit makes them an ideal choice for spilling color out of containers and hanging baskets. Heat tolerance, disease resistance and low maintenance add to their appeal; hummingbirds like them, too.

“The most popular calibrachoa hues have been yellows and oranges, because we don’t often find those colors in bedding and container plants,” says Bormann. “Dreamsicle is orange-red and Saffron is a good, reliable yellow color. Both have been hot sellers in recent years.”

A big cousin of the calibrachoa is the Supertunia, another of Bormann’s favorites. “They’re like the wonderful Wave petunias, in that they don’t need to be deadheaded to keep blooming, and they offer a lot of big color that lasts from spring until hard frost.”

The Supertunia has large, heat-tolerant blossoms in yummy colors like bright blue-purple Royal Velvet, Red, yellow and white Citrus, Lavender Skies and – one of Bormann’s favorites – pink Vista Bubblegum.

But what good is a mass of color without contrasting foliage to make it pop? That’s where burgeoning varieties of the sweet potato vine just keep proving their worth, says Bormann. “From limey greens to shades of bronze and purple, the newer varieties, like Sweet Caroline, are much easier to work with, because they’re about 6 to 10 inches tall and not quite so vigorous. You don’t need to trim them back as often.”

Some newer versions of Sweet Caroline have lime, purple or red lacy leaves, like Emerald Lace, Midnight Lace and Garnet Lace. A pot filled with these beauties is attractive even without the addition of blooming plants.

Photos courtesy Proven Winners

Photos courtesy Proven Winners

For a frilly white sea of nonstop blossoms on the ground or spilling from baskets and pots, Bormann depends upon lobularia, a sturdy, newer descendant of old-fashioned Sweet Alyssum. Snow Princess Lobularia makes all the colors around it seem brighter, but can also stand alone. “I recommend putting it right into the ground,” says Bormann. “I’ve had a single plant spread to 2 by 2 feet large, and this new variety really stands up to the summer heat.”

For adding color to shady spots, the impatien remains a dependable workhorse. New introductions have been few, but Bormann has noticed growing interest in New Guinea varieties, with their large, showy blossoms in shades of coral, white, purple, red and orange.

Another shade plant that shouldn’t be underestimated is coleus, she says. “There are so many varieties and new colors. It does fine in shade or sun, and looks stunning even when paired with something like the Supertunia.”

The Proven Winner ColorBlaze coleus line offers diverse color and leaf shape, such as Alligator Tears, a long, slender crocodile-green leaf with cream teardrop center; or Keystone Kopper, with its rounded bronze leaves; or sultry Dark Star, a magnificent deep plum that makes an excellent companion to pink, lavender- or white-blooming plants.

When it comes to assembling containers, Heinz Brothers lives by the Thriller-Filler-Spiller-Chiller concept, says Bormann. One spectacular tall plant (thriller), two or three mounding plants (fillers), three to five trailing plants like vines or calibrachoa (spillers), and at least one stand-out plant with interesting foliage (chiller), like dusty miller or coleus. “There are many ways to do interesting containers, but when you follow that formula, it’s pretty hard to go wrong,” Bormann says.

Photos courtesy Proven Winners, Bailey Nursery, Monrovia.

Photos courtesy Proven Winners, Bailey Nursery, Monrovia.

Perennials

Annuals are often the most colorful all-season showstoppers of a garden, but an expanding array of perennials and perennial shrubs is providing stiff competition. Consider, for example, the showy banks of Knock Out roses now anchoring many residential and commercial landscapes.

“I’m a huge fan of roses, and there’s a lot of excitement around here this year for some of the new ones,” says Heather Moister, perennial manager at The Barn Nursery & Landscape Center, 8109 S. IL Route 31, Cary. “For example, Easy Elegance roses are just as hardy as the Knock Outs, but offer a lot more variety, both in color selection and in the forms of roses they produce.”

As an example, she points to the new Coral Cove, an ever-blooming shrub rose with double blooms that have dark pink outer petals that transition to orange and then bright yellow at the center. “This is beautiful nonstop color in a super disease-resistant rose that’s about 24 inches tall and can handle the heat along walkways,” says Moister. And she means nonstop. Many roses have recurring blooms, but these bloom without interruption.

“If you’d rather have a taller cutting rose, like the kind you cut to bring into the house, Easy Elegance offers large flowering roses that are just as disease-resistant as the new shrub roses,” she says. “One is Kiss Me, which has clusters of fragrant, coral pink blossoms on sturdy canes.” Another
is High Voltage, with large yellow blooms.

Moister is also excited about the Winner’s Circle, a hardy rose bred by the people who came up with the Knock Out. This heavy-blooming climber grows 8 feet tall and produces dark red, 4-inch blossoms.

Beyond roses, she’s also impressed with new varieties of the astrantia plant, with its long-lasting pincushion-like purple or pink flowers, on tall stems. “This plant really adds a lot of interest to a garden, and you don’t have to pick off the blooms – in fact, they look pretty on the plant even after they’ve dried,” says Moister. Thanks to good breeding, newer varieties tolerate partial shade, resist mildew and don’t flop over.

Moister also likes new versions of the Delosperma cooperi, or hardy ice plant. “They’re incredibly drought-tolerant,” she says. “And after last summer, we’re all thinking more about xeriscapes – gardens that need little or no supplemental watering.” Ice plants are so named for their ice crystal-like shimmer. Most varieties grow just 3 to 6 inches tall and 2 to 4 feet wide. Since their succulent foliage is green, they make a good groundcover even when they’re not blooming, but they bloom most of the summer and fall.

“I’m excited about a new variety called Fire Spinner that has petals which go from orange on the outside, to magenta and then bright yellow in the center,” Moister says. These plants are native to South America but do very well even in cold U.S. climates.

Photos courtesy Proven Winners, David Winger, Monrovia.

Photos courtesy Proven Winners, David Winger, Monrovia.

Plant breeders continue to have fun changing up dependable old plants like the hosta, which is available in some 60 species and thousands of varieties. If you’re looking for something to add a prehistoric touch to your landscape, Moister has just the thing. “This year we’re excited about the Hosta Empress Wu, which grows 6 feet wide by 4 feet tall,” she says. “The stalks are enormous, the leaves greenish-blue. It’s what you’d call a conversation piece.” Just like other perennials, Empress Wu will die to the ground with hard frost and reappear each spring.

Ornamental plants are great fun, but there’s also tremendous excitement about edible plants this year, thanks to the growing local foods movement, says Moister. “We’re carrying a huge variety of vegetable and herb plants, and small fruits,” she says. “Along those lines, we’re especially excited about new varieties of blueberry and raspberry bushes that people can grow in containers. After all, a lot of people don’t have room for the traditional, big spreading fruit bushes, and the plant developers know this.”

In particular, the BrazelBerries line of small fruits interests Moister. She can’t wait to try Raspberry Shortcake, a compact raspberry bush bred to grow in a neat mounded habit and produce prolific fruit. “It’s attractive enough to be on your patio – who’d want to look at the old weedy-looking raspberry? – and it doesn’t have any thorns!”

Likewise, she’s eager to try the Jelly Bean dwarf blueberry, again bred to produce abundant fruit without taking up much space, but hardy enough to remain in a pot. “At the end of the season, you bring them, in their pots, into a garage or shed, so they can go dormant but not experience a hard freeze,” she explains. “Then next spring they’re ready to go out again.”

Trees & Shrubs

Annuals and perennials aren’t the only plants breeders are changing to meet the needs of today’s homeowners.

“When it comes to shade trees, there’s a bigger push for more drought-tolerant trees right now because of the changing climate pattern,” says Sean Ducey, nursery manager at Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 IL Route 31, Cary. “This means going back to varieties that are native to Illinois in the first place, like the Swamp White Oak or the Red Oak, for example. If you think about it, this really makes a lot of sense.”

But since many people don’t have room for mature oaks on their subdivision lots, compact forms are being developed.

“Some propagators are producing more slender oaks that don’t spread out 60 feet wide,” explains Ducey. “Granted, it takes a long time for an oak to reach maturity, but why plant something that can live for 100 years in a place it may outgrow in 30 years?”

One example is the Regal Prince oak, a columnar to narrow-oval oak which grows 40 to 60 feet tall but spreads out just 25 feet.

Ducey would like to see more oaks returned to our landscape.

“There’s an idea that they’re very slow-growing, but that’s not accurate. They grow maybe 12 to 18 inches per year, which is a medium growth rate. They’re well-acclimated to our soil conditions and tend to do very well.”

Photos courtesy Shade Tree Farm, Bailey Nursery, Proven Winners, Willoway Nurseries.

Photos courtesy Shade Tree Farm, Bailey Nursery, Proven Winners, Willoway Nurseries.

Another hybrid shade tree that people consistently have good success with is the Autumn Blaze maple, says Ducey. “They’re easy to please, they grow fast, and they have a nice shape and fantastic fall color,” he says. “My only complaint is that we’re seeing an awful lot of them. But they’re popular for a reason. People have good luck with them.”

There’s always something new in the realm of shrubs, and this year is no exception. Ducey is particularly excited about several new forms of the ninebark shrub in a line called First Editions, by Bailey Nursery, including Amber Jubilee, so named for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee of England’s Queen Elizabeth. “It’s extremely drought-tolerant and offers different color to the landscape, with orange-yellow summer foliage that turns red and purple in fall,” he says. It’s easy to grow and reaches a size of about 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide. It’s attractive alone, but groupings of it make a pretty landscape backdrop. Ninebarks aren’t fussy about soil, can handle less than full sun, flower nicely in springtime and require little pruning.

“New dwarf varieties grow to 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide, such as Little Devil,” adds Ducey. Little Devil is a trouble-free shrub with deep burgundy foliage and button-shaped, light-pink June flowers.
Also well-received in recent years are the very hardy Limelight and Little Limelight hydrangeas, says Ducey. “They do well most of the time in any soil, can bloom even without full sun, and the blooms are favorites for people who like to bring stems inside to dry for arrangements.” The large blooms open in green and change to pure white, then various shades of pink and finally a rich rosy hue. They can be snipped and dried at any color stage, and retain their color well. In autumn, foliage turns bright red. Limelight grows 6 to 8 feet tall and wide; Little Limelight 3 to 5 feet.

Another shrub worthy of attention this year is the new Blue Muffin viburnum, says Ducey. “The viburnum, in general, is just a great, dependable plant with nice foliage, some flowering and berries that birds – but not humans – can eat. Blue Muffin is a more compact shape, and it produces small, white flowers in early to mid-summer, but what really sets it apart is a mass of bright blue berries that emerge in late summer to fall.”

When it comes to conifers, Ducey suggests that consumers think “drought-tolerant,” given the many casualties we saw after last summer.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the arborvitaes planted around here just couldn’t make it,” he says. “A more tolerant counterpart would be the Colorado Blue or Norway spruce, or the juniper. They come in great shapes, with good color variety, and the junipers produce fruit for wildlife. You can find columnar-shaped junipers now that look a lot like the tall arborvitaes people use for screens. I wouldn’t recommend the Austrian Pine. It’s experienced moth and fungus problems in recent years in our region, so we don’t even carry it.”

No matter what plant you’re looking for, do your homework before coming to the nursery. That way, you’re less likely to be distracted by what looks pretty that particular day, and you’ll stay focused on finding a plant that’s a good fit over the long haul.

“Don’t try to make a huge plant fit into a small space – they grow!” advises Ducey. “Growing is what they’re supposed to do, and you shouldn’t ‘reward’ them a few years down the road by butchering them to make them fit. Also, know your soil type before you come in, and ask the staff a lot of questions. It’s why we’re here.”

Some of the best resources for researching plants are university websites, says Ducey. “They have a lot of good information and aren’t trying to sell you anything.”

Other good resources are the Chicago Botanic Garden and Morton Arboretum websites. Both offer objective information assembled by horticulturists who conduct controlled plant trials.

We’ll be in the greenhouse soon, but it’s not safe to plant most things until after Mother’s Day. Meanwhile, it’s great fun to do some research and planning for your spring garden. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for regular rainfall this summer.

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