“Native Plants: Why We Love Them and How to Use Them” – Free Seminar – This Saturday at Walker Farm in Southern Vermont – Please Join Me …

May 13th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, (here a cultivar named ‘Pink Charm’), are durable, evergreen plants suitable for ledgy, exposed sites… far more hardy than their more tender cousins, the rhododendrons. To read more about Kalmia latifolia, click here.

I am very fortunate. This place in Vermont, where I live, is a true paradise and I cherish it. Every morning I wake up to the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of the Northeast American native forest. The songs of the veery, hermit and wood thrush, the mist rising from the Green River valley and the fragrance of the woodland surrounding my home relax and comfort me. Of course, I am not alone – many people, including a great number of my friends, share this passion for the native forest, and I love hearing about their woodland hikes, experiences and discoveries. I have also traveled throughout North America, and I know that every spot I have visited on this continent -as well as those I have yet to see- has it’s own unique and irreplaceable natural environment. This great love of nature is part of the reason that our native plant species are so important to me. There are many, many beautiful trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants all over the world -and I do have quite the collection of exotics growing here in my garden- but none more beautiful or important than those growing naturally outside my front door.

As is often the case with horticultural terms and phrases, native plant can have different definitions and meanings, depending upon the source of the information. In the strictest sense -and according to The New England Wild Flower Society–  when describing woody plants and perennials on this continent, the term native “refers to plants growing in North America before the European settlement”. Does this definition include species cultivars that have occurred since the European settlement through natural selection? I imagine so. But I would expect that the NEWFS definition excludes individual cultivars and hybrids created via the hand-of-man. My own definition of  native plant is somewhat looser and more tolerant of the various seedlings and crosses commonly found in gardens and in the nursery trade – but I’m no research scientist. Perhaps because one of my favorite North American native trees, Serviceberry, (Amelanchier) , is a horticultural wild-child, (freely hybridizing with neighboring species within the genus), I see the process of plant evolution as inevitable and fascinating. Mother nature seems to approve of variety, as do I !

Beautiful, spring blooming trees of the forest understory, such as North American native Halesia tetraptera, are excellent choices for home landscapes…

Beyond their obvious importance in the natural ecosystem, native plants also make fantastic additions to the garden. In fact so many North American native species, such as coral bells, (Heuchera), coneflower, (Echinacea), gayfeather, (Liatris), and cranesbill, (Geranium), have become such superstars in the nursery trade, that many gardeners have no idea that many common garden center plants are actually wild-flower cultivars. As far as I am concerned, that is good news because native plants, and nursery-grown native cultivars, provide season-spanning food and habitat for local animals and insects, and they also tend to require less water, commercial fertilizer and chemical support than imported plants. And again, I am no purist when it comes to my own garden. I have a great passion for exotic plants – especially Japanese maple! However, I make every effort to garden responsibly, both in my own private paradise, and in the various landscapes where I work as a professional gardener and designer.

This Saturday morning, (May 15, 2010, from 9:30 – 10:30), I will be presenting a free, introductory seminar on native plants for home gardeners at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. If you are in the area, and you would like to learn more about how to use some of these incredibly beautiful and hardy plants in your own landscape, please stop in and join the fun. The emphasis will be on home garden design; creating season-spanning interest, and wildlife support in your back yard oasis, by choosing trees, shrubs and perennials native to the Northeastern United States. Examples of lesser-known native plants will be on display, and free color handouts, (including design tips, plant information, and online resources), will also be provided. Visit Walker Farm online or call 802 – 254-2051 for more information.

Native Lady fern, (athyrium felix feminina), and selected cultivars such as ‘Lady in Red’, shown here, provide shady habitat for toads and frogs, and durable but delicate beauty for dappled gardens… Especially in combination with other natives such as Heuchera and Phlox divaracata.

An excellent ground-covering choice for acidic, shady areas, native labrador violets are stunners whether blooming or not…

Clethra alnifolia, our native summersweet, is a low-maintenance shrub producing pollinator-magnet flowers in late summer…

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ is a lovely, select pink-flowering cultivar of our native summersweet shrub, shown above

Aruncus, commonly known as the ‘goat’s beard’, is a statuesque June bloomer for perennial borders and woodland edge…

Fothergilla major, (witch alder), and Lindera benzoin,(spicebush), provide a changing backdrop for gardens all season long…

By combining native shrubs and cultivars, a natural but dynamic, sustainable design can be achieved…

Fothergilla gardenii, our native witch alder, lights up the garden in spring and again in late autumn…

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For further information on native plants, I highly recommend the following books by Allan Armitage and William Cullina; two accomplished, renowned, horticulturalists and brilliant and poetic authors I admire…

William Cullina – Wildflowers

William Cullina – Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens

Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at TGE

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Sweet-Scented August: Clethra Alnifolia

August 17th, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

Clethra alnifolia, North American native “Sweet Pepperbush’

Some of the most beautiful late-blooming shrubs remind me of that childhood tale, “The Ugly Duckling”. Late to leaf out, looking perhaps a bit twiggy and awkward in June, these stars of the late summer garden take their time dressing up for spring. Sweet pepperbush is one of those shrubs. Personally, I never mind shyness, in fact I often find it quite charming. Besides, it’s like they always say, good things often come to those who wait. And in the case of Clethra alnifolia, that old adage couldn’t be more true. This late blooming beauty produces some of the most fragrant flowers in my garden; attracting butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and humans alike. But when most gardeners are out shopping in early spring, Clethra alnifolia is looking a bit scrappy. Lilac, azalea and roses are scooped up at garden centers by the cart-full, while the sweet pepperbush languishes in the corner like a high school wall-flower. It seems like her only fans are horticultural-geeks, (always quick notice her).

Well, don’t you be fooled by the awkward-spring-nature of this gorgeous native plant. Clethra is a knock-out worth waiting for. Just like that skinny girl at the prom, (you remember the one with the metallic braces?), Clethra makes up for lost time a bit later on in the season, when you will be glad you chose her. When the perky roses are past their prime and that showy azalea starts to look a bit shabby, Clethra’s lustrous green leaves still shimmer and shine in the late summer heat. Then, round about August, Clethra really comes into her own. Oh the flowers!  The sweet smell of pepperbush is a fragrance you will never forget. Borne on the current season’s new growth, the elegant blossoms cluster on upright racemes or panicles, often 8-12″ in length. Bloom time begins in late July or early August and continues for at least 4-6 weeks, (longer when sited in a moist location with partial shade). And there are so many new cultivars! ‘Ruby Spice’ and ‘Pink Spires’ bloom in glorious shades soft pink rarely seen so late in the season, and creamy ‘September Beauty’ extends the spicy-fragrance right into October here at Ferncliff.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ in mid-August at Ferncliff

Come autumn, the foliage of Clethera alnifolia turns a gorgeous shade of golden yellow, slowly burnishing to a warm, coppery brown. What beauty! I like to surround Clethra with late blooming blue-violet asters, such as Aster oblongifolium, ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, and violet-blue Aconitum (Monk’s Hood). Placing violet against the gold is a great way to bring out the intensity of both colors. Because of its honey gold autum foliage, Clethra also looks beautiful when planted near darker foliage shrubs such as purple-leafed Cotinus, and Physocarpus cultivars ‘Diabolo’, ‘Coppertinia’, and ‘Summer Wine’. The multicolored autumn leaves of Fothergilla gardenii and many Viburnum cultivars also make great border-mates for Clethra alnifolia.

And now, at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, is the time when I say : “but wait… that’s not all”! Because Clethra alnifolia is a native to North America, growing this shrub is one of the kindest things you can do for late season bees, butterflies and birds. Since many suburban gardeners lean toward spring-blooming shrubs in their planting schemes, few backyard food sources remain for our pollen-dependent friends in the latter part of the season. By choosing late-blooming shrubs and perennials, a gardener can help give back some of the natural habitat we humans have taken away with our subdivisions, lawns and hardscaping. Not only will you enjoy the fragrance of sweet pepperbush in your garden, but the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies will delight in Clethra’s sweet elixir.

Ready to add sweet pepperbush to your garden? Like most ‘ugly-duckings’ Clethra alnifolia has an easy-going personality. And, as is the case with many native plants, this is generally a pest-free shrub with few diseases. Keep in mind Clethra’s needs and you won’t be disappointed. The sweet pepperbush is native to woodlands and swamps from Nova Scotia on south to Florida, (zone 4 – 9). As such a plant, Clethra prefers semi-moist, slightly acidic soil conditions, (though average, well prepared and mulched garden soil will do fine). Also a plus, Clethra can tolerate a bit of shade from taller shrubs or trees. But do keep in mind, this is a suckering shrub, so give it plenty of room to spread out, (cultivars vary in size from small to large, but the species can grow from 4-12′ high and 6-10′ wide or more). Because the blossoms of sweet pepperbush occur on new-growth late in the season, any pruning should take place in the early part of the year,(ideally before June 1st). Be certain to make shallow-angled cuts on the alternate leafed branches, just above an outward facing leaf-bud. Clethra alnifolia forms a loose, natural-looking hedge when planted in groups, and except for the removal of spent blossoms, I avoid most pruning. However, should you find that your sweet pepperbush gets a bit wild and unruly, a severe pruning in early spring will rejuvenate her beauty. To my eye, Clethra alnifolia is always the perfect garden swan.

Clethra alnifolia, ‘Ruby Spice’ in bud at Ferncliff

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Article and Photographs Copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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