“I have a shade area with poor soil…I need suggestions for plants, when to plant and how to improve the soil.” Question from Patricia of Knoxville, Iowa
Answer: Thank you for your questions. I encourage you to read a couple of our garden articles that are sure to help you improve your soil and then fill your gardens with the right plants. Any of the plants suggested in the articles can be planted in spring or early summer. Shrubs and perennials can also be planted in fall.
If you are interested in resilient flowering shrubs, I recommend that you plant smooth hydrangea varieties (click here for some great options). They are tough, beautiful, very hardy, and grow well in partial shade. Kodiak® Orange Diervilla is another tough, top-notch option for deep, dry shade.
I am a person who looks at all the new perennials available in local nurseries each spring and always find new ones I cannot live without. When I get home, I look for a spot in my already full flowerbeds and stick my new purchases in. With intention, my carefree, fragrant, flower-filled garden resembles the cottage gardens of Old England. I plant as I wish.
Cottage Garden Origins
Aristocrats who had large country estates needed peasants to bring in the crops and maintain the huge gardens surrounding the mansion. The peasants lived in small cottages on the lord’s property, with stone walls and thatched roofs. The area behind the cottages was solely for vegetables, berries, and fruit-bearing trees, but the front of the cottage was devoted to flowers and herbs planted anywhere there was a space.
A picket fence with a gate ran along the front, and narrow paths wound through the flowerbeds. Most of the flowers and herbs are still used today, with many fancy new varieties available. I have many of them in my garden. Let me share a few that are as tough as nails and will not disappoint you.
Spring Cottage Garden Plants
Meadow or summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8) can reach up to 2 feet tall and has pendulous, bell-shaped white flowers with spots of green–somewhat like a snowdrop. Unlike snowdrops, meadow snowflake blooms in early to mid-summer, and the flowers last for weeks. They grow best in full to partial sun and moist soils with good drainage. The bulbs are planted in the fall.
Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis, Zones 3-9) blooms in early May here in Indiana with dark pink, heart-shaped pendulous flowers that hang along each arching stem. They are loved by bees and hummingbirds, are deer resistant, and reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Plant them in full to partial shade in a spot with fertile soil. As the summer gets hot and dry, bleeding heart will die back and not come up again until the following spring.
Columbine (Aquilegia species and hybrids, Zones 3-8) is a spring delight. The tall, graceful stems have shooting-star blooms that come in practically every color of the rainbow. Columbine gently spread throughout the garden, and grow best in the sun to partial shade. Another thing about columbines that I enjoy is that different varieties will cross with one another and gently self-sow. So, in time those with different colored blooms will show up each year.
Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora and hybrids, Zones 3-8) have some of the most gorgeous late-spring flowers of all. The earliest varieties available just came in pinks, reds, and whites, but now there are a huge number of colors to chose from as new hybrids appear. They may have yellow, orange, and coral flowers with single, semi-double, double petals, or be pleasingly bowl-shaped. The variable flowers are large, and plants are typically around 3 feet tall, give or take. To see the best selections visit Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery’s online store.
When you plant a peony, consider it a longterm commitment. Individual plants live for over 100 years. They grow best in full to partial sun and are quite worry-free if you plant them in well-drained soil. At planting time, amend the soil with Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, cover their crowns with a couple of inches of soil (no more!), and refrain from mulching heavily around them. If allowed to get too wet or mulched too heavily they can get botrytis blight. If you see black spots on the leaves, immediately get a fungicide formulated for flowers and apply. Peonies are also deer resistant.
Summer Cottage Garden Plants
Canterbury Bells (Campanula medium, Zones 5-8) have big, billowing bells of pink, violet-blue, and white that bloom in early summer. They are biennials or short-lived perennials, which means they do not bloom the first year but will in the second and possibly the third year. Plant them in full to partial sun, and give them some space. It is not uncommon for them to reach 2 to 3 feet. The variety ‘Deep Blue’ is tall, heavy flowering, and choice.
Carnations and pinks (Dianthus hybrids) with their fringed petals and sweet fragrance of clove are quintessential cottage garden plants. Thankfully, the sun-loving flowers are still popular today with lots of new varieties to add to a flower border. Proven Winners’ Fruit Punch®Cherry Vanillapinkslook old-fashioned but bloom all season, unlike classic pinks that bloom for a much shorter time in summer. It’s cherry red and double pink flowers are just beautiful. Fruit Punch®Classic Coral is comparable but has pure coral flowers. Both form tidy mounds of grey-green foliage and reach around 1 foot high.
Catmints (Nepeta hybrids) are easy plants to grow. Blueish-purple spikes appear in early summer above scented leaves that are soft gray-green. It is not catnip, but some cats find them attractive. Catmint forms spreading clumps and makes a good ground cover when planted en masse. Old varieties bloomed primarily in early summer, but the new ‘Cat’s Meow’ (20inches x 36 inches, Zones 3-8) and ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ (14 inches x 20-inches, Zones 3-8) bloom all summer, so keep an eye out for them. Catmints like plenty of sun and need well-drained soil. They are deer resistant, and bees love them.
Hollyhocks (Althea rosea) are essential to a cottage garden. Usually planted along the house or the rear of a garden, because of their 6-foot height, they come in shades of pink, yellow, black, salmon, purple, red and white, and have single or double 4 inch flowers along the stem. If given good care, hollyhocks may last for several years. Plant them in full sun and well-drained soil, remove old blooms as they begin to fade, and water when dry, but avoid getting water on the leaves. In the fall, cut the stems to the ground. Hollyhocks like to self-sow, so you may have new plants in spring.
English roses (Rosa hybrids) of all kinds are a cottage garden must, but one cannot imagine a cottage garden without a beautiful climbing rose clambering over the front door and up the walls. Until recently, these roses only bloomed in the spring, but now David Austin Roses, an English rose company with some of the best roses in the world, has climbing roses that bloom spring to fall, in every shade, ranging up to 15 ft. tall. This year bought ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, a red 6-foot climber, and I can’t wait for it to bloom. Roses require full to half-day sun, in well-drained soil, and mulch, leaving a 5-inch space around the base of the plant to avoid crown rot.
There are so many other cottage garden favorites, such as delphinium (Delphinium elatum), blood geranium (Geranium sanguineum), Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), forget-me-nots (Myosotis spp.), English Lavender (Lavandulaangustifolia), and Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis), just start with a small garden and add a few new ones each year that you just can’t live without.
“What are the best perennial plants to use for foundation planting? [I need] something to cover a fairly tall, 5ft swath of concrete foundation. Thank you!” Question from Trish of Newton, New Jersey
Answer: There are lots of wonderful garden perennials ideal for foundation plantings. Those that I recommend the most are long-lived, have a long season of beauty, and perform reliably. When designing a perennial garden for a foundation, It’s always important to plant larger perennials towards the back, graduating to shorter specimens towards the front. Here are some options that mix well together and look great.
Tall Perennial Plants
The perennials listed here are bold, bushy, look good all season, and create good foundation coverage while also creating a nice backdrop for shorter perennials.
Sun KingGolden Japanese Spikenard (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, Zones 3-9, partial sun to shade): Though it only reaches 3 feet tall and wide, ‘Sun King’ has beautiful golden leaves all summer that creates a happy backdrop for flowering perennials.
Morning LightChinese Silver Grass (Miscanthussinensis ‘Morning Light’, Zones 5-9, full sun): The feathery good looks of this 4- to 6-foot grass are always appealing, even in winter.
Prairie Winds®Apache Rose Switch Grass (Panicum virgatumPrairie Winds®Apache Rose, Zones 4-9, full sun): Reaching a maximum of 4 feet, Prairie Winds®Apache Rose has soft blades and rosy, grassy panicles in summer.
Floribunda or Shrub Roses (Rosa spp., hardiness varies, full sun): Ever-flowering, bushy shrub roses are an excellent choice for the back of the border, as long as you choose a really tough, disease-resistant variety. I love the double-pink-flowered Queen Elizabeth, which grows to a maximum of 5-6 feet and stays bushy. The breeders describe it as indestructible.
Tall Phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 4-8, full to partial sun): Two favorite tall phlox varieties are the heavy-flowering, pure white ‘David’ (4 feet) and the coral-pink-flowered Garden Girls™Glamour Girl (3 feet). Both are mildew resistant when most others are susceptible. The only downside to these tall perennials is that they lack winter interest.
‘Denim ‘n Lace’ Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Denim ‘n Lace’, Zone 4-9, full sun): The brilliant violet-blue spires of this 2- to 3-foot shrubby summer bloomer are very impressive and attract bees and butterflies. It also retains a pleasing branch structure in winter.
Hellebores (Helleborus hybrids, hardiness varies, full sun to shade): Hardy hellebores bloom very early in the season, and then maintain attractive evergreen foliage the rest of the year. They mix well with many other perennials along foundation borders. (Click here to read more about hellebores.)
Line the edges of your beds with perennial sedums, low-growing flowers and ornamental grasses, or anything colorful or evergreen. Lots of creeping garden plants look great along a garden edge. (Click here to read more about garden creepers.)
I hope that you use some of these plants to design a spectacular foundation perennial border this year.
Ferns give shade gardens a wistful, woodland look. Most die back after a hard frost, but a few remain evergreen for continued color though winter. Species range from resilient North American ferns to forest dwellers of Europe and Asia, but natives look most at home in American gardens. When planted in swaths, among other perennials, they create a protective winter blanket around the sleeping crowns of their counterparts.
Evergreen ferns are diverse in appearance. Some are huge and dramatic, while others are small and delicate. Each lends its own design possibilities and will stand out in your beds through the cold months. In early spring, cut back winter-worn foliage to allow fresh fronds to unfold.
Culture varies from species to species, but as a group, evergreen ferns generally grow best in full to partial shade and fertile moist to average soils fortified with garden compost, though a few are surprisingly drought and sun tolerant. Many favor slightly acid soils, in which case peat moss would be the preferred garden amendment. The following list of seven species encompasses an array of showy options from across the country.
Select American Evergreen Ferns
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9) is a tough eastern fern that blankets forest floors with green all winter long. It thrives in moist, fertile soils but also grows along shaded rocky uplands where conditions are tougher and water more scarce. The broad clumps have simple dark green fronds that remain upright from spring to fall but flatten when winter hits and snow presses them to the forest floor. Plant this one in masses.
Giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata, Zones 7-10) is the largest of the North American ferns and naturally grows in forests from Arizona to British Columbia. The big, impressive fronds, which can reach between 4-8 feet high and 9 feet wide, lend spacious gardens a primordial look. Sites with partial shade and moist soil are preferred, but once established, this fern can be surprisingly drought tolerant. Don’t plant this one with shy perennials. The biennial Korean giant angelica (Angelica gigas, Zones 4-10) is a beautiful compliment that will grow in partial shade and produces giant, deepest purple domed flowers that reach 6 feet. The 3-6 foot golden Japanese spikenard (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King) is another potential complement. Cut back flagging fronds before the growing season takes off.
Hairy lip fern (Cheilanthes lanosa, Zones 3-8) favors rocky outcrops in the eastern US. It reaches a height of 8 inches but will spread up to nearly 18 inches. Unlike many other ferns, it also grows well in full to partial sun. Its fuzzy fronds look attractive through winter. Any stone wall or rock garden would benefit from the addition of this charming fern. Plant it in slightly acid or alkaline soils that are porous and well-drained with some organic matter.
American Hart’s Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var.americanum, Zones 5-9) fronds lack indentation, which makes them look like green tongues. This eastern species one of the more impressive looking evergreen ferns for gardens, with its upright mounds of bright green foliage that reach 1 to 1.5 feet high. It will spread over time to form a full, broad clump. Grow it in full to part shade in sites with average soils. Plant it with colorful forest bloomers, such as the spring-blooming wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) and summer-blooming Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica). Hart’s tongue fern exists across much of the northern hemisphere and is very adaptable. The Eurasian (Asplenium scolopendrium) is the species most commonly found in garden centers, but it is comparable in looks and preferences.
Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes, Zones 3-9) is another truly lovely, delicate-looking rock fern that is surprisingly tough. Just look at its distinctive little fronds with beads of green. Native populations are widespread across much of the US, Canada, and adjacent Mexico. It tolerates sun and shade and grows well between moist rocky outcrops and woodlands. It forms nice clumps that reach just 4-8 inches. They are slow to grow and spread, so purchase fully grown plants.
Wavy cloak fern (Astrolepis sinuata, Zones 7-9) Here is a southwestern fern that can tolerant dry conditions and sun as well as partial shade. In the wild, it grows alongside rocks and beneath dryland shrubs. The upright, fine-fronded fern reaches 1-1.5 feet and looks delicate but feels tough and wiry. The leaf tops are dusty green, and the backs are almost coppery. Clumps spread to form small colonies. Plant it with low-growing sedums and drought-tolerant grasses, such as Mexican hair grass (Nasella tenuissima).
Wooly lip fern (Cheilanthes tomentosa, Zones 6-8) is a South-Central US native that can also take drier conditions and full sun to partial shade. It has fine, delicate fronds that look better suited to woodlands than rocky outcrops. It makes a good companion with hens and chicks and drought-tolerant grasses.
Winters look better with a few evergreen ferns to improve landscape color when the snow subsides. Keep in mind that smaller woodland types also look great with spring bulbs and native wildflowers, so plant them together to enliven the spring garden as well. (Click here to read more about early spring bulbs.)
To keep perennial garden flowers looking nice in your beds, keep the old foliage, flowering stems, and seedheads but back. Cutting back old perennial parts keeps plants looking clean and attractive and helps rebloomers flower more. Here’s how!
“I have a large area to plant flowers in that gets full sun but I am not sure what design and mixture to use.” Question from Karen of Cannon, Kentucky
Answer: Most garden flowers grow best in fertile soil with excellent drainage. I recommend working up your soil to increase aeration and adding a fertile blend of compost (Black Gold Garden Compost Blend) and peat moss (Black Gold Peat Moss) to ensure they get off to a great start. Adding a slow-release fertilizer formulated for flowers will also help them grow and perform at their best. It may also be wise to get your soil tested for pH. The University of Kentucky does soil testing.
Creating Flower Beds
As far as design, the finest flower gardens edge the periphery of key yard spaces, such as home foundations, fencelines, patios, shrub borders or other signification structural areas of your yard. Flower borders such as these can be designed in straight lines, which provide a classic, formal look, or sweeping curves that give a garden space a more full, curvaceous look.
I recommend planting taller perennials towards the back or centers of the flower garden while leaving space for ground-covering perennials and colorful annuals towards the front of the beds. It is also essential to consider flower color and bloom time when designing with flowers. Dot the garden with flowers in complementary colors that are pleasing to your aesthetic preferences. Then consider bloom time: choose bulbs and perennials for spring, flowers for early summer, and flowers for late-summer and fall. That way, your garden will never look dull and colorless. Everblooming annuals will extend the floral effect.
Choose flowers that are best suited for the heat of your Kentucky summers. Hellebores and bulbs are great for the early season; salvias, daylilies, baptisia, and perennial geraniums are perfect for early summer; coneflowers, perennial blanket flower, tall phlox, and black-eyed-Susans are great for midsummer; and great fall perennials include goldenrods, asters, and Japanese anemones. (Click here to read more about the best garden asters.) Bold, ornamental, perennial grasses also look great in perennial borders.
“What are the best perennials for clay-based soils? Thanks!” Question from Trish of Newton, New Jersey
Answer: There are lots of exceptional perennials adapted to clay soils, and many of the best are regional natives. Here are nine perennials that are beautiful, native, and well-adapted to clay soils in the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve included different plants that look attractive in the garden from early summer to fall.
Nine Hardy Perennials for Clay Soils
1. Orange Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa): In my opinion, this is the prettiest of the butterfly weeds, which are the star plants for monarch butterflies. Its bright orange flowers appear from early to midsummer. Clip back the flowers after their first bloom, and they will rebloom later in the summer. (Click here to learn more about growing butterfly weed.)
2. False Indigo (Baptisia hybrids): There are so many wonderful cultivars of this tall, bushy perennial available at garden centers these days. Their deep roots cut through clay soils, and their spires of early summer blooms come in shades of violet-blue, purple, white, or yellow.
3. Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii): In late summer, this pretty perennial produces upright stems of rosy pink flowers that look much like turtle’s heads. It grows well in moist, clay-rich soils and tolerates partial shade.
4. Coneflowers (Echinacea hybrids): Everyone loves the large, colorful, summer blooms of coneflower. There are lots of hybrids that come in shades of pink, rosy purple, orange, apricot, yellow and white. They bloom in summer and attract bees and butterflies. Cut the old blooms back and plants will continue flowering into fall.
5. Miss Manners Obedient Plant (Physostegiavirginiana ‘Miss Manners’): There are many obedient plants, but most varieties are fast-spreading and can become a little weedy. ‘Miss Manners’ is a white-flowered variety that refrains from spreading and looks very pretty in the late-summer garden.
6. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.): Most Black-eyed-Susans are well-adapted to sun and clay soils. Their sunny summer and fall blooms will brighten any garden and attract bees and butterflies.
8. New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii): For a reliable fall-bloomer for clay, try one of the many varieties of New York asters. Their violet-purple or pinkish flowers add needed color to fall gardens and are a favorite of late-season pollinators. (Click here to read more about growing asters.)
9. Switchgrass (Panicum virginicum): It’s always nice to add perennial grasses to the garden for height and texture. There are many exceptional varieties of switchgrass, and all will grow beautifully in clay soils.
“How early can I start seeds in lower Michigan? Question from William of Southgate, Michigan
Answer: It depends on whether you are growing, annuals, perennials, summer vegetables or spring vegetables. Here’s what I suggest for your USDA Hardiness Zone 6 planting area. (These suggestions may also apply to other gardeners, based on their own specific seasonal planting windows.)
Spring Vegetables: I recommend starting cool-season broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, and spring onion seeds indoors as early as late January, or a month and a half before the spring soil can be worked. Arugula, beets, cilantro, spring carrots, peas, radishes, and turnips should all be starting in-ground as soon as the soil can be worked. Be sure to amend the soil well with compost, label rows, and cover newly planted seeds with a light layer of compost before watering them in. Keep them just moist and they should sprout as the soil gets warmer.
Summer Vegetables: Warm-season vegetables and herbs, like basil, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos, should be started indoors as early as the start of February, or three or more months before planting them outdoors. [Click here for an article about growing tomatoes from seed.] Fast-growing cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash can be planted indoors or out. I prefer starting outdoors in well-amended beds after the threat of frost has passed. Beans, corn, okra, and summer beets (click here for a beet-growing video) and carrots can be started by seed outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. (Click here to search for the average frost date in your area.)
Annuals: Wait until February to start flowering annuals and March or April to start vining annuals, which often grow very quickly and can take over your indoor growing area. To learn more, watch the video below for annual seed-starting tips.
“What is the difference between an annual and a perennial?” Question from Christina of Wheeling, Illinois
Answer: These terms refer to the life cycles of non-woody or herbaceous (leafy) plants. Here are detailed explanations of both.
Annuals live once a year, meaning they sprout, grow, bloom, set seed and die within one growing season. It’s easy to remember because the word annual means occurring once every year.
Many true annuals flower and set seed over a short period of time. The herb borage (Borago officinalis), is a perfect example of a short-lived annual. It grows in the cool spring, blooms in late spring or early summer and then quickly dies. Other annuals will bloom all season long before finally dying in fall. Common cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) and tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans) are two annuals that bloom through much of the growing season.
Perennials live for three seasons or more. The word perennial means continually recurring, and these plants recur for a number of years, some for over 100 years.
Perennials have sturdy root systems that store lots of energy. These plants die to the ground during the winter months (though some, like hellebores (Helleborus spp.), may remain evergreen through winter) and have buds that rest along the soil surface or below the soil. When spring arrives, these buds sprout and new leaves emerge.
Perennial bloom times vary widely. Some may bloom in late winter while others may wait to bloom until the very end of fall. Still, others may bloom through much of the summer. That’s why it is important to know the bloom times of your perennials before planting. Cold hardiness also varies from perennial to perennial, so make sure a plant is hardy to your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone before buying.
Some perennials are short-lived surviving three to four years, while others, like peonies (Paeonia spp.), can live for over 100 years.
The fall season is upon us and what a glorious time of year it is. As I walk around my neighborhood and drive around Portland, the many deciduous trees are turning brilliant shades of color. The more brilliant they are, the better.
Favorite Fall Trees
Many maples are turning red, some are orange, and others are shades of yellow. The Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees are turning golden yellow, and our summer annuals are telling us that their time is almost over. Sometimes we can have a tree that gives us scarlet fall foliage as well as beautiful seed pods. Stewartia pseudocamellia is just such a tree. Mine is planted in my front yard where it takes center stage.
Yet, there is still much color in the garden, not only from foliage but from flowers as well. In my own garden, I am quite a Salvia fan and always willing to try new varieties. This past spring I purchased Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red, and I was rather disappointed with it in summer. It did not flower well compared to my Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’. Well, I had a very pleasant surprise this September. Evidently, Saucy™ Red likes cooler weather, shorter day-length, or maybe both, because it burst into full bloom and has continued ever since. It is mid-October, and the 7-foot-tall plant has burnished scarlet flowers on almost every stem. Sadly, the tender plants are only hardy to USDA Zones 9-10, so I will have to replant if I want to enjoy this Salvia again.
Another new garden flower this year is the 8-foot-tall, large-flowered, Impatiens tinctoria, which comes fromthe rain forests of East Africa. I had first seen it growing in a friend’s garden three years ago and was surprised to learn that it is a winter hardy perennial, surviving USDA Zones 7-11. This is my second year to grow it, and I learned that it likes grows best in shade with protection from the hot afternoon sun. In the spring, I worked lots of humus into the soil around it and mixed in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Today my plants are over 6 feet tall and blooming with a flower that does not look anything like a garden impatiens. These flowers are fragrant at night and attract much attention from garden visitors.
Now is the time of year to put the summer vegetable garden to bed. The tomatoes are finished, as well as the beans, squash, peppers, etc. Once these plants are removed, it is an ideal time to prepare the soil for next season. Mix Black Gold® Garden Soil 0.05 – 0.02 -0.05 into the beds and plant a cover crop. Cover crops are broadcast legumes, or grasses such as buckwheat, that are planted to cover the garden in winter and are tilled under in spring.
Legumes are plants in the Pea Family (Fabaceae) and include clovers and vetches. With the help of symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobium, they “fix” nitrogen from the air back into the soil, making it available to other plants. Thus, by planting a cover crop, you increase the nitrogen level of your soil while also protecting your beds from erosion and aggressive winter weeds. The added organic matter from the spring-tilled cover crop with also benefit your garden soil.
We always get some “sunny windows” during this season. These windows give us a wonderful opportunity to get out in the garden and do fall chores. Fall is also a great time to “edit” your garden. We all have plants that have gotten too big, are in the wrong place, or maybe we are tired of them. Walk around your garden with a note pad and make notes on garden editing that you can do throughout winter. But, most importantly, enjoy the season and its many colors.