Spring Ephemerals by Teri Keith

I always feel like the Winter Solstice is an emotional turning point that comes each year when it’s needed most.  The world stops darkening and the sun begins its long climb back to summer.  It is accompanied by winter festivities that celebrate (directly or indirectly) the great turnaround.  When our kids were small, spring hikes were a yearly occurrence.  Nearby nature preserves, state parks and even city parks and secluded woody hollows sometimes had amazing displays of spring wildflowers. At some point I decided we could have a spring wildflower display in our own yard.  After all, how hard could it be?  Those things are natives and grow everywhere!

Those wildflowers, known as spring ephemerals, are a somewhat unusual, but time honored, gang of plants.  They are perennial woodland plants that are mainly found in the eastern U.S. and Canada. They emerge quickly in the spring, when sunlight warms the soil, but leaf canopies have not yet cut off the sunlight. Ephemerals quickly bloom and produce seed.  Plant stems and leaves will wither back to their underground parts (roots, rhizomes or bulbs) for the remainder of the year.  Fallen leaves provide mulch for the plants and the leaves break down, enriching the soil and provide a food base for detritivores and potential pollinating insects.

Here are some common native spring ephemerals:

  • Spring Beauty
  • Cutleaf Toothwort
  • Dutchman’s Breeches
  • Twinleaf
  • Bloodroot
  • Celandine Poppy
  • Shooting Star

Spring ephemerals are woodland plants that live around the base of deciduous hardwood trees. Soils tend to be rich in organic material with a crumbly texture.  Dry, sandy soils or heavy wet clay soils a generally unsuitable for ephemerals, except shooting stars that need well-drained soil.

I like to plant in fall, while the soil is still warm. Add a top dressing of compost, plus a layer of shredded leaf mulch. Depending on the species and the nursery, you may be planting seeds, bulbs, corms or starts. If there are trees around your beds, plant them near the base.  You plants are unlikely to flower the first year, just take care of them and they will do the rest.

Bearing in mind that your ephemerals will spend only a short time entertaining you, you will need to plant some companion plants.  Shade or semi shade perennials are a good bet.

Still, finding a good site for your new ephemeral garden may be a challenge.  Try to find a location that has partial sun/shade in early spring. Do not worry about existing trees or shrubs. By the time they leaf out, your ephemerals should be done flowering for the year. Most of the plants mentioned above like a rich neutral to slightly acidic soil.  If you have moved into a new housing subdivision, you may be forced to deal with clay subsoil that will require amending with compost and fertilizer before you can plant.  Please consider the Black Gold™ line of soil amendments and compost products for your needs.

Soil drainage is another important factor.  Virginia bluebells can tolerate a wet site, while others like shooting star quickly die off on poorly drained sites.  Digging sand into a poorly drained area may help a bit, but for a really wet soil, you should either apply some sort of positive drainage method or find another site.

Some plants can be readily started from seeds, corms, rhizomes or bulbs.  Rue anemone starts well from seeds and spreads by reseeding.  Others like trillium are best started by dividing an existing plant (no poaching).  They can be started by seed, but it may take a few years to flower.

Finally, you do not want to be feeding the local small mammal population more than you already are.  Rabbits, chipmunks, mice, voles, squirrels and others can be a real threat to your ephemerals.  A few years back, we tried growing a lady’s slipper. It did not last the summer before being consumed.  The same occurred with a Helleborine orchid. Spring beauty and trillium are favored sources of food, but most of the plants on our list have toxic stems, roots or foliage.

Of course you want to know how we made out with our own ephemerals.  The orchids were a flop.  So were shooting stars and trout lily. We planted trillium obtained from a local nursery under an oak-leaved hydrangea and snowball bush and they do reasonably well in both locations.  Celandine poppy and Dutchman’s breeches also do well under the snowball bush.  Virginia bluebells have done very well everywhere we planted them.  Of course we still visit the woods in spring, but we do have a small spring show of our own.


About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

Digging Dirt by Teri Keith

Soil is the heart of your garden.  Wherever you decide to set up a garden, you should know that there may be soil factors or problems that you will have to deal with in order to get the most benefit and enjoyment from your efforts. Soil is what is left behind after a long and complex interaction of sun, wind, water, and plant life and soil organisms on some sort of parent material. The latter could be the native bedrock, materials deposited by wind and water, organic material and so forth.

Most undisturbed soils have distinct, well-defined layers that taken together form a soil profiles.  These extend from the ground surface down to native bedrock or to a depth at which soil formation processes are no longer active. Soil profiles describe individual soil types, and provide information regarding fertility, texture, and color, and organic content, moisture holding capacity, erosion potential, chemical characteristics, and suitability for various land uses.

In the United States, soils are the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA provides services not only for farmers, but to gardeners as well. In most U.S. locations, USDA maintains a county or regional presence through Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) offices. These are often excellent sources of local soil information in your area such as soil maps, soil descriptions and other resources such as soil testing.

A soil profile is typically displayed as:

  • O Horizon This is seldom present in recently disturbed soils. The O Horizon provides a habitat for small invertebrates and fungi that process dead organic materials (detritivores), and enrich the soil.

  • A Horizon (Topsoil) The A Horizon is true soil in which most seeds germinate. It reaps the benefits of O Horizon detritivore activity plus the activity of earthworms that carry bits of dead organic material into the soil to feed, aerating and further enriching it.


  • B Horizon (subsoil) The subsoil is just below the topsoil and just above the C Horizon or native bedrock. It contains fewer soluble minerals and less organic material than topsoil, but it is also a place of deposition of soluble minerals and mineral salts.
  • C Horizon This layeris devoid of any organic material and is made up overwatered broken bedrock.

In most cases it is preferable to make the best of the soil you have.  It came with your house, you own it and you need to take care of it. Using deadly chemicals to control weeds, bugs, moles and other annoyances can backfire by killing off beneficial pollinators, beneficial soil bacteria and fungi; detritivores that eat dead organic material and earthworms, not to mention songbirds and small mammals.  Bringing in topsoil is expensive.  The soil may have been to keep the cycle going illegally stripped from another building site.

Any kind of topsoil can be transformed into healthy garden soil with dedication and work. Organic matter needs to be replenished frequently to keep the cycle going.

Here are some ways you can improve your soil.

  • Get a soil test Have your soil tested at the beginning of your project, then every few years thereafter to determine what additional nutrients are needed to promote plant growth and production.

  • Add Compost posed organic material, and it is a wonderful soil additive to improve soil structure, enable them to better retain nutrients and water and keep the soil loose.
  • Mulch Mulching the soil surface helps to keep the soil cool and reduce moisture loss from evaporation.

  • Avoid soil compaction Soil that is hard and compacted will inhibit seedling growth. This can be alleviated by breaking the garden up into smaller beds connected by footpaths.
  • Rotating cover crops. Planting cover crops of nitrogen fixing plants like clover or alfalfa on a portion of your garden beds. This will benefit the doily by increasing fertility. After overwintering, these annual plants will act as mulch

In addition, don’t forget that Black Gold® has a complete line of soil amendments, soil conditioners, and specialty potting mixes. Black Gold® is your indispensible ally in caring for the heart of your garden.


About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

Pruning The Garden in Winter


As for me, I believe that pruning is without doubt the biggest (dreadfulest) but most important job in the winter garden.  Young trees and shrubs need pruning then while the branches are bare.  The rules for pruning flowering shrubs depends on when they bloom.  Spring blooming shrubs (i.e. quince and viburnums that bloom on last year’s wood should never be cut in winter. But only after they bloom.  Summer and fall blooming shrubs such as Hydrangeas will bloom on new wood and can then be cut to the ground in winter.

General Pruning Rules

Be sure to use the right pruning tools for the job. Small pruning saws are best for larger branches.

The first step is to remove all dead wood at its base.  Then look to see if any branches are crossing and rubbing together. If you find crossing branches, cut one off leaving the best branch to grow.  The next step for almost all non-evergreen shrubs is to cut one-third of the oldest branches to the ground every three years.  This will ensure a new crop of younger shoots each year and help to eliminate pests that often attack the old wood first. A perfect example of this is the lilac.  A common mistake I have seen is to cut some shrubs into forms that are unnatural to their basic shape.  The worst offenders try to prune forsythia into shapes such as globes or rectangles.  There again, give forsythias room to spread and follow the three-year cycle.  If you have a small area buy a small shrub to fill it.  There are a few slow-growing shrubs that do not need pruning at all, as far as its shape is concerned.  The most common plant in our area is the Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata).  Except for dead wood and rubbing branches leave it alone.

Pruning Winter Evergreens

Rhododendrons are and azalea

Pruning rhododendrons and azaleas and is a whole different story.  There is a difference between them relating to pruning, other than flower, leaf, and shrub size.   The difference is where the flower buds are located on the branch and when to prune.  Rhododendron flowers are found just above the leaf rosette and pruning consists of removing the old flowers, after spring blooming, while not hurting the leaf rosette just below it. That is where next year’s buds will form. Aside from removing dead wood, never prune them in winter for fear of removing their spring flowers.

Azaleas, on the other hand, form new buds all along the branch, so they will tolerate some light winter pruning.  Just remove any out-of-place branches, but not all the way back. Then you will have new flowers next spring.

Remember both plants require acidic soil.  If your plants start to look weak or yellow you need a soil additive. Copperas (hydrated ferrous sulfate) an inexpensive powder comes in small bags. Follow the instructions and add to a liquid mix for acid-loving plants.

Pruning Roses

Be sure to remove any dead or dying branches before you really start pruning living branches.

Roses are in a group by themselves. The main rule is to get rid of the old wood to discourage pests and encourage new growth (= more roses).  There are two groups of roses, one that blooms on last year’s wood and one that blooms on this year’s new growth. With both groups remove the oldest and weakest canes.  The oldest canes tend to be dark brown and woody. They need to go. The new-growth roses should have one-third of all old branches cut to the ground to keep the plant from pouring energy into maintaining old growth, and it should be done in the very early spring just when the buds begin to swell.  For a fuller-looking plant cut some of the inward-growing branches to open up the center.  For roses that bloom only on one-year-old wood (and I do not think there are many of these left) look at the stems.  They should be brownish-green.  Leave them and cut out anything older, but be sure to let new growth come along for next year. (Article: When is the Best Time to Prune Roses)

I also caution against the dreaded rose rosette virus.  (Article: Best Diseases-Resistant Roses) If you see any misshapen or oddly colored growth dig up the plant and burn it or put it into a large plastic bag to put in the trash. Even if everything looks okay douse your pruners with 70% Isopropyl Alcohol between each rose.  I encourage everyone to go online and see what bad growth looks like.

I also recommend going online to see the gorgeous new varieties of all the plants I have talked about, for example, Hydrangea paniculata images and a world of gorgeous shrubs will appear.

I hope I have given you enough work to keep you out of trouble and I haven’t even gotten to young trees.  So get going and happy gardening.

About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

Favorite Christmas Plants

The U.S. holiday season traditionally kicks off with Thanksgiving and its televised parade extravaganzas (e.g., Macy’s and Philadelphia). Both feature marching bands, lavishly decorated floats, giant balloons and (Oh boy!) Santa Claus.  We are old enough to remember watching the parades on black & white sets. All of that was great fun for our kids too; less so for our grandkids who somehow acquired a streak of cynicism in their teens that I can’t recall before. That’s OK. Christmas is big enough to include both the sacred and secular in its bosom; not to mention the remnants of Pagan traditions dredged up from the past. The latter are best represented by traditional Christmas plants. Here are our own favorites.


Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a shrub-to small tree-sized plant. The winter bloomer hails from Mexico and Guatemala where it was considered by Aztecs to be a symbol of purity and was cultivated as a medicinal plant. The actual flowers are small, green or yellow, and are concentrated in the center of a bunch of leafy bracts at the tip of each stalk. The bracts turn bright red and are typically mistaken for flower petals. This is how they appear when brought home for the holidays. All well and good, except that when the plant is kept and nurtured the following year, no colored bracts. The trick is that the colors of the bracts are created by subjecting the plants to at least fourteen hours of absolute darkness (not even a night light) at a time for 6–8 weeks in a row prior to the holidays.  They also need abundant light during the day for the brightest color.

Poinsettias are reputed to be poisonous (ASPCA link: So, keep pets and little ones away from them, if you don’t want a child, puppy, or kitty sick under the tree.  If you have further questions can always “Ask a Garden Expert” on our Black Gold Page here 

Photo Credit Jessie Keith

Christmas Cacti

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) should not be confused with the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata).  The common names refer to the time of year they usually bloom.  Christmas cactus blooms from December through February. Thanksgiving cactus blooms in November and December. Despite appearances, neither plant is a cactus. Instead they are succulent epiphytes that live on tree branches in subtropical rain forests. So you must not treat them like a standard cactus, or your reward will be a dead plant. On the other hand, Christmas cactus is incredibly easy to start. Just pick off a Y-shaped piece and stick it in a pot of moist Black Gold© Succulent and Cactus Mix and you are done.

Plants should be kept in bright, indirect light. An east-facing window or a bright bathroom is ideal. Too much direct sunlight can bleach the sensitive leaves. A daytime temperature of 70°F (21°C) and an evening temperature of 60-65°F (15-18°C) is best. In the summer, Christmas cacti can be placed in a shady spot in the garden or in an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50°F (10°C). Keep them out of direct outdoor sunlight.

Photo Credit Jessie Keith


The genus holly (Ilex spp.) is the primary representative of the holly family, Aquifoliaceae. Popular decorative hollies with red berries and spiny leaves are Ilex aquifolium in the Old World and Ilex opaca in North America. In Europe, Holly branches have long been used to decorate homes in winter. The tree was seen as a fertility symbol and a charm against witches, goblins and the devil. And it was thought to be unlucky to cut down a holly tree. When British colonists arrived in North America, they were surprised to find holly was already present, similar, though a different species.

American holly grows as an understory tree in forests of south and southeastern United States, and reaches a height of 30 feet or more.  With its dark green, prickly foliage, solid pyramidal shape, and abundant crops of red berries on female trees, American holly is a great asset to any yard or garden. With careful pruning, enough holly boughs can be cut to deck your halls quite nicely without damaging your tree. If you don’t have your own trees. Attempting to collect your own holly bought in the wild may be fruitless at best, as American holly is not a particularly common tree anywhere in its range. Attempting to gather holly on public land may also be illegal. If you ask nicely, a kindly understanding neighbor may allow you to take a few. Otherwise, I recommend checking with local Christmas tree merchants.

Photo Credit Jessie Keith

Whatever you come up with, we wish you the joy of the season. And, keep safe.

About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.


When I was a child my parents had a beautiful flowering bush next to the front porch.  It bloomed in the spring with small pink trumpets that had gold etching inside. It turned out that the name was fittingly Beauty Bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis). Now I have a gorgeous one arching over my pond.  Not something you see often – something different.


There are quite a few shrubs that are a delight in the spring and throughout the year yet are for most people something different.  Beauty Bush is still available, now in fancy varieties such as ‘Maradco’ and ‘Dream Catcher’ with ever changing foliage: copper in early spring, yellow in May, chartreuse in summer and orange and gold in fall. The height is 7 to 8 ft. and it likes full sun (plus it’s deer resistant).

photo credit to Jessie Keith

Deutzia ‘Duncan’ and ‘Chardonnay  Pearls’ are low growing shrubs only 2 to 3 feet tall with willow like leaves. The branches are covered with tiny, white flower buds resembling pearls. The buds open to a myriad of fragrant flowers in April to May. This variety also has lemon-lime leaves as one of its benefits.  Deutzia likes sun to part shade and will grow in our clay soil.


Hydrangea ‘Quick Fire’ is a new paniculata hydrangea with many advantages.  It starts blooming a full month earlier than others of it species and is in bloom from early summer to late fall.  Flowers are cone shaped and white to start. They turn pink and then a dark rosy-pink in the fall. It likes full sun to full shade so you can put it anywhere.  It is a rather large shrub at 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide so give ‘Quick Fire’ plenty of room.  All paniculata hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so they can be pruned to the ground in late winter or early spring.  Unlike big-leaved hydrangeas, this and the following hydrangea varieties never die in the winter and you will have them for many years.


Hydrangea arborescens with white ball-shaped blooms has also been improved.  The ‘Annabelle’ series have stronger stems than the other types and so won’t flop over.  Besides the familiar white Annabelle, now there is ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ which produces pink blooms from June to September on new wood and can be pruned from the ground to 1 foot each winter.  They like partial shade, and grow in clay, rocky, wet, or dry soil.  It has a height of only 4 feet and I highly recommend them.


Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ is a new variety of this unusual shrub.  It has fragrant, upright, white bottle brush flowers in late April to May.  The leathery leaves are up to 4 inches long. They are a beautiful blue to blue green, then turn red and orange in the fall.  To keep the blue color, plant in part shade and well drained acidic soil. Feed with a rhododendron fertilizer.  ‘Blue Shadow’ is a slow grower that will grow to 6 feet over 10 years.



Most of us are familiar with butterfly bushes, but not with the new Flutterby Petite series.  This is the first butterfly bush that can be used as a ground cover or container plant.  ‘Petite Blue Heaven’ only grows 2 feet 6 inches tall and wide, with beautiful purple-blue blooms and silver leaves.  ‘Petite Pink’ has medium to dark pink flowers and only gets 1 to 2 feet tall and wide.  Plant in full sun in medium to semi- dry soil.  Butterfly bushes bloom from summer to frost and are heat and drought tolerant only needing occasional clipping of old flowers.


The last shrub on my list is beauty berry ‘Wine Spritzer’.  Beauty berries are usually grown for the purple berries they bear in fall, but ‘Wine Spritzer’ has gorgeous large white and green sprinkled leaves with burgundy stems as well.  It likes well drained soil and is heat and deer tolerant.  It does best in sun but will grow in partial shade and gets 4 to 5 feet tall. If cut to the ground each winter, it will improve leaf variegation for the next year.  By the way, an old wives tale that says rubbing the leaves of beauty berries on your skin will repel mosquitoes and ticks has been proved to be true by the USDA.


You will not have to go far to try any of these wonderful shrubs as all are carried by Bloomington Valley Nursery on old 37 south.  I know you will be glad you did.

About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

Winter Refugees

Fall is a time for change. The old year is slipping away. And despite our best intentions the yard and garden start getting unkempt and a bit seedy. The vegetable garden (if you put one in) has given up most of its bounty and what is left tends to be root vegetables like turnips and beets. It is a time for asters and mums to show their stuff before a big freeze sets in.
Most falls find us trying to decide how and where to make extra room indoors for some winter refugees. That is, annuals that have done well in the growing season that we hope might reward us with a bit more beauty in exchange for a sunny window and regular watering.
In recent years, I have devoted more time to container gardening on our back deck. Recent favorites have included geraniums, gerbera and coleus. However, bringing plants inside does not always work. Here is a list of things to consider before bringing your favorite plant indoors.
Clean pots; remove dead or unhealthy growth.
Check for pests; treat with pesticide or leave outdoors.
Repot if necessary.
If you are not repotting, top off plant with fresh soil.
Rinse and water.
Ensure you can meet all of the plants’ indoor needs, especially air temperature, humidity and light
Keep the plant out of reach of animals and children, if necessary.

Geraniums and pots were rather made for one another. Our deck has a southern exposure so sun is not a problem in summer; but they should be kept in a location that is sheltered from prevailing winds. In fall, it is simply a matter of hauling them in the house, 2-gallon pots and all. If indoor space is going to be a problem, you can take cuttings and place them directly into a potting mixture in 8-inch pots. Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Mix offers a great substrate for potting full sized geraniums or cuttings. Make sure your mixture is well drained. Water the plants when the potting mixture is dry, but do not overwater. Geraniums need lots of light to flower so give it a south- or southwest facing window. Avoid heating registers or cold drafts.

Photo credit to Jessie Keith

Coleus hail from Asia, Africa and Australia. They became popular as bedding plants in Victorian gardens. More recently, plant breeders have developed many new varieties that I love. Coleus is mostly valued for its intricate multicolored foliage. The blue, purple or white flowers are insignificant. In summer, I like to put them outdoors in 4- to 8-inch pots in front of garden beds or along garden walks. Pinching back new shoots will encourage new growth. While it is important to keep the soil moist, avoid overwatering. Indoors, Coleus likes bright light. However, they are poisonous to cats and dogs; so if Rover or fluffy like to munch on household plants, it might be wise to give this indoor plant a miss.

Bigleaf Begonia is another favorite of mine. They have waxy green to bronze leaves.  Outdoors, it can be placed in full sun to shade, and is considered a low-maintenance plant. It can grow to 18 inches in height. When I bring them indoors, I generally upgrade them to the next largest pot filled with a Black Gold® potting mixture. Indoor plants need full to partial sun and frequent watering to keep the soil moist. It is somewhat poisonous to house pets so be careful.

Gerbera is also known as Transvaal Daisy. These beautiful plants produce flowers that resemble giant daisies in bright candy colors of red, yellow orange and pink. They like a rich soil with added organics like Black Gold® Natural & Organic Raised Bed & Potting Mix. Make sure the pot has an adequate drain hole.  Feeding will also help with bloom production.  Feeding every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer (24-8-18) will encourage blooming. Set pots near a sunny window so they can get bright indirect sunlight. Sunlight will encourage blooming, but too much direct sunlight can harm young plants. Good air circulation is also important to reduce humidity and discourage fungal growth. Take care not to overwater Gerbera. Do not water until the top inch of the potting mix is dry. Gerbera is also somewhat toxic for cats so be careful.

About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

Climbing Wonders


Climbing Wonders

In the heat of the summer, here in the Midwest, many of the most beautiful, flowering garden vines are blooming their hearts out.  When I go out on the back deck, the Morning Glories (Ipomoea) are about to start opening their large trumpet shaped flowers, which will last until frost.  Morning Glories are native to Mexico, and were thought to have spirits by Native Americans.  The first one to become popular in modern times is ‘Heavenly Blue’. Some years ago, I planted ‘Heavenly Blue’ in one of my gardens.  Morning Glories reseed, and after a few years, I had pink, dark blue, purple and magenta flowers, coming up every year. Now seeds are available in all these colors, plus red, white and yellow, some with stripes.

Morning Glories are annuals that flower from early summer to frost.  Plant them in full sun, in any well drained, soil and keep the soil moist.  Soak the seeds for 8 hours, in ½-inch water, before planting.   Find a trellis, a fence, or a pole, to give them something to climb.

Hummingbirds and bees will be happy if you plant Morning Glories, but deer will not.

Clematis have been popular since 1862, when Clematis jackmanii, a purple flowering vine, was discovered in the Orient.  Since then several hundred varieties have been developed, with colors including blue, pink, white and deep red.  Most of them are single star shaped flowers, but some have gorgeous puffs, such as ‘Taiga’, a winner at the famous Chelsea Garden Show in 2017, with bright purple blue flowers, and centers of, white tipped petals that curve in.  ‘Rouge Cardinal’, another beauty, has 4 to 6 inch wide flowers of red with small white centers, and I even have one with small, blue, bells, ‘Roguchi’. Clematis is a perennial, and will come back every year on its own.  They range from 3 to 20 feet long, and can be trained along a fence, or trellis.  Plant in full sun, well-drained soil, with the crown 2 inches, below the surface.  Clematis are deer resistant.

Honeysuckles (Lonicera) are an old-fashioned favorite.  They have a strong, sweet fragrance, as well as beautiful, tube shaped flowers.  There are two kinds of Honeysuckle plants, shrubs and vines.  One of the shrubs, Lonicera japonica, has become invasive, around the world.  Vines, however, are not a problem, and there are some gorgeous varieties. The Coral Honeysuckle varieties are native plants.  The flowers are fan shaped, and face down.  ‘Major Wheeler’ is covered with red and gold flowers all summer long.  It grows 6 to 8 feet tall and 5 to 10 feet wide.  ‘Goldflame’ has bright rose buds that open to yellow flowers, on 10 to 15 foot tall, and 5 to 6 foot vines and ‘Scentsation’s flowers, are yellow and white, and are extremely fragrant. It gets 10 feet tall, and 6 feet wide. Honeysuckles are one of the humming bird’s favorite flowers, and are deer resistant. Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil.

Last, but the best, are climbing roses.  You do not often hear about climbing roses here in the US, but they are common in Britain. You may have seen them, clambering up  English cottages, in British TV shows, like Midsomer Murders, or Downten Abbey, but these roses would only bloom in spring.  Seventy years ago, an English rose breeder, named David Austin, began cross breeding these roses with Chinese roses that bloom all season. The results are spectacular.  Most range from 6 feet, up to 12 feet, but some are even taller. They have a classic English rose shape, with an outside layer of flat petals, and a thick, bowl shaped, packed center, you will not see in the US.  They come in every color, white, pink, peach, rose, yellow and red.  Most have a strong fragrance as well.  These roses have been available in America for many years. Just go online, or order a catalog.  Some of my favorites include, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, pink, ‘Lady of Shalott’, peach, ‘Zepherine’ deep rose, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, red. Plant with the crown at ground level, in a hole a little bit bigger then the plant.

For best results, with all garden plants, dig the hole, put a generous amount of Black Gold® Garden Soil in the bottom, then mix some more in the soil you are putting back into the hole.  Sprinkle with Osmocote on the top, and find a place to plant a climber.


About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.


Hydrangeas are a genus of woody perennial shrubs. The majority are small to medium-sized shrubs, and four species and their varieties have found their way into American gardens. Flower forms are variable: lacecap flowers are more or less flattened with small flowers in the center and larger flowers around the edge; mophead flowers are arranged in a dome shape; ball hydrangea flowers are arranges in large, showy balls, and panicle hydrangea flowers are arranged in closely packed pyramidal clusters. Hydrangeas are native to western Asia, South America and eastern and southeastern North America. Hydrangeas can tolerate all sorts of shade or sun conditions, but cannot withstand dry soil conditions.

Hydrangea paniculata (Panicle Hydrangea)

Panicle hydrangeas are virtually indestructible, always a plus in a family with small children or pets.  They are native to southern and eastern Asia. They can grow up to 8 feet, but are usually shorter.  Paniculata does well in full sun to partial shade and is hardy in zones 3-8.  The flowers are on cone-shaped panicles, up to 16 inches long, and they attract pollinators.  Prune the stems back to 6 inches tall in late winter or early spring. Here are some excellent varieties:

‘Moonrock®’ This gorgeous 5-6 foot tall shrub features creamy white flowers with lime green centers. Flowers in late summer but lasts through fall.

‘Firelight®’ This new, cold-hardy 6-foot hydrangea sports creamy white flowers on large panicles that bloom in summer then gradually turn pink in fall.


Hydrangea quercifolia (Oakleaf Hydrangea)

Oakleaf hydrangeas are hardy in Zone 5-8. They are an easy to grow shrub and are native to the southeastern United States. Their leaves resemble large oak leaves 4-12 inches long, hence the name.  Height varies from 3 feet to 8 feet.  They don’t need pruning other than removal of dead branches and blooms.  The large panicle flowers appear in May to July and stay on the plant until frost. They grow in full sun to part shade, tolerate heat and like moist, well drained soils.  They attract pollinators, but are not deer resistant. Some of the best varieties are:

‘Gatsby Pink’  has large pink blooms.  It is 6 feet to 8 feet tall and wide, so give it some room.

‘Ruby Slippers’ is a dwarf variety only 3 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide ‘Ruby Slippers’ made itself into our garden a few years ago.  It has 9 inch flowers that turn deep red, and is a fast growing quick blooming shrub.

Hydrangea arborescens (Smooth Hydrangea)

Smooth hydrangeas are native to the eastern United States.  They will grow in all soils including clay. Smooth hydrangeas like sun to part shade, have few pests and are hardy in zones 3-9.  They have a ball type flower form.  Prune to the ground in late winter. Here are a couple of outstanding varieties:

‘Incrediball’ has white balls up to 12 inches in diameter.  They are 5 feet tall and wide, are long bloomers and will grow rapidly, blooming the first year.

‘Invincibelle’ is a Proven Winner. it has hot pink flowers that fade to soft pink and is a rebloomer from early to late summer.  It is only 3 to 4 feet tall and wide.


Hydrangea macropylla (Bigleaf Hydrangea)

This is a native of Japan. Flowers are either mopheads or lacecaps (not both). Mopheads will remain attractive longer. Other than that, they have the same growth and care characteristics. Flower colors depend on soil pH. Soil pH below 6.0 yields bluish blooms; soil pH above 7.0 yields reds; soil pH between 6 and 7 yields blooms of bluish-pink. Hardy in Zones 6-9 and may grow up to 7 feet tall. Prune late fall to early spring by cutting branches back to the first large new bud. They do best in full sun to partial shade  and need moist but well drained soil. They do not attract pollinators, but most information sources consider them to be deer resistant. Here are some excellent varieties:

‘Big Daddy’ prefers full to partial shade. Enormous ball-shaped flowers up to 14 inches in diameter. Shrubs have a rounded appearance and grow 5-6 feet tall.

‘Masja” is a dwarf mophead hydrangea with flowers up to 6 inches in diameter. It blooms in mid to late summer. The flowers maintain their color for a long time, then turn a metallic hue. Leaves may turn reddish in fall. Perfect in containers too.


About Teri Keith

Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.


Bold Aroids for Big Summer Color

The colorful, pink, red, and green leaves of ‘Caroline Whorton’ will brighten up any shade bed.

Summer is almost upon us, so it is time to start thinking about what beautiful plants we want to fill our gardens and containers with this year. Usually, I think of flowers, but I am also going to get some beautiful aroids for foliage as well.  All are tropical members of the Arum family (Araceae), which is the same family as the eastern native wildflower Jack-in-the-Pulpit, but their show is in their impressive leaves rather than their unusual flowers.

Growing Preferences for Garden Aroids

These aroids grow best in full to part shade, and they like warmth and humidity. This is because many originate from tropical rain forests from around the world, particularly in the Americas. Those mentioned in this article have impressive leaves and rarely flower in temperate regions. The blooms, if they do appear, consist of a single, large petal-like spathe that surrounds a column of flowers called a spadix. (Click here to see a spathe and spadix bloom.)

The plants require constant moisture, without saturation, and loose, well-drained soil. If your soil has low fertility, adding an amendment is recommended. Working ample amounts of Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss into your garden soil will increase its organic matter, helping it drain more quickly but stay moist. Peat also slightly reduces soil pH, which the aroids mentioned here prefer (6.0-7 pH). For container-grown aroids, Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix is the perfect option.


Bottlerocket is a brilliant Sun or Shade Caladium from Proven Winners. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

About Caladiums

For me, the top aroids on the list are caladiums (Caladium hybrids, Zones 9-11), also called angel’s wings. They love full to part shade (more shade is needed in hotter climates) and provide a lot of color to low-light gardens. They range in size from 1 foot to 2.5 feet tall and have 6- to 12-inch leaves. The gorgeous plants have big, heart-shaped, or strap-shaped leaves that come in shades of white, pink, red, and green, most often in a dazzling mix of bright colors on each leaf. Thousands of varieties have been developed since the late 1700s when they were first introduced from South America to Asia, Europe, and the Americas. They are popular garden plants worldwide.

Growing Caladiums

Caladiums are often grown as annuals in the north. This is because they are a challenge to dig and overwinter indoors. They have tuberous roots, somewhat like potatoes, only much smaller. In winter storage, the fleshy roots often die from fungal rot, both tuber rot (Fusarium solani) and root rot (Pythium myriotylum). Despite these challenges, I have read that with special treatment and care the tubers can be overwintered. The key is keeping them warm and lightly moist. An application of copper sulfate fungicide before they go into storage can also help. With this information in hand, I am going to treat mine with fungicide and store them properly this winter to see if I cannot get them to survive until early spring when they can be planted again. In tropical to subtropical areas, Caladiums winter over in the ground and have a short dormant period.

‘Red Flash’ Caladium and the strap-leaved ‘Pink Symphony’ are just two of hundreds of lovely Caladium to buy.

When planting Caladium tubers in the spring, start them indoors in a fresh potting mix. Plant them no more than 2-3 inches deep and 6 inches apart.  To encourage more large leaves, remove the large central bud from the tuber while leaving the smaller outside buds to send up leaves. This gives the smaller buds more food from the start, which helps them get bigger faster. After planting them, fertilize with Proven Winners Continuous-Release Plant Food because they are heavy feeders. The 6-month formulation feeds plants throughout the growing season with only one application.

They require warm temperatures of 65-75 degrees F and good humidity. Before planting them outdoors, the days and nights should be warm. This may mean waiting until early June to plant them in northern zones.  Tubers that are directly planted in the cold, spring ground will often rot and die.

Caladium Varieties

There are so many wonderful Caladiums to grow! Some excellent varieties include the white ‘Fiesta’ with red veins, dark green ‘Red Flash’ with red veins, and green-faced white ‘June Bride’. The especially colorful ‘Carolyn Whorton’ has light green leaves with splotches of pink and red veins. Some newer varieties have been bred to grow well in the full sun or shade. The best of these are Sun or Shade Caladiums by Proven Winners. The celebratory Sun or Shade Bottle Rocket, with its brilliant red, pink, white, and green leaves, is especially pretty.

Good sources for every Caladium you might want are Caladium World, Caladiums Florida, and Fancy Plants Farm. They are all based in Florida where Caladiums are cultivated, so you know that you will be getting the freshest tubers available. No rot here.

Elephant Ears

The leaves of true taro (Colocasia esculenta) are beautiful in their own right.

About Elephant Ears

There are two other genera of common garden plants related to Caladium that have big, beautiful leaves. They are the elephant ears, Alocasia and Colocasia. One layman’s way to tell them apart is that many common garden Alocasia have leaves that point up and Colocasia have leaves that point down, though this is not always the case. Both have fleshy root structures that are either bulbs, rhizomes, or tubers, depending on the species. The plants naturally spread as they grow and can be separated and replanted each season. They are also nice to share with friends.

Growing Elephant Ears

Unlike Caladiums, elephant ears will generally tolerate more sun, and many like moist or even wet soil. When you plant them outdoors in the warmth of the late spring, mix Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend into the soil to increase fertility. Water plants in the ground 2 to 3 times a week and containers daily in the absence of rain. An application of continuous-release plant food will help them take off quickly and feed them through summer.

Like Caladium, before planting elephant ears outdoors, the soil needs to be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.  To get them going earlier, start them in pots indoors in a warm spot with bright, indirect light. Plan for garden space because elephant ears can get very large. Be sure to use the spacing guidelines provided. Potted elephant ears need large containers; half whisky barrels work well.

Water them well. Do not let the soil dry out, and water when it becomes dry about 1 inch down. Plant the large bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep. In the fall, the bulbs can be dug and overwintered in a cool, dry place. In warmer zones, cut back the leaves, cover the crowns with mulch, and leave the tubers in the ground to overwinter. They should come back next spring.

Elephant Ear Varieties

Giant taro is commonly sold as huge bulbs in the spring. Plant them outdoors once the soil warms and give them space.

Giant taro (Alocasia macrorrhizos, Zones 9-11) is cultivated across tropical Asia and has huge green leaves that point upwards. The plants can reach 6-15 feet, depending on the size of the bulb and whether it is being grown in a temperate or tropical climate. Give it a lot of space, water, and care, and you will be rewarded with an impressive garden specimen. Dig and overwinter the bulbs in cold-winter climates.

Portora giant elephant ear (Alocasia ‘Portora’, Zones 7-10) is a hardier and slightly shorter plant that reaches 4-8 feet. It has striking, large, upright green leaves with wavy edges. Grow it like giant taro. Consider protecting it with a layer of mulch in the fall to help it overwinter where hardy.

Polly African mask (Alocasia ‘Polly’, Zones 10-12) is a more compact plant with narrow dark green leaves that have striking white veins and scalloped edges. It looks especially beautiful in containers and also grows well as a house plant.

Black Velvet elephant ear (Alocasia reginula ‘Black Velvet’) is a compact form that reaches just 20 inches tall. It has large, dark leaves with prominent white veins. Each feels like velvet. Grow these in outdoor containers and pot them up as houseplants in the fall. They pair well with colorful begonias. (Click here to read my article about cascading begonias.)

Polly African mask is one of many smaller elephant ears that grow well indoors and outdoors.

True taro or elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta, Zones 8-10) is the most common of all the elephant ears. It likes full sun to shade and all moist soils, even clay. During dry times, don’t forget to give it 3 to 4 inches of water every week. Mulching also helps to keep in the moisture. Where not hardy, dig them before frost. Lift the bulbs and store them in dry peat moss, in a cool, dark area indoor area. There are lots of very pretty varieties including the purple dappled ‘Mojito‘, bold, upright ‘Coffee Cups’ with its cup-shaped leaves with dark purple veins, and the classic ‘Illustris‘, which has elegant leaves of darkest purple and green veins. ‘Jack’s Giant‘ has all of the looks of the standard taro but it’s really big!

Thai Giant elephant ear (Colocasia gigantea ‘Thai Giant’, Zones 8-10) can get really large, so leave plenty of room outside if you want one. (I plan to grow one this year in a damp spot of the garden.) Mature specimens can reach 9 feet tall with leaf blades that are 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It can have scented white flowers as well, but these are less common in temperate climates.

Any of these beautiful aroids will add impressive beauty to the garden. I hope this article has given some gardeners the desire to plant one of these bold, unusual plants.  I am buying ‘Thai Giant’ today!

Special Note: There are toxic irritants in the leaves of most aroids, so wear gloves when cutting them. Refrain from planting them if you have pets or small children that might ingest them. Visit the ASPCA to learn more about their toxicity to animals. If someone ingests some, be sure to contact Poison Control.

Favorite Flowering Ground Covers

‘Shell’Pink’ and ‘Orchid Frost’ lamiums look lovely side-by-side.

If you have a garden area that needs filling in, whether along a slope, between plants, or beside stone steps or rocky retaining walls, there are many beautiful perennial groundcovers for the job. They range from ones that do well in hot, dry areas to others that like moist shade.  I have chosen groundcovers that have beautiful leaves as well as flowers, which do not overwhelm surrounding plants and are easy to grow.

Flowering Groundcovers for Full to Partial Shade

‘Orchid Frost’ is one of many pretty deadnettles for shady gardens.

Spotted Deadnettle (Lamium maculatum, Zones 3-8): One of my favorites for shade is named spotted deadnettle, or simply deadnettle, even though it has no prickly nettles.  I have had several varieties in my shade garden for years. The early summer flower stalks are about 7 inches tall, rising over 4-inch-tall plants that spread several feet across. There are lots of varieties with variously spotted leaves and blooms of purple, pink, or white that are visited by bees. My favorite varieties include ‘Orchid Frost’ with lavender flowers and beautiful silver leaves, ‘Aureum‘ with bright pink flowers and white-striped gold leaves, Shell Pink‘ with palest pink blooms, and ‘White Nancy’, which has white flowers and silvery leaves. Lamium is deer-resistant, spreads gently, and is easily divided and transplanted. Plant it along shaded bed edges or allow it to cascade from the side of a shaded container garden. Lamium likes full to partial shade, and moist, well-drained soil.

Fragrant sweet woodruff flowers and plants look attractive in shaded gardens.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum, Zones 4-8): Another partial- to full-shade groundcover is European sweet woodruff, which also has the benefit of being an herbal plant used to flavor May wine in Europe. It has clusters of starry white flowers in the spring and whorled, star-shaped leaves; both are fragrant, but it’s the flowers that are used to flavor the wine. (Click here for a May wine recipe.) Sweet woodruff is about 8 inches tall and gently spreads around trees and shrubs.  It likes moist, well-drained soil and is deer resistant!

Wild ginger creates mats of attractive foliage through the growing season.

Wild Gingers (Asarum spp., Zones vary): There are many wild gingers with lovely ground-covering foliage and interesting beetle-pollinated spring flowers. The popular native species is Canadian wild ginger (Asarum canadensis, Zones 2-8). Its medium-green, heart-shaped leaves look very pretty on bed edges or to hold shaded garden banks. Chinese wild ginger (Asarum splendens, Zones 6-8) is more ornamental with its pointed, green leaves that have spectacular silver markings.  ‘Quick Silver‘ is the best variety. Small, three-petaled, purple flowers appear around the base of the plants in spring. It also does well in full to part shade.  Most Asarum reach 6 to 8 inches, like average well-drained soil, and are deer resistant.

‘Cutting Edge’ Tiarella has attractive spring flowers and lovely leaves. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Foamflower (Tiarella spp.): These pretty native perennials have attractive, lobed foliage and spires of foamy flowers that appear in late spring. The flowers may be ivory or pink and attract both bees and butterflies. The pretty clumps of ornate leaves spread over time. Try the new Proven Winners variety ‘Cutting Edge’, which has spectacular green, maple-shaped leaves with red venation. Provide foamflower with full to part shade, and moist, well-drained soil amended with fertile organic matter, such as Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. In fact, this amendment will create a good soil foundation for all of the shade-loving groundcovers mentioned.

Flowering Groundcovers for Full to Partial Sun

Creeping thyme doubles as an herb and groundcover.

Creeping Speedwell (Veronica prostata, Zones 4-8): Grow this creeping groundcover along a border edge or in a rock garden. The stunning variety, ‘Aztec Gold’, has gold leaves with violet-blue flowers in the early summer.  It reaches 6 inches tall, is heat tolerant, and needs moderate moisture. Deer don’t like it but bees and butterflies do.

Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum, Zones 4-8): This easy garden herb is one of my favorites. It does well between paving stones or cascading down rock walls. The fragrant leaves are tiny plants reach 2-inches-high. The spreading mats have little summer flowers of purple, bright pink, or lavender, depending on the variety you buy. Bees love the blooms! Check out ‘Elfin’ with purple flowers, ‘Annie Hall’ with pink flowers, and ‘Silver Posie’, which has white-edged leaves and lavender flowers. The fragrant leaves can be used in cooking. Thyme needs full sun, very well-drained soil, and is drought-tolerant once established. Like most plants in the mint family, it is also deer resistant.

Creeping phlox is perfect for garden edges and slopes (‘Emerald Blue’ is at the far left, and ‘Candy Stripe’ is at the far right)

Stonecrop (Sedum spp., Zones vary): For hot, dry, sunny, areas nothing can beat, low-spreading stonecrops.  Many have beautiful, succulent leaves, as well as starry flowers that attract bees and butterflies. It is very easy to pull up a piece and replant it to help fill in an area quickly. Some good varieties are the 2-3 inches tall ‘John Creech’ (Sedum spurium ‘John Creech, Zones 3-9) with pink, summer flowers, SunSparkler® Wildfire (Zones 4-9) that has red leaves edged in rose as well as pink flowers in the late-summer, and ‘White Diamond’ (Sedum pachyclados ‘White Diamond’, Zones 5-9) with blue-green rose-shaped leaves and white summer flowers.  The broad-spreading ‘Angelina’ (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Zones 5-9) is a popular variety with gold spiky foliage and yellow summer blooms.  Sedums are drought-tolerant once established.

Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata, Zones 3-9): This has some of the most beautiful flowers of all the groundcovers and blooms for up to 4 weeks in the spring.  It averages 5 inches tall and spreads quickly. Plant creeping phlox in open, sunny areas along slopes or retaining walls, in front of shrubs, or in rock gardens where they will get full sun and well-drained soil.  Look for the colorful varieties ‘Scarlet Flame’ with red-eyed rose-pink flowers, ‘Emerald Blue’ with pale lilac-blue flowers, and ‘Candy Stripe’, which has pink flowers edged in white.  Creeping phlox is deer resistant.

Snow-in-Summer can take heat and drought!

Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum, Zones 3-7): gardeners with hot, dry, sunny spots that need a flowering groundcover should grow snow-in-summer. It creates a broad, spreading mat of silver leaves that erupt with cascades of white flowers in the summer. Try the more compact variety, ‘Yo Yo‘. It is beautiful! Site it as you would creeping phlox. Bees and butterflies love the flowers!

These easy groundcovers will help to provide needed in sweeps across your garden. Buy a few to fill in bare areas, and you will be glad you did.

Groundcovers to Avoid

It is important to note that there are some popular groundcovers to avoid because they are invasive and have become an ecological problem in wild areas. These include groundcover periwinkle (Vinca minor and Vinca major), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), Japanese spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), and worst of all, English Ivy (Hedera helix). English ivy is a tree-killer in zone 7 or warmer (click here to learn more). The evergreen types are truly the worst because they smother native spring ephemerals and other natives along the forest floor. Avoid planting them, if you can.