Plants & Gardening
I have a passion for plants.
Do you have a shady spot in your garden? An old established tree might take up an entire corner of your yard or a neighbor’s tall house might create a big cool shadow. You might feel discouraged and unsure what to do. Well, don’t worry because you can still grow a lot of colorful plants. If you mix in some fresh compost in the area and occasionally water, you can make several perennials for shade very happy. Here are six of my favorites.
Georgia Peach Coral Bells
Heucheras are wonderful because they don’t just bloom with color but sport colored foliage all season long. And is the orangey-red color on Georgia Peach stunning or what? This evergreen perennial grows to about 12″ tall and puts out tall spikes of teeny flowers that hummingbirds love. To keep it happy, give it a few applications of fish fertilizer in spring and summer. I grow it beside ‘Merlin’ Hellebore (see below) whose dusky rose-colored blooms recall Georgia Peach’s rosy foliage. Hardy to zone 4.
Hadspen Cream Brunnera
With its light blue flowers in April and spade-shaped leaves, Hadspen Cream Brunnera brightens dim areas nicely. It practically glows! I also like Hadspen Cream because the variegation is yellower than other cultivars and therefore, softer in beauty. I’ve also found it’s easier to design with in terms of perennial pairings. It grows to about a foot tall and flowers in delicate blue forget-me-not-like blooms. This photo shows it emerging, not fully grown yet. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Fragrant Blue Hosta
I love hostas. They come in so many colors and sizes. And they’re tough. Yes, slugs might chew little holes in their leaves but a bit of Sluggo or beer will solve that problem. I have many favorites but one I think should be used more is Fragrant Blue. The large-ish leaves beam in the shade with a creamy, greenish-blue color, creating bold impact. The white flowers are fragrant. Grows to about ten inches tall. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Blue Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) cheers up a garden in early spring with delicate, two-toned flowers: pink and smokey blue. The white speckles on the foliage add even more interest, and once this plant takes off, you’ll have lots of babies to either cover your bare ground or pass on to friends. The foliage looks a little tired by late summer but you can cut down the leaves and they’ll grow back in a tight happy mat. Herbaceous. Hardy to zone 3.
Lime Rickey Coral Bells
Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’ is worth growing just for that chartreuse foliage. It glows as if someone turned on a neon sign! This Coral Bells cultivar creates pretty scalloped leaves and delicate white flowers. Plant it beside a dark hellebore for a brilliant contrast. Works great in containers. It’s mostly evergreen but may be die back in some areas. Hardy to zone 4.
Merlin Lenten Rose
If you need a reliably handsome hellebore, consider Helleborus x ballardiae ‘Merlin.’ It grows unusual blue-green foliage with white veins for an almost variegated look. It also blooms for weeks with dusky rose-colored flowers that echo the Georgia Peach’s foliage nicely. Hellebores are classified as evergreen but their leaves often look brown and anemic after winter. You can remedy that by cutting them all off at the base in early spring. Fresh new growth will appear soon afterward. Grows to about ten inches tall, hardy to zone 4.
At this time of year, most blooming plants have finished their show and are just enduring the heat until the rains come. Buddleia, phygelius, fuchsia, echinacea, and cistus still offer a few blooms, thank goodness, but late summer / early fall is not when they shine. Here are 7 of my favorite plants that bloom in late August or early September in my garden.
Albizia julibrissin, or Silk Tree (above photo), is an elegant, feathery tree that has a broad canopy and delicate, divided leaves. In August, fan-like, wispy flowers of white and pink cover the surface of the foliage, providing a stunning, tropical look. I love how the flowers sit atop the leaves instead of hang beneath. There’s a purple leaved cultivar named ‘Summer Chocolate.’ Though it likes to bake in the sun, it does have a few drawbacks: the branches can break during strong winds, leaving wounds in the main trunk, and it’s susceptible to verticillium wilt. It also leafs out much later than other trees. But given it’s own sunny space, the tree is a graceful, eye-catching specimen.
Caryopteris x clandonensis, or Bluebeard, is a tough shrub, hardy down to Zone 6. It matches well with our Mediterranean-like summers in the Northwest. It’s drought-tolerant but doesn’t mind our winter rain, needs little to no pruning, and in August blooms with pretty blue flowers. Sometimes branches can be brittle and twiggy but cleaning them out is easy enough. Caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’ is a yellow-leaved cultivar that literally does glow like a sun. It will pop with color from far away. It has lighter blue flowers but the foliage really makes this plant worth growing.
I have Clerodendrum trichotomum, or Harlequin Glorybower, planted not far from my patio so I can smell it when it blooms. The fragrance is strong and spicy! It’s known for spadal leaves that smell like burnt peanut butter when rubbed, but that smell is nothing compared to the white starry flowers in bloom. After the flowers fade, shiny, blue berries take their place for a beautiful pattern of pink and indigo. Drawbacks to this small tree include its running habit, where small stalks emerge near the mother tree and its weak, crunchy, breakable stems. Still, the scent of this tree in the heat of August can not be beat! Just don’t prune it, otherwise it will grow into an ugly mess.
Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Zuni,’ or Zuni Crape Myrtle, is one of my favorite trees for a Seattle yard. You can spot it from a mile away. Stunning magenta flowers, pretty mottled bark, and tight glossy foliage. It’s a smaller, multi-stemmed tree that fits nicely in the corner of a city yard. It needs little care save for a hot sunny location and good drainage.
Rudbeckia hirta, Black-eyed Susans, are an oldie but a goodie perennial. I love the bright, cheery daisy-shaped flowers and sunny color. When happy, Black-eyed Susans, spread voraciously so watch out. But it’s easy enough to put a spade in the ground, cut some out, and pass them onto neighbors. My only complaint generally with Black-eyed Susans is in winter they leave stringy threads about. There’s a cool cultivar called ‘Cherry Brandy’ that has cherry-colored petals with a blackish center. This is more of a bushier, self-contained perennial, rather than thin-stemmed and spreading. It has bold color. If you’re a newbie gardener and want to grow something low-maintenance, any Rudbeckia is a great choice.
Sedum spectabile ‘Brilliant’ is a succulent perennial that grows in poor soil with little water. It starts out with cute rosettes in early spring that then elongate into rubbery stalks whose flat flowers turn from bright pink, to red, to maroon, and finally brown. Even though the stalks dry during autumn, they hold their shape, offering nice structure for winter. And birds feed off the seedheads. Sedum ‘Brilliant’ is an easy care perennial that I do little to except for cutting away dried stalks in early spring. If you plant Sedum ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Autumn Joy’ and the stalks flop over, it probably means your soil is too rich. Think desert conditions with these plants. Sun, well-draining soil, rocks, etc.
Vitex agnus-castus, or Chaste Tree, sends out spikes of a long, blue inflorescences during the hottest part of the season. This tree likes to bake in the sun, and though I call it a “tree,” it’s really more of a tall shrub, forming a rounded habit that will bounce back surprisingly even after the toughest winters. It also loves dry conditions. Good for a parking strip.
For more information on these plants, check out the Oregon State University landscape database. Happy gardening!
As much of the U.S. (and Europe) copes with warmer heat waves, you may be looking for plants that can thrive in hot sun. Blue plants often fit this profile since they create a waxy coating that protects them from hot sun and helps them hold water. And what’s even more enjoyable for us is that waxy coating makes them appear blue, thus creating an unusually pretty accent in the garden.
So if you want a tough, interesting looking plant, try these three below. They pair well with dark-leafed plants or boldy colored perennials.
Blue Star Juniper
I love this little sub-shrub because it’s hardy down to zone 4, evergreen, and wonderfully dense in its foliage. That means it shades weeds out easily. Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ also requires very little supplemental water, which is handy if you’re planting a city parking strip or rock garden. Also, it won’t grow beyond about a foot or so in height but spreads gently in all directions. I have five lining the front of a sunny perennial bed and they work well with purple sedums, ajuga, or salvias (see top photo).
Blue Surprise Falsecypress
Blue Surprise False Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’) is a small evergreen tree that stuns in the landscape. It’s bluer in color than vertical juniper trees, albeit those are pretty too. But I like this tree because it’s very behaved in its form. You won’t ever need to prune it unless it creates a few dead lower branches. And it adds a lovely spire-like accent to a mixed shrub border. I have two flanking a small circular patio in an area blasted by hot sun. Hardy to zone 5 and gets to about 10 feet tall at maturity. Great for front entrances or where space is tight.
Blue Limber Pine
I normally don’t care for pine trees. They often drop needles and sometimes need pruning at the tips, but I love this Blue Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis ‘Cesarini Blue’). It grows in a small, puffy, pyramidal shape so it’s great for screening out unwanted views. Also, it’s hardy to zone 4 and can take dry areas. In fact, since it’s a pine, it will probably do better in a garden in Colorado with dryer, colder winters than in the rainy Pacific Northwest. At maturity, it tops out at 20 feet but during the first several years will hang out at around 10 feet. Unusual specimen.
I realized in writing this that I happened to choose three conifers so in a future post, I’ll spotlight some blue-leafed perennials. I’m thinking hosta, euphorbia, rue, and more. Until then, happy planting!
Last weekend, I opened my garden to the public. I’d agreed to share my large, albeit imperfect, sanctuary, because I’d wanted to help people be social again and get things back to “normal.” But that simple yes meant months of weeding, digging, transplanting, and all else. Lots of hauling. I also stressed every night about the garden looking tidy and cheery for visitors. All this while my back slowly tightened and my body created a fiery pain I’ve never experienced before.
In the end, the tour went well. Hundreds of visitors came through and I even sold a good number of my books, including my newest, Leaf Your Troubles Behind. I got to chat about gardening all day, helping people discover cool plants while meeting plant aficionados. It was lovely. I went to bed relieved and tired.
A couple friends who couldn’t make it asked me to post photos online. So here’s how the garden looked in June of 2022.
The 3B’s Island Bed
I have a flame-shaped island bed near the house that gets full sun. A long time ago, I planted a spine of shrubs down the middle for winter structure. Then I planted perennials and low shrubs along the spine.
Each plant I chose to attract bees, butterflies, or birds. These include butterfly bush (buddleia), blue-leaf rose (rosa glauca), smokebush (cotinus), escallonia, spiraea, weigela, false indigo (baptisia), coneflower (echinacea), sage (salvia), crocosmia, and more.
I also have a border that gets shade from an oak in the morning and a blast of hot afternoon sun. At first, this area plagued me as I tried plants that I thought would work but didn’t. It was either too sunny or too shady. So I tried hardy fuchsias. They thrived without much help from me at all.
Then, to play off those deep purple and magenta tones, I planted blue star junipers (juniperus) and blue surprise false cypress (chamaecyparis). I contrasted these with a purple-leafed hyndrangea (Hydrangea ‘Plum Passion’), purple coral bells (heuchera), and fringe flowers (loropetalum). Finally, I filled in with crocosmia, Japanese forest grasses, and hostas. A gold variegated dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Summer Gold’), pictured above in background, anchors the whole thing.
My most prized plant is my Chilean fire tree (embothrium coccineum). It’s native to the mountains of Chile and blooms in bold orange flowers. Hummingbirds love them!
My front border is mostly shady and I’ve had decent success with it outside of when the deer find my one large hosta. It’s a mix of aucuba, hydrangea, fuchsia, heucheras, and rhododendrons.
Oftentimes, when people visit my yard, they ask about my favorite hosta in the whole world. It’s not only blue, gold, and chartreuse, it’s also slug-resistant since it has corrugated leaves. It’s hosta ‘June,’ a low-maintenance hosta that needs shade, water, and not much else to look stunning.
Now, that the tour is over, I’ve been relaxing on my patio and enjoying the tidy garden. I realized that sharing it inspired a lot of folks. Several people, with sparks in their eyes, told me they were ready to dig into a new design or seek out the unusual plants they’d seen. Their excitement makes my long hours of backbreaking work worth it.
Seattle author and gardener Debra Prinzing knows flowers. In addition to writing books on gardening, Prinzing started the “slow flowers” movement. It encourages people to buy locally grown flowers rather than imported ones from faraway countries. Foreign growers often spray dangerous chemicals on their crops and employ low-wage workers in not-great conditions. Plus, the environmental cost of shipping flowers in chilled containers and planes across thousands of miles is massive.
But saying “I love you” is important, especially with a lovely bouquet that relaxes the soul. And Prinzing has found a more environmentally sustainable way to do that. So check out our chat below. We talked about the “slow flowers” movement and why a locally grown bouquet is a wonderful gift this Mother’s Day season.
Why should people buy Slow Flowers instead of supermarket flowers?
It’s simple. To me, sourcing local flowers is part of my moral compass. Our planet is at risk and yet the floral marketplace is based on an unsustainable model. We buy a perishable product (some would argue a “luxury” product) from one or more continents away that’s shipped on jets. Slow Flowers believes the production and consumption of a long-distance, perishable product is unsustainable and devours many valuable resources (jet fuel, packaging, water, etc.). Slow Flowers supports the alternative, locally and domestically grown flowers.
As an avid gardener, I know the flowers I love thrive in my own backyard. That’s another argument for not importing flowers. We can grow them ourselves with a much smaller footprint. And we support local farmers when we keep our dollars in our own community.
How did this movement begin?
The seeds of the Slow Flowers Society began after I wrote two books, The 50 Mile Bouquet and Slow Flowers. As I spoke to audiences and media around the country, people often asked, how do I find flower farmers and florists who supply local flowers? For months, I thought, “someone should start a directory.” Then, by the end of 2013, I dove into planning slowflowers.com. It’s a free national directory of florists, shops, studios, and farms that supply American-grown flowers.
The directory was intended to serve consumers but it also created great connections between growers and florists. Before creating it, I launched the Slow Flowers Podcast in July, 2013. I featured conversations with people in the directory. Those two channels brought people together. And in ensuing years, we created a vibrant, diverse community of creatives, farmers, makers, and floral artists who gather under this inclusive idea.
Even though verification programs for organically grown flowers exist, here and abroad, growing and certifying organically grown flowers can be tricky. How important is it for someone to buy an organically grown flower?
The USDA’s Organic Certification was originally created for food agriculture. Flower farmers who use organic growing methods often produce more than 100 distinct floral varieties in a given season. So their diversity actually makes the USDA application cumbersome. Most small-scale farmers are committed to sustainable, aka organic, methods such as no-till agriculture practices, planting cover crops, attracting beneficial insects (good bugs), no use of pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, and more. For these reasons, I feel very comfortable buying local flowers from a boutique grower.
In some regions, like here in the PNW, there are unique, third-party certifications. All of the flower farmers who are part of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market are “Salmon Safe Certified.” That means their farming practices have been evaluated to make sure there are no fertilizers or other amendments harming our salmon habitat.
Another national organization, based on a peer-to-peer verification, is Certified Naturally Grown. Many flower farmers pursue that type of outside verification as an alternative to USDA Organic Certification.
My advice? Get to know your local flower farmer. If it’s possible to visit the farm on an open day, do so! Ask them about their methods and you’ll learn how passionate they are about enhancing their land with earth-safe practices.
What are some of the more commonly available “slow flowers?” Does it vary by region and what’s most native to an area?
OMG, the list is endless! Each region certainly has its unique growing conditions. For example, the humidity in the south is hard on crops like dahlias. The lack of sustained hot weather in the PNW means some summer annuals don’t hit their stride until September.
Here are some of the popular seasonal “stars” in the Slow Flowers Movement:
Early-to-Late Spring: flowering bulbs (tulips, narcissus, anemones, ranunculus); flowering branches (forsythia, quince, cherry, plum, etc.)
Late Spring to Summer: perennials including peonies, columbine, lady’s mantle, foxglove, poppies, hellebores; ornamental shrubs like viburnum and lilac
Summer: garden roses, lavender, all the annual crops (sweet peas, sunflower, zinnia, celosia, snapdragon, stock, marigolds, rudbeckia, strawflower)
Late Summer: Dahlias, dahlias, dahlias, more annuals, like amaranth; flowering shrubs like hydrangeas; ornamentals shrubs for foliage like cotinus and physocarpus (ninebark).
Fall: heirloom mums
Oftentimes large commercial growers dunk roses in fungicide to preserve their appearance. How can people find roses that are grown with fewer fungicides and pesticides for this Mother’s Day?
It’s nearly impossible to find “safe” roses for Mother’s Day unless you plan ahead and order in advance. The California rose growers who are shipping for Mother’s Day probably already have a cut-off date of 5/4.
Here are two members shipping roses at this time:
Other advice? I recommend giving your Mom a rose plant, plus a copy of our wonderful new BLOOM Imprint book about garden rose growing called Growing Wonder.
Who is Slow Flowers Society for?
The Slow Flowers Society is for flower lovers, both enthusiasts and professionals. It’s for anyone who cares about supporting domestic floral agriculture and sustainable design practices in the floral marketplace. Learn more at slowflowerssociety.com.
The Slow Flowers Society challenges assumptions about who can be a farmer. Also, we see flower growing as a legitimate form of agriculture. Flowers can be an economic engine for positive, sustainable change. The Slow Flowers Society is redefining what is beautiful in floristry. We embrace seasonality and show respect for the environment. Our progressive society wants to radically prioritize inclusivity, equity and representation in flower farming and floral design.
Who is Debra Prinzing?
Debra Prinzing is a Seattle-based writer, speaker and leading advocate for domestic, local and seasonal flowers. She produces SlowFlowers.com, the online directory to American grown farms, florists, shops, and studios who supply domestic and local flowers. Download her “Slow Flowers Podcast” for free at debraprinzing.com, or on iTunes.
In 2016, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market honored her with the Growers Choice Award for her “outstanding contributions to revitalizing the local floral community.” She is a 2016 inductee to the Garden Writers Association Hall of Fame and Professional Floral Communicators International. Debra has authored 12 books, including Slow Flowers, The 50 Mile Bouquet and Where we Bloom.
Photo by (c) Missy Palacol photography