I did a great deal of traveling this year touring gardens, attending conferences and visiting plant trials. I do not say this to inspire envy in those who enjoy living out of suitcases and drinking airport coffee, but to put it plainly that I was away from my garden during some pretty critical moments in the growing season.
That season also brought with it severe challenges – unbelievable amounts of rain (35 inches above normal), a lack of sunlight due to same, and disease spurred on by both. Add to that mess herds of deer that finally realized that we were down to one overworked dog, and you have the makings of a best-selling novel: Passion – Absence – Loss – Tears – Reunion.
Consequently, my end-of-season ornamental plant wrap up features those star performers that did well without the resident gardener in constant attendance. These are a few of the plants that lifted my heart when it seemed that the only pics worthy of publication were Instagram close-ups and garden horror shots.
Many are new, a few are old, but all are loved.
My favorite annuals/tender perennials in 2018
Salvia ‘Big Blue’ – (18-20” wide x 24-36” tall) You wouldn’t have thought this to be a year for salvias, but ‘Big Blue’ gave the garden a needed injection of blue-spired color and vigor late into the season without deadheading. Large, deeply green leaves gave this salvia a lot of body in the landscape, and it did surprisingly well in partial shade for me – one can only wonder what it would do in full sun. Sadly, this cultivar isn’t a perennial for us, but it can be grown from seed. Sun/ pt. shade.
Gomphrena pulchella ‘Fireworks’ – (48”tall x 24”wide) I am recently enamored of gomphrena, and ‘Fireworks’ is a fantastic cultivar. It’s a deer-resistant scaffold of violet-pink globes tipped with yellow that pop up beautifully through larger containers, or pair elegantly in garden beds with the likes of Verbena bonariensis. Definitely on the list for next year. Sun.
Canna ‘Lemon & Gin’ – (24-36” tall x 12-18” wide) It was a great year for cannas and ‘Lemon and Gin’ shone. A smaller canna perfectly proportioned for container life, its yellow blossoms are artfully stippled with orange, and bear blooms all season up until a hard freeze. Foliage is deep green and compact. Amazonian rain forest conditions in Virginia encouraged plump, healthy rhizomes that are currently waiting out the winter in my garage. If you’re one of those people in a strong and steady Zone 7, you might get away with overwintering it outside in the ground. Sun/pt. shade.
Sedum mexicanum ‘Lemon Coral™’ – (3-5” tall x 10-14” wide) A sample plant of ‘Lemon Coral’ was so vigorous and colorful this year I broke my ‘no tender sedums’ rule and brought a little bit of this succulent inside to overwinter for next year. Rain didn’t dampen its spirit – vigorous is an understatement.
I would either pair this chartreuse stunner with plants that can stand up to it or just let it do its colorful thing in areas you don’t have time to deal with. Sun.
Colocasia fontanesii aka ‘Black Stem’ (72” tall x 36” wide) – The rain this summer gave us a chance to see what our tropicals could do in ideal conditions, and what Black Stem did was force me to stand in front of it gaping. At the end of the summer when other parts of the garden were giving up in the rain and heat it blossomed repeatedly with silky vanilla-yellow spathes.
Tall, shiny, true-black petioles are topped with green/black elephant ears, and take ‘tropical’ to new levels. Cannot wait to pair this one with Xanthosoma aurea ‘Lime Zinger’ next year. Sun/ pt. shade.
Impatiens SunPatiens® ‘Vigorous Orchid’ & ‘Clear Orange’ (18”x18”) – In a hot, dry July just before I left to go out of town for five weeks, I was sent trays of liners (baby plants usually sent to growers) of these two impatiens cultivars. SunPatiens® are New Guinea-style hybrids which don’t suffer from downy mildew like Impatiens walleriana and are meant for sunny conditions.
I had no hope for them, but planted about ten of each in a deep plastic container with good soil and let the elements have their wicked way. To say that I was astounded by their growth and abundance of blossom when I returned is an understatement. I had heard they were good – but I didn’t realize they were that good. Definitely annuals to explore more next year. Sun/pt. shade.
My favorite perennials in 2018
Echinacea ‘Granada Gold’ – (18-20”tall x 22-24”wide ) My great perennials list is topped with this Echinacea from the Sombrero® series which, in terms of bloom, behaved like an annual fully into mid-November. Testimonies from other gardeners (not just suppliers) is that winter hardiness is not exaggerated – as it can be in many coneflower cultivars. Plants are sturdy and compact with fine foliage and rich golden color. Sun.
Carex comans ‘Amazon Mist’ – Last year, I said a sad goodbye to Lomandra longifolia ‘Platnium Blonde’ which didn’t stick around when temps got dodgy in January. ‘Amazon Mist’ was intended to be a poor Zone 6a substitute that turned into solid gold with its graceful, mounding habit and thin variegated grass-like leaves.
Carex is a moisture loving genus – our summer conditions didn’t faze it or any other carex in my garden. If you’re looking for a low ‘grass’ with high ornamental value and the ability to brighten part-shade conditions, this is a great choice. Sun/pt. shade.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ – (3-4’tall x 3-4’ wide) There are many wonderful bright new grasses on the scene, but I’d like to give a shout-out to this old favorite for those of you who don’t grow it. It has a versatile mounding habit at 3-4 feet that is topped with graceful plumes in September. Turning tawny in November, some leaves also go a strong shade of purple and create architecture (and habitat!) during the winter months.
Beware however, Miscanthus sinensis, once revered, is now feared, and you may have to use your body to block the sight of it when touring nativists around your garden. Other visitors will love it. And covet it. Sun/pt. shade.
Zizia aurea – (18-30” tall x 18-30”) I’ll redeem myself here with this vigorous native plant whose green foliage grows like parsley on steroids and is topped in late spring with umbellate flowers in brightest yellow. Longevity in a vase as a cut wildflower is incredible – easily ten days (though it does drop pollen granules on your tabletop and the fragrance wouldn’t win prizes). It will bloom a second time if you cut it back and is a terrific plant to colonize an area you don’t have time to be precious over.
The rains made it sing, but honestly, it handles periods of drought like a champion. Sun/pt shade.
My favorite shrubs in 2018
Distylium ‘Blue Cascade®’ (3-4’ tall x 3-4’ wide) – I regret not picking up a few more of this great but lesser known shrub on clearance at the end of the season (sometimes temperance bites you in the butt). Strongly evergreen with matte-blue foliage and a layered habit, ‘Blue Cascade’ blooms in red along its leaf axils in late winter and makes a great change from the typical foundation plantings of box or skip laurel. It’s solid, yet different. Sun/pt. shade.
Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’ – (3-4’ tall x 2-3’wide) An old standby for some and a ‘what’s that?!?’ for others, ‘Color Guard’ really comes into its own after year three. It is a spiky, broadleaf evergreen shrub with long, sword shaped leaves that radiate from a stemless clump. Planted in sunny, well-drained conditions, it handled the rain without complaint and is an incredibly low-maintenance plant. The variegated leaves are striking in vibrant green and yellow.
This is one you don’t want to crowd – an architectural plant that brings a bit of the southwest to my green acres. Sun.
Pyracantha ‘Silver Lining™’ – (3-4’tall x 3-4’ wide) I’m a very big fan of this bushy, variegated pyracantha that adds strong textural accents to a mixed border. White on green leaves stand out strongly in summer and then blush red in winter. As we are right on the edge of its hardiness zone, you may lose those leaves in a hard winter (and the shrub if soil doesn’t drain well), but they will grow back rapidly in spring.
‘Silver Lining’ will throw lateral branches in wacky ways, but it is a moderate grower, so it can be bested with a few snips of the pruner. Just watch those thorns. Sun/pt.shade.
A version of this article was originally printed in The Frederick News Post and is reposted here with kind permission.