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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in flowering shrubs (11)


Plants That Need Companions Can Be Lovely

The setting for this plant composition enhances the appearance of yellow forsythia. I forsook my forsythia many years ago.

In USDA Zone 4 where I garden, this shrub appears unpleasant when it flowers because it grows alone; no other tall shrub is in bloom at the same time and there is no other surrounding green vegetation to offset the seemingly harsh colors of its petals.

Consequently, this plant stands out in dramatic starkness; in my growing zone, forsythia is appreciated solely because it is the first tall shrub to bloom - not because anyone thinks it is pretty. Perhaps more homeowners here might consider it beautiful if complementary plants surrounded it, i.e., flowering shrubs of a comparable height and volume that temper the energy of forsythia’s intense coloration.

Years ago, when I first moved into my home, I found a single forsythia bush planted by a previous homeowner. It was garish-looking against the grey early-spring sky and the still-dormant, straw-colored grass. A specimen of an identical shrub, growing on my neighbor’s lawn, looked no better. In one case, backed by a sober grey stone façade, and in the other, up against a conservatively dark red brick wall, our matching shrubs looked like overly made up courtesans invading a house of worship. In time, both my neighbor and I dug up and discarded our unsightly guests.

In warmer growing zones, where other plants are in bloom at the same time as forsythia and where the colors of home exteriors allow this plant to blend in better chromatically, there is a positive appreciation for this shrub.

The photos posted here were taken on a recent spring trip to Boston, which is located in one growing zone warmer than mine, USDA Zone 5. There, I discovered forsythia blooming in concert with tall, early-flowering intense lavender-pink rhododendron-azaleas. [Yes, that is the new nomenclature] Backed by a light-coloured cream façade that subtly echoes forsythia`s yellow, the results are eye-catching.

The blending of three colors in a harmony of tone and volume creates a delightful visual experience. In addition, the shrub is set among glossy evergreen groundcover that enriches the composition. Dark green raises the number of colors in the composition to four. In such a compatible tonal environment, the yellow-flowering shrub looks beautiful.

This successful combination was achievable for several reasons. First, Boston has a longer growing season than Montreal does. As a result, the early-blooming rhodo-azaleas develop sufficiently tall and wide to balance the energy of forsythia. Secondly, many home exteriors in Boston are surfaced in pleasant light tones that enhance the shades of early-blooming plants. Thirdly, challenging conditions of heat, shade, and drought in some parts of this eastern seaboard city demand ubiquitous planting of evergreen ground cover. The color-rich lushness of these all-purpose problem-solving plants enhances the appearance of nearby shrubs and perennials.

In Montreal, USDA Zone 4, where winter often lingers too long, there are no colorfully blooming shrubs in early spring that reach the volume necessary to moderate the vivid color of forsythia. Sombre toned home exteriors also exaggerate the intensity of its yellow flowers. Furthermore, a more temperate climate allows us to cover our grounds with turf that is rarely green enough at this time of year. As a result, forsythia appears harsh when it blooms and few of my neighbors are inclined to include it in their landscape plans.

Ironically, the one flowering shrub that offends in my home city appears stunning when it blooms in a climate that is merely one growing zone warmer. This observation may be generalized as follows:-  a plant that looks pretty in a catalog, eye-catching in a nursery, or impressive in a friend's flowerbed, may not appear equally beautiful when added to one's own garden. Surroundings can enhance or diminish the beauty of any plant.


Introducing a Compact Hydrangea Paniculata “Strawberry Sundae"

A request from a client to use hydrangeas as foundation plants left me feeling uncomfortable. In my climate, not all varieties in this genus grow sufficiently dense or substantial for that purpose. Furthermore, the client’s criteria are very specific, thus making most hydrangeas unsuitable for the project.

The shrubs are to be placed beneath a low hung picture window and they must not obstruct the view from inside the house. Any variety that grows taller than 3 feet, or significantly shorter, or that droops, won't do.

I had been hoping to plant Hydrangea Little Lamb to create the lush effect that the client required. Its performance impressed me when I saw it in the gardens of colleagues. However, the client vetoed that choice because it blooms in white, with a cast of lime, instead of the pink shading she prefers.

I cannot work with the group of Hydrangea Arboresens  because the one pink variety, Invincible Spirit, is best grown as a specimen in a flowerbed. I am also reluctant to work with most Hydrangea macrophylla because they are not entirely easy care. Their breathtaking beauty is an incentive for passionate gardeners to tend to them with a tender love that I cannot provide post planting. In our climate of USDA Zone 4, Hydrangea paniculata is an easier care plant, with a more formidable presence.

One of the challenges I found myself up against was finding a paniculata that was dwarf, and that bloomed in pink. Last year at this time, I would have disappointed my client because there was none available. Fortunately, this season one of my suppliers is offering a newly introduced variety that meets all of her needs.

Normally, I would have first grown it in my garden, or would have searched online for a growing track record. Sadly, this variety is not readily available in North America, so that no one has reported about it. Even the European suppliers offer only the growers publicity. Therefore, I have no choice but to use it untested. Because paniculata have been so reliable in the past, and because this one is a diminutive of its cousin, the larger and successful, Vanilla Strawberry, I feel confident in taking a chance.

The new and unusually compact shrub is called Hydrangea paniculata Sundae Fraises that translates as Strawberry Sundae. It grows quickly into a bushy, even, and low shape, measuring just over 3 feet in height and width. Its dwarf size makes it suitable for small space gardens, patios, and balconies. I intend to plant three in a row up against the foundation and I will space them 2- 3/4 feet apart so that they can grow into each other to create a dense form.

In August, when the abundant green and white sterile flowers of this plant start to turn pink, the perfect, average sized panicles will appear as strawberry sundaes on this little shrub. To appreciate the full evolution of colors of the panicles, the leaves and flowers should not be watered directly.

As with most paniculata, flower color can vary with exposure, climate, and soil. Although they prefer to grow in humus-rich earth, they will also adapt to all soil types. Hydrangea paniculata grow in sun or part shade and should be pruned at winter's end.


The Surprising Autumn Pink of Rose Bonica 

Rose Bonica is an old friend. It has been growing in my garden for almost 18 years and has never disappointed me. I selected this plant when I first determined that pink was to become the dominant shade in my garden. Over the years, it would prove to be both the favorite of many easy-to-care-for roses that I would plant as well as the anchor for the color scheme.

After planting, a full three seasons would pass before it became established; once it did, it performed very well. Bonica is a reliable, floriferous bloomer with a crop of dainty, light pink flowers, enhanced by full sun, regular irrigation, and nourishment. I used to apply commercial fertilizer but now feed it Epsom salts and compost instead. The only attention this plant receives is the twice monthly deadheading of spent buds.

Now that it is mature, I allow nature to take care of its irrigation. The water sprinkler is turned on only when a drought or heat spell has lasted for more than five days. It's amazing how well this plant handles the harsh summer conditions that sometimes occur in USDA Zone 4.

Unfolding in a mini-explosion of pastel pink, Bonica’s roses are a delight to behold in early summer. However, they lose their pallor in the bright midsummer sun. While that faded look is disappointing, I have not made it a serious issue as, by that time, there are so many richly colored perennials blooming nearby to capture one’s attention. Besides, in August, the attractive shade of pink returns.

In October, something almost magical happens to this plant. As soon as the angle of the sun changes and nights turn very cold, the color of the rose is transformed from pastel baby pink to a very warm, deep pink with a subtle overcast of coral. This unusual shade is never on display at any other time of year. It’s one pleasurable bonus to have a bush pump out roses when all other flowering plants are dormant; it’s another to discover a new color in the fall garden.


My Lemon Lights Azalea Blooms Whenever it Pleases

It’s no secret, I love rhododendrons and azaleas. Watching them bloom in early summer gives me goose bumps. Part of the excitement lies in the fact that this family of vivid, lush-flowering plants did not grow in my area when I was young. I could only drool over them in garden magazines, catalogues, and photo journals such as Life Magazine and National Geographic.

The available varieties during the 1950’s and 60’s were too tender for my climate. Those that I can grow today ,because they are bred to withstand the winters of USDA Zone 4, are relatively new to my area. Nevertheless, I still bear the emotional scars of rhodo-depravation and when confronted with an assortment of blooming varieties at the nursery, I go berserk, not knowing which variety to select first.

Two additional factors that bring these plants close to heart are the luxurious, glossy texture of the rich, green foliage in summer and the intense, vivid, neon-like shades of the flowers that appear in late spring - early summer. No one in my growing zone is immune to the power of these colors. Yet, I have learned that in warmer climates, where this plant is ubiquitous, some gardeners have become indifferent to it. I suppose that is what happens when one experiences too much of a good thing.

Not having had any experience in growing rhodos and azaleas in my youth, I am learning about them as time goes on. Fortunately, my friends and family in Boston, who have been enjoying these plants for generations, have been able to give me the guidance I need. I have watched them vigorously trim their mature rhodos down to half their size with no apparent damage to the plants health, appearance, or its ability to re bloom. Now, that’s saying a lot about an ornamental shrub.

The root system of these plants grows horizontally and close to the surface of the earth, which makes transplanting easier than other ornamnetal shrubs. In addition, they take quit well to uprooting and re planting, even though the foliage may appear traumatized during the following season. They prefer an acid soil, which is not a problem in my area. However, when in doubt, I will spread a layer of cedar mulch around the shrubs, in autumn,  to supplement the acidity in the soil. Homeowners need to be cautious about placement in the garden because the roots of vigorously spreading mature cedar trees, that might grow nearby, will choke out the roots of rhodos and azaleas and cause them to die.

The one issue that is stymieing me is the fact that one variety of Azalea, Lemon Lights, has decided that one bloom season in my garden isn’t enough; every late September, it breaks out  with a few additional, new blooms that last until end October. The photo above is an attestation to this phenomenon. What the reader sees is the yellow flowers in their last few days of glory, on October 25th 2011, to be exact.

If I were as innovative as some of my colleagues, I might place a burlap sack over this plant in August, to trick it into thinking that it is wintertime. Perhaps then, it might save its blooming energy for the following season. However, I am not that ambitious. By end August, I am happy to leave my garden untouched until it is time to cut down the perennials. Instead, I will live in harmony with this renegade plant and enjoy its lemon-yellow flowers whenever they decide to appear.


The Elephant in the Garden Room

Gardening is not an equal opportunity hobby. Perennials, roses, rhododendrons and flowering shrubs can be costly to some, yet inconsequentially inexpensive to others. In some countries, even organic-rich black earth is considered a luxury.

When I first began gardening, beautiful plants were available only by mail order. Each season, I would budget for plants a portion of the college money that I had earned during the previous summer. Because these funds had to underwrite an entire year of school, the amount I spent on gardening was modest. As a result, the number of perennials that I was able to add  to my garden each season was paltry.

Occasionally, a neighbor would give me a cutting of a perennial, but since city gardeners in those days knew of only twelve perennials, flowerbeds were uninspiring without supplementary mail order plants. Later in life, when gardening became a second career, I was able to comfortably buy plants to my heart’s content because I now shopped wholesale, But until then, all garden purchases had been measured and re considered, ensuring  that my resources were wisely spent.

The other option that was always available was growing plants from seed. However, urban living in a crowded, central-heated home, in a cold climate, did not offer the appropriate physical environment for the successful germination of seeds.

Ordering expensive plants by mail was the only way that I, and most other people, could expand our flowerbeds. That option remained constant until the arrival of two commercial phenomena that changed the way ordinary people gardened.

The combination of the credit card and the big box store brought ornamental gardening to those with limited resources. All that was required was to select a desirable object, place it in a shopping cart, and pay an ostensibly modest, but deceptively high, monthly charge to the credit card company.

Big box stores also brought seemingly affordable and eye catching horticultural products to the mass market. By displaying temptingly, blooming plants to a consumer who had arrived to buy light bulbs, these behemoth retailers instantly, turned unsuspecting do-it-yourselfers into gardeners, and a new target market of gardener-consumer was born.

This historical commercial development deflects the fact that without the generosity of others who offer free plant cuttings, and without the opportunity or time to grow perennials from seed, ornamental gardening remains - in real dollars - an expensive hobby for a sizeable portion of the population.

Publishers and writers never acknowledge this enormous elephant in the room – the fact that some gardeners can’t afford to buy the plants we write about. We discuss “how-to”, and “what is new”; often we recommend spending more than necessary because a costlier plant will yield out-of-proportionally spectacular results -  for only a few dollars more  In our sincerity and zeal to share all of our best gardening tips with as many people as possible, sometimes we forget that our advice is not appropriate for all gardeners.

That is because ornamental gardening crosses socioeconomic lines; it gives pleasure to everyone, regardless of one’s station in life. Consequently, there will always be some, desiring to recreate that pleasure in their own back yard, who will find themselves hard pressed to allocate finite resources to infinite garden dreams.