Look for nice perennials with lots of foliage

Duane Campbell

For more years than I want to confess to, I had a hedge of marigolds. They were First Lady marigolds, probably the best marigold ever developed, but now available only if you start your own from seed. The problem is that they don't bloom in the packs on the benches in May, and the varieties that do don't perform nearly as well in the garden.

It was a long blast of thigh-high yellow. I was proud of it. Visitors' reaction was 'Wow!' But that was many years ago. I would like to think that I have grown beyond that. That's what I'd like to think. Observing my latterly found sophistication, visitors' reaction sometimes is Huh? That's IT?!

There are many gardeners justifiably proud of their masses of color, be they annual impatiens or petunias or broad swaths of perennials like echinacea and rudbeckia, and they deserve to be proud. It can be a traffic stopping display, impressive even from a distance. Now I am going to offend some of you. It is a plateau in gardening, a stopping point on the way to the summit, and many pause to rest there and never move on.

Maybe it's just me. I don't garden for the drive-bys. I garden for my morning walk, coffee in hand, through my garden, and masses of yellow get boring fast. I guess I'm a detail guy, sometimes very small details.

For the most part I buy garden plants for their season-long foliage, and if it comes with flowers, that is a bonus. For instance, this spring I got a hibiscus called Mahogany Splendor – deep red thread-like leaves on a bushy plant that most mistake for a very good Japanese maple. Supposedly it will have small red flowers, but I haven't seen any and don't really care.

It was developed from Hibiscus acetosella, which I grew some 20 years ago. It was a rangy plant, but not so with Mahogany Splendor, which forms a compact shrub, now already up to my chin starting from a four inch pot. My experience with acetoella suggests it should be easy to overwinter on the sunporch or to take cuttings.

Cannas also come with stunningly colored leaves, and they bloom. But my favorite, Tropicanna, has such striking leaves that sometimes, when I think of it, cut the large flowers off so they don't compete with the foliage. Tropicanna Black has even darker leaves, and I leave the bright red flowers. The best cannas are usually only available already growing in pots, at a premium price, but the tubers can be saved easily for the next season. Think seasonal amortization.

For the profoundly laz … uh, I mean, for those who don't care to overwinter plants, there are many perennials with great foliage. A couple of seasons ago I got a Campanula Plum Wine because I liked the leaves and the habit. It spreads gently and makes a nice clump. This year it bloomed, a tall, fat spike of blueish flowers. I didn't cut them off.

I do cut off the flower stems, though, of the many fancy leaf heucheras I have. Since Palace Purple first came out a quarter century ago, there have been dozens and dozens of new varieties in a broad range of leaf colors and forms, but it is still the now dreary Palace Purple you continue to find on nursery benches. Though these were all developed from the old coral bells, the flowers on the new ones are not only uninteresting, they make the bright mound of color look ratty. I do cut those off as soon as they form. Or as soon as I get to it. Same with lambs ears – ugly with flower stalks, beautiful, compact mats if they are regularly cut off.

So many more. Maybe next week. Unless I forget or think of something interesting.

Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail dcamp911@gmail.com.

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