Perennials fill the bill as yard and garden plants

Ray Mueller

Fond du Lac - Landscape architect and perennial plant horticulture specialist Zannah Crowe is concerned that the trademarking, patenting, and promoting of newly bred perennial plants is going to push out the great older plants that have proven their merits for many generations.

Crowe, who was a presenter at the Fond du Lac County Master Gardener Association's 2017 “Day in the Garden,” called on the growers of the older genotypes to share plants with their neighbors in order to preserve the traits that those perennials bring.
With the newly patented plants, there is a prohibition on propagating, thereby earning the developers a share of the income on each sale, Crowe pointed out. In tune with “a real shift in horticultural breeding,” she observed that the new plants have been widely promoted in “advertorials” on television and radio and in magazines and the social media.

Trusting the tried and true

From her 20 years of experience as the garden center manager and landscape architect at Monches Farms in Washington County and her recent affiliation with Johnson's Nursery in Menomonee Falls and Johnson's Gardens in Cedarburg, Crowe has had a frontline view of changes in horticulture. For the purpose of education, she also operates the website.

Crowe doesn't doubt the appeal and value of the new perennials but asks gardeners and property managers not to forget the older varieties and to realize their value for insects, as food and shelter for wildlife, and for appreciation by humans. She notes that the older varieties have proven themselves to be cold hardy and for being able to cope with all kinds of conditions during the growing season.

Whatever the selection of plants, attention should given to serving those goals throughout the year, Crowe emphasized. To achieve that for the winter, she mentioned having a combination such as evergreens, dogwood, crab apples (including the improved varieties), weeping mulberry, and ornamental grasses (not to be trimmed until late February or early March) at a particular site.

Spring specials

Starting with the earliest emerging and flowering plants, Crowe listed crocuses, particularly the Tommy, because its bulbs appear to be the only ones in the group which don't have to be protected from digging by rodents. She also likes the glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa) instead of the snowdrop.

When there's a need to establish quick ground cover through self-seeding, the choice is the Siberian squill, Crowe indicated. Among the full sun candidates for early spring growth are the striped squill and the corydalis solida, she added.

Within the traditional and hybrid helleborus family with its multiple colors, Crowe cited the Lenten rose for its all-season blooming trait along with being rabbit and deer proof. Daffodils (narcissus) are also deer proof but, of the most part, they prefer to have their own growing spot, she observed.

Except for the tarda (dasystemon) cultivar, tulips are vulnerable to munching by deer, Crowe pointed out. A good companion for daffodils are Virginia bluebells, which bloom early, go dormant quickly, and have the only sky blue flowers, she stated.

Shaded sites

In shaded spots, Crowe likes the bishop's cap or barrenwort along with the early blooming native Jacob's ladder and the forget-me-not. A large plant with leaves resembling those of small hostas is the brunnera, she noted.

Crowe believes that every spring array of flowers should have the old fashioned bleeding heart or one of the several versions of its flowers and foliage such as Gold Heart and Valentine. She also advises more selection of the giant glandiflora Merrybells and the Fairy Bells.

Among the early spring flowering species that are more well known are the bloodroot, the shooting stars, and the variegated and the dwarf fairy Solomon seals, Crowe observed. Sweet Cicely has a history of being favored for its licorish flavor, medicinal use, and seeds for baking, she reported.

In the spurge category, which includes the bonfire, be aware that the cushion spurge has a toxic milky excretion if the foliage is broken, Crowe warned. Two rarely found choices that should be sought are the June blooming camassia, which provided food for early explorers from its tubers, and the three foot tall Bowman's root, she advised.

As other spring season possibilities, Crowe listed the yellow blossomed woodland poppy and “Chequers” in the lamium family. She noted that both are long season survivors and that Chequers thrives “where nothing else grows.”

Summer selections

Crowe's summer choices start with the traditional peonies, which are available in many colors thanks to interbreeding. She cited those interbred with the tree peony, resulting in a new cultivar that's expensive but that also has a longer blooming period.

The false indigo has also been interbred to provide some great new cultivars while the big root geranium is a good choice for long season growth in the shade, Crowe continued. For a large plant, look for the goatsbeard, she added.

In addition to their many colors of the bloom, the seedheads of allium are a good choice for decorations, Crowe indicated. Other plants that she likes are the lady's mantle along with a pairing of the “Blue Ice” with the willow leaf blue star. For a gold display at the first frost, pick the thread leaf blue star, she advised.

At a wet spot, go with the swamp milkweed and choose the long season and multi-colored masterwort as a deer proof cultivar, Crowe suggested. She also likes the “Herman's Pride.”

In the penstemon family, Crowe's top choices are Husker Red, Dark Towers, and the beard's tongue. A special but rarely found favorite of hers is the nepeta, which is a mint that attracts hummingbirds and is in bloom from June until a frost.

Among the longer season choices, Crowe describes the Zagreb coreopsis as a super and well proven cultivar and the balloon flower as another full season choice with white and blue flowers. More familiar choices are the purple coneflowers (echinacea) and the immense array of shade loving hostas, she added.

Other popular summer varieties are the America ginger (great for ground cover), day lilies (sporting up to 80,000 cultivars), the self-seeding selinum carvifolium, the rosa rugosa, the Purple Rain and Caradonna salvias, and the Superba and the new Hummelo in the stachys family, Crowe indicated. She wishes the wild senna would be more widely available because it is a tall plant with nice foliage and is very attractive to pollinators.

Autumn attractions

Among the plants which don't become prominent until the autumn are Russian sage, joe pye weed, asters, mums, giant and thread leaf ironweed, Montrose White, Snow Fairy, turtlehead, bittersweet, Golden Arrow, Fireworks, and Autumn Revolution, Crowe observed.

The rudbeckia family has many cultivars that prevail in the autumn but Crowe issued a warning about one of them. This is the Goldsturm, which is contracting a disease in some areas and should be eradicated if this is noticed, she advised.

For plants that will carry their structures and attraction into the winter, Crowe notes that the ornamental grasses, including the miscanthus family and panicum, fill that role.

Zannah Crowe