Weaving Your Garden – the Importance of Plant Texture

Over the last year or so I’ve talked much about form, texture and colour, both as they relate to individual plants, and in the garden as a whole – indeed these traits are the means by which plants relate visually to each other. When I wrapped up my 6-part series on Plant Form, I promised future detailed coverage on texture and colour in the garden. Today then I’ll begin the discussion on texture.

Where plant form gives a garden its structure, I believe it is plant texture that gives a garden its sensuality. Even the descriptors we use – words like velvety, satiny, ruffled, rough, fuzzy, lacy, delicate, succulent, leathery, strappy – denote a certain sensuality.

Foliage exhibits many different textures, creating a rich layered tableau in this client's front yard garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Foliage exhibits many different textures, creating a rich layered tableau in this client’s front yard garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Lacy leaves and delicate, satiny flowers give the common bleeding heart very alluring texture. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Lacy leaves and delicate, satiny flowers give the common bleeding heart very alluring texture. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Velvety and ruffled, it is the texture as much as the colour of Hemerocallis 'Strutter's Ball' that afford it its luxurious appearance. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Velvety and ruffled, it is the texture as much as the colour of Hemerocallis ‘Strutter’s Ball’ that afford it its luxurious appearance. Photo: Sue Gaviller

So what exactly is plant texture? The word texture comes from the Latin word texere which means “to weave”. If we look at gardening as the weaving of a giant tapestry, we begin to understand why texture is such an important consideration in garden design – it makes a significant contribution to the overall picture. As a designer I use the word texture in referring to a) the size, shape and arrangement of a plant’s component parts, i.e. fine texture vs. coarse texture or b) the visual and tactile characteristics of a plant surface, i.e. rough vs. smooth.

Coarse-textured Syringa vulgaris foliage (left) has a smooth leathery surface, fine-textured Picea abies 'Nidiformis' (bottom) has nubby-looking new growth, and Juniperus horizontalis 'Blue Chip' (middle) and Juniperus Sabina 'Calgary Carpet' (top) are both fine-textured and feathery. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Coarse-textured Syringa vulgaris foliage (left) has a smooth leathery surface, fine-textured Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’ (bottom) has nubby-looking new growth, and Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ (middle) and Juniperus Sabina ‘Calgary Carpet’ (top) are both fine-textured and feathery. Photo: Sue Gaviller

So let’s take a closer look….

Fine Texture

This casual composition would appear quite messy if it weren't for the very large leaves of Rogersia. Photo: Marny Estep

This casual composition would appear quite messy if it weren’t for the very large leaves of Rogersia.
Photo: Marny Estep

Plants with smaller individual parts (small or very narrow leaves) that are spaced closely together, are considered fine textured. These plants are important for building volume in the garden as well as setting the stage for coarse textured plants.

While fine texture should predominate in a composition, periodic interruptions with coarser texture are needed or the garden can appear busy – untidy even. I experienced this many years ago when I drove up to our house one summer afternoon and noted that a large area of the garden looked decidedly unkempt.

Approaching the offending composition, I tried to determine why it looked so messy – nothing was in need of deadheading, nothing was flopping over and it wasn’t particularly crowded. So I did what all gardeners do – took out some stuff, added some stuff, added some more stuff, yadda, yadda, yadda, more trial and error planting decisions, none of which solved the problem… until I planted some Heuchera. Its big bold leaves seemed to be just what was needed, and while I likely intuited that it was the textural contrast of large leaves with the airier texture of yarrow, spirea and juniper, I certainly couldn’t have articulated that “too much fine texture with no coarse texture to punctuate” was the problem. In fact it really wasn’t until I began to study design that I figured it out – one of those light-bulb moments while listening to my design instructor discuss texture.

It’s important to note that small leaves or flowers which are very tightly packed result in visual weightiness. For example spruce needles, though fine and narrow, are very closely spaced and very rigid, hence the plant appears heavy. Cedar and juniper are also fine-textured, but the foliage is much more open thus appears airy and weightless. Making this distinction will help you effectively balance and contrast lightness and weight when choosing and placing fine textured plants in your garden.

evergreen texture

While all evergreens exhibit fine texture, very tightly spaced, rigid needles like those of Pinus mugo (bottom) and Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ (top) result in a weightier presentation than the lighter feathery foliage of Juniperus chinensis ‘Mint Julep’ (right). Photo: Sue Gaviller

Coarse Texture

Plants with large individual parts spaced further apart are coarse textured. They have a dramatic, almost tropical appearance which draws the eye and gives it a place to rest – this grounds and unifies a composition. Coarse texture is dominant to fine texture and should therefore be used more sparingly – too much of it creates competition for dominance, which in turn can cause visual unrest.

Hosta, daylily and kinnickinnick

Large lush leaves of Hosta ‘Zounds’ unify and ground a tangle of kinnickinnick and daylily foliage. The understated toad sculpture plays a supporting role. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Unfortunately, many plants with very large leaves are susceptible to damage from hail, wind and frequently, slugs. It is therefore important to situate them appropriately – protected by a fence, tree or building and in conditions that are moist enough for the plant to thrive but not so wet that slugs also thrive.

Large leaves, lovely as they are, can be reduced to tatters from hailstorms and slugs. Photo: Diana Lane

Large leaves, lovely as they are, can be reduced to tatters from hailstorms and slugs.
Photo: Diana Lane

Rhododendron seems coarse in relation to the red-leaved Berberis thunbrgiss 'Cherry Bomb', but much finer relative to Hosta 'Sum and Substance'.Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rhododendron seems coarse in relation to the tiny red leaves of Berberis thunbergii ‘Cherry Bomb‘, but much finer relative to the much larger leaves of the Hosta.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Texture is of course relative; for example, rhododendron foliage may appear coarse next to periwinkle or kinnickinnick, but seem much less so beside Hosta. The key here is contrast – if every plant has leaves and/or flowers of similar size, monotony will result. Instead, a variety of textures; fine, medium, coarse and in-between, will ensure an exciting, balanced composition – the coarser the texture, the less you use.

The flowers and foliage of Gypsophylis repens ‘Rosea’ are very fine textured, whereas Iris leaves and blooms exhibit much coarser texture – the result textural contrast paints a lovely picture. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

The flowers and foliage of Gypsophila repens ‘Rosea’ are very fine textured, whereas Iris leaves and blooms exhibit much coarser texture – the resulting textural contrast paints a lovely picture. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Keep in mind too that foliage consisting of more than one colour – variegated, veined, mottled etc., will appear finer textured. This is especially evident if the variegations are small and closely spaced, and less so if larger blocks of colour make up the variegations, for example a green Hosta with white or cream margins.

bicolour foliage resize

The large leaves of Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’(left), Tiarella ‘Crow Feather’ (right) and Aegopodium podagraria (bottom) appear more finely textured than they actually are, due to their bicolour pattern. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Hosta and Lamiastrium resize

Lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Herman’s Pride’ and Hosta spnote how the very busy variegation affects the perceived texture of the finer textured plant, but the big blocky variegations of the larger hosta leaves only slightly affect its coarseness. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Now go outside and take a look at your garden composition – is there something you don’t like about it? Instead of just throwing more plant material at it this season, examine it from the perspective of contrasting and balancing fine texture, coarse texture and in-between texture – maybe you just need to rethink it.

Join me for more sensuous plant talk in my next post as I take a look at surface texture.

Til Then,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Top Twenty of Twenty Twelve

Bet you can’t say that ten times really fast. Top twenty of twenty twelve, twop twenty of twenty telve, top tenty……….oh never mind.

Okay so what’s this all about?

If you’ve visited this blog before, you may have had occasion to visit my Weekly Plant Picks page. Each weekend during gardening season, I profiled a tree, shrub or perennial that had impressed me that week – usually several traits about a particular plant earned its place on the page. After 20 entries though, it has become a tad cumbersome, and since the season is officially over in our part of the world, I’m disassembling the page until spring.

If you’re new to this blog, or just never got around to viewing the Plant Pick page, or would like to be able to reference this information in the future – this post’s for you.  And be sure to check out the updates at the end of the post.

So without further ado here is, in chronological order ………

Sue’s Top 20 of 2012

June 3rd – Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’

Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’ – still alive and now blooming after a winter spent in a 2 gallon pot.

So how does this pathetic looking specimen merit my first Weekly Plant Pick? Well there’s more to this gal than meets the eye. I bought it on sale late August 2011, put it on my patio and thought little about it til that October when I noticed the leaves were dry and crunchy – oh yeah maybe I should plant that thing (if it’s even alive) or at least give it some water. I gave it a drink and again ignored it (it’s the end of the season, I’m tired and I just don’t feel like digging in the dirt anymore). Fast forward – April of this year and time to get rid of this dead thing in a pot on my patio. Except it’s not dead – the branches are still supple and the buds are fat and fleshy. In fact not a single branch tip had suffered winterkill – wow this thing is hardy! Now she’s planted (more like popped in the ground and ignored again) and despite her very small stature, she’s now blooming. Not the big robust blooms of her future self, but blooms nonetheless. From these baby blooms emanates a heavenly scent.

Pocahontas will grow 2 -3 metres tall and wide, and like all of the hyacinthiflora hybrids, will flower a little earlier than most lilacs. These hybrids are one of the most fragrant of all the lilacs and have the same lush dark green heart-shaped leaf as the common lilac.

So what do I see in this small specimen? Not what is, but what will be – I expect she won’t disappoint.


June 10th – Malus baccata ‘Rosthern’ (Rosthern Columnar Crab)

Top Left – Malus baccata ‘Rosthern’ flowers. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Bottom Left – Vase shaped when young and maturing to oval form Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Top Right – a robin perches in the bronze coloured branches. Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Bottom Right – small ornamental fruit. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A profusion of white flowers in early spring, good fall colour, beautiful bronze bark and pretty reddish gold ornamental fruit (loved by birds), make this a lovely four season tree – a true specimen. In addition, its upright growth habit makes it a more appropriate choice for small yards than the wide-spreading selections typical of the genus.

As the name suggests this cultivar of the Siberian crab was developed in Rosthern Saskatchewan in the early 1970’s. It is often confused with the much earlier American introduction ‘Columnaris’ which is highly susceptible to fire blight – Rosthern on the other hand, has excellent resistance.

I use these trees often in designs – for their year-long interest, compact form and their cold and chinook hardiness. They never fail to impress!

June 17th – Syringa vulgaris  ‘Ludwig Spaeth’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Ludwig Spaeth’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

This older cultivar has lots going for it. The colour is stunning, with dark red-violet buds opening to slightly lighter florets. The growth habit is fairly tidy and the blossoms are large and luscious. As well, Ludwig Spaeth is a very early bloomer, beginning about the same time as the early flowering crabs and continuing to offer colourful blooms for longer than most other S. vulgaris cultivars.

Like all of the species, the leaves are rich dark green providing season long contrast to lighter coloured foliage in the garden.

My only criticism is that the scent is a little too subtle for me – while it has the classic lilac fragrance, one must be up very close to experience it.

All in all, a lovely shrub for the spacious border.

June 24th – Dianthus ‘Neon Star’

Dianthus ‘Neon Star’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Intense magenta blooms cover the rich blue foliage on this neatly mounding perennial. In our climate, Dianthus ‘Neon Star’ begins blooming early to mid June and continues for most of the summer.

It grows 6”- 8” high and will spread into a tidy clump 12”- 18” wide. When finished blooming, the lovely steel-blue foliage still offers colour in the late summer garden.

What else could one possibly ask of a perennial?

July 1st – Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’

Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

This lovely peony belongs to a group called Itoh Peonies or Intersectionals. They are a cross between the tree peony which is a woody plant and the more common herbaceous peony. This cross has given us the best of both – the huge papery blooms of the tree peony, in a smaller more compact plant. In fact they are more compact than their herbaceous parent.

Morning Lilac earned a place in the top 5 plants evaluated in the 2011 Perennial Trials at the Calgary Zoo. I put a couple of these in a client’s yard last year – not only did they make it through the winter, they doubled in size and are covered in big beautiful blooms. I’ve never seen either of the parent species perform so well in their first year. A colleague of mine who lives west of city, planted 5 of them on her very exposed piece of windswept land and she reports they too are covered in the characteristic pointy buds, which will soon be gorgeous blooms.

These plants are a little pricey but they are worth every penny and continue to come down in price. There are numerous cultivars in a wide range of colours – why not give one try? You’ll be glad you did.

July 8th – Rosa ‘Winnipeg Parks’

Rosa ‘Winnipeg Parks’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This is one you’ll either love or hate. When the blooms first open they are a super-saturated, almost fluorescent, cherry red. After a day or two they calm down a bit to a lovely hot pink. When I planted a trio of these last year my first thought was ‘What have I done? This is just garish’. However, it wasn’t long before I decided I actually liked them – they were bright to be sure, but they worked well with the soft purples of the various neighbouring Campanula species, and there was plenty of green around to quiet their rather loud presentation.

If you can get past the intensity of the flower colour, Winnipeg Parks has lots to offer – the blooms are full and velvety with just a hint of fragrance. The leaves are a beautiful bronze-tipped green and the growth habit is very compact – about 2 ½ feet tall and wide. It looks like a classic tea rose but is really a hardy shrub rose, one of the Parkland series developed in Morden Manitoba – very hardy and disease resistant. Try it – you might like it!

July 15thScabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’

Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The pincushion flower is a reliable, long blooming perennial – this particular cultivar has proven to be extremely hardy in my garden, with some of the leaves even remaining evergreen through the last 3 winters. The flowers are intense dark purple (the darkest I’ve seen in a pincushion flower), with lighter centres.

The foliage too, is deeper green than other Scabiosa cultivars. ‘Ultra Violet’ is tidy and well-behaved in full or part sun, grows 12 to 18 inches tall/wide, and will bloom from early summer through to fall. One of my favourite perennials – too bad the squirrels agree.

July 22nd – Campanula portenschlagiana

Campanula portenschlagiana. Photo: Marg Gaviller

These little beauties must be the florists’ best kept secret. I see them in decorative pots around Easter and Mother’s Day at grocery store florists or the indoor section of nurseries, but I’ve never seen them in a greenhouse perennial department, at least not here.

What many gardeners may not know is that the Dalmatian Bellflower is a hardy perennial in our climate. It forms spreading mounds (12-24 inches) of deep mauve bells and will bloom continually from early to late summer.

I was thrilled when I first found Campanula portenschlagiana in a little ceramic Easter egg at my local grocery. I’d actually discovered it years before in a plant encyclopedia but had given up ever finding it here – nobody I asked about it had ever heard of the Dalmatian Bellflower. Obviously now they have, and so have you!


July 29th – Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Heucherella is an intergeneric hybrid between Heuchera and Tiarella. ‘Berry Fizz’ has shiny dark purple-bronze foliage heavily splashed with pink. The sprays of tiny orchid-pink flowers are a lovely contrast to the large maple shaped leaves.

It’s equally happy in sun or shade, though will appreciate a little extra moisture in full sun. In full shade it holds its colour remarkably well, better than most in fact.

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’ will grow 10 -12 inches tall (a little taller when in bloom), 14 -16 inches wide and is especially striking in containers.


August 5th – Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’

Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’. Photo: Pat Gaviller

I’ll be honest – this plant shouldn’t really be featured on this page……….yet. It’s debatably hardy here, but I’m hoping its ‘less than stellar’ overwintering of the last two years has more to do with the weird winters we’ve had than its hardiness. I am just so smitten with this coneflower – the colour is as the name promises; a bright tangerine orange.

I’m not so easily won over though, that a pretty colour is enough – this Echinacea has much more to offer than just its stunning colour. Each individual bloom lasts and lasts and lasts – at least 3 weeks, maybe more, and there are lots of them, on thick sturdy 30” stems. The foliage is dark green and the flowers have a distinct honey scent.

I bought a couple of Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’ two years ago – only one of them survived, but it is growing, albeit slowly. This coneflower will grow a fair bit in the first season it’s planted so I’m actually willing to use it as an annual if that’s the best I can do. However, I’ve heard it said that the key to getting these babies to survive our winters is to prevent them from flowering in their first year – quite a conundrum eh?

August 19thViburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’ (Red Feather Arrowwood)

Viburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

I chose this plant after seeing how well it held up to golf ball size hail last weekend. We’d also had a vicious hail storm several weeks before – smaller hailstones, but hard driving hail for at least 30 minutes. Again this Viburnum didn’t suffer a single shredded leaf – remarkable. But that’s not all……..

The shiny serrate leaves are red in the spring, turning to mid green with distinctive red edges and aging to bright green – the new growth continues to be red throughout the growing season giving a two toned effect. The pretty white flowers, typical of the genus, appear in early summer and are followed by blue-black berries in the fall. Red fall foliage rounds out this 3-season shrub – the berries hold on into the early winter, extending the ornamental value to almost 4 seasons.

Hardy to zone three, this shrub should reach 8 to 10 feet tall and wide (according to Johnson’s Nurseries who bred this selection). It is currently under review with the Alberta Government Woody Evaluation Trials at test sites across the province, so mature height and spread in our climate has not yet been assessed. In my own garden…….well I guess we’ll see over the next few years. For now, I’m happy with its bushy upright growth habit and lovely shiny green/red foliage.

August 26th – Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’

Top – spring foliage. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.
Bottom – midsummer foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Large luscious leaves emerge bright berry pink in the spring, darkening somewhat in the heat of the summer, but otherwise maintaining good colour throughout the season. Soft pink flowers add an airy dimension to their summer appeal.

This Heuchera has both H. americana and H. villosa parentage, giving it the best of both – the cold hardiness of the former and heat tolerance of the latter. In addition Berry Smoothie’s H. villosa heritage is responsible for its large, slightly fuzzy leaves and stems, and its fast growth habit.

Mine have survived two winters, countless rabbit attacks and several nasty hail storms – still look pretty good considering. Berry Smoothie is a great garden addition, providing colour from early spring through late fall.

 September 2ndPhysocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

Ninebarks have received a bad name of late – ‘scraggly and buggy’ I hear from fellow gardeners. The problem is, if they’re not situated in full sun (and I mean full sun all day long), they will in fact become leggy and infested with aphids. But plant Summer Wine in full sun and it will shine – literally. Rich, wine-coloured glossy foliage lasts well into late fall long after many other shrubs have lost their leaves. Pretty pale pink flowers are followed by rust coloured seed capsules. The branches of older growth are gray and peeling, but new growth is dark purplish red providing winter interest as well.

In its first year this ninebark will complain in full sun if not kept watered, which leads gardeners (and suppliers) to believe that they in fact like a bit of shade. However in subsequent years Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ will be very drought tolerant and thrive in hot dry conditions – just what a prairie landscape needs. So give a ninebark another chance – if you give it what it needs, Summer Wine won’t let you down.

September 9th – Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’

Top – early fall colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Bottom – Photo: Pat Gaviller

Cream Cracker dogwood is a ‘sport’ of the mottled dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Gouchaultii’. A sport refers to a spontaneous bud mutation resulting in a shoot that differs morphologically from the rest of the plant. When these shoots present a desirable characteristic, they are often then cultivated to create new cultivars. Indeed many new plant cultivars arise from this phenomenon.

Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ has a dwarf habit and green/gold variegation on new growth, fading to green and butter cream on older growth. In early fall the cream coloured margins turn peach/pink. Purple stems round out this cultivar’s 4-season appeal.

The only drawback is availability – when first introduced they were readily available here and I used them in many clients’ designs, but in the last couple of years I’ve had trouble sourcing them. My suppliers tell me it’s because they are unreliably hardy in our climate. This hasn’t been my experience, and they’ve been deemed a recommended plant for our area in the Alberta Government Woody Evaluation Trials. Granted they can take a few years to really establish themselves, suffering significant winter dieback in the first couple of years, but I’ve discovered that once they get established they are proving to be quite robust.

Let’s hope the nurseries here can be convinced that Cream Cracker dogwood is worth another try.

September 16th – Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’

Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It’s 3PM and I just realize I haven’t eaten anything since this morning’s granola. Feeling a little peckish and not wanting to ‘spoil my dinner’, I opt for toast and tomatoes. My husband grows awesome heritage tomatoes, several of which he harvested earlier in the day. As my knife slices through the meaty, juicy flesh of a perfectly ripe Black Krim, I decide I want a few fresh basil leaves. Hubby grows numerous types of basil – I choose Cinnamon for its large flat leaves, perfect for layering atop sliced tomatoes.

I bite into my late summer lunch and…………..WOW! Flavour explosion!

If you’ve never grown this flavourful basil, I highly recommend it. I find it somewhat like Thai basil (which we also grow and is my favourite), but with less licorice notes. Cinnamon basil has earned a place on this page because it is also very beautiful – a tall bushy basil with dark purple stems and pale mauve flowers with showy purple bracts. Grown in pots it has sufficient ornamental value to adorn my patio, emitting a spicy aroma that supposedly wards off mosquitoes.

For more information on Cinnamon basil check out this post by Ramona Werst on the Herb Companion’s IN THE HERB GARDEN.

September 23rd – Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’

Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’. I took this photo a few days ago after a much needed watering. Today this daylily is still blooming and has several more buds waiting to open. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The garden is tired, dry and leaf-littered. Little by little, garden foliage is losing vigour as perennials prepare for winter dormancy. Why then, is a summer perennial gracing this page? Well……..because it’s still blooming. That’s right it’s September 23rd and this daylily still has buds and blooms.

Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’ belongs to a select group of daylilies called Trophytaker® Daylilies. In order for a daylily to receive this designation it must meet numerous criteria: Beauty, Hardiness, Fast Clumping, Extended Bloom (minimum 42 days), Superior Foliage and Pest/Disease Resistance.

Extended bloom indeed! ‘Hot Embers’ daylily has been blooming in my back garden since July 25th!

September 30th – Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’

Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ fall foliage.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

A lilac? Really? At this time of year? I know, I know, I promised no more lilacs, but this lilac is different – I’ve chosen this particular lilac because it has striking fall colour. The foliage turns a beautiful dark purple/red – a stunning contrast to the red, orange and yellow foliage that many other plants exhibit in the fall.

Miss Kim lilac offers other awesome attributes as well – dwarf compact habit, good drought tolerance and winter hardiness. Of course, during lilac season she also has pretty, very fragrant blooms, but that’s not why she’s here today – it’s all about the fall foliage colour. Gorgeous!

October 7th – Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Top – early summer inflorescence.
Bottom – late summer/fall inflorescence.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

It’s at this time of year that the reed grasses come into their full glory – stately upright masses of feathery gold. When the grassy inflorescence first emerges in early to mid summer, it is soft green with a touch of pink. With age it becomes more tan coloured, and finally a rich gold which is particularly showy against the very blue autumn sky.

Karl Foerster is a fool-proof perennial – very hardy here in our zone 3 climate and drought tolerant too. In fact once established they actually prefer lean, dry soil. I made the mistake of giving supplemental water in their second year – they’d been really thirsty in the first year I planted them, so I assumed they were water-loving.

As well, they seemed to fall over all the time (so I gave them more water thinking this was why they were so floppy). When I mentioned to a colleague that I thought reed grasses had a sloppy growth habit, she suggested maybe they were getting too much water – they never got watered after that, even though they’re in a very dry spot. Now they stand up straight and tall.

In the late summer and fall these beauties can be seen from blocks away, especially large stands of them. They bring real elegance to the late summer border and continue to provide interest well into the winter. Matures to about 3 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet tall. A real showpiece!

October 14 – Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’

Top – Flowers and fruit. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia
Bottom – Fall colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Viburnum trilobum is at its best in the fall. The species itself presents tawny red fall colour, but Bailey Compact, a cultivar of the American highbush cranberry, turns bright fuchsia red – very showy. Its dense foliage and dwarf upright growth habit make it an appealing addition to the urban landscape. The large trilobate leaves also bring some coarser texture to our gardens, contrasting nicely with finer textured shrubs. Pretty white flowers in the spring and red berries in late summer/fall ensure this shrub has something beautiful to offer all season.

October 21

Today will be my last Plant Pick til next spring. It’s getting harder to find plant material worthy of this page as there’s just so much less of it around. So for my closing pick of 2012 I present…..

Malus ‘Rosy Glo’

This small weeping standard is an outstanding specimen tree – very hardy and offers beautiful four-season interest: Bright pink spring blossoms, bluish purple foliage, plum-red bark, striking weeping form, stunning fall foliage and pretty ornamental apples. Need I say more?

Left – spring blossoms. Right – October colour with dusting of early snow. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Left – brillant orange November colour. Right – pretty ornamental fruit. Photos: Sue Gaviller


Looking back on this year’s plant picks, I felt it necessary to add a few updates.

Dianthus ‘Neon Star’continued blooming well into September, as did Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’. They were stopped short when we had early snow that stuck around for longer than is usual for this time of year. When it did melt after a week or so, Campanula portenschlagiana still had a few blooms on it and remarkably Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’ was still trying to bloom – I didn’t let it of course, so as not to compromise its ability to get through what could be a very long cold winter (if you read between the lines there you might detect a perceptible whine).

Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’ has been put through another test for toughness – remember that colleague of mine who put 5 of them in her large exposed acreage garden? Well, she watered them in for the winter – gave them a nice long deep drink, and then realized the hose had been attached to the hot water faucet. Don’t laugh. I remember when my youngest was a toddler, he asked for a drink of water – I turned on the tap, filled his cup and gave it to him. When he shrieked and dumped it all down the front of his onesie, I realized the water had still been hot from when I’d just previously run it. OMG! I was beside myself with guilt, but he was a tough little guy and luckily the water hadn’t been hot enough to scald him. Lesson learned.

Anyways, last I heard the peonies actually survived the hot water treatment – I’ll be sure to check back with her next spring to see how they fared.

Viburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’ continued to do well, except they really didn’t appreciate the dry windy weather we had late in the season. Supplemental watering was required during this time, but my hope is this was only because it was their first year. Perhaps they’ll prove to be more tolerant of dry windy conditions once they’re firmly established.

Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ and Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ are continuing to hold their deep rich foliage colour – at least they were until the snow started falling again.

Well that’s about it – nothing else new to report. It was a good year all in all. Not without its disappointments mind you, like golf ball size hail, and of course winter has come way too early. For the most part though I’m pretty happy with the garden’s performance. How about you?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Holy H. Batman!

That’s ‘H’ for Heuchera – you know that indispensable foliage plant that comes in every colour of the rainbow?

I believe a garden plant should carry its weight throughout the season, from early spring through late fall – in other words they must be more than just a pretty face, I mean flower.  Plants with attractive foliage are the key here and Heuchera rules this realm – what other plant has leaves that can bring the same intensity of colour as flowers, and in a huge range of hues?

So let’s take a closer look at this genus of fabulous foliage perennials.

Foliage Favourites

There are more than 50 species in this genus, all or most of which are North American natives, and a few of which figure prominently in Heuchera breeding programs: H. americana, H. villosa, H. micrantha, H. sanguinea, H. cylindrica, and H. pubescens.  Each of these species brings unique characteristics to the table. Hence, countless crosses and back crosses have resulted in enormous variety in terms of leaf colour (pink, purple, plum, peach, lime, orange), leaf size (some are huge) and leaf shape (scalloped, pointy, curled, ruffled). I’m not even going to try to walk you through all of this – the folks at Terra Nova Nurseries, responsible for much of the current hybridizing craze, can show you so much better than I. Do check out their website. Be prepared though: if you garden in Calgary, you may experience a little ‘inner whine’ when you view some of the stunning images of their beautiful plants – we can’t grow’em like that here………sigh.

Charles Oliver of The Primrose Path and France’s Thierry Delabroye have also made significant contributions to the vast selection of new Heuchera cultivars.

The frenzied hybridizing that has produced hundreds of new cultivars since 1990, began with the discovery of Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ – originally determined to be a variant of H. micrantha, but later argued to be of H. villosa stock. It was awarded the Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year in 1991 – since then of course, far superior dark-leaved cultivars have been developed, as well as many other unimaginable colours.

Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’. Photo: Marny Estep

Dark and rich foliage colours. Clockwise from top left: Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ (late summer colour), Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet’, Heuchera ‘Plum Royale’, Heuchera ‘Bressingham Bronze’ and Heuchera ‘Prince’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Warm and Bright foliage colours. Clockwise from top left: Heuchera ‘Pinot Gris’, Heuchera ‘Mahogany’, Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ (early summer colour), Heuchera ‘Tiramisu’ and Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Flowers Too

Heuchera ‘Bressingham Hybrid’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Flower characteristics have also been the focus of various breeding programs – in fact well before Heuchera was deemed a desirable foliage perennial, Alan Bloom of Blooms of Bressingham had been working to improve the original coral bells, with their racemes of tiny, coral-coloured bells (Heuchera sanguinea). He began selecting for larger, brighter coloured florets. ‘Bressingham Hybrid’ was one of his early successes followed by numerous others –  ‘Red Spangles’, ‘Rosemary Bloom’ and ‘Bridget Bloom’ to name a few.

Some Like it Hot

In the early years, Heuchera was marketed as a shade perennial – indeed many nurseries still display it in their Shade Perennials section. However, many cultivars actually present better colour in half, if not full sun.

How much sun or shade a particular cultivar can tolerate is partly determined by geography – our prairie summers are generally hot and fairly dry, but not nearly as hot and dry as Las Vegas. So a Heuchera planted in full sun in Calgary may do just fine, but could fry in the hot sun of the Mojave Desert.

In addition, the particular species of Heuchera will determine its heat and sun tolerance, as well as its cold hardiness. Species that are native to subtropical regions will be more tolerant of high heat and humidity, even thriving in such conditions. Heuchera villosa, a native of the subtropical southeastern United States, is one such species. Heuchera americana on the other hand, is native to more northern climes hence prefers cooler drier conditions.

Some Have it All

It used to be that you could purchase Heuchera with colourful foliage and nondescript flowers, or you could buy Heuchera with brightly coloured flowers and pretty, but nondescript, foliage. However, with complex hybridizing using numerous parent species, it’s now possible to have both – showy foliage and showy flowers. Terra Nova’s City Series boasts some great examples of this.  And of course the hybrids will retain the climactic preferences of their parentage, so if there is villosa, americana and pubescens species in their make-up, they will be drought tolerant, heat & humidity tolerant and cold hardy. Indeed some really do have it all!

Left: Heuchera ‘Havana’ from Terra Nova’s City Series has bright lime green foliage and large, plentiful, bright coral-pink florets. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Right: Heuchera ‘Cherries Jubilee’, also from Terra Nova Nurseries, has dark burgundy foliage and bright coral-red flowers. Photo: Pat Gaviller

…….And Then Some

Heuchera is parent to one of the few instances of intergeneric hybridization in horticulture – it has been crossed with Tiarella to produce the lovely Heucherella.  Because Tiarella is a true shade plant, adding this to the mix means better colour retention in shady locations. Case in point : Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’, a relatively new introduction which I used in some shade containers for a client – the pink-splashed purple leaves maintained good colour saturation all season.

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’ with Heuchera ‘Havana’ make a lovely container arrangement in this client’s shady front entryway. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Design Value

The upshot of all this is that the hardy Heuchera has (or should) become an indispensible addition to gardens around the globe, and for good reason. If we look at it in light of our recent discussions on Unity, we see that this perennial, because of its colourful foliage, can provide colour repetition all season long, not just when in bloom. Even if we’re using one of the early hybrids grown just for its flowers, these Heuchera can still provide an extended period of colour repetition because they’re very long blooming – cultivars chosen for flowers alone are most effective when massed so the impact is more significant.

This mass of Heuchera flowers makes a lovely early summer statement. Photo: Pat Gaviller

As well, the decidedly coarse texture of this genus is useful for creating moments of emphasis or dominance – keep in mind though, that because the overall plant size isn’t very large, dominance is better achieved using a small group rather than a single specimen. The landscape-size selections, like Terra Nova’s Marmalade Series are the only cultivars large enough to be dominant on their own. Utilizing Heuchera in containers is another way they can contribute to dominance in the landscape, i.e. a focal point. Bear in mind too, especially with the brightly hued foliage selections, that you don’t want to go overboard with this perennial – too much bright colour or coarse texture can create competition for dominance which results in visual tension.

Heuchera can bring real pizzaz to container plantings – just imagine any one of these beautiful arrangements as a stunning focal point in your garden. Photos courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Well, what else can I say – what else is there to say? This fabulous foliage perennial speaks for itself – why not let a Heuchera talk to you?

Til next time,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.