The Late Show

Mid-summer and we have just returned after checking a design project we did for a beginning gardener last year. We felt guilty every time we drove by the property, prominently located on a main street in Mount Forest, because all we could see were weeds.

But buried underneath, like living gold, were the plants she so lovingly placed last year. Despite drought (2002), one of the coldest winters on record, a late spring, and the timid efforts of a neophyte, the plants glittered.

The jewels in her unruly crown of her garden are the hostas. They simply work. Hostas get bigger and showier with each passing summer. It’s easy to design a garden with hosta as the foundation. The huge range in size, color and texture makes it a sure thing for the biggest to the smallest garden.

There are thousands of hosta varieties. We’ve chosen about 60 to sell, and each year trial an additional 10 varieties in our own gardens, and then add the winners to our nursery list.

There are a few simple rules for choosing a good hosta.

The first and obvious is appearance. Do you like it? Remember, a hosta in a pot bears only a passing resemblance to the same hosta in the garden. It’s not just the size difference. A hosta in the garden has different coloration, leaf shape and leaf size than one in the pot.

We prefer hostas which grow quickly (not all of them do), while able to withstand the depredations of marauding rabbits, deer and slugs. Some hostas are diminutive, like the luscious ‘Pandora’s Box’, which will achieve a height of only 6″, while others, like the tried and true ‘Sum and Substance’, which tops out at 4’ when flowering and can reach 5’ across, are giants.

The basic requirements for a hosta are moisture, rich humus soil (compost, compost, compost!) and dappled light to shade. Hosta grows well in full sun, but look their best in shade.

Japanese anemones, also called autumn windflower, make a good hosta companion. They begin blooming about mid-August, and can proceed until October. With an abundance of single to slightly frilled double poppy-like flowers in shades of white, purplish-red, light pink, rose and crimson, anemones fill out quickly and reach about 3’ in height. A no-maintenance perennial, they are wonderful as cut flowers. We carry eight varieties (so hard to limit ourselves!). Always a sell-out is ‘Pamina’ one of the darkest, with deep rose-red double flowers. New to us this year are ‘Loreley, a profuse bloomer with unique, silvery pink flowers and Anemone ‘crispa’ with dark pink single flowers and ruffled light-green foliage which makes it stand out from the crowd.

We’re also enamoured of tricyrtis, or toad lilies. Toad lilies have an otherworldly appearance and the unique spotted and mottled orchid-like flowers in white and soft pastels bloom from August till frost, and are at their best in woodland gardens. Flowers appear up and down arching stems and always invite a closer look. We’ve had good luck overwintering toad lilies from late plantings.

We’re excited this year about our new selection, ‘Samurai’, which has curious spotted-purple flowers held above gold-variegated foliage. The variegation deepens as the plant matures.

Kirengeshoma, or yellow wax bells, is a wonderful but little-known plant for a cool woodland garden. It has gorgeous foliage, a pale, limey-green in color with toothed maple-like leaves, purple-black stems and spikes of pale yellow, open faced bells. Kirengeshoma is hardy in our region, but takes a few years to establish itself. It is also late to emerge in spring, so a wise gardener will mark the spot and wait for its arrival.

Also worth a mention is Bergenia, or Pig-Squeak, with its glossy evergreen leaves which turn a glowing ruby-red in cold weather. Bergenia looks lovely all summer, but really shines during spring with its clusters of nodding pink flowers and in autumn, when it takes on its fantastic burnt red coloration. Tolerant of a wide range of soils and conditions, including dry-shade, it’s best when mass-planted, but a frugal and patient gardener knows it spreads quickly enough and divides easily enough, so one plant can go a long way.

For the sunny garden, no late show would be complete without reliable, showy asters. They come in a wide range of colours and heights, attract butterflies like crazy, are excellent for cutting and provide a mass of bloom. Some of our favorites include September Ruby, a deep ruby red aster which grows to 4’, Monch, with lavender blue flowers on 30″ stems, and Wood’s Pink, with deep pink flowers that bloom late on compact 12″ plants.

Word is getting out about an interesting late season performer called Solidaster. A natural cross between aster and golden rod, the solidaster has starry yellow and pale cream flowers in airy sprays that looks, from a distance ,like the colour of butter, and adds a touch of sunshine to the sunny border. We were knocked out by this plant when we first saw it in bloom at the Royal Botanical Gardens and had been hunting for it for years.

Flowering shrubs are a glorious addition to the perennial garden, providing height and structure, while also attracting birds and serving up that great Canadian gardeners’ dish: winter interest.

Among the showiest shrubs of all, are some of the native North American varieties, including Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry, which grows to 8’ X 8’ and is covered in clusters of bright red berries from August until January.

For a deluxe foliage show, you can’t beat Sambucus, or elderberry. The elderberry’s fruit is legendary (just try and beat the birds to the treat), and some of the new selections are simply stunning. Sutherland Gold has deeply cut, golden foliage, Madonna is a boldly variegated contrast of yellow and green, Pulverulenta has bright white and green mottled leaves, and Linearis has attention-grabbing twisted, lacy leaves. Elderberry will grow to 8’-12’ but many gardeners treat them as perennials, cutting them back to a neat and beautiful plant.

For quick, easy, big-time show, it’s hard to beat hydrangea – and the choice of knockout varieties just keeps getting bigger. Here are just a few: Hydrangea Beni-gaku, with pink lace-cap blooms and burgundy red autumn foliage; Midoriboshi-Temari, a prolific bloomer with lacy pink flowers; Limelight, with huge, cone-shaped lime green flowers that turn deep pink in fall and stay on the plant through winter.

It’s easy enough to ensure the autumn garden is as appealing as the spring and summer garden. Don’t stop gardening on Victoria Day. Remember, in gardens, as in love, the best is yet to be.

Happy Gardening.