The Need for New

There’s nothing new under the sun.

Or so the saying goes. But don’t tell that to a gardener.

The never-ending hunt for what’s new is the lifeblood of many a gardener’s existence. That may especially be true in the long, white winter months when the plant promotion season is in full swing, when imaginations are set loose and when what we want – no, what we NEED – is every plant we see pictured, written and talked about, in every catalogue, newspaper and magazine, on television and radio and at garden seminars and conferences.

Well, for those of us who can’t always get what we want (or need), choices have to be made. Consider hosta, for example.

There are between 3,000 to 4,000 registered hosta cultivars. Imagine that: one could spend a gardening lifetime just tracking down and collecting this one plant species, even as the number of hosta cultivars expanded each year.

I have been a long time in coming to appreciate hosta. Truth is, the first time that I started paying attention to hostas, I wasn’t sure if I liked them at all. I didn’t like the high price tag. I didn’t like being told that hosta were special – and, by extension, that gardeners who grew hosta were special. I didn’t like the slug holes. And I especially didn’t like that I didn’t know one fancy named-variety from another.

I’m learning. I know a little more about the collectors’ fever that drives the market, the price tag and all the fuss, and I know that it eventually dies down and translates either into a worthy plant or a one-hit wonder. I still don’t like slugs, but I know lots of hostas that slugs don’t bother. And I do know one variety from another.

Actually, I know several varieties. I’m like any gardener: the more we grow it, the more we know it. And sometimes, the more we love it.

I like hosta. They’re big (or real tiny, and that’s alright too, I think). They’re tough: we winter our sales stock in pots outside under the snow. In spring, the snow goes and the hosta start growing. That’s pretty good. In the garden, they’re like a welcome friend sitting under the trees in an easy chair. They’re big enough and showy enough and impressive enough to go right up to and say “Hello”. Hostas have presence.

And nothing makes a shade garden shine like a well-grown, knockout, slug-free, big, beautiful hosta.

We’ve spent our winter choosing plants for our garden center this year, and it was hard not to get absorbed in the world of hosta. There are so many fine varieties out there. We picked 160 hostas. Here are three beauties to watch for:

Captain Kirk – a truly stunning hosta with a very wide, deep green edge surrounding a delicious gold center. It has lavender flowers, a fast growth rate and grows to 20″ X 42″.

Maui Buttercups – bright gold leaves that are deeply cupped and corrugated (important for slug resistance), violet flowers and grows to 18″ X 20″.

Northern Exposure – a slow grower but worth waiting for, with flat, puckered, blue-green leaves with a very wide yellow margin that lightens to cream, white flowers and a mature size of 28″ X 74″.

For the greenest beginning gardener to the horticultural whiz with the greenest thumb on the block, it’s hard to surpass clematis for either sure-thing toughness or sure-fire bragging rights. This is a plant so steeped in myth (about planting, pruning, maintaining etc.) that it both excites the aficionado while scaring away many a novice. Don’t be scared. Clematis can be easy – and right out there with the newest of the new – and both at the same time.

We’re thrilled this year at our nursery to be joined by Christopher Andrew, a clematis grower and knowledgeable enthusiast, who spreads the word about the Queen of the Vines on television (Kathy Renwald, HGTV) and at garden conferences far and wide. He’s had a significant influence on our selection of some 50 clematis varieties for this year, and he’ll be here to answer gardeners’ questions.

Though Christopher is no fan of the large-flowered hybrid clematis, we’ve kept some on our list just because they remain popular. For the most part, however, we’ve concentrated on the small flowering, “Kick-Around” varieties – clematis so tough they refuse to die. Here are two recent arrivals that should stir the senses:

Princess Diana – trumpet-shaped flowers deep pink on the inside, lighter pink on the outside. A small vine, at 6’-8’, this one shines.

Polish Spirit – rich purple flowers with a hint of red; a 9’ – 12’ award winner that is ideal for beginners. Another late bloomer and a strong grower, its vigorous roots pop right out of their pots.

If your plant quest has steered you beyond perennials and into the wide, wide world of “woodies”, these are the glory days of gardening. Flowering shrubs – the so-called “bones” of the garden – have caught the imagination and attention of plant breeders worldwide.

We got hooked on shrubs when we bought our first house, a former country schoolhouse on a windswept lot with that standard turn-of-the-century planting of peony, iris, a lilac bush, rhubarb, an elderberry and a honeysuckle. I’m not complaining. It was a magical place and they were the only plants still growing – plus waist high twitch-grass – when we arrived in late spring to a property that had once boasted large display gardens but had been abandoned for many years.

When the winter came the wind howled. The birds left. And we were determined to fill our ½-acre with shrubs and trees that would knock down the wind, make us comfortable and make birds and other animals feel like sticking around all year round.

For a shrub that’s real easy and real exciting, it’s hard to beat elderberry. That’s right, the grow-anywhere, native shrub that gets covered in fruit, which we wait all summer for and may not get because birds are faster. Recent elderberry introductions could change your mind about this plant’s ornamental value.

Black Beauty Elderberry has jet-black foliage and massive, lemon-scented pink flowers. Madonna has brightly variegated yellow and green foliage and white flowers. Sutherland Gold is a graceful beauty with deeply-cut golden foliage and a fondness for dappled shade. Linearis is a cool-looking oddity with lacy, twisted leaves and creamy white flowers.

Elderberry can get pretty big, pretty fast – about 8’ X 8’ in one season – but most gardeners, including us, treat them as perennials, cutting them back as one wishes for a great garden centerpiece.

Here’s a short wish-list of recent plant introductions for the gardener who wants to get off the beaten path.

Looking Glass Brunnera – silver jewels for the shade. Large heart-shaped leaves with a silver patina and clusters of blue, forget-me-not flowers.

First Blush Euphorbia – another fabulous foliage plant. Variegated leaves, green with a cream edge, emerging pink-tinted in spring. Creamy yellow flower bracts.

Ace of Hearts Rheum – an ornamental rhubarb with pink flower spikes that will reach to 5’, and huge, spade-shaped foliage with a burgundy-coloured underside.

Kaleidoscope Podophyllum – a too-cool-for-the-room relative of our native Mayapple, with 18″-wide, umbrella-like leaves splashed with bronze and silver, and a mass of burgundy red flowers. Possibly the most expensive plant on the property, of uncertain hardiness – but still worth a try.

Burgundy Lace Fern – Japanese Painted Fern with even more amazing colouration.

Briggs Moonlight Daphne – a compact shrub with sweet fragrance, pale pink flowers and evergreen cream-gold variegated foliage.

No sooner can one survey their glorious garden and think they finally have every plant they’ve ever wanted than it’s time to begin the hunt anew. Would any gardener have it otherwise? Another old saying comes to mind:

Half the fun is getting there.