Ask a Designer: Favorite Shrubs by Susan Harris

cotinus royal robe

Cotinus ‘Royal Robe.’ Photo by Barbara Katz.

For my first Ask a Designer post the question targeted groundcovers. This time it’s shrubs and I asked another fabulous designer about her favorites. Barbara Katz of London Landscapes in Bethesda, Maryland responded that she has “great respect” for these shrubs. (Here’s some of Barbara’s work.)

With deciduous shrubs there are so many to love, Barbara found it a bit hard to choose. So let’s see what made the cut, and I’ll comment when I can’t resist. I’m using marketing photos of the plants only because they’re what’s available.


Hydrangea ‘Little Lime.‘ This is the little brother of ‘Limelight’ and is very well behaved. It flowers prolifically and is totally manageable in your average residential garden. Prune to shape it in the spring, and then just let it do its thing – truly, a fantastic plant everyone can enjoy. Sun/part shade.  [I love it, too!]

Cotinus ‘Royal Purple.’  The foliage color on cotinus is gorgeous, especially in the spring. I prune mine to keep it in shape and not too big, so I never get flowers. But it doesn’t matter – this is a marvelous foliage shrub and adds color and texture through its leaves, all season long.  Sun. [My local nurseryman told me this is the fastest-growing shrub he’d ever seen. I bought one and it immediately took off in my garden, with less than ideal conditions. It’ll soon be a large and dramatic focal point. Here on Pinterest you can see images of the whole plant.]


Weigela ‘Variegata.  This shrub gives you a lot of bang for your buck: a good strong flush of pink flowers in the spring, and lovely variegated leaves (green with a subtle yellow edge) all season long. It can brighten up a partly shade corner, but will be happier with more sun.  I use this plant in just about every garden, and my customers love it. You can also cut the branches and use them in flower arrangements. Sun/part shade.

Aralia ‘Sun King.’  The chartreuse foliage of this shrub will light up shady spots in your garden, and it asks for nothing. Just plant it and let it go. If it gets too big, it’s easy to prune. It will be happiest in part shade/shade. [I want to see this! I’m using ‘Ogon’ Spirea for the same effect – large blocks of chartreuse foliage that pack a punch in the garden – but it needs sun and Aralia apparently doesn’t.]

Dwarf Crape Myrtles. There are a lot of new, truly dwarf crape myrtles are on the market, so in a small garden, you can get this summer/late summer interest on your terms. They flower for weeks and weeks and come in a variety of colors. All they need is good sun.

Picea 'Montgomery.' Photo by Barbara Katz.

Picea ‘Montgomery.’ Photo by Barbara Katz.

With evergreen shrubs, Barbara says “We’re a bit short on really interesting moderately sized evergreens for this area.” So let’s see what she came up with.


Nandina ‘Firepower.’ This little 2′ shrub packs a punch. Lime green new foliage in the spring and flame red in the winter, if given some sun.  It can defoliate after a harsh winter, but patience is a virtue – it will flush out with new growth and be fine. You can also prune these however you want. With no berries, there is no chance of this one spreading around.

IMG_3728-001[I’ll add a plug for another dwarf Nandina, the 2-3′ tall ‘Burgundy Wine,’ also berry-less. Here it is on the northwest side of my house.]

Prunus ‘Mount Vernon.’  This is a groundcover laurel, maxing out (so far) at about 18″ in height. I love the big leaves on the short plant. In gardens that are irrigated, shot hole disease can be a problem, but I don’t mind a few holes in leaves. It takes a lot of shade and some sun.


Fatsia japonica. A great, tropical looking shrub. I’ve had them in various gardens for years now and they’re proving to be hardy for our [Mid-Atlantic] region. The large glossy leaves add punch to any area and are a great foil for smaller leaved plants.

Dwarf Conifers in general. Where there is sufficient sun, the Birds Nest spruces and Dwarf Blue spruces are wonderful garden accents. I would not be without them.

Photo credits:  Firepower Nandina, Prunus Mt. Vernon,  fatsia japonica,  fatsia japonica,  birds nest spruce, Little Lime hydrangea, Cotinus closeup,  Weigela variegata (dwarf version) Aralia Sun King,and dwarf crapemyrtles.

Ask a Designer: Favorite Shrubs originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 6, 2016.


One Way of Relaxing in an Imperfect Garden by Evelyn Hadden


Glow of the moment,

Spread my restless attention

Like water, like peace.

My garden will never be perfect. I know that. And sometimes that makes it hard to relax in. I’ll sit down and try to enjoy being outdoors, but instead I’ll catch myself scanning around for things to add to my mental “want-to-do” list.

For my own sanity, there are times when I need to ignore all the things my brain is telling me I should do to improve the garden, and instead just focus on what thrills me about it right now.


Thistle gonna bloom.

Sidestep past it on the path,


It’s a difficult lesson. Mainly I’m collecting strategies. Here is one: challenging myself to write a short verse about the next thing I notice in the garden. Haiku is my verse of choice for this game; it keeps my attention on the tiniest details, in an effort to say something true and meaningful in only 5+7+5 syllables.

These brief glimpses into what I am sensing serve a dual purpose, bringing me into the moment as I write them and also capturing that moment, allowing me to revisit it later.


Collection of plants

Bound together with bindweed:

Wild bouquet du jour.

One Way of Relaxing in an Imperfect Garden originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 5, 2016.

The meadow rue’s lament by Elizabeth Licata

IMG_4278Tiny, pendulous, lavender-purple flowers with contrasting yellow stamens appear in late summer in loose, airy clusters atop sturdy, purple flower stems which rise well above the foliage to 4-6′ tall (infrequently to 8′). When massed, the overall effect of the bloom can be spectacular.

This is stupid. What am I doing here? I’m taller than everybody and I can’t keep my head up. Everybody’s looking at me!

What idiot would have stuck me in the middle of a city like this? And has this gardener ever heard of spacing? It would be nice to have a little more room, though at least she put some eutrochium and filipendula in here (good to see you, Joe; hi, Queenie!). But I’m dreading the weeks when these lilium come into bloom. They really should be put off in their own space where they can’t bother anybody. And I hope those clematis know their reds clashes hideously with that rose’s reds. Who would have put those together?

And  here come the workers. What’ll it be today I wonder-loud country western or loud Latin hip hop? They really can raise a lot of dust with all those rocks. At least one of them seems to know who I am-he was pointing at me, like they all do, except usually it’s “what is that?” Hardly anybody ever says “Thalictrum!”

This is a nice breeze, though. It’s summer and I’m alive. That will have to be enough. Until … rescue?

The meadow rue’s lament originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 5, 2016.

What’s Native? by Thomas Christopher

What better day than July 4th – our national independence day – to consider the issues surrounding gardening with natives versus gardening with plants of foreign origin? (For the record, I grow both.)

And what, for that matter, is a truly native plant?

Typically, we define “native” in terms of national geographical boundaries – that is, if a plant is indigenous within the confines of the United States, we define it as an American native. Or we may define it in terms of continental land masses, as in the case of a “North American native.” This distinction can help us avoid introducing exotic and invasive plants into our home terrain, but it is at best a blunt instrument.


I was reminded of this recently by Dr. Daniel Duran of Drexel University in a talk he gave at the Millersville (Pennsylvania) Native Plants in the Landscape Conference. Duran distinguished between natives of such a political/geographical kind and those plant types that are genuinely indigenous to your local ecoregion. These more narrowly defined natives are typically adapted to the local conditions. Introducing specimens of the same species from outside the ecoregion and allowing them to interbreed with their indigenous fellows is likely to create offspring that are less well adapted to local conditions, plants that aren’t native in the strictest sense.

This makes a good case for patronizing, whenever possible, local Mom-and-Pop nurseries that propagate their own plants rather than other retailers that import them from out-of-state wholesalers. Local native plants societies can help you in your search for such growers.  At the very least, when shopping for natives, one ought to shop at specialist native plants growers that have some idea of the provenance of their plants and can discuss such issues with you knowledgeably.

Despite your best efforts, you may be unable to find such local sources for the plants you seek. If so, you can take comfort in the thought that plants native in the broader sense – plants native to other ecoregions within North America, for example – will at least not introduce invasives, and may well prove well-adapted. But, at least from an ecological perspective, local is better.

What’s Native? originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 4, 2016.

The Discovery of Daylily World by Allen Bush


Folks living along Gilberts Creek Road, a few miles south of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, must have wondered what was going on this weekend. Twelve tour buses rambled down the country road to visit Daylily World.

Bus, Kirchoff, Morss 070216 (1)


I didn’t have far to drive. Daylily World is only 6 miles from our Salvisa, KY farm. Our friends, David Kirchoff and Mort Morss, were hosts. They are co-owners of Daylily World and award-winning breeders.

Art collectors go to Art Basel. Daylily collectors go to the annual American Hemerocallis Society convention. Over 600 daylily collectors showed up this year in Louisville. They hopped on buses and rode 50 miles to a Central Kentucky hilltop to ooh and aah over 500 cultivars from Daylily World’s breeding and other distinguished breeders, also. These aren’t box store, bargain basement mass-produced $4.98 daylilies. These are rare daylilies that fetch as much as $175.00.

Daylily World, Kirchoff, Morss, AHS 070216 (1)

Congratulations flowed all day. David and Mort, who have both received many previous awards, picked up four Honorable Mention Cultivar Awards on Friday night. The distinction is often a stepping-stone to the prestigious Stout Medal, awarded to the daylily of the year.

Previous David Kirchhoff and Mort Morss American Hemerocallis Society awards.

Previous David Kirchhoff and Mort Morss American Hemerocallis Society awards.

David knows how to paint a picture with catalog copy. Here he goes on ‘Barbara Mandrell’, one of this year’s award recipients. “The self-color of this flower is candied-berry-red infused with layers of Christmas, Chinese and intense cardinal! A dollop of green punctuates the throat… A bright watermark halo contrasts the lacquered red self-color and sparkling-gold filigree encircles the petals. Its color and substance are sunfast; the texture is smooth and silky.”

'Barbara Mandrell'

‘Barbara Mandrell’


David and Mort worked for months to get ready for the parade of enthusiasts. Jamie Dockery, their friend, neighbor, and very talented gardener, pitched in for days to help get the farm looking good.

(L-R): Darrel Apps, Mort Morss, Jamie Dockery and David Kirchhoff.

(L-R): Darrel Apps, Mort Morss, Jamie Dockery and David Kirchhoff.

Daylily World looked better than good. The farm looked terrific. The beds were weed free and neatly edged. It wasn’t beastly hot or jungle-like humid.

Twelve thousand singles, doubles, semi-doubles, patterned, frilly and spidery daylilies were in bloom on a Bluegrass ridgetop.

It was a colorful day for a garden tour.

The Discovery of Daylily World originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 2, 2016.

Any gardener would love “Lab Girl” by Susan Harris

labIt was Amy Stewart’s  review of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl  in the Washington Post that got my attention. Here’s the blurb the publisher put on the back cover: “Sparkling, unexpected…Delightfully, wickedly funny.  I love this book for its honesty, its hilarity, and its brilliant sharp edges. Powerful and disarming.”

Her review, for a general audience, praises the book for its storytelling – of the author and her lab tech leading students on “junk-food fueled” field trips (Where were the adults?), and especially the book’s focus on her relationship with her lab tech (though there must be a better term because he runs the whole show). I found their relationship to be endearing, intriguing, and fun.

lab tech

Bill Hagopian and Hope Jahren. Credit: Jahren Lab.

But for this garden blog, I’ll focus on the plant stuff – because Jahren is a plant and soil research scientist and the book is interspersed with what I’d call plant musings with chapter openings like:

  • “No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root.”
  • “Plants have far more enemies than can be counted.”
  • “Every plant growing on land is striving toward two prizes: light, which comes from above, and water, which comes from below. Any contest between two plants can be decided in one move, when the winner simultaneously reaches higher and digs deeper than the loser.”
  • “Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.”
  • About Bill: “All reserve is shed when he talks about soil, and I have watched him deliver many dramatic monologues in Irish pubs (perfectly sober) describing how the discovery of new colors in new combinations underground is what he loves most about his work.”
  • About her “forays into romance:” “Nobody wanted to listen to me talk about plants for hours.” (Readers, do you relate?)

Jahren actually reveals very little about her private life, although when she does it’s riveting and inspiring. This accomplished scientist and brilliant writer was challenged by undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of her life.

Lab Girl ends with Jahren’s earnest plea that readers just do one thing – plant trees. But not just any trees.

Don’t be tempted to grow a fruit tree, but they break under moderate wind.

Shyster tree planting services will pressure you to buy a Bradford pear or two because they establish and flourish in one year but they’re weak in the crotch and will crack during the first big storm.

You must choose with a clear head and open eyes. You are marrying this tree; choose a partner, not an ornament.

Like Amy, I loved this book, and I’ve been eagerly recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

Any gardener would love “Lab Girl” originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 1, 2016.

Calling long range forecasting on its BS by Elizabeth Licata

weatherHe had me at “silly on weather.” A retired, Buffalo-based, 30-year broadcaster and longtime meteorologist,  Don Paul still contributes occasionally to the local paper with smart articles like this one.

Reading them is so much more interesting than looking at some guy (or gal) standing in front of an animated map. There simply isn’t time to say anything in the couple minutes they allot for weather during the average half hour of local news-which isn’t really a half hour and you don’t get much news in it either. That’s why Walter Cronkite always wanted to end every broadcast with “for more details, see your local newspaper.”

I liked Paul’s recent column on the silliness of long range forecasting because I think we’ve all been seduced by the idea that we can look into this particular crystal ball. That must be why people buy and believe the predictions is such publications as the Farmers’ Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac, on which Paul has this to say:

Both issue essentially worthless detailed forecasts for a year out based on either nothing at all or junk science. Some people take them seriously, but most don’t because they know better. Or, if they don’t, they SHOULD know better. There actually have been a number of statistical studies done on their forecasts proving their worthlessness, which was no surprise to meteorologists. Studying silly forecasts is probably grant money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

And then there are the month-long forecasts you can find elsewhere (he does not name them):

The concern is these few forecasting firms, a couple of which are very large and filled with well-educated meteorologists, have managers who KNOW better than to issue 45-day or 30-day daily forecasts. But these executives also know a lot of customers are willing to believe such forecasts are viable, coming as they do from well-known and seemingly respectable firms.

Personally, I try not to take anything too seriously beyond 2 days out, which is actually more conservative than Paul gets. Recently, we had a two-day art festival here and all the local forecasts insisted-through the early morning hours-that the first day would be at least 80% likelihood of rain. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all that gorgeous day, but many stayed home and I’m some vendors lost money. Them’s the breaks.

Gardeners, and many others, spend much of their days with their eyes on the sky, which seems to be as good a way as any to assess the weather. But I’m glad to have some interesting and enlightening weather reporting in the place I’d expect to find it: print journalism.

Calling long range forecasting on its BS originally appeared on Garden Rant on June 29, 2016.