Although we’re surely not through with cold weather, the character of recent storms in addition to the calendar indicate spring is on its way. Plus, I have winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in bloom in the garden to seal the deal.
ABOVE: Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis)
For me the gardening season starts long before my hellebores get their late-winter haircut. (This year, I chopped back the old foliage the last weekend in February.) I usually mark the beginning of the season when I place that first order for seeds or plants, but this year was different. My husband and I were driving back from a trip to Florida to visit my mother. As is our pattern, were traveling the back roads as much as possible. (Has anyone out there read Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon?) We took Route 301 most of the way from Georgia, and got to watch spring creeping up the eastern seaboard, as redbuds, camellias, clumps of daffodils, and magnolias came into view along the roadside.
So, I was already thinking about gardening when I realized with a slight detour we could pass near Raleigh, North Carolina, home of one of my favorite mail-order suppliers, Plant Delights. In addition to a couple of mysteries for reading material during the trip, I had tucked their catalog (among others) in my bag. A glance inside the cover verified one of their spring open houses fell on the very day we were traveling through the area. (I swear there was no pre-planning on my part!) My always-accommodating husband was more than happy to devote half a day so I could visit the garden and shop. His only worry was that we wouldn’t have room to transport all the plants I bought.
In an effort that is completely out-of-character for me, the night before the open house I actually made a detailed list of what I wanted to buy. In addition to re-reading catalog descriptions, I reviewed the long, on-line list of internet- and Open-House-only offerings. While I normally love to wander through a nursery picking and choosing, my list provided invaluable direction as I shopped. It’s so easy to get smitten by lovely and interesting plants at every turn—ones that may or may not do well in or make sense for your garden. With list in hand, I mostly stayed on the straight and narrow. Yes, there were plants I simply couldn’t resist, including variegated bellwort Uvularia perfoliata ‘Jingle Bells’, but what’s shopping for if you can’t splurge?
Plant Delights provides wagons for its patrons, and I’d determined that one wagon load would about fit my budget and the space available in our vehicle. My wagon quickly filled up as I worked my way through the greenhouses that were open for the day.
ABOVE: One house of shade selections at Plant Delights
So, what did I bring back to try in my Eastern Shore garden? This year I want to experiment with some new and interesting ground covers. My list contained several unusual sedges (Carex spp.), including native Appalachian sedge (C. appalachica) and reflexed sedge (C. retroflexa ‘Bonnie and Clyde’), both of which feature very fine-textured leaves and form rounded mounds suitable for the shade garden. I also picked up evergreen C. oshimensis ‘Evergold’ and C. retroflexa ‘Blue Zinger’, which has handsome blue-green leaves that are evergreen in mild climates. (I’ll see if it’s evergreen here!)
ABOVE: New plants at home, waiting for spring planting.
Also in my wagon by the end of the morning were Liriope muscari ‘Peedee Ingot’, a golden-foliaged selection of a popular ground cover, and Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Comet’ with green leaves banded in white. Another native that made the final cut is Hypericum buckelii ‘Appalachian Sun’, said to be both an excellent container plant that blooms in midsummer as well as a good ground cover. I’ll admit there were more plants than I’ve listed here in my wagon by the end of the trip—ornamental grasses, a peony that has been tested for heat tolerance, plus a couple of crinum lilies and an agapanthus, but you’ll have to read about them as they settle in to my Eastern Shore garden and show me what they can do. For once, because of my list, I didn’t outright forget to buy something I’d wanted to try.
Saving on shipping costs is one advantage of visiting a mail order nursery like Plant Delights. If you’re like me, though, that advantage backfires, because I buy far more plants than I would if I was ordering by mail. To me, this isn’t really a disadvantage. More plants are nearly always better, aren’t they?
There are real advantages for visiting a mail order nursery on an open garden day. You can evaluate the quality of the plants being offered and pick out purchase species not grown in enough quantity to warrant listing in the catalog. You can also talk to knowledgeable staff about cultural needs or plants they are especialy excited about. Picking out your your own plants is another advantage. For example, I was able to select sedges, agapanthus, and crinums that were already bursting out of their pots and in need of potting on. They all will quickly form really nice-size clumps once they’re planted in the garden.
Like many nurseries, Plant Delights also has a great demonstration garden that lets you see plants growing in garden conditions and in combinations that will give you ideas about how to use them. Called Juniper Level Botanic Gardens, Plant Delight’s garden it contains everything from agaves to yuccas, including plants already being offered for sale and selections still being studied and developed. Tony Avent and his staff are constantly pushing the bounds of hardiness, looking for cultivars they can offer that are exceptionally tolerant of cold winter temperatures (I bought an old-time Southern favorite Lantana called ‘Ham and Eggs’ that is supposed to be hardy to Zone 7b, meaning with any luck I should be able to overwinter it in my unheated garage). They are also trialing for heat tolerance. Many of the peonies they offer have been tested for their acceptance of southern heat and humidity, for example, which is a real advantage for any gardener who deals with summertime heat. (‘Magenta Gem’ came home with me, so stay tuned!)
ABOVE: Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’ cascading down a wall at Juniper Level Botanic Garden.
I’m sure I’ll visit many more nurseries where I don’t start with any kind of plant list, but having a well-thought-out list really was helpful. I intend to make an effort to make one for future shopping trips. For any Eastern Shore Gardeners out there, I’d also suggest taking along a notebook or a digital camera for note-taking if you get to visit any demonstration gardens. They’ll make it easy to take home plants and ideas to build your garden.
NOTE: Plant Delights is only open to the public on limited dates. See Open Houses for a list of scheduled dates.