The calendar says it’s spring, and who is a gardener to disagree? Walk down the aisle of any Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Walmart, and you’ll find a colorful display of boxed bare root perennials, ready to pop into your warm spring soil. Cannas, lilies, bleeding heart, and clematis. Peonies, six dormant plants. Gladiolus and hostas. Caladium, phlox, and kniphofia. The photos on the packaging are so enticing to our flower-starved souls (especially after experiencing our recent “bomb cyclone,” a blizzard of apocalyptic proportions, which dumped 4-foot drifts in our yard)!
When Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) first appeared on the scene, I jumped right on the bandwagon, extolling its virtues and recommending it for Colorado gardens. I even planted it in my own yard. And yes, this hardy perennial lived up to my expectations. It was tough, drought-tolerant, and the deer and rabbits left it alone. On top of that, late summer brought a wealth of gorgeous lavender blossoms that covered the plant’s ferny, silvery-gray foliage. What’s not to like?
I’ll tell you. The plant is a thug.
How would you like a perennial that is hardy from USDA zones 3 through 9, tolerates browsing deer, drought, and smog, while attracting butterflies with its brilliant flowers? Moss phlox (Phlox subulata, also known as moss pinks and creeping phlox, does all that, and more. A very low growing groundcover that barely reaches six inches in height, moss phlox spreads to a diameter of two feet, making it ideal for the front of a border. The leaves resemble short, prickly pine needles, and are a gray-green in color. But it’s the flowers that cause me to run to the garden center for more.
On a recent trip to the botanic gardens, I was captivated by a constellation of tiny blue flowers, stars spread on tender green leaves in the shade of some mature pines. Five azure petals surrounded a hollow white center on blossoms under a quarter inch in diameter. They bloomed in profusion, an inverted sky beneath my feet.
It looks like the sky has fallen and landed among my perennials. Purple-blue flowers formed a dense carpet nearly obscuring the thick layer of green foliage underneath—and the whole show was only a few inches high. I have a weakness for “blue” flowers (when it comes to botanical descriptions, usually that means purple), and the various speedwells are at the top of my list.
We had our first hard freeze over a month ago. Most of the deciduous plants and perennials in my yard are now dormant—some with dry brown leaves still attached, others with bare stems. But remarkably, not everything looks dead. In fact, a surprising number of plants still sport green foliage.
I’ve often chosen or rejected a plant for my garden based on when it leafs out in the spring. Too early and the tender new leaves are withered by a late snow. Too late, and half the season is gone before the yard looks complete. But I never considered the other end of the season—how long will the plant stay green before going to sleep for the winter?
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) used to be purple. You can still buy the purple-flowered version of this perennial (actually more of a pink, at least to my eye), but purple is only the beginning. Consider passionate hues such as raspberry pink and florescent orange. On the other hand, perhaps you’d prefer delicate pinks, or even an innocent snowy white. A related species, E. paradoxa, below, is a pure lemon yellow.