Red Hot Pokers And Fire Alarms

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By the time you read this week’s column some of the colder areas on the East End will have already received their first frost. In fact it was below freezing at least twice last week in Westhampton.After a sunny and dry October, I fear the gardening season is near its end. But before we put things to sleep I still have a few things on my mind from 2013 that I’d like to cover.

I’ve mentioned a few times that if you want to be at the lead, in the gardening scheme of things, you have to be willing to start small. This is especially true in trees and shrubs because they can take years to get to landscape size.

Many of us have garden spots where we’ll plant new items “to grow on.” This allows us to buy year-old shrubs that might be only a few inches tall or newly introduced trees, often referred to as “whips,” that can be nothing more than pencil thick and a foot to 2 feet tall. These smaller trees and shrubs that go into our little private nurseries for a couple of years and up to a decade need some special protection. This became painfully apparent to me early last spring and into early summer as some of my plants were subjected to the browsing of rabbits, groundhogs and deer.

In the spring of 2012 I planted five new rhododendron varieties. The plants were only a couple of feet tall but lush with new leaves that were soft and tender.

I’d never grown my own rhodies but I’m aware that in the worst of winters deer will gladly browse on the foliage even if it’s been sprayed with the best deer repellents. Well, what I didn’t know was that the deer are especially fond of tender, young rhododendron foliage. In one night a single deer nearly defoliated my five new plants.

I was devastated. And yes, I felt incredibly stupid. They had no protection, not even a simple spray of repellent that might have at least deterred some of the feeding.

Several weeks later I received a dozen flowering quince samples from a grower on a trial-and-evaluation basis. These flowering shrubs were tiny, less than 10 inches tall, but well branched.

I was sure that in a year or two they’d be a nice flowering size. I was confident that if the trials went well, in another five to seven years the nursery that developed the shrubs would begin to market them. So the planting holes were dug, the samples planted, watered in, labeled and added to the database for tracking.

A week later they were gone—nibbled down to nubs at the soil. Again, I’d been outdone by the locals. But this time it wasn’t deer, it was a couple of voracious rabbits who decided to dine at my quince snack bar. I’d put down plenty of repellent in the perennial garden because I knew they were scouting the place but I never thought to protect these small woody shrubs that were at a height the rabbits just couldn’t resist.

Then there were the three varieties of shasta daisy and two echinacea that I was sent from Proven Winners to trial. They were planted in May along an outside row in my trial garden so I could watch them and easily get granular repellents around them on a regular basis.

The plants were doing really well and even began to flower a little early. But then one morning I walked out of the house and over to the garden to discover that all that was left were stems and stubs. This time is was the groundhog from next door who braved the repellent on the ground to get to the delicious shoots and flowers.

It was a tough spring, but I learned my lesson. From now on small plants were going to get caged and granular repellents were going to have to be supplemented with repellent sprays as well.

So when my tricolor cornus mas came in as 3-foot plants, they got caged. And when the replacement quince arrived, they got caged.

The cages are simple cylinders of coated wire mesh that encircle the plants with two stakes driven diagonally across on the inside to both support the cage and to keep curious mouths at bay. So far, so good, but stay tuned.

A group of plants that I’ve really fallen in love with in the perennial island are the heucheras, tiarellas and the cross between them, the heucherellas. All are deer- and rodent-resistant. The first two are native American wildflowers and the third a cross between them.

Just 25 years ago a total of four heucherellas was available for gardeners. Now there are well over 100, with new introductions every year, some of which I’ve learned are simply dazzling. These days they are primarily grown for their foliage and used in the shade to semi-shady gardens, though a few will tolerate full sun but not in the dog days of summer.

My first garden planting of heucheras was a grouping of Caramel and Beaujolais. I was surprised to see how well they complemented each other color- and height-wise. Yet after a couple of years, my excitement was tempered because Beaujolais is a much more vigorous grower than Caramel and each year the Caramel seemed to show up later and fill in later.

My solution has been to add new store-bought Caramels each year, though the issue still perplexes me since the original planting did spectacularly the first two years. It’s a combination you may want to try using a minimum of five or more of each in a semi-shady spot.

To call these plants diverse is an understatement. A good example is the heuchera Autumn Bride. This plant forms a pleasing, unobtrusive mound through the summer that does well as a mass planting—best in an odd number of at least five.

The foliage develops through the summer and looks something like a miniature acanthus mollis. Come late summer, the most magnificent white spires of flowers appear off stiff stems with the flowers another 12 inches above the foot-high mounded plants. So just when everything else is fading, this plant puts on a spectacular show during September and October.

Two other heucheras to look at for stunning late summer and fall foliage are Fire Alarm and Dolce Licorice.

Fire Alarm is just what the name evokes. It’s a fiery red foliage that retains its color from late summer into the fall. The plants grow to only about 9 inches tall and the flowers are somewhat nondescript but the foliage will simply blow you away. It’s a stunner.

I wouldn’t describe Dolce Licorice as stunning because it doesn’t have the shock value of Fire Alarm. It’s much more subtle but still a charmer for the fall garden.

The foliage is a dark purple that’s almost black but it’s mottled with a pink splotching that’s somewhat captivating. It reminds me of a terrazzo floor I once saw and at the same time it looks deliciously edible. It’s a real treat to see this in late September and early October, and again, it does best in mass plantings of five or more.

The last little gem of the summer was a kniphofia (aka tritoma) called Elvira. Kniphofia are not known for their hardiness, in fact they are native to South Africa, and my attempts at growing them out here in the 1980s were iffy at best. But this newest introduction seems to be exceptionally hardy. Mine has made it through the winter in my mountain garden that has fairly heavy soil and it seems to shine in our East End soils. This very brightly red hot poker with fiery orange spikes may really be a winner if you’re looking for a perennial that will top out at about 40 inches.

So many more, but so little space. Maybe a few more next week. Keep these in mind for your garden next year, and of course, keep growing.

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