Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring 2011: What's HOT, What's NOT

Image from Tom Stuart-Smith's 2009 Chelsea Garden.
The week after the Academy Awards, the internet is abuzz with fashion experts declaring who was the best dressed and who wasn’t at this year’s show.  This ritual is ridiculous yet captivating.  I yell, “Who cares!” at my screen, yet find myself clicking through the slide show.  The disasters are as interesting as the beauties. 
And then it hit me.  Why not do the same for plants?  When it comes to designing plants, I am as opinionated as any Hollywood fashionista.  And probably as obnoxious.  There are so many undervalued plants whose gleaming moment has come.  And then there are a host of other plants whose overuse of them has made them, to be honest, clichĂ©d.  Gardens are not immune to fashion trends, otherwise why are you reading those glossy garden magazines?  So here it is dear readers, my recommendations of what will be hot this spring 2011, as well as a list of plants whose moment has passed.  Remember, just because a plant is on the “not” list, doesn’t mean it’s not a great plant.  It’s just not trending now.
What’s Hot . . . What’s Not:
1.  HOT:  Iris germanica, Bearded Iris.  NOT: Iris sibirica, Siberian Iris
Iris 'Action Front' in Andy Sturgeon's design for the Daily Telegraph. Image
from Daily Telegraph.
The bearded iris is making a comeback.  For years, it seemed almost everyone had a clump of bearded irises lost along a fence line.  But the same reasons the plants became ubiquitous (drought tolerant, easy to divide) are now fueling their resurgence.  That plus a slate of gorgeous new introductions like Iris 'Rose de la VallĂ©e’.   The flowers are a soft-peachy apricot that sport a tangerine beard, giving the bloom depth and elegance.  Or consider Iris ‘Action Front’ whose appearance in stately planters in Andy Sturgeon’s groundbreaking Telegraph Garden helped elevate his garden to top prize.  ‘Action Front’ combines sensuous peachy bloom with a sultry mahogany beard.  Perhaps the best reason to consider Bearded Irises is that they last forever and can be handed down through the years. 
While I love the elegant Siberian Iris, its constant need for water and its short bloom span (only 4 days!) make it rather unsustainable for most garden situations. 
2.  HOT: Amsonia tabernaemontana, Blue Star   NOT:  Amsonia hubrichtii, Arkansas Bluestar

The bluish foliage of 'Blue Ice' in the
heat of the summer, D.C.

I know I’ll get flack for this one, but it’s true.  The world has now discovered the wonderful Amsonia hubrichtii, with its soft blue flowers and strong fall colors.  It’s no longer trendy.  Plus, it can be hard to site in small gardens.  Instead, consider the delectable Amsonia tabernaemontana, another Bluestar native that’s more compact and versatile than its cousin.  In fact, the cultivar ‘Blue Ice’ is a long-blooming, super-compact (12-15”) native that’s perfect for almost any garden.  I like to use it as an edging perennial.  I think its bluish, fine textured summer foliage is more interesting than Amsonia hubrichtii.  Plus, Amsonia tabernaemontana has the same electric yellow fall color as its cousin. 

3.  HOT: Red, Pink, and Orange Agastaches, Hyssop  NOT: Colored Heucheras
Image from Sooner Farms
Agastaches are having their moment.  For years it seemed like Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ was the best the genus had to offer designers, but now there’s so many great Agastaches.  Agastache rupestris (Rock Anise Hyssop) is a native that offers gorgeous silver foliage and rosy orange flowers.  Long blooming, too!  The cultivar ‘Firebird’ is a real standout.  A hybrid of A. coccinea and A. rupestris, this plant offers longer blooming, more compact flowers than either parent.  My favorite though is Agastache ‘Ava’ a native hybrid with raspberry red calyxes that bloom from midsummer until frost.  You can purchase these great Agastaches online at Sooner Plant Farm.
As for heucheras, here’s my question for plant breeders: does the world really need another colored heuchera?  Sure, they’re fun in a container, but some of those colors in a landscape are downright obnoxious.  ‘Caramel,’ ‘Tiramisu,’ and ‘Encore’ are particularly garish.  Plus, plants really should not be named after desserts.  It’s just wrong. 
4.  HOT: Calamagrostis brachytricha, Korean Feather Reed Grass  NOT: Calamagrostis x ‘Karl Foerster’
If you haven’t seen Calamagrostis brachytricha on the cover of garden magazines, you haven’t been paying attention.  Trend-setters such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith have used this late-blooming grass to great effect in their designs.  And why not?  The grass catches and holds light like a candle, with brilliant pinkish-tinged inflorescences that bob in the afternoon sun.  Korean Feather Reed Grass can even tolerate some light shade.  The inflorescences don’t really appear until late August, so plant this grass like you might a fall-blooming Anemone: subtly hidden until it’s moment of glory.
The ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass is one of the world’s great grasses, but it has become so overused, it’s hard to make a statement with it.  Dear designers, once you see a plant in front of McDonald’s and gas stations, it’s probably time to reconsider whether you should use it. 
5.  HOT: Molinia caerulea, Moor Grass   NOT:  Pennisetums, Fountain Grass
Why don’t more nurseries sell Molinias?  By far, one of the most interesting and versatile grasses a designer can use.  The Moor Grasses hail from the heaths and moorlands of Eurasia.  The great advantage of these grasses is their structure.  Molinias are low clump forming grasses whose rather inconspicuous basal foliage explode like a water jet in midsummer, creating striking architectural flowers.   Because of their low, clumping foliage, Molinias are perhaps the best grasses to interplant other perennials into, allowing room and light for neighboring forbs.  ‘Skyracer’ and ‘Transparent’ have been in the American market for years, but the best cultivars are the lower, more architectural ones like ‘Heidebraut,’ Moorflamme,’  ‘Strand ‘Poul Peterson.’  Stunning as a specimen or in mass.  Check out Nancy Ondra's image of a Molinia here.
Fountain Grasses have suffered the same fate as the Feather Reed Grass: exhaustion from overuse.  Though a wonderful plant, Fountain Grass has become almost as prosaic as junipers or barberry and other ‘landscaper’ plants that you expect to see in parking lots of strip malls. 
6.  HOT: Rosa rugosa, Salt Spray Rose    NOT: Rosa ‘Knockout’, Knockout Rose
Modern naturalism is all the rage now, and what better plant to compliment that movement than the Saltspray Rose?  This overlooked rose has all the qualities to make it desirable for today’s urban and suburban landscapes: drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, salt-resistant, and adaptable.  Rosa rugosa is more rugged, more delightfully loose, and more confidently carefree than other shrub roses.  What could be more modern cottage-garden than a pile of Saltspray Roses mixed with ornamental grasses along a fenceline?  You thought seedheads were hot, well I got one word for you: ROSEHIPS!  Luscious, bright-orange, glossy rosehips cover the plant after it blooms.  Plus, this rose has better fall color, with tones of yellow, orange, and red.
I must pay my respects to the Knockout Rose.  It introduced America to the concept of the landscape rose, getting us away from those chemical dependant tea roses.  However, this plant is just everywhere, dotting that recognizable lipstick pink from sea to shining sea.  There are just too many fabulous heirloom shrub roses for designers to justify using another Knockout Rose. 
What plants do you think are trending?  What plants are you lusting after this spring?  Let me know!

20 comments:

  1. Rosa rugosa has an enormous array of cultivars that come in sizes, flower colors, and leaf tones. They like to expand, though, so it's good pick a largish area to give them room to do so...

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  2. This was a fun, Thomas! Let's face it; all gardeners have strong opinions about plants. I have plans to add Amsonia tabernaemontana (both the species and the "Blue Ice" cultivar) to my garden, so at least I can be a little trendy. On the other hand, I'll continue to swear by my siberian irises, which in the cool climate of my Maine garden (they're not named sibirica for nothing!) are tough, drought-tolerant plants that form large clumps and self-sow readily. A Maine gardener friend of mine once divided some siberian irises in fall, left the divisions in plastic bags at the top of the driveway, got distracted, and forgot about them. The following year, after the snow melted, she was reminded they were there when the irises bloomed in their plastic bags! Many of your picks are new plants to me, so I'll check them out. -Jean

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  3. Jean,

    Thanks for going with the tongue and cheekiness of the post. I was aiming for playfully obnoxious, but it might just be obnoxious. Anyways, I'm in love with Siberian Irises myself, and the few gardens I installed in Maine, Siberian Irises were unbelievable.

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  4. I, too, will stick with my Siberian iris because of the reasons given by jeansgarden, also because I find that in most situations where I garden (zone 8 PNW), it retains beautiful foliage all summer long… which I've not seen with any other iris. And though I personally like rugosa roses, most of my clients have yards too small for them… though I do love them for larger situations. And to ANYTHING 'trendy' I yell, WHO CARES! But it is nice to hear some newer options. However… I refuse to give up my heuchera. You'll have to rip it out of my cold dead hands. :-)

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  5. That was great! My favorite line was 'Dear designers, once you see a plant in front of McDonald’s and gas stations, it’s probably time to reconsider whether you should use it.' So true.

    Bummer about the Amsonia. I've been wanting to try it and now . . .

    Also, I've tried repeatedly to get into agastache but have not had very good luck getting them to live more than two seasons. They don't seem to reseed either. Anyone else out there had the same problem?

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  6. First of all - let me say that I just discovered this blog and, may or may not be 110% smitten. Second, let me say that I agree with everything you said, particularly when it comes to Molinias. They are one of the most amazing things ever. Third, I absolutely must make a case FOR Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'. Yes, I know, it's everywhere - in every median, every corner gas station... it's viral. However, unlike Pennisetum (which I also believe has long overstayed its welcome in most landscapes), I believe Karl still has a crap-ton of potential - people simple don't know how to use it correctly. I can't think of any grass that has such a stunning and sturdy architecture as Karl. I cry that it is misused so often... ok, maybe that's slightly melodramatic - but it's still depressing. Alright, I'm off my soap box. AWESOME BLOG - AWESOME POSTS - AWESOME OPINIONS!

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  7. @ tami, many Agastache species and hybrids require excellent drainage, especially in winter, for consistent success. I’ve also been told that pruning them in fall during your regular end of season clean up allows water to enter the crown through the cut stems negatively impacting survivability (same with some Salvia and “hardy” Lantana). I’m not sure that I believe the reasoning exactly, but I have noticed a much higher success rate with Agastache hybrids left unpruned until new growth emerges.

    Thomas, I’d like to be the first to give you flak about Amsonia hubrichtii :) It’s the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2011! Native, drought tolerant, deer resistant, vole resistant, long lived, pest and disease free, good fall color and, while used in lots of designs, I’d hardly say it’s overplanted. You’re ruthless :) ‘Blue Ice’ IS great though and I recommend everyone take a look at ‘Short Stack’ too. As for new Heuchera – I’m not a fan of new for the sake of new, but many of the new releases are significant improvements over older cultivars especially in terms of survivability for the south.

    @ Bent, try Panicum ‘Northwind’ for a vertical grass alternative.

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  8. Hmm. This was growing them in Utah - great drainage on sandy loam soil, reliable snowcover, full sun. Can't remember if I pruned or not. Well, that just means I'll need to try again. Thanks for the tips.

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  9. you have a playful sense of humour Thomas, well-written article!

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  10. I have to laugh, because there's such a funny part of human nature, that when something becomes "too popular" those who consider themselves "in the know" are obliged to hate it.

    Having said that, I'll admit that my tiny overgrown yard is planted with every California cliche, and there's precious little room for anything else.

    Anyone want a couple hundred calla lilies. I'll let you have 'em, cheap.

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  11. Hilarious! I love how even in something that seems as "uncool" as gardening, there are still trends and fads. I must admit, I'm pretty steady and tend to be loyal to my faves year after year. I've always had bearded iris and always will...just for the reasons you mention. I agree with the poster above regarding novelty for novelty's sake...is there anything more tedious? That's not to say I don't devour gardening magazines and don't stalk new plants at nurseries ;-) I'm so glad to see people realizing how awesome Agastaches are (something I had only recently discovered myself). 'Ava' is a standout...especially with those colored calyxes...I'm tying 'Blue Blazes', also from HCG this summer...hope it delivers as electric a blue/purple as 'Ava' does pink!

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  12. Thomas - Living in Paris, with all the madness that surrounds fashion week and the endless stress on new fads and trends, I found this article wryly amusing. I know one mum who sneers at parents who let their KIDS wear last season's ranges! She would certainly be ripping coloured heucheras out of her garden.
    But, as you hint, it is sad when we find the obsession with newness and being on-trend spilling over into gardening. We need to preserve its value as essentially a slow process - the experience of designed landscapes growing and maturing and become more desirable with the patina of age...

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  13. Fashionable plants...hmm, a new thought for me. ; )

    I used to have bearded irises until I had one August encounter too many with the dreaded Iris borer, to which so far my Caesar's Brother irises (bought at a supermarket!--how unfashionable is that?) are immune.

    My favorite low grass is prairie dropseed, but I suppose that's in danger of being overused.

    Thomas, will you tell us about fashionable shrubs? (Love your attitude and opinions.)

    @Tami,

    I agree with Paul W's comments about Agastache rupestre, especially about not cutting back until spring.

    Also, though it likes good air circulation it seems to require some protection from wind, and a damp winter will harm it.

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  14. Jill, Lisa, and Adrian,

    While I was being a bit dramatic about the trendiness of some plants over others, I do believe that gardens are not immune to trends and fashions. A quick survey of gardening through this last millennium reveals that fashions very much drove garden making. Fashions continue to shape the way we garden. The very conventions of the American garden (the lawn, "foundation planting," the curving plant bed) are all fragments, or more precisely, trends, that we have borrowed consciously or unconsciously from other gardens (mostly European).

    I would argue that all gardening is a form of self-expression. The insertion of self into nature is the essence of what a garden is. That is the art of the garden. Thus, the greater sin is not identifying trends, but being unaware of the trends that shape your garden. Novelty for novelty's sake is tedious. But being unoriginal is worse. Fashions create gardens, even for those who swear that it doesn't. Plants are signifiers. They communicate message and meaning. If you use a plant that every landscaper from Maine to California is using, that says something about your garden--whether or not you intend them to.

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  15. Thomas,

    Thanks for the explanation: this subject deserves much discussion. I was attempting a mild joke. ; )

    I agree completely with what you are saying, and for that reason believe that every gardener should have an acquaintance with gardening history (along with art history, social and political history, environmental history, design, botany...)

    For me, (as a former garden center employee, whose job involved ordering and "pushing" the newest plants), a question might be: what is the difference between fashion and self expression as an organic manifestation and expression of culture; and fashion and desire for novelty as a product manufactured by industry and marketing. In modern society, how do you tell the difference, and should we even try?

    This is what I like about your blog--makes one think!

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  16. Thomas,
    I just found out about your blog from my quiet husband, your former classmate:) Dan DeRosa, wow this is great what a wealth of information...email us at adod@verizon.net so we can catch up in DC please...we're there a lot and I am planning on us moving there too....soon if I have my way about it!!:)hope u will email us...
    anne

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  17. Thomas,
    What can you tell from a garden the second you walk into their garden? I think you've got a new business venture here, like garden psychologist. I wonder what you'd say in my garden, who you'd think I was, just by the cultivars, arrangement, color, texture. "Oh, he's a recluse alright, and he doesn't like loud noises. He also prefers white socks over brown."

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  18. Benjamin,

    Ha, no I'm no plant psychic. What I mean when I say that plants are signifiers is not that one can divine a person's soul from their plant selection, but that plants carry meaning in the same way that clothes carry meaning. For example, I say all the time that I don't care about fashion, yet I still wear clothes and what I wear still communicates content to the world. If I wear jeans and a sweatshirt, it says I want to be comfortable, or I like to be casual, or I don't care about being formal. The meaning is not fixed; in fact, it probably will be interpreted in different ways, some consistent, others not.

    And that's my point about plants and trends. Of course, it's one thing to disagree with my trend predictions. Truly, what do I know. I was being somewhat obnoxious, anyways. But a lot of people seem to be indignant with the very idea of trendiness and plants. As if the gardening world is above fashion and trends. To me, this is the ultimate silliness; to garden is to express oneself. What plants you choose say something. Neutrality is a myth.

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  19. Benjamin,

    Ha, no I'm no plant psychic. What I mean when I say that plants are signifiers is not that one can divine a person's soul from their plant selection, but that plants carry meaning in the same way that clothes carry meaning. For example, I say all the time that I don't care about fashion, yet I still wear clothes and what I wear still communicates content to the world. If I wear jeans and a sweatshirt, it says I want to be comfortable, or I like to be casual, or I don't care about being formal. The meaning is not fixed; in fact, it probably will be interpreted in different ways, some consistent, others not.

    And that's my point about plants and trends. Of course, it's one thing to disagree with my trend predictions. Truly, what do I know. I was being somewhat obnoxious, anyways. But a lot of people seem to be indignant with the very idea of trendiness and plants. As if the gardening world is above fashion and trends. To me, this is the ultimate silliness; to garden is to express oneself. What plants you choose say something. Neutrality is a myth.

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  20. Rosa rugosa is on the potentially invasive list in CT so using it in my designs makes me feel like i am breaking a serious taboo. I think it is a handsome plant for difficult sites and agree with the overuse of knockout... so what do others think about this issue?

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