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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

When we visit other people’s gardens – a very popular summer activity especially in Western New York – we take home impressions, ideas about art and style, and wish list of plants we would like to own. The farther we travel, the more varied the plants on those lists. That’s because in any given region gardeners tend to use a similar plant palette. We copy each other. We buy from the same sources, meet in the same gardening circles and develop similar tastes. For similar reasons the term “Buffalo Garden Style” emerged in recent years, suggesting some resemblances in approach and plant uses among us.

Plant-wise, for instance, during Garden Walk Buffalo and nearby walks we see repetitions of Crocosmia, Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’ and certain lilies or hydrangeas that might be unusual elsewhere. In another city within the same climatic zone you might see a different set of “typicals.”

So it was, when I returned from an Ontario region garden tour, that I had a new list of species or cultivars, with similar hardiness, that our neighbors to the north use differently or more extensively than I see at home. I compared lists with a fellow traveler, Kathaleen Burke of Buffalo, and saw that she too was influenced. She will be buying a black elderberry, Lindera (spicebush) for the butterflies and adding serviceberries and goatsbeards.

Here are a few plants that I may add or encourage you to add to your repertoire.

Veronicastrum virginicum (Culver’s Root): Strangers heard me say “Aha!” when I rounded a corner at the Royal Botanical Garden (Ontario) and saw my pet Culver’s Root. I have grown and touted this native perennial for years, although it isn’t always easy to find. A Fine Gardening Magazine piece once described it as resembling “elegant, living candelabras”; I always add the words “dignified” and “tidy” to its characteristics. The petite, pointy leaves have toothed edges and look neat all season. The flower spikes are white, lilac (‘Lavender Spires’), or pink (‘Fascination’) – the latter my RBG sighting. Best in full sun; might lean a little in partial shade. Butterflies love it, and my husband’s very best insect photographs are bumble bees rolling in the tiny flowers.

Geum (aka Avens) species or cultivars: I was never a Geum fan, in spite of the long popularity of ‘Mrs. J. Bradshaw’. Then I saw ‘Totally Tangerine’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower show, with huge, blowsy, peachy flowers. Wow. And then in Ontario, best of all, I saw the native (northern U.S. and Canada) Geum triflorum (Prairie Smoke) and I’m hooked. The silky flowers are enough but the fluffy seed heads are like puffs of gauze, suggesting pinkish smoke rolling along the ground. Let’s all find some!

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Filigran’: While Russian Sage is a sunny garden staple, and a friend to pollinators, I had not seen a large clump of the cultivar ‘Filigran’, and will seek it for the height (about 30 inches) and wispy, airy appearance.

More perennial cultivar discoveries

Garden centers can’t have every cultivar of every plant species, because there are so many, and I understand how buyers struggle to decide what to offer. These are some cultivars of well-known perennials that impressed me enough to scribble the names with exclamation marks:

Brunnera ‘King’s Ransom’: This is a sport of ‘Jack Frost’ with even wider, creamy-yellow margins around silver to gold-toned leaves, and blue spring flowers. It visually leaps out from a shady site.

Sedum kamtschaticum ‘Weihenstephaner Gold’: It provides a dramatic sea of short bronzy green foliage (red in spring) with bright yellow flowers during the growing season. Sedum spurium ‘Red Carpet’ and ‘Dragon’s Blood’ offer similar bold sheets of color in the driest of soils and hottest of sites. I typically recommend Sedum ‘John Creech’ (large spread of soft green and then pink flowers during long stretches of summer). Let’s use them for drought-tolerant, water-reducing coverage of poor sites – as in “hell strips,” anyone?

Monarda (Bee Balm) ‘Aquarius’: Bee balms are familiar, great, pollinator-pleasing perennials, but I was struck by a sighting of a mass of ‘Aquarius’ – light lavender flowers paired with soft pink shrub roses and white peonies.

Hosta ‘Palm Sunday’: It’s rather a mean trick to mention this one, as I’m probably just passing on my own little disappointment. I think hostas are still the best perennial in general, and I collect them and recommend them wherever deer management permits. I delighted in the 1,000 hostas and unusual trees at Bruce Weylie’s Celtic Dream Garden in Ontario. I gave ‘Palm Sunday’ three exclamation marks in my damp notebook. Then he said “I think it’s the hosta I paid the most for in my life ...” Darn. That doesn’t mean it’s unaffordable; prices vary. Just know that not all perennials are equal in the garden, or in the market.

During my tour I also focused on trees and shrubs. As at home the Syringa reticulata (Japanese tree lilac) is having a banner, show-off season. In Ontario I saw flowering tulip trees stop the passing crowd. I loved seeing one of my pet plants, Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem,’ planted as a short naturalistic hedge (currently loaded with butterflies), used as it should be! (It suckers too much to stand alone in a mixed border.) Your own list will be different from mine, but do take a notebook with you.

What you look for in other gardens will go beyond plants too – how gardeners put plants together, the shape of beds, use of the yard and personal expression. Kathaleen Burke used the trip to help her make decisions about what to do with a country property where she wants a naturalistic, low-maintenance, bird and butterfly friendly garden. She wrote: “The trip confirmed my plans, challenged my ideas and changed my landscape significantly.” I hope your garden-peeping walks and tours do the same for you.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.