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Low and lovely: Five great low growing ornamental grasses

There is always room for smaller, low-growing ornamental grasses in your garden. Here are five you will want to consider.

Early summer dwarf fountain grass combine with Japanese Forest Grass in this front garden.

Five ornamental grasses you need to know about

If you’re in love with ornamental grass, but either have a small garden, or are not interested in large clumps of taller grasses, you need to look into the smaller, low-growing ornamental grasses available.

We have a number of them growing in our front and back gardens, some that appreciate full sun and others that prefer a location with more shade.

Defining a low-growing grass is not always easy. Little Bluestem, for example, grows to about 18 inches and may not be considered by some to be “low growing” but it’s certainly a terrific native plant that actually was awarded perennial of the year in 2022. For more on Little Bluestem be sure to check out my full story here.

Japanese Forest Grass, especially the all-gold variety, is another outstanding performer that you may want to consider in your garden. I would not consider it a tall-growing ornamental grass, but neither is it a low-growing grass. Check out my earlier post on ornamental grasses, for more on the Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa aurelia).

New varieties of grasses are introduced every year, so it’s a good idea to either go online to check out the latest varieties or visit your local nurseries to get a good idea of what grows best in your growing zone.

The grasses mentioned below are all deer resistant.

Infographic on Ornamental Grasses

Ornamental grasses add movement and texture to the garden that is sometimes hard to attain with other plants. Here we have a combination of Japanese Forest Grass (top right), Blue Fescue, Fountain Grass and a Sedge (bottom right).


Fountain grasses add a touch of elegance to the garden

Fountain grass: (Pennisetum Alopecuroides) Without a doubt the Pennisetums are a beautiful variety of grasses that really make a statement in late summer into fall when their (flowers also called inflorescences) begin to bloom. But, even before they start to bloom, the grasses add an elegant look in the garden helping to create movement when the breezes pick up.

There are many perennial fountain grasses – including the large and very popular annual purple fountain grass often used in containers as the thriller. Karley Rose, for example, is a larger perennial fountain grass that makes an excellent addition to any garden with its pinkish inflorescences. I have Karley Rose growing in both our front and back gardens, but it might be considered too large to be considered a low-growing grass.

If you are looking for low-growing varieties, consider Hamlen Dwarf Fountain Grass that grows to about 35 inches (90cm) or the miniscule Little Bunny Fountain Grass with a height of only about 12 inches (30cm.) Both are hardy to zone 5, like to be grown in full sun and prefer a dry to moist soil.

Dwarf fountain grass

These dwarf fountain grass are just beginning to flower in our back garden. The inflouresences (flowers) turn a wheat colour and usually bloom well into fall.

Ideas on using fountain grass in the garden

Use these small fountain grasses in the front of a border or as small specimen plantings on their own. We use them in our front garden as accent plants in a sunny area along a dry river bed as well as in the area of our Japanese-inspired garden.

Japanese Blood Grass adds colour to the garden

Japanese blood grass (Imperata Cylindrica) another perennial garden winner for those who want to add a little pop of colour to their garden beds. (See photo in graphic above) Growing to a height of about 17 inches (45 cm) with a spread of 11-12 inches (30 cm), Blood grass is best grown for its blood-red tips that appear in mid- to late-summer and add a touch of bold colour to the garden.

Blood grass grows well in average to moist soil, in full to partial sun and is hardy to zone 5.

Ideas on using blood grass in the garden

I use Blood grass as a natural ground cover growing among the low-growing sedum (stonecrop) under our clump birch trees. The grass not only adds a little colour, but it seems to be at home in the dappled shade under the birch trees where it stays completely under control.

I also use it as a background for a “school” of ceramic fish (see post on Fish in the Garden) that swim through the grasses and around our birch clumps.

This colourful golden sedge adds a nice chartreuse touch to the garden.

Sedges are perfect for wet areas of the garden

Bowles Golden Sedge (Carex) There are a variety of sedges available that look and act much like ornamental grasses. The biggest difference between sedges and grasses, however, is that the sedges perform best in moist soils. They are the perfect plants for wet or very moist areas in the garden.

Take it from me, if you are planting them in a sandy soil in a sunny spot, you will need to water them almost daily to get them looking and performing their best.

Bowles Golden Sedge has become a nice addition to our garden with its variegated chartreuse leaves. With a height and spread of about 24 inches (60 cm), they are not the most low-growing of the sedges – that would be Blue Zinger Sedge (Carex Glauca Blue Zinger) at a mere 12 inches (30cm), Ice Ballet Sedge (Carex Morrowii Ice Ballet) with a similar height , Ice Dance Japanese Sedge (Carex Morrowii Ice Dance), and Evergold Variegated Japanese Sedge (Carex Oshimensis Evergold) at a mere 8 inches (20cm) with a similar spread.

Where to use Sedges in the garden

It’s important to remember that the sedges like moisture in the soil – even wet soil. Obviously, an area of the garden that enjoys lots of moisture is the ideal spot to plant sedges, but you can create good growing conditions with a little effort. Last year, I moved three sedges from a sunny dry area where they were not doing well, and planted them in cluster near our patio where I can easily water them regularly. They quickly bounced back and performed nicely throughout the summer into fall.

Almost immediately after the move, the three sedges began to look much better, with a faster growth habit and better colour.

Black mondo grass

A good example of black mondo grass growing in our dry river bed.

Black Mondo Grass for a bold statement in the garden

Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon Planiscapus Nigresce) Black plants of any kind are always in high demand and, when that plant is actually described as a “grass,” you know it’s something special.

While not actually a grass, this hardy to zone 5 perennial grows to a height of between 5-6 inches (15cm) in average to moist soil in full to part sun. It spreads nicely into a clump of up to 17-18 inches (45cm), and can be used in the landscape as a nice tidy edging or as an accent to bring focus to an area with it’s dark foliage.

Black mondo grass can take on a greenish colouring if it’s in too much sun. In addition, it has small purplish flowers that can almost go unnoticed. They can be left on the plant or cut off if you want to maintain that grassy look.

Keep the plant well watered as well.

How I use Black Mondo Grass

I use a lovely clump of black mondo grass almost like an island growing in a dry-river bed. The strapping black grass-like foliage always brings a smile to my face when I see it growing up among the grey pea gravel and river rock. Under the right conditions, it can be striking.

Our clump has grown to the point that I need to divide it, so I am hoping to use it as an edge near our patio where I can appreciate it up close on a daily basis.

Blue Fescue adds a touch of colour to dry, sunny areas

Blue Fescue The adaptibility of Blue Fescue (see photo in graphic above) makes this grass a favourite among gardeners. Not only is this a tough little grass that can take hot, sunny, dry areas, it brings a blue-grey element to your landscape.

The fescues are actually considered a perennial evergreen grass that likes dry to average soil in full to partial sun. It grows to about 10 inches in height (25cm) with a similar spread. It grows in very distinctive clumps, so if you’re looking for a smooth grass to act as a replacement for a traiditional lawn, these are probably not ideal.

How to use Blue Fescue in the landscape

This grass is ideal for a hot, dry area where it can be used as an edge or planted in drifts. In the right location, its clumps of blue foliage can be stunning. Inflouresences add more elegance to the plants later in the summer through fall.

I use it both in our front and back gardens near dry river beds where its grey foliage complements the stone while it stays short and compact never intruding or competing too much with the simplicity of the dry river beds.

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Coleus: A colourful addition to the shade garden

Coleus is a plant that more gardeners need to consider both at container plants as well as additions to the landscape.

Three Coleus you need to consider for your containers

If you are looking for more colour in your shade-based containers or landscapes, it might be time to focus on Coleus with its variety of colours, shapes and sizes.

Coleus has got to be one of the most underrated and underused annual plants of its time.

A sampling of Proven Winners Coleus in containers

A combination of Proven Winners Coleus in containers.


If you have hesitated to embrace these incredibly colourful and easy-to-grow annuals in your garden, it’s time to give them some love.

Anywhere you have planted ferns and hostas is a good place to plant Coleus for a little or a lot of colour.

Coleus, by the way, is not only for shade gardens. New varieties of Coleus are available that can take both sun and shade.

These plants have come a long way in the past couple of years thanks to the work of the people at Proven Winners and other plant propagators who have created new hybrids that can take both sun and shade, and look extremely good doing it.

Proven Winners alone lists 17 different Coleus in its arsenal. Everything from plants with colourful foliage patterns to those with solid colours such as the deep reds in Rediculous, the burnt orange colours and ruffled edge of Wicked Hot, or the incredible lime greens of Lime Time.


Golden Dreams Coleus by Proven Winnder combines nicely with grasses in this container planting.


If you want to see Coleus in action both as singular plants in a container, or in combinations with a host of other plants, check out Proven Winners top ten Coleus suggestions.

I have used Coleus in our front containers to add colour in areas that usually get deep shade and was thought to be good for only ferns, hostas and the like.

This year, after so much success in the past few years, a variety of Coleus will take prominent spots in both our front and back containers and maybe find a spot or two in our landscape.

The results have been impressive.


Proven Winners Golden Dreams Coleus creates a soft, restful background that does not fight for dominance in the landscape.


In fact, last year I planted a Proven Winners Colorblaze Golden Dreams Coleus in a large container to hide some utilities, and not only did it grow so large that it hid the utilities, it turned out to be the star of the Japanese-inspired garden.

This Golden Showers Coleus was used in the Japanese-inspired garden to hide utilities and blend in the natural colours of the garden with its soft, golden tones.

One of the reasons it worked so well in the Japanese garden is that Golden Dreams Coleus, though colourful with its chartreuse leaves and red veining, tends to be a calm, restful background plant that brought together the greens of the surrounding foliage, and reds of the Bloodgood Japanese Maple that provided the plant with afternoon shade.

This is the beauty of Coleus plants that come in such a range of colour combinations that they can work as both a bold statement in the garden or a calming, quiet addition depending on how you choose to use them.

The chartreuse and red of this Coleus is an outstanding addition to any garden.

A Golden performance in the garden

The award-winning Golden Dreams Coleus, like many Coleus plants, performs well in both sun and shade. All it asks for is a reasonable amount of humidity which it certainly got in our humid climate where moss grows naturally between the flagstones.

In very low humidity environments, you would be best to grow it in an area where it gets plenty of afternoon shade.

It's not hard to see how the Coleus brings in the colours of the garden.

This Golden Showers Coleus brings in the colours of the garden and helps to create a cohesive feel and look to the Japanese-inspired garden.

Deadheading not needed

There is no deadheading necessary for these plants. In fact all I ever did was plant it, water it regularly and watch it grow. You can pinch it back to thicken up the plant, but it’s not really necessary.

Deer resistant foliage plant

Even the deer wanted nothing to do with this foliage plant, which makes Coleus ideal for woodland gardeners that share their space with a hungry herd of deer.

Coleus is seen here in a small container adding colour to a primary green fern garden but also picking up the yellow of the adirondack chairs.

How to grow Coleus in containers and in the landscape

These plants can grow quite tall. In fact mine was so happy it probably reached three-feet tall and close to that same distance in width by the end of the summer.

If you are planting several specimens out in the garden, plant them about 18-24 inches apart to form an impressive clump of foliage.

In a container, one is probably all you need. They certainly grow large enough to use as a thriller in the container pulling together colours from your other plants.

Of course, the wide variety of Coleus demands that the gardener do a little research on the habits of each plant to get the most out of them.

Chocolate Drop combines nicely in this container

The smaller Chocolate Drop Coleus combines nicely in this container as a filler.


Many varieties of Coleus to meet all your needs

There are too many varieties to describe each of them, but here are a few you might be interested in planting.

In the Proven Winners Color Blaze family, consider Chocolate Drop (Coleus scutellarioides) for a sun or shade location.

This is a smaller Coleus that grows between 18 inches to about 2 feet with smaller rounded green leaves boasting a deep crimson centre that spreads out toward the edges of the plants.

Proven Winners describes the colors as black and green but the overall effect is not quite that extreme.

Like Golden Dreams, there is no need for deadheading and the plants are pretty much maintenance free.

Where I live, they are treated as annuals, but if you are in a very warm climate, they are considered hardy in zones 10-11.

Their trailing habit makes them great for flower beds and containers, but they do better as a spiller rather than a thriller.

Mini Me Watermelon is new this year

If you are looking for an even more compact coleus to add to your container, or one with some serious colour punch, the Proven Winners Mini Me Watermelon is the one.

It might be tricky to find because it’s new this year, but this little red and chartreuse coleus growth ranges from 12 inches to 20 inches with a spread restricted to between 10 and 18 inches.

It’s a new type of ColorBlaze that is substantially smaller than the rest of the ColorBlaze coleus. Proven Winners says the plant is still being developed and may have variable leaves or branches that can be easily taken out if necessary.

Again, this Coleus, with its watermelon-coloured foliage rimmed with golden chartreuse accents can take both sun and shade.

Like most coleus, this one is designed to bloom well into fall until it is hit with the first heavy frost of the year. It’s deer resistant and can be used as a thriller with its upright growth.

Proven Winners says the plant can be used in borders, containers as well as mass planting in the landscaping.

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Pachysandra: Native and non-native ground cover for woodland gardens

Native and non-native pachysandra is a preferred ground cover choice to use in a naturalized shade garden.

Pachysandra in the woodland garden

A chipmunk hanging out in the pachysandra which provides good cover for prey in the woodland garden.

Low maintenance evergreen ground cover is popular choice for shade garden

Pachysandra has long been a favourite ground cover for gardeners looking for an easy-to-grow, low maintenance plant for the shade garden.

If you can grow the native variety (see below) definitely make the effort to get it established in the garden.

I have used it in our front woodland garden as one of the main ground covers to form the basic structure of the landscape. It’s important to note that pachysandra is just one of several ground covers that I have put in the front garden to compete with one another and form an interesting tapestry with various ground covers fighting for dominance in the garden.

Pachysandra forms a solid enough ground cover that is manageable but still allows me to grow more interesting plants up through it.

The pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) or Japanese spurge competes with sweet woodruff, ferns, epimediums and others to form the dominant ground cover. It weaves through the main front garden that is heavily planted with black-eyed Susans, columbines and other spring ephemerals like trillium, solomons seal and bloodroot helping to bring the garden together in a naturalized look.

Like most ground covers it can be aggressive and, if allowed to take over, can form a dense foliage that will choke out other plants. Keeping it from overpowering other plants is not difficult but you need to keep your eye on it each year.

The more naturalized look involving competing ground covers with perennials growing up through it may not be for everyone. I prefer that look to a single ground cover simply replacing a sea of grass.

A single ground cover is simple and makes the landscape look neat and tidy, but it lacks the variety that is important to attract wildlife from birds to insects, reptiles and the like.

I have seen everything from toads, to small snakes, birds chipmunks and red squirrels rooting around in our front garden ground covers.

As an added bonus, the deer that visit almost daily leave the pachysandra alone.

For more on ground covers, go to my other posts here:

• Best ground covers for the woodland garden

• What’s the easiest ground cover to grow

Pachysandra in fall surrounded by Japanese maple leaves

These pachysandra leaves are poking up through a blanket of Japanese Maple Leaves.

How high does Pachysandra grow?

The popular evergreen ground cover, native to Japan and China, works well in cooler regions in hardiness zones 5a to 8b). It grows to about 6 inches in height, and spreads aggressively to create a mat of leaves and stems.

Native pachysandra is an excellent choice for woodland

Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), is a native semi-evergreen species that is at home in fertile, well-drained, moist wooded areas in USDA zones 5b to 9a that includes Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, south to Florida, and west to Louisiana.

Both the non-native and native species will grow well in partial to full shade in well-drained, fertile soil.

You can use it in shady areas that have had trouble supporting grass.

Clemson College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, on their website, is quick to recommend the native species for a woodland garden.

“Allegheny spurge is a perfect fit for naturalized, woodland gardens where it can be planted en masse,” Clemson writes on its informative website.The less aggressive nature and open growth habit of Allegheny spurge makes it a suitable companion with other shade-loving groundcovers and low-growing plants.”

Pachysandra: Keep it contained

Not unlike other ground covers, it’s a good idea to keep pachysandra contained in some way. Ours is more or less contained by massive boulders on one side and a cement path on another side. Any other control is done by simply pulling out any lateral growth that looks like it is getting too comfortable growing in a particular direction.

If you want to use it in another area of the garden, you can just take cuttings from your existing patch. In fact, our front garden patch of pachysandra was created by using a handful of pachysandra cuttings purchased at the local garden club annual sale for a very small price.

Patience is key here. I’d estimate that it took 3-5 years for the cuttings to cover a fairly large area (15 feet by 15 feet) in our front garden.

But, if you are looking to save some money, pachysandra can be a good choice to begin adding to an area of the garden that needs a ground cover that performs better is a shady location than a boring, thinning patch of turf grass.

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Proven Winners’ Idea book hits another home run

The 2023 version of Proven Winners’ Gardener’s Idea Book is another home run. Released just in time to ignite the inspiration of gardeners looking to begin planning and planting their gardens.

Inspirational ideas and tips booklet is a Proven Winner

The 2023 Proven Winners’ Gardener’s Idea Book just arrived in the mail and, once again, the company known for its top performing annuals, perennials and shrubs has hit a home run.

I’m not sure if I’m more excited about the opening of the baseball season in two days or the arrival of this year’s booklet packed with pictures, ideas and tips on how to maximize the plants and shrubs offered in 2023.

Idea Book turns the focus on birds

It’s good to see Proven Winners’ recognizing the importance of birds in the garden. This year they included a spread on creating a bird friendly garden, along with pages featuring everyone’s favourite, Supertunias, and images showing how to get the most out of them in the garden and in containers. There are even planting plans on creating the three images of mature containers on page 2 of the 42-page full glossy booklet.

I signed up for the booklet several years ago and it now gets delivered every year right on time for the gardening season. You can get information on the booklet by clicking on the link here to the Proven Winners website. From that link you can order the free booklet and check out the Proven winners’ new plants and guides and photographs.

• For my previous articles about the Proven Winners’ Gardener’s Idea Books from past years check out these links: 2022 Idea Book and the 2021 Idea Book.

Proven Winners suggestions for shrubs for nesting birds

This image from Proven Winner’s website shows suggested shrubs for nesting birds.

This year’s booklet also includes pages on creating “sophisticated” shady areas on your porch or patio using primarily shade loving plants in containers. Of course, there are planting schemes included for some of the containers to get your creative juices going, and a host of images for inspiration.

Booklet features colourful containers

There are features on making the most out of your front yard using colourful combinations – the colours are a little too hot for my liking – but still some interesting ideas to tap into.

Pages 12-13 is more to my liking focusing on how to combine perennials in containers for more subdued but still colourful containers including hostas and some of the newer colourful Heuchera or coral bells along with other plants like Silver Falls Dichondra.

Pages 14-15 tackle some of the new and long-time favourite shrubs, including Rose of the Year, Hydrangea of the Year and Shrub of the year.

There are several pages donated to the growing popularity of indoor plants as well as a section on greenhouse gardening, just to name a few.

Some of Proven Winner’s suggestions for plants to feed the birds.

Proven Winners’ has traditionally been known as the company that offers long flowering and highly colourful plants, at least in my opinion, so I was surprised to see a move toward more casual and nature-inspired gardens. The booklet focuses on a once under utilized area of a garden that was turned into a Japanese-inspired space combining simple materials and a toned-down palette of black and white, and chartreuse.

“A special place devoted to regaining balance can be as close as your own backyard,” the authors write in describing the out-of-the-way garden room.

There are examples of sprucing up a small patio or balcony, and several pages on creating a view from a home office space – a growing reality for so many of us following the pandemic.

Proven Winner's suggestions for best shrubs for nectar eating birds.

Some of Proven Winner’s suggestions for best shrubs for nectar eating birds.

At the back of the booklet is the real treasure. Proven Winners’ has created two excellent charts showing the bloom times of their top performing perennials and another showing the bloom times of their shrubs including hydrangeas to help gardeners plan for the longest bloom times.

It’s important to note that Proven Winners’ plants are hybridized and are therefore not true natives to our gardens.

I use mostly their annual plants and must admit that, although hybridized, I have had incredible success with their plants attracting native bees, hummingbirds, hummingbird moths (clearwings) and other insects. Last year the Rockin’ the Blues salvia was the busiest plants in our garden for our native bumble bees and hummingbirds, especially later in the season. This year I’m looking to add more salvias from their Rockin’ series.

It’s hard to argue that the Proven Winners’ Gardener’s Idea Book is not simply a marketing device to encourage gardeners to purchase their plants, but that would mean missing out on the incredible wealth of knowledge and creative ideas that the booklet offers.

And, for the price – free for the asking – it’s a freebie you will want to have in your hand this spring. Get on the mailing list and add The Gardener’s Idea Book to your spring, summer and for sure winter, inspirational guides.

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Can hardy geraniums be used as a ground cover?

Hardy geraniums or Cranesbill are not like the summer plants we put in containers or plant out in our gardens for the summer months. These are much smaller-flowered perennials that are perfect to use as ground covers.

Hardy geranium: A blue-flowered ground cover for the woodland or shade garden

When most of us think about geraniums, the first thing that comes to mind is the bright red and white lollipops that filled window boxes and containers at our parents’ homes.

These annual geraniums known as pelargonium still have a place in our gardens, but they’re not what we’re talking about when we speak of using geraniums as ground covers. The pelargonium is a long-time favourite non-native summer bedding plant that is not cold and frost hardy.

Hardy geranium graphic

The hardy geranium or Cranesbill makes the perfect ground cover for a woodland garden.

Hardy geraniums, on the other hand, often referred to as cranesbill geraniums, are hardy perennials that can withstand freezing temperatures and return year after year. The primarily bluish-pink flowering perennials are hardy in zones 4 through 8 and can be grown in a rich woodland soil in the garden or in containers. They are perfect to use as ground covers.

Wild geranium, like the one pictured below, can be hardy down to zone 3.


Wild geranium growing among the ferns showing both the flowers and buds.


Native wild geranium is ideal ground cover for the woodland garden

The wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers in spring, with tender pinkish-purple blooms that will attract pollinators to the garden while adding delicate colour.

These native, clump-forming plants in the geranium family (Geraniaceae) can form large dense patches in natural woodland openings. These colonies are formed of groups of long-lived clones that have grown from individual plants, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Although they can form large dense clumps, I would not consider them overly aggressive. They can spread by underground roots as well as through seed. Plants have a loose cluster of basal leaves and flowering stems arising from thick, branched horizontal rhizomes.

It is an herbaceous perennial native to deciduous woodlands of eastern North America, from southern Ontario south to Georgia and west to eastern Oklahoma and the eastern part of the Dakotas in zones 3 to 8.

Also known as Spotted/Wild Cranesbill, alum root, alum bloom and wood geranium, among others, this plant is an easy-to-manage perennial that prefers medium to wet conditions and tolerates most light conditions. Like the more hybrid cousins, it has unique dissected leaves that turn red and orange in the fall and is hardy from zones 3-7.

Wild geranium is generally the showiest of the native geraniums with larger flowers than the other Cranesbill species.

Being a woodland plant, they prefer a well-drained, fertile and moist soil.

Looking for more information on ground covers? Please check out my other posts on ground covers I use in the woodland garden.

What is the easiest ground cover to grow?

Bunchberry perfect ground cover for woodland garden

Three great ground covers for the woodland garden.

Creeping thyme as a ground cover

Snow in summer ideal for hot dry areas

Moss and moss-like ground covers

Hardy Geranium or cranesbill in front garden

Hardy geranium growing as a ground cover among the pachysandra in the front garden.

Hybrids offer variety of flower colours, shapes and leaf patterns

Depending on the variety you are growing, hybrid, hardy geraniums can perform well in full sun, partial shade and even in dense shade, but they tend to grow best when they receive early morning and afternoon sun,

Don’t expect showy pom pom flowers, however.

In fact, the flowers of cranesbill geraniums are usually quite small in comparison. Although the flowers are small, they are produced in abundance and can almost cover the plants when they are in full bloom.

Many of the varieties flower over several months throughout the summer into fall and some will even begin flowering in late spring.

In her book Gardening with Hardy Geraniums, (see link below) Birgitte Husted Bentdsen shares her knowledge of cultivating the plants and highlights the most garden worthy species and varieties. Expert cultivation advice, including comments on soil preferences and hardiness, is followed by fascinating information on pollination, and failsafe propagation secrets.

Not unlike most ground covers such as hostas, epimediums and ferns, cranesbill geraniums are all about their foliage, which can be particularly impressive, with their intricate colour blotching, veining and interesting leaf patterns.

These are low-growing plants with a dense carpet-like foliage that makes them ideal to use as ground covers.

I have several clumps, including wild native and hybrid varieties, growing in various parts of our woodland/shade garden where their roots slowly spread out over time forming large, attractive ground covers.

The native cranesbill can be found on our forest and woodland floors growing in moist woodsy soils.

The popularity of hardy geraniums can be seen in the large variety that are available. With new ones coming available regularly, there are 70 species and 700 varieties available.

Close up of a Hardy Geranium or Cranesbill.

Close up of a Hardy Geranium or Cranesbill growing in the front garden.

What pollinators are attracted to cranesbill

The importance of native cranesbill to our gardens is evident by the pollinators that are regular visitors. Besides non-native honeybees, bumblebees, a variety of native solitary bees, and syrphid flies are common pollinators to the flowers. In addition, various types of ants and beetles also pollinate the flowers.

How can I keep my cranesbill flowering

We grow cranesbill as a ground cover for its dense foliage and abundance of flowers. You can expect an ultimate height of between 5-36 inches (13-90cm) depending on the variety.

To ensure a tidier and thick foliage as well as lots of flowers, be sure to remove the flower stems after they have finished flowering to prevent them from going to seed.

The plant itself will continue to spread by underground rhizomes. So, unless you are looking to substantially increase the number of plants in a given area, consider removing spent flowers for continuous bloom.

How to care for hardy geraniums

These easy-to-care-for perennials are considered low maintenance plants that, once established, only need to be watered during prolonged dry periods. Mulching the plants in spring will help to create that woodsy soil and prevent excessive moisture loss throughout the summer.

Give the plants a shearing after the first flush of flowering to keep the plants looking their best and to encourage more flowers.

Can hardy geraniums be divided?

The hardy geraniums will grow large over time, with an ultimate spread of between 5-36 inches (13-90cm). Larger clumps can be divided every 3 to 5 years by cutting them in half or quarters in spring or fall.

Consider dividing them in the spring and using the divisions in containers during the summer where they can be properly cared for and enjoyed. Later in the fall, you can plant the healthy specimens back into the garden.

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Tulip Tree is good choice for fast growing native shade tree

Tulip trees are native to parts of North America including some areas in Canada. These fast-growing trees are useful to create a shade garden quickly.

If you are looking for a native tree that will provide fast growth, interesting spring flowers and help create shade and privacy in a hurry, the Tulip Tree might just be the perfect choice.

Shortly after purchasing our home 25 years ago, I took advantage of a local environmental group’s offering of two free native trees for interested homeowners. I chose a fast-growing Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) for the back and a much slower single-stem serviceberry for the front of our home. (More on the Serviceberry in my earlier post.)

Both trees continue to impress 25 years later, but the varying growth rates really tell the story.

Tulip tree through the seasons graphic

Graphic shows the native Tulip tree through the seasons including its vibrant yellow fall leaves and its impressive tulip-like flowers that bloom in May and June.

The Tulip tree is a rather large 4-5-storey shade tree that towers over even much older trees in the yard, while our serviceberry is still small by today’s standards barely reaching 1.5-storeys in height.

Although the Tulip tree is a fast grower, it generally does not suffer from many of the problems associated with fast-growing trees – not only behaving itself in its tidy oval growth habit, but surviving ice storms, snow and wind storms without shedding a single large branch.

They are native in zones 4-9 and can be found in northeastern United States, in the Carolinian zone into southern Ontario – on the south shore of Lake Huron, the north shore of Lake Erie and in the Niagara Peninsula. (For more on the trees and plants of the Carolinian zone, check out my earlier post here.

Tulip tree leaf on forest floor in B&W

Tulip tree leaf among the spent ferns in B&W.

Tulip trees grow well in most conditions including acidic, loamy, moist, sandy well-drained and clay soils. Although they prefer sufficient moisture, they can can tolerate drought in more humid areas once established.

Their fast growth requires deep and wide-spread roots.

How fast do Tulip Trees grow?

Again, this is considered a fast growing tree, ideal for an empty yard looking for a quick shade tree. In saying this however, it is not considered a weed tree that will quickly take over your yard with fast, weak growth. A happy tree growing in the right conditions will experience annual increases in height of up to 24-inches (60.9 cms) or two feet a year.

These trees do best in full sun where they’ll reach mature heights of 70- to 90-feet (35 metres) with a 40-foot 12.19m spread. The trunk can reach up to 160 centimetres in diameter.

How did Tulip Trees get their names?

Tulip trees sport bright green leaves in summer that some might describe as resembling tulip flowers in profile. The leaves are 7 to 12 centimetres long with 4 lobes and the bark fo the tulip tree is smooth and dark green with the tree is young , turning brown and ridged with age.

In spring (usually May and June) tulip-like, greenish-yellow flowers with a splash of orange at the base bloom high in the tree canopy. The flowers have six petals and are about 1.5 to 2-inches in diameter (5 centimetres long). They are often difficult to see because they bloom so high in the tree. A pair of binoculars will go a long way to help identify them and provide you with a nice close up view of these lovely flowers.

Do tulip trees support wildlife?

Although tulip trees are native to areas of both the United States and Canada, they are not considered great trees to support native wildlife.

While the seeds of the tulip tree grow every year and are a source of food for both birds and mammals, Douglas Tallamy, in his excellent book Bringing Nature Home, How you can sustain wildlife with native plants, describes the tulip tree in the following way: “Unfortunately it is one of the least productive forest species in terms of its ability to support wildlife – insects and vertebrates alike.”

(Want more from Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home? Click on the link for my full review.)

Bringing Nature Home from author Douglas Tallamy

Douglas Tallamy’s excellent book Bringing Nature Home does not give the Tulip Tree high ratings as a native tree that attracts wildlife.

He goes on to say that if you want to attract Tiger Swallowtails to your yard, tulip trees are a source of food for their caterpillars (Lepidoptera).

Tallamy writes: “For those who become serious about increasing animal diversity in their gardens, it is important to recognize that all native plants are not equal when it comes to supporting insect herbivores and thus other forms of wildlife. For a variety of reasons, some plant species host many dozens of specialist herbivores, while others host only a few. For example, poison ivy, ferns, and tulip trees are among the plants that few extant insect species have the ability to eat, while oaks, willows and cherriesare at the other end of the spectrum , hosting 1,400 species among them.”

What does all this mean? It means that if you are looking for a tree with maximum benefit to wildlife, the tulip tree may not be the best choice. But, if you are looking for a tree that is not susceptible to a lot of insect and caterpillar damage, but still supports some bird and insect species, the tulip tree is a good choice.

I say, go ahead and plant one but don’t forget to plants a cherry, oak or willow tree too to provide maximum benefit to wildlife.

More features of Tulip Trees

• Seeds of the tulip tree grow every year and are a source of food for birds and small mammals.

Tulip tree leaf on fall forest floor

This image of a Tulip tree leaf in fall colours on the forest floor shows its vibrant yellow colour long after other leaves have faded.

• The trees are known to grow in a pleasing oval shape with a good spread but not one that would dominate a smaller backyard.

• The trees have aromatic stems that are pleaseant if broken off.

• Their fall colour is impressive as the leaves slowly turn a vibrant yellow and steal the show from many a tree in their vicinity.

• Colourful seeds cling to the tree in an upright position throughout the summer and into autumn

• At first glance the leaves may resemble a type of maple tree. On closer inspection, however, the alternating leaves that are 3-6 inches long with distinctive lobes, a flat base and two ear-like tips resemble a cat’s head with its two pointed ears.

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How to grow and care for creeping thyme ground cover

Thyme can be a very effective ground cover in a hot sunny dry area where you want to form a low growing dense cover that works like a living mulch.

Ground cover for hot, dry area and on a rock wall

Creeping thyme ground cover is one tough plant that not only withstands foot traffic but practically begs you to walk all over it.

Go ahead tramp on it. Put it between pavers and grow it over the edges of places you normally walk. Not only will you like the feel on your bare feet, chances are you’ll especially love the sweet perfume fragrance that the ground hugging plant gives off.

If you are in bare feet, however, watch those native bees that will be busy buzzing around on this non-native ground cover. Native to northwest Europe, you can expect creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) to grow into a dense mat of about four to six inches tall with the lavender flowers growing just above the foliage.

According to Wikipedia: Thymus praecox is a species of thyme. A common name is mother of thyme, but creeping thyme and wild thyme may be used where Thymus serpyllum, which also shares these names, is not found. It is native to central, southern, and western Europe.

This aromatic ground cover spreads at a very controlled rate of a couple inches a year up to about 24 inches, so if you are looking for a quick cover, plant individual plants 6-8 inches apart.

Use it to connect spaces in your garden. This evergreen ground cover works like a living mulch to shade your soil, suppress weeds and conserve water.

It works nicely as a low-growing border plant as well as in between pavers and in a rock wall. And, it can even be used as a lawn substitute, especially for smaller areas where getting out the lawnmower just doesn’t cut it.

It grows in full sun to partial shade in dry to moderate moisture soils in USDA hardiness zones 3 through nine.

I like to think this excellent ground cover is almost impossible to kill. Plant it in a sunny dry spot with average soil and you should be good to go. But, as noted above, it can take partial shade.

Every couple of years, pull some out and spread it around the garden to enhance another pathway. You can even steal some to pop in a container planting for a couple of months to work its magic in a patio container. In fall, just plug it into the ground in a spot you’ll want to grow it next year.

Our creeping thyme is actually one of the first plants that welcome visitors to our home. We have it growing in the front garden spilling over massive boulders that line the one side of the garden and work as a type of retaining wall.

I remember buying a flat from a local big box store a few years back and tucking it between the rock edges of our new massive boulders and the soil knowing that the warmth of the boulders in spring would give the thyme an early kick start.

And boy was I right.

The thyme has filled in nicely over the years, spilling on to the rock faces and softening their hard edges.

In spring, of course, the thyme is filled with purple flowers that attract the early pollinators and help welcome summer. In time, when the flowers begin to fade, the plants are happy to just sit back and take on an almost mossy look on the rock faces.

Spring or summer, it’s always a joy to take a few seconds to rub the thyme between my fingers and encourage the aroma to waft through the air. The fact that the thyme grows at or above knee height makes it easy to regularly reach down to bring out the scent of the thyme.

There are a variety of thymes to choose from. Some are particularly good as cooking herbs.

Other thymes that you may prefer: Woolly, lemon thyme, and hyssop thyme are examples of thyme varieties that can be used in the garden. Aromatic herbs, like the various thymes, work well with many garden plants in boosting othr plants’ defenses and increasing growth. Try experimenting with various thymes in diffent locations in the garden to see which ones work well.

Looking for more information on ground covers? Please check out my other posts on ground covers I use in the woodland garden.

Bunchberry perfect ground cover for woodland garden

• Easiest ground covers to grow

Three great ground covers for the woodland garden.

Hardy Geraniums as a ground cover

Snow in summer ideal for hot dry areas

Moss and moss-like ground covers

Native alternatives to creeping thyme

It’s always better to choose a native plant rather than using a non-native species. While creeping thyme has proven useful in many ways both as a problem solver and a plant that attracts pollinators, there are good native alternatives you might want to consider.

• Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) like sun, part shade to shade conditions in both dry and moist soils. It is an excellent underused perennial that spreads quickly by runners in sun or shade. It is not considered overly aggressive and struggles to outcompete other plants in the garden. It has tiny white flowers in spring followed by fruit. The fruit is small but is a good food source for native birds and mammals. Wild strawberry attracts native bees, and is though to be a host of at least 75 Lepidoptera caterillars including the gray hairstreak butterfly and grizzled skipper.

Green-and-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) will not replace thyme in a hot dry area but it could be a good replacement in a dry shady or part shade area. Pretty yellow flowers bloom against a backdrop of green in the spring into summer. Green-and-gold spreads by rhizomes in optimum conditions which include well-drained soils.

Eastern Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) is another alternative for a shady dry area but it grows tall in comparison to the ground hugging characteristics of creeping thyme.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

What is the easiest ground cover to grow?

What’s the easiest ground cover to grow? Maybe the better question is, what’s the best native ground cover to grow in a given area.

Easiest may not always be the best choice

The very nature of ground covers is their eagerness to put on an abundance of quick growth to “cover” the ground as quickly as possible. So it goes without saying that pretty much all ground covers are easy to grow.

But the question we are trying to answer is: What is the easiest ground cover to grow?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the ground cover best suited for the conditions in your yard, is the easiest ground cover for you to grow.

Japanese Phachysandra poking up through the intense colour of fallen Japanese maple leaves.

Our pachysandra ground cover poking up through the intense red leaves of our Japanese Maple in fall.

Soil conditions, the amount of light in the garden, drainage, the amount of foot traffic, how close you are to the street and salt spray, all play a role in how quickly the ground cover will take to its new home.

But that’s not what you came here for.

You want to know what is the easiest ground cover to grow in your garden to ensure the quickest success possible, right?

Let’s go out on that limb a little farther and say that you are gardening in a woodland garden or shade garden under the canopy of large deciduous trees and a smattering of understory trees and shrubs.


Info graphic showing some of the easiest to grow ground covers including native plants.


Pachysandra: Easiest ground cover to grow in our front shade garden

What is the easiest ground cover to grow under these conditions?

Again, let’s take another step out on that limb and say Pachysandra or Japanese spurge. That’s the easiest ground cover to grow in a shady garden with decent soil.

I have a large patch of pachysandra growing in our front garden that was grown basically from clippings and now covers a large area under our serviceberry, Japanese maples, a crimson maple and a sugar maple.

It grows thick and tidy, stays green all year and can take moderate foot traffic. It’s not so thick that I can’t grow plants up through the pachysandra and I certainly have a number of plants, including some that you can consider ground covers in themselves, that grow up through the pachysandra where they add texture and interest to the garden.

I would say pachysandra is the easiest to grow in my garden under these conditions.

But it’s not the best ground cover to grow. That’s another discussion all together.

I am confident in saying, however, that the best ground cover would be a ground cover that is native to your area and works hard to benefit the native wildlife from the smallest of insects to the largest of mammals.

Native Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), wild strawberry (Frafaria virginiana), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) or Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) just to name a few are “better” choices than the non-native pachysandra.

Creeping phlox is the perfect ground cover for sunny, hot and dry areas of the garden.

The ground cover creeping phlox spills over rocks in the front garden.

Creeping phlox is the easiest in a sunny, dry area

In another area of the front garden close to the street that gets a lot of sun, the easiest ground cover to grow is creeping phlox. It’s a real winner in my books because of the incredible flower display it puts on in early spring before it turns into a lovely carpet of almost moss-like foliage.

In the sunny area of our front garden, creeping phlox is the easiest ground cover to grow.

Is it the best ground cover to grow, though?

Maybe native ground covers like Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) would be better, or Silverweed (Argentina anserina) or even creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis.)

Looking for more information on ground covers? Please check out my other posts on ground covers I use in the woodland garden.

Bunchberry perfect ground cover for woodland garden

Three great ground covers for the woodland garden.

Hardy Geraniums as a ground cover

Snow in summer ideal for hot dry areas

Moss and moss-like ground covers

The fern glen in spring with its bright green fronds covering the ground.

Understory trees grow up through the massive grouping of ostrich ferns that form the perfect ground cover for the woodland garden.

Ferns are the easiest ground cover for our shady back garden

Finally, in our backyard, under our mature locust tree is a large area that was originally a large expanse of turf grass that required weekly mowing and everything else that goes along with grass.

It gets a little more dappled sun than the front yard and the soil is more sandy and maybe not quite as good.

It gets literally no foot traffic or salt spray.

One look at the massive ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) garden that has easily out competed the grass and there is no question that ferns are the easiest ground cover for that area.

If I recall, I started with a handful of donated ostrich ferns from a coworker and those few ferns have grown and spread to hundreds maybe even thousands in number and cover a massive area with their cooling summer appearance.

For more on our massive fern garden check out the following post: Creating a fern garden in a small yard.

A baby raccoon among the ostrich ferns in the garden.

A baby raccoon uses the expanse of native ostrich ferns in a part of our front garden to move around safely under the cover of the large ferns.

If there was ever any doubt, one look as the fern glen and you’ll agree the ostrich ferns are the easiest ground cover to grow in that part of the garden.

The fact that ostrich ferns are native to our area is an additional bonus.

Again, like the other ground covers, I grow trees and shrubs up through the ferns to add texture and interest to an otherwise sea of 3-4-foot-high ferns where female deer often use the cover to hide their fawns in spring.

In this case, they are the easiest to grow and the best ground cover for that area.

But for many gardens, a huge expanse of massive ostrich ferns would be neither the easiest, nor the best ground cover choice. These ferns, when happy, spread like wildfire and would require a lot of thinning if you wanted to keep them contained to a small area.

In addition, the ferns are huge and would quickly over power a small garden.

The very traits that make them perfect for our yard, makes them the wrong choice for another yard.

Easiest ground cover depends on a number of factors

Like life, there are no simple answers to difficult problems when it comes to gardening. Trying to find the easiest ground cover for your garden may not even be the right question to ask yourself.

The better question is probably something like: What are the ground covers that suit the location, are native to my geographic area and will provide the most benefit to local wildlife.

Too often we choose the “easiest” solution that may not be the “best” solution because it is convenient at the time or we may not have taken the time to properly educate ourselves on what is truly “best” for our gardens.

Like way to many gardeners, I am certainly guilty of that. If I had to do it all again, I would change many of the decisions I made just a few years ago to replace non-native plants with native ones whenever possible.

If you are asking the question, what is the easiest ground cover to plant in my garden, please stop and ask the next question before proceeding.

And that is: what is the best native ground cover that will get the job done.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

What flowers attract hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds are always a favourite in our garden. Here are tips to create hanging baskets and container planters to attract these entertaining little birds.

Create a hanging basket for hummingbirds and butterflies

What flowers are best to attract hummingbirds?

And, can we use the information on these plants to create a hanging basket or container planting specifically for hummingbirds and butterflies?

Choosing the best nectar-producing flowers is key, but there are other factors that will add to your success.

While most gardeners focus on using hanging baskets as well as containers to simply add colour and maybe experiment with different textures, creating a hanging basket or container specifically for hummingbirds and butterflies requires a slightly different approach.

A full, beautiful basket with the typical thriller, spiller and fillers combination is not the prime goal of our container or hanging basket for hummingbirds. We can work toward that goal but don’t get too carried away with trying to achieve that effect. We are not necessarily going for pretty here, our goal is to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

Some of the best plants to attract hummingbirds

Graphic shows some of the best plants to attract hummingbirds.

First, consider red as your primary colour choice. We are going hot here with a spot of strategic, cooler blue flowers.

If you are looking for a pastel-coloured hanging basket, chances are this is not going to work for you. Hummingbirds are particularly attracted to red, tubular flowers.

Obviously we have to consider the amount of sun our basket will receive and adjust the plants accordingly. In addition, we need to use plants that require similar conditions including both the amount of light and the amount of water required.

Hummingbird on Rockin Deep Purple Salvia.

Hummingbird on Proven Winners’ Rockin’ Deep Purple Salvia.

What hanging basket should I use for my hummingbird container?

First, let’s consider the importance of the hanging basket.

Forget those small store-bought white plastic baskets that you can purchase at any home improvement or garden centre. They can work if they happen to have some of the right hummingbird magnet plants included, but we want a hanging basket that maximizes our chances of attracting hummingbirds and butterflies while still looking good for the entire summer.

Five great plants for Hummingbirds

  1. Columbine native and hybrid forms

  2. Cuphea or Vermillionaire

  3. Calibrachoa

  4. Supertunias

  5. Verbena

A plastic container is good for holding water and maintaining a high moisture content. If you have a large one you want to use just make sure that you use enough “spillers” to quickly cover the unsightly plastic container.

Creating a beautiful, yet effective container is going to take a little work and a selection of some of the best flowers that are not usually included in the store-bought baskets.

A large wire basket with a coco mat tucked inside is an excellent starting point. Add a plastic liner that reaches 3/4 of the way up the inside of the container to hold the water and punch a couple of small holes in it, but just enough to allow the water to drain slowly.

If you want to add a little moss between the coco mat and wire frame, it will certainly enhance the look of your basket and help it hold moisture.

How many plants should we add?

For a 12- to 14-inch (diameter) basket you’ll want to have at least three to five plants, and for a 16- to 18-inch basket you’ll be adding at least five to seven plants. Don’t hesitate to add a few more to create a more full hanging basket but realize that you may have to water it more often and tidy it up later in the season.

Use a good quality potting soil in the baskets. You can add a handful of well-rotted compost to provide a little added natural nourishment. I recommend using a soil that includes slow release fertilizer and water retaining crystals in it, or be sure to add your own before you begin planting the containers up.

Plants that attract hummingbirds

Don’t be afraid to experiment with the flowers.

Consider planting up two different hanging baskets or, better still, a hanging basket and large container just for the hummingbirds.

Explore the use of native wildflowers to your area.

Hummingbirds and butterflies are already familiar with these plants and should come more readily to the baskets when they recognize the flowers in the container. Some of these native plants grow too large for planters but should work well in containers. You can also plant some of the larger ones, like Cardinal flower, below where you want to hang the baskets. By mid-summer the cardinal flowers will grow up high enough to blend in with the spillers and create a true hummingbird haven.

Remember, we are not aiming to win an award for the most beautiful containers and baskets, we are looking to create hummingbird magnets.

Complete list of plants that attract hummingbirds

Here is a list of plants that will attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Not all will be appropriate for hanging baskets but most would work in a large container.

  • Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Unusual whorledd flowers in pink, red, white and red-purple. Fast spreader. Zones 4 to 10.

  • Catmint (Nepeta spp.) Loose mounding clumps of silvery leaves with abundant, small, lavender-blue flowers. Hardy in zones 3 to 10.

  • Columbines (Aquilegia spp.) Long-spurred flowers are held on bare stems above a rosette of pretty, lobed foliage. Most hardy in Zones 2 to 10.

  • Coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea) Rosettes of scalloped leaves bear many long-blooming stems of tiny red, pink or white blossoms. Remember red is ideal for hummingbirds. Zones 3 to 0.

  • Delphiniums (Delphinium) Beautiful spikes in all shades of blue, purple, and white rise above rosettes of foliage. Does best in cooler climates. Sones 3 to 10.

  • Hyssops (Agastache) Densely packed, narrow spikes of tiny flowers, often with fragrant foliage, are more familiar to herb gardens but beloved by hummingbirds. Zones 4 to 10.

  • Penstemons (Penstemon) Midheight perennials with abundant tubular flowers in blue, white and purple. Grows best in the West. They can be difficult to grow and are considered short-lived, but worthy of trying. Likes good drainage. Hardiness depends on species and varies from Zones 3 to 9.

  • Phlox (Phlox paniculata) Old-tiime garden favourite with often fragrant flowers in pink, red, white and lilac. Zones 3 to 9.

  • Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) Large bush with fragrant foliage and late-blooming, bright red flowers. Zones 8 to 10. Can be grown as annual in cold regions.

  • Salvia (Salvia) Grows in Zone 8 but grown as annuals elsewhere. Has brilliant red flower. Cultivars are hummingbird magnets. Many are hardy in Zones 5 to 10, others only in the hottest Zones 9 to 10.

    Annuals and tender perennials

  • Cleome (Cleome basslerama) Spidery whorls in pink, white and purple on 4-foot plants. Annual in all zones.

  • Four-o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) Bushy tuber forming tender perennials with flowers in red, yellow, white and pink – sometimes more than one colour on a single plant. Blooms in late afternoon. Gow as annual in most zones. Perennial in Zones 9 and 10.

  • Geraniums (Pelargonium x hortorum) Familiar container plants with pink, salmon, red, or white flowers. Anualls accept in Zones 9-10.

  • Geraniums, scented (Pelargonium) A wide asoortment of leaf shape and scent. Flowers are much less showy that common geraniums, but highly attractive to hummers. Annuals accept in Zones 9 to 10.

  • Impatiens (impatiens wallerana) Popular bedding annual with red, white, pink, lavender and mixed colours. Annuals in all but hottest Zones.

  • Nicotianas (Nicotiana) Sweet-smelling tobacco relatives with tubular blossoms. Avoid “Nikki” hybrids. Annuals accept in Zones 9 to 10.

  • Petunias (Petunia and hybrids) Popular annuals with sprawling plants and a variety of colourful flaring trumpet flowers. Annuals.

  • Tithonia (Tithonia rotundifolia) Huge, bushy but single-stemmed branching plant , to 8 feet high and 4 feet wide with a multitude of brilliant orange-red daisylike flowers in late summer. Also attracts variety of butterflies. Annual in all zone.

Thrilling possibilities with native plants

In a large container, consider using a native, red and yellow columbine as a thriller in the middle of the basket or container. Adding a good performing hybrid columbine such as this early blooming “early bird red and white columbine (Proven Winners) combined with the company’s Songbird Cardinal red and white columbine will help ensure a prolonged blooming period from early spring, when the hummers start appearing, to later in the summer.

The blue and yellow varieties will work as well and provide a little more colour to the basket. The columbines, both native and hybrids, will grow tall and form a solid thriller to attract hummingbirds.

In the fall, be sure to replant the native columbine in your garden to ensure it blooms again for future years.

Another favourite red-flowered plant to attract hummingbirds is the Cuphea Vermillionaire, (link to Proven Winners site) often referred to as the Firecracker Plant. This annual can be grown in a pot or in the ground and likes full sun. Keep it well watered and fertilized and it will send out its long cigar-like red flowers throughout the summer.

It can get quite large growing upwards to two feet high with a 12- to 24-inch spread, so it too might be best in a large container. But it can be kept in check in a larger hanging basket and used as a thriller or spiller (if planted horizontally in the basket). Keep it in check with a little pruning.

hummingbird on cardinal flower

Cardinal flower is an excellent plant to attract hummingbirds but it’s too tall to use in a hanging basket. It could work in a large container as a tall thriller.

Other plants to consider for your Hummingbird hanging basket

Calibrachoa (Proven Winners) is an outstanding performer in a container or hanging basket. Proven Winners calls them “Superbells” and they offer several pages on their website. (see link) This annual likes sun to part sun and is often used all by itself in store-bought hanging baskets. It can look very impressive in the basket by itself but, remember, pretty is not the end goal here. They are available in a wide range of colours from hot reds and fuschias to cool blues and purples as well as combinations of yellow/pink, peach/purple… Stay away from double varieties and lean to the hot colours for best results.

Supertunias are Proven Winners’ improved version of the petunia and are available in a host of sizes colours and combinations. I have used the vista series for several years. Bubblegum is a pink variety that blooms continuously all summer and fills the basket quickly. Bordeaux is a smaller version (purple and white) that works nicely in hanging baskets and containers.

Verbena is another excellent choice to and a good one to use as a thriller. Varieties such as Meteor showers have a more compact growth habit for use in containers and baskets.

Salvias are top performers when it comes to attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of Rockin’ Deep Purple in container plantings after using it last year and getting non-stop action.

Fuschsia, whether the regular hardy varieties seen in most nurseries or Cape Fuchsia with its more tubular flowers resembling Cupheas, are excellent choices for spillers in your baskets or containers. They do well in filtered light and are intollerant of high heat. Keep them well watered and out of full sun and they will perform admireably.

Native Lobelia (siphilitica) is another great addition to the garden and irresistible to hummingbirds and butterflies. This native hardy perennial would need to be planted out in the garden in fall to enjoy year after year.

Native lobelias would best be used as thrillers on account of how tall they grow. Their bright blue flowers will bloom in late summer and the plants are well-known for their ease of care and versatility. Unlike many of the annual lobelias commonly used in baskets as fillers, these lobelias can grow much larger – up to 4 feet. This is another plant I grew last year in our garden. Although it stayed around 2-feet high it can get quite large for a small basket. A large container might be a better solution, but it may work as a thriller in a large basket.

Add these accessories for even greater success

If you have not had much success attracting hummingbirds or a lot of butterflies, you might need a little help beyond the hanging baskets and containers.

Hummingbirds fighting over perch

Hummingbirds fight for position over a perch that is located right beside a hanging planter in our garden.

Consider adding a perch or swing for your hummingbirds

Try hanging a small commercially available hummingbird perch or swing near the hanging basket/container. In fact, two perches is probably even better and will give the hummingbirds options to rest. Try placing one in the open and another tucked away in a nearby tree or shrub.

Go here for my complete story on using hummingbird swings.

I have used a swing for a number of years and once the hummers discover them, the perches quickly become a favourite spot for them to watch over their favourite feeding area.

Add a small hummingbird feeder

Small tubular hummingbird feeders are available with a wire stick that allows you to add them to your hanging planters and containers. These smaller versions of the larger hanging feeders can be tucked away in the planters where they almost become invisible to all but the hummingbirds who zero in on them.

A mister or shallow fountain will give them another reason to hang out

Hummingbirds, like all birds and wildlife, enjoy bathing but they need shallow water or, even better, a light mist to feel safe. Misters and shallow fountains are available at birding stores, Amazon and other commercial locations. You can also make your own with a shallow dish and a small solar pump with a fountain attachment.

Be sure to keep the water clean for these little guys and they will reward you with their antics all summer.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Native plants in the Pacific Northwest

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest should be a garden bible for anyone lucky enough to call this area home.

How to best use native plants in your garden

The native plants of Vancouver Island and the surrounding areas in the Pacific Northwest forever changed the way I see gardening today.

Two visits to the island and the mainland way back in the 1980s opened my eyes to the beauty of a truly natural landscape, and it was that lush landscape that has burned itself in my memory of what a garden should strive to attain.

Unfortunately, we gardeners in the northeast can only dream of the lush gardens possible in the Pacific Northwest. This thing called winter gets in the way of our dreams of lush, year-round gardens full of unusual native plants that attract four –count them four – species of hummingbirds: Anna’s, Black-chinned, Calliope, and Rufous. Of the four species, Anna’s Hummingbird is the only one found year round in the Puget Sound region of western Washington.

This outstanding edition of Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest should be a bible for anyone lucky enough to garden in this region.

Four species of hummingbird is reason enough to want to call the Pacific Northwest home. But there’s so much more, not the least the abundance of native plants gardeners have access to in the creation of their gardens.

This is where the Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest (Third Edition) comes into play.

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest’s more than 370 pages of pure native plant gold is a treasure trove of information, inspiration and motivation for any gardener lucky enough to call this area home. Packed with 948 full-colour images showing the native plants – many in their habitats – as well as in the garden, authors Arthur R. Kruckeberg and Linda Chalker-Scott deliver in almost every way.

Even the introduction answers many of the questions most gardeners new to native plants want answered.

“The key to garden success (using natives) is the compatibility of a plant to its place in the garden,” they write. “This means that natives can easily coexist with exotics in the garden as long as the requirements of the plant – and the desires of the creator of the plantings – are met.”

A garden entirely made up of native plants may be most appropriate in a woodland or semi-wild setting in suburbia, in rural areas, or at the vacation cabin by the sea or in the mountains. And there is often good reason to emphasize natives in such places,” they write, before going on to show examples of dunes in Oregon, a subalpine meadow on Mount Rainier, a seashore at Cape Flattery, in Washington state.

“Planting salal, oceanspray, madrone, and huckleberry in a westside scene that contains Douglas fir can restore the beauty of a natural woodland setting. Once established, the native garden becomes a nearly self-sustaining, low maintenance setting.”

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest is an excellent resource for any gardener lucky enough to garden in this area.

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest is an excellent resource for any gardener lucky enough to garden in this area.

The book is published by the outstanding, garden-focused Canadian publishers Greystone Books. Visit their website at for a complete selection of their books, including some of the most highly sought after gardening books.

Other Ferns & Feathers’ posts based from Greystone books include: The Hidden Life of Trees, The Heartbeat of Trees, The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi, Seed to Dust.

The book can often be purchased on the used market at Alibris Books on-line sellers. In this link there is a copy of the book for less than $4.00.

Still in the introduction to their book Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest, the authors use Herbert Durand’s suggestions in his book Taming the Wildlings, to help readers understand where they can use natives. The result is, of course, almost anywhere but here’s the suggested list:

  • The small home garden: Perfect for defining boundaries, in borders and groups of shrubs. These natives need to be chosen with special care; matters of scale, quality of colour and texture, and habitat preference are particularly important in the small garden.

  • Suburban and rural places: Natives can restore “the original charm of neglected woodlands and develop the latent beauty of any forested area.”

  • The seashore, woodland, or mountain retreat: Natives are ideal for use in lands surrounding vacation homes in areas that were once wild. “The very purpose of a house in the wilds cries out for wildings.”

  • Parks, open spaces, and Estates: The authors call on more native plants in public gardens and large private estates as well as small parks.

  • Wildlife sanctuaries: Native plants have long been known to have a close relationship with wildlife and are vital for their future existence. “Plants from the surrounding wils for use in the re-created wildlife sanctuary should emphasize the attributes of shelter, nesting sites, and food. Most native trees and shrubs qualify without question; even though some might not have edible fruit or seed, they surely harbor insects and the like.”

  • Highway platings: the authors point out the success that has already been achieved with native plantings along highways and call out for more experimentation with different plants, trees and shrubs as well as a focus on rest areas that can be “best reclaimed by planting natives.”

  • Commercial, Industrial, and public sites: natives can be used not only to reclaim some of these areas but to screen their unsitely views.

  • Ecological restoration with natives: the authors point out that “Today, land management agencies and private landowners alike have turned ecological restoration into a thriving pursuit.” More ecological restoration using natives is needed in the future.

An example of the attention to detail in the book including the small green icons under the pictures that establishes the best locations to plant these individual plants.

An example of the attention to detail in the book including the small green icons under the pictures that establishes the best locations to plant these individual plants.

Icons help readers identify planting locations

What else makes the book particularly useful? How about icons used for each plant that identifies where it should be planted – drylands, rock gardens, seashore, meadows and prairies, shade, sun, restoration, wetlans and, of course, woodlands – all have their own icons.

Chapter by chapter of excellent information for plant enthusiasts

The authors actually spell out in the introduction how they tackle the task ahead beginning with a dicussion of the science of gardening, starting with the ecology of native plants in their natural environments.

In chapter 2, they provide practical advice for choosing, planting, and maintaining native plants that are best suited for your particular environment. (What more can a beginner native plant gardener ask for?) There are also tips for managing garden invasives.

Chapter 3 tackles the enormous task of providing descriptions of native trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, grasses and even some annuals worth considering.

If you’re a gardener in the Pacific Northwest you will want to tap into the authors’ incredible native plant knowledge that is covered in this book.

For more Ferns & Feathers articles on Gardening in the Pacific Northwest, you will want to check out the following posts:

Native plant plan for a front garden in Seattle

Understory Gardens aims to bring more sustainable gardens to the west coast

Native plants find a home on Vancouver Island

Ferns & Feathers readers already know the importance of using native plants in our gardens. This book simply emphasizes that importance in a part of Canada and the United States that is already inherently blessed with a gardening lifestyle that begs us to protect and restore not only the native plants, but the wildlife that depends on it for survival.

Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest is an essential resource for gardeners to explore how to best use the natural gifts they are provided on a daily basis.

• If you are considering creating a meadow in your front or backyard, be sure to check out The Making of a Meadow post for a landscape designer’s take on making a meadow in her own front yard.

If you are on the lookout for high quality, non-GMO seed for the Pacific North West consider West Coast Seeds. The company, based in Vancouver BC says that “part of our mission to help repair the world, we place a high priority on education and community outreach. Our intent is to encourage sustainable, organic growing practices through knowledge and support. We believe in the principles of eating locally produced food whenever possible, sharing gardening wisdom, and teaching people how to grow from seed.”

About the authors:

Arthur R Kruckeberg (1920-2016) was professor of botany at the University of Washington for nearly four decades. He cofounded the Washington Native Plant Society and authored The Natural History of Puget Sound Country and Geology and Plant Life, as well as prior editions of Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest.

Linda Chalker-Scott is associate professor of horticulture and extension specialist at Washington State University . She cohosts the Garden Professors blog, and her books include The Informed Gardener, The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, and How Plants Work.

Richard G. Olmstead is prefessor of botany at the University of Washington and curator at the University of Washington Herbarium, Burke Museum.

The book is published by the outstanding, garden-focused Canadian publishers Greystone Books. Visit their website at for a complete selection of their books, including some of the most highly sought after gardening books.

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garden photography Vic MacBournie garden photography Vic MacBournie

The perfect ground cover for hot, sunny and dry areas in the garden

Snow-in-summer may not be every gardener’s dream, but if you like your ground covers and enjoy photographing beautiful, ethereal flowers in your garden, this white-flowering, silver foliage plant may be the ideal choice.

Elegant grey foliage, white flowers make snow in summer a great choice for sunny spots

If you are looking for a ground cover for a sunny, hot and dry area, look no further than the grey foliage and lovely white flower of Snow in Summer.

The ground cover affectionately named “snow-in-summer” is a favourite of mine. Its bloom is actually something I really look forward to each year. Snow-in-summer or Cerastium tomentosum is an herbaceous perennial that blooms alongside our wild geranium in early June.

It sits maybe 8-12 inches high and each plant quietly spreads out to form a dense mat of foliage to a width of 12 to 18 inches. Hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones from 3 to 7, this more or less well-behaved, delicate ground cover – a member of the carnation family – is valued for more than just its early summer bloom.

Snow in Summer or Cerastium tomentosum is an excellent ground cover plant for sunny, hot dry areas in the garden.

Snow-in-summer or Cerastium tomentosum is an excellent ground cover for sunny, hot and dry areas in the garden. It will bring a smile to any gardener and photographer with its delicate white flowers and silvery-grey foliage.

We have ours spilling out over our main garden pathway of pea gravel and blue flagstone where its silver-grey foliage is able to shine year-round. I would say it gets full sun where it is in our garden with some late afternoon shade.

It just loves the hot sun beating on it and reflecting up off the stone. The plants can take foot traffic and never really get out of hand in our garden.

Apparently, if it’s too happy where it is growing, it can become invasive. The combination of reseeding itself and sending out runners can make the plant a little bit of a problem in some areas.

If you are concerned about it running out of control, a 5- or 6-inch deep edge should keep it in check.

It is not particular about the soil it grows in and seems perfectly happy growing into our pea gravel where it is easy to remove and divide.

Here is an added bonus: it’s among the deer resistant family of plants woodland gardeners prize so dearly.

Looking for more information on ground covers? Please check out my other posts on ground covers I use in the woodland garden.

Bunchberry perfect ground cover for woodland garden

What is the easiest ground cover to grow?

Three great ground covers for the woodland garden.

Creeping thyme as a ground cover

Moss and moss-like ground covers

Five more great ground covers for sunny areas

  • Lamb’s Ear (stachys byzantina)

  • Catmint (Nepeta)

  • Contoneaster (Contoneaster horizontalis)

  • Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)

  • Silver Mound Artemisia (Artemisia schmidtiana)

The elegant clear white flowers and silvery-grey foliage gives the plant a mediterranean feel that works well in a rock garden location or along a pea-gravel path like it is seen here.

The elegant clear white flowers and silvery-grey foliage gives the plant a mediterranean feel that works well in a rock garden location or along a pea-gravel path like it is seen here.

Although this is the only spot in our garden where this plant is growing, I’m noticing that it has jumped over, around or under, our wild geranium and has taken a second spot beneath one of our bird baths along the same pea-gravel path.

That’s fine with us, it can be easily trimmed back before it decides to continue its march elsewhere.

It’s best to divide these plants shortly after flowering, when you are cutting off the spent blooms and tidying it up.

Established plants may be propagated by division in the fall or by cuttings.

Snow in Summer is a beautiful ground cover for a dry sunny area in the garden and perfect for experimenting with selective focus macro photography.

A 50mm macro lens with a profusion of flowers both in front of, and behind the in-focus flowers help to give these images an ethereal look often referred to as selective focus. More on photographing these plants below.

Space the snow in summer flower 12 to 24 inches apart to give plenty of room for spread. Mature plants grow to between 6 and 12 inches and have a spread of 12 to 18 inches.

Originally from Europe and western Asia, these plants can actually be pushed to grow in zones 8-10 as well, but growing in these zones they may be short-lived.

The plants silver-grey foliage gives away their overall toughness in the landscape being more or less heat tolerant. They do better in a dry, sunny heat situation rather than in humid conditions.

In fact, we are growing ours in more of a rock-garden style than as a border plant in a traditional garden, where it also excels.

These plants are said to be salt tolerant. If you are lucky enough to live by the sea, give them a try. They can be considered an invasive plant in some warmer climates so check with local authorities before planting.


Five sun-loving Ground covers.


Photographing these flowers in your garden

Snow in Summer is an excellent plant to experiment with photographically. It’s soft grey foliage and delicate white flowers makes it an ideal candidate to try “selective focus.” This creative style of photography uses a high-key, dreamy effect to create ethereal images.

Using fast, close-focusing lenses that are opened up to as much as f2.8 will create these effects.

Point-and-shoot tip: If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, consider using the “high-key” mode filter, which is usually built into theses cameras, to help you create the light and airy effect.

These “selective focus” images were made in full sunlight with a 50mm f2.8 Pentax macro lens. I used an older manual focus lens but newer auto focus lenses are available. Expect to spend a few dollars on these more specialty lenses.

Also available are 100mm macro lenses that enable photographers more control including a larger working distance to photograph insects and reptiles from farther back.

Many modern zoom lenses also offer a “macro” feature on them. These may work for some flowers, however their close-focusing abilities often fall just short of the mark and they are what we call “slow lenses”, meaning they only open up to f5.6 which is often not enough to give you the amount of out-of-focus effect you are looking for. In certain situations they would work, but if you are serious in pursuing this type of garden photography, consider splurging on a fast macro lens.

There are other ways to get close to flowers and insects in the garden that I’ll explore in later blogs, but trust me when I say true, fast macro lenses are the best way to go, if you want to explore this type of photography.

Macro lens is a good investment

I am lucky enough to own 3 macro lenses. All are older, manual focus lenses that still work on my digital cameras.

In these images, the camera’s settings had to be overridden about two f-stops to maintain the overall lightness of the image. If I had followed the camera meter, the image would have appeared muddy-grey rather than this delicate ethereal look.

Also, opening up the camera lens wide open to f2.8- f4, helps to keep the surrounding flowers completely out-of-focus with a nice dreamy look.

Shooting at f-8 or f16 would have created a sharper more documentary image of the flower, but that was not the look I was after.

Shooting the flowers with the lens wide open and in bright sunlight allowed me to shoot at a fast shutter speed without a tripod. Normally a small inexpensive tripod would be useful in an extreme closeup, but the shutter speed allowed me to shoot handheld.

Besides I don’t think my larger tripods would allow me to get this low to the ground. The situation forced me to lie on the ground and dig the camera into the pea gravel to get the best angles. (What we do to get the shot.)

For more on macro photography in the garden, check out my other posts including: Getting up close for flower and insect photography; Karen Hutton: Exploring the world of close-up photography.

Flowers that grow in profusion like this make for excellent “selective focus” subjects. Take advantage of these situations whenever possible.

Play with the camera settings a little until you get a feel for what works best. Using the camera’s overexposure compensation button is an easy way to change exposure in any camera mode.

These “selective focus” shots are difficult to do with a smart phone without the macro attachments I talked about in the previous blog and linked to here (macro lenses and other accessories.)

The photograph looking down at the plant from above, was taken with an iphone later in the day, after the area was in shade.

Taking this shot at mid-day would have created harsh shadows and likely made the image too contrasty and unuseable. If you must take a more documentary image in full sun, look for a way to shade the flower. White photo umbrellas would work wonderfully in this situation. They allow enough light to get through, yet remove the harsh shadows on the plant.

Once your subject is shaded, then consider using a reflector to bounce light back into the flowers. It could be as simple as a white card or a piece of tinfoil, but these 5 in 1 collapsible photo reflectors give you the flexibility to reflect light into your subjects at various levels and give you the option of reflecting warm, golden light if you are looking for an evening glow on your subject. They are easy to carry around and collapse into quite small, lightweight reflectors.

In my case, most of these accessories were not needed because the light grey pea gravel was able to bounce enough light back up into the flowers to keep that nice light airy feeling.

If the ground was soil or mulch, I would have used one of the collapsible reflectors to bounce the light back up into the plant. Probably the silver reflector would have brought the best results, but the white ones would have also worked well.

Photographing in our own gardens allows us to wait until the perfect times of day to get the best images possible. Keep an eye out for flowers or textures that are in their prime in your garden and try to capitalize on the proximity of your subject and the best light.

This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support. This blog would not be possible without your continued support.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Water Hyacinth is favourite in patio pond

The water hyacinth always has a place in our container pond where it flowers profusely and quickly spreads doing an excellent job keeping the water clear of algae.

Painterly image of a water hyacinth in bloom in our container pond.

Painterly image of a water hyacinth in bloom in our container pond.

Water hyacinth is banned in many parts of the world

Not a summer goes by when I don’t pick up a couple of water hyacinths (Pontederiaceae spp.) for our small container pond. Not only do these floating plants boast beautiful purple flowers that bloom regularly throughout the summer, their strong root mass helps to oxygenate the pond water and their thick, fibrous leaves shade the garden pond helping to control green algae growth.

It can provide great cover for fish and can be useful for spawning fish in a small pond.

Water hyacinth is a floating, aquatic plant in the pickerel-weed family that was imported into North America in 1884 for an exposition in New Orleans.

These floating plants have thick oval leaves and a bulbous stalk. It’s quick to multiply with the mother plants sending out multiple runners which then creates daughter plants. It reproduces through pollination by bees or through self cloning.

informational graphic on the 5 best patio pond plants to use in your container water garden.

In our small garden container pond, the plants are more or less left alone by animals. Once or twice a year one of our neighbourhood raccoons or skunks decides to dig in the patio pond and remove a few of the hyacinth bulbs after taking a bite or two out of them. But, the plants just keep going.

For more on garden ponds, be sure to check out my post on garden ponds vs garden container ponds.

Patio container pond with water Hyacinth

Patio container pond with water Hyacinth.

The fact the water hyacinths are quick to multiply means only a few are needed to quickly cover our patio container pond.

Water hyacinths are extremely invasive in temperate climates

Despite the positive attributes listed above, water hyacinth is not a plant you want to add to a large, natural pond, especially if you live in a warmer climate. They are among the fastest growing plants on earth and their fast growth can not only swallow up your pond, they can cause real damage to natural waterways in more temperate climates.

They have been known to clog up waterways, slow the movement of water and destroy much of the natural habitat.

The plant is considered invasive in many parts of the world.

Early morning sun on the Water hyacinth

Hyacinth in bloom in early morning.

In parts of asia, experts have measured the plant growth of up to 15 feet a day. It’s particularly problematic for many waterways and is considered invasive in many parts of North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.

It is originally native to the waters of South America in the Amazon basin.

In some parts of the world it is used as a source of compost – which is where our plants go at the end of each summer. It can be a good source of nitrogen and phosphorous in the compost.

In parts of Africa, the fleshy part of the plant is used as an animal feed, while the roots are used in fertilizer.

Water fern combines with water hyacinth to cover the surface of the water.

Water fern combines with water hyacinth to cover the surface of the water.

It’s purple-pink bloom rises above the plant usually 5 to 7 inches.

Besides the flower, Water Hyacinths reproduce vegetatively by stolens running off the mother plant.

The plants are not hardy and will quickly die once the temperatures drop.

You can overwinter one or two of the plants by placing them in a fish tank or large bowl inside the house for use the following year.

The plant is actually used in wastewater treatment plants to remove nitrogen and potash. It can also remove many heavy metals and other toxins from contaminated water.

In parts of asia it is used heavily in cooking.

Water ferns and duckweed are good substitutes for water hyacinths

It’s important to use plants to cover much of the surface of the water of your pond to keep algae growth under control. A handful of water fern will have similar growth and cover the surface quickly, as will duckweed.

Duckweed is a tiny green plant that covers both natural and garden ponds quickly.

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Focus on 2022 success stories in the garden and behind the lens

The year 2022 was a good one in the woodland garden both for plants and photographing birds and mammals.

Proven Winners’ Rockin’ Deep Purple salvia steal the show

The beginning of the new year is the perfect time to look back over the past year in your garden.

Focusing on your successes can be an eye-opening experience and go a long way to help you better understand the direction you may want to go in the future.

On that same note, if you had your share of losses, it’s a good opportunity to learn from them and possibly go in another direction.

Deep Purple Salvia stole the show in 2022

This year, for example, I had great success with Proven Winners’ Rocking Deep Purple Salvia.

Not only did it perform beautifully in our two containers – blooming profusely throughout the summer and lasting well into the fall – but more importantly it was a magnet for the native bumble bees and hummingbirds.

Every morning the containers would be buzzing with native bumble bees and they became my focus while I was out enjoying coffee with our dog, Holly.

It didn’t take long for the hummingbirds to include these containers with the Rockin’ Deep Purple Salvia on their daily rounds, adding to my morning coffee enjoyment.

It was a small step to simply grab a camera and photograph the bees and hummingbirds as part of my morning and afternoon routines.

The situation created an ideal opportunity to test out a number of older digicams and lenses to review for Ferns & Feathers readers. If you have not had a chance to check out any of the reviews, most focus on the cameras’ usability in garden and garden wildlife photography. A sampling of reviews are highlighted here: Pentax Q, Canon Powershot Elph 500, Lumix-DMC ZS8, Pentax 300mm F4.5 lens.

Being out in the yard regularly also made it easier to watch how the light moved across the patio and identify the best times to photograph the flowers and their many visitors.

The following are a few images taken using Rockin’ Deep Purple Salvia as the magnet for wildlife. Go to the 2022 Photo Gallery for more images.

Hummingbird prepares to feed on salvia.

Rockin’ Deep Purple Salvia offers garden photographers a great opportunity to capture outstanding images of hummingbirds, bees and pollinators.

Macro image of Bumble bee on salvia.

A macro shot of a bumble bee on a spent salvia flower.

An extreme macro image of a small fly feeding on a salvia flower.

Monarda proved to be another success in the garden

Another hit in 2022 was the performance of our Monarda, which I moved from the back of the yard to beside our patio where I could keep an eye on it more easily and photograph the hummingbirds as they moved back and forth between the Monarda and Cardinal flower.

(More reading here on the combination of the Monarda and Cardinal flower.)

Together, they are a splash of red that is just irresistible to hummingbirds and other pollinators.

Again, by watching how the light played on the Monarda, I was able to focus on capturing images primarily of hummingbirds.

A hummingbird is captured here feeding on Monarda.

A hummingbird is captured here feeding on Monarda. Flash was used along with a diffuser to help stop the motion and provide a nice catchlight in the hummingbird’s eye.

Native Blue Lobelia is another winner in the woodland

Another combination that worked for me in 2022 was the native duo of Black Eyed Susans and blue lobelia.

The Black Eyed Susans had been growing in place for a few years, but adding the native blue lobelia into the mix created a combination that worked both visually and for local pollinators who visited the area regularly. I’m particularly looking forward to next year’s results after the lobelia has had a year to establish itself.

More reading: For the full story on the native wildflower Blue Lobelia.

A combination of black Eyed Susans and blue lobelia.

A combination of black Eyed Susans and native blue lobelia.

Gardening lessons to take away from this year’s success

By planting the monarda, blue lobelia and salvias close to the patio, I was better able to enjoy not only the plants but the birds and the pollinators that visit them regularly.

It was also much easier to care for the plants rather than try to keep them properly watered when they were located at the far end of the yard.

Next year, I plan to add more plants around the patio including searching out more Proven Winners’ salvias from their Rockin’ series. There are four different salvias in their Rockin’ line including two blue salvias and a fuchsia. (Link to Proven Winners Rockin’ series.)

More reading: on Proven Winners free booklets here (2022) and here (2021).

Animals in the landscape

When it comes to visitors to the garden this year, I was fortunate enough to have several memorable moments.

The highlight this past garden season was capturing a number of photographs of our resident fox. The foxes have been around for the past few years, but capturing good images of them is not always easy.

Another benefit of being out in the garden trying to photograph the foxes, resulted in my best images of a skunk in early evening light light.

Both of these animals can be quite elusive if you are not prepared to photograph them and do your homework before hand.

The neighbourhood fox was photographed in my Tragopan photographic blind with a 300mm F4.5 lens.

The neighbourhood fox was photographed in my Tragopan photographic blind with a 300mm F4.5 lens.

By using a trail camera in the backyard, I was able to establish that both the fox and the skunk regularly came to an area in the garden near our open compost. From there, it was as simple as setting up my Tragopan blind and waiting for the animals to come along.

More reading: For my post on using a trail camera in the backyard

More reading : For my post on using a Tragopan photo blind in the garden.

I knew the fox came in late afternoon on its regular rounds, but getting the skunk around the same time and in good light was a pure bonus.

Fox being photographed on my trail camera

A neighbourhood fox was photographed while it posed for a trail camera in the back garden. If you want to see the video of the fox from the Trail camera be sure to click the link above on using the trail camera in the backyard.

Being set up and prepared was, of course, the key to capturing more than just a grab shot of the animals as they made their way through the yard.

The Tragopan blind is important to help the animals feel unthreatened and act more naturally with a human in such close proximity.

While I used the blind for the fox, I did not need to use it for the skunk. Skunks don’t have good eyesight so, for the most part, it did not even know I was there. In fact, at one point it made a B-line across the yard right toward me until I gave it a hand signal that I was there. The hand signal was all it took for the little guy to head in a different direction.

I especially like the image of the fox (above) posing in front of the trail camera as it was capturing video and images of the fox.

Image of a beautiful skunk in the garden

This image shows a beautiful skunk roaming through the garden.

The image of the cute little skunk involved a little luck. It came out of some tall grasses right beside me after I set up my camera in the garden. It walked over to a corner of the garden allowing for a more comfortable working distance.

Photographic lessons we can take away from a year in the garden

Observation is critical when you are trying to photograph birds, mammals and other backyard wildlife. Learning their habits and recognizing the times they are most likely to appear in the garden will greatly improve your chances.

There is nothing like spending more time in the garden and simply observing the goings on, but when that is difficult, the trail camera can do the job while you are away.

Most trail cameras will document any animals that come into your yard right down to the minute. If you notice a pattern, simply set up your camera and be prepared to capture images of your subject.

I’m planning to use the trail camera more over the coming winter through to spring and summer to help me capture more fox images this winter when the animals’ coats are in their prime.

Although the images from the trail camera are useable, it’s always better to capture the subjects with a real photographic camera to get the best results.

Looking forward to a new year

The coming year will present us with more challenges in the garden. But, by using our success stories from this past season and building on them, we can meet these challenges head on and come out a winner.

I had hoped to have real success with annual sunflowers (link to my post) this year and, although I did have some success with the native sunflowers, (link to my post) many of my seedlings and young plants were attacked by squirrels and other animals before they could mature and perform at their best. I did learn a few things, though, and next year my sunflower experiments will be much better.

Here’s to a new year.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Flowering Crabapple trees: Spring flowers and berries for the birds

Crabapple trees are sometimes overlooked in the landscape because over the years they have become quite common. But they can be the perfect understory tree for both small and large yards.

Flowering crab is ideal for yards big and small

Flowering Crabapple trees have always been a popular under story tree providing homeowners with impressive spring flowers followed by an abundance of bird-loving berries later in the summer through fall.

Their popularity, however, has meant they are easily overlook when it’s time to consider purchasing a new tree for the front or back yard.

But that would be a mistake.

A male indigo Bunting stands out in a beautiful flowering crab in spring.

Crabapples are excellent understory trees that offer a full range of sizes, flower and leaf colour as well as an abundance of fruit for birds and other wildlife. They are long-lived trees that are hardy in zones 4-8. The leaves provide habitat and larval food for many species of moths and butterflies and the spring flowers provide food for early pollinators. As the trees age, it becomes home to lichens and fungi and the gnarly branches and trunks often have lots of cavities for nesting birds.

Crabapples have become a staple in urban landscapes and are used as dependable street trees and ornamental options. If allowed to grow to their natural shape, they have and irregular rounded shape with a wide spreading canopy.

Are crabapples good to eat?

Most crabapples are edible although their level of bitterness varies considerably and their level of acidity varies considerably. In the United States crabapples have had a place in culinary and beverage industries.

Male cardinal in beautiful flowering crabapple tree.

A beautiful male cardinal in a flowering crabapple at the peak of spring flowering.

Crabapples’ history is actually tied to the making of hard cider in the 1600s and 1700s. This tart little fruit can make a really interesting hard cider. They have also traditionally been grown commercially to make crabapple jellies.

Crabapples’ flower show is short lived

Although many homeowners purchase flowering crabapples for their outstanding spring show, gardeners should remember that the flowers only last 2-3 weeks.

It is, therefore, what the crabapple looks like for the rest of the year that makes a more lasting impression on the landscape. There are plenty of crabapples with green leaves, but there are also plenty with leaves that have a lot of red in them to help provide an accent in what would otherwise be a very green landscape during the summer.

There are large crabapples that can grow up to 30 feet tall, and dwarf varieties that stay in the five feet by five foot wide range.

Four great crabapples to consider in the woodland

Prairie Fire crabapple is a hybrid that feature many of the traits of other great crabapple varieties. It blooms bright pink in the spring, sports dark green leaves with a purplish overcast throughout the summer, and dark purplish-red fruit in the fall that attract birds all winter. It’s hardy in zones 4 through 8 and has excellent disease resistance. One of its finest traits is that Prairie Fire happily tolerates clay soil. It stays on the small size into maturity and is an ideal urban landscape tree.

Purple Prince Crabapple – has a massive flower disply in spring along with its purple foliage following soon after. Hardy in zones 4-8, it is well known for its improved disease resistance and stands about 16-18 feet tall and 15-18 feet wide.

Sargent Crabapple – A perfect ornamental tree for small urban yards. Grows only 8-10 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide It buds are dark pink but blooms white attracting all the pollinators. The flowers are followed by bright red berries that birds can snack on all winter. Hardy to zones 4-8.

Royal Raindrops Crabapple – Blooms deep pink along upward spreading branches. The leaves flush out a reddish purple colour and stay dark green with a purple overcast throughout the sumer. Small purple berries stay on the tree all winter to feed birds and other backyard wildlife. It is happy to grow in zones 4-8.

Like many overly-hybridized flowers, trees and shrubs that do not have fruit, the Spring Snow crabapple may appeal to those who want a crabapple without any of the fruit. Fragrant wihite blooms in an upright form that grows to between15-25 feet tall and a similar similar width. I can’t recommend these overly hybridized trees that offer little to nothing for wildlife, but I recognize they may have a place in a garden close to a patio, deck or cement pathway.

If you do plant a sterile tree, try to ensure you plant plenty of native plants, shrubs and trees to help the wildlife that will get no benefit from the sterile tree.

A beautiful crabapple in full flower stands out in the landscape against the spring greenery of a Pagoda Dogwood in the front.

A beautiful crabapple in full flower stands out in the landscape against the spring greenery of a Pagoda Dogwood in the front.

Two mature crabapples in our woodland, wildlife garden

Our two large crabapples are fully mature specimens that take centre stage in the garden at certain times of the year where they take up residence growing across the back of the property.

I’ve never really looked into exactly what variety we have, but they are most likely of the Royal Raindrop hybrid series with an abundance of deep pink flowers along its branches. The leaves of our crabapples flush out a reddish purple colour and stay dark green with a purple overcast throughout the summer. An abundance of small purple berries remain on the tree all winter and feed the resident and migratory birds.

Our neighbours planted smaller more upright crabapples (Harvest Gold) that sport larger fruit that has a distinctive yellow colour and remain on the branches well into the winter. These are a popular ornamental variety that really stand out in the winter landscape.

(here is an excellent Chart from Frank Schmidt and Son that illustrates the variety, shape, and flower colours of a host of crabapples.

Our crabapples have been pretty much ignored since we moved to the property more than 25 years ago. Besides thinning out some dead branches over the years, we have done little to the trees and prefer them to take on a natural rounded look.

Originally, the trees were surrounded by grass, but over the years, we have ignored the grass and planted native wildflowers around them allowing the area to become a mini meadow. I think the two crabapples are much happier growing in a more natural area and the wildlife that live off the tree are provided with a soft landing. (For more on the importance of providing a soft landing check out this link to the University of Minnesota Master Gardeners Extension.)

Besides cutting out a few dead branches, the trees have been more or less maintenance free while providing outstanding deep red spring colour followed by a small, hard, red berry that persists well into winter, just when birds are looking for a high quality food source.

I’ve noticed that more and more of our American Robins that are remaining in our snow-covered landscapes throughout winter, are using the crabapples as a food source throughout the winter. Waxwings also appear in large flocks to work the crabapples.

Why are crabapples so easily overlooked?

As a child growing up in the 1960s and '70s, I remember the abundance of crabapples in our suburban neighbourhood. My best friend’s family had a lovely crab apple that bloomed a soft pink in the spring and was covered with crab apples throughout the summer into fall. I don’t remember birds devouring the berries but I do remember some awesome crab apple fights among the neighbourhood kids (no eyes were lost.)

Image shows a male cardinal in a flowering crab just as the flowers have ended and the fruit is beginning to form on the tree.

Image shows a male cardinal in a flowering crab just as the flowers have ended and the fruit is beginning to form on the tree.

I also remember annual fall cleanups of hundreds of thousands of crab apples in the grass, on the sidewalk and spilling out on the road.

The crab apples were smallish and hard and although there was an abundance of them, they were not particularly problematic.

I can’t say the same for my other buddy’s crab apple. That family’s crab apple tree produced large (almost miniature apples) that rotted quickly and became very messy. They were particularly attractive to wasps craving the sugar content after the crabapples were crushed all over the sidewalk and road. the crabapples were so numerous that they created a hazard almost like walking on marbles. Eventually, most years there were so many on the ground that they had to be cleaned up with brooms and shovels.

That was an example of the wrong tree for the area so close to the sidewalk. The same tree planted in a garden setting would create the perfect wildlife viewing and photography stage as all the neighbourhood birds and animals would flock to the area for the sweet food source.

It’s situations like this that probably convinced today’s gardeners that crab apples are messy trees that they don’t want in their landscapes. I can understand that thinking entirely.

Plant crab apples in the right area

In the right location, crab apples can be outstanding specimen trees in both large or small yards.

A blue jay among the flowers of a crab apple tree in spring.

A blue jay among the flowers of a crab apple tree in spring.

Plant them in an area where the berries are free to fall to the ground as a source of food for birds and other backyard wildlife and let them clean up the ground under the tree. Of course, grass is never the best ground cover in a woodland setting, especially if you are striving for the perfect lawn.

Image shows our mature crabapple in flower in the landscape.

Image shows our mature crabapple in flower in the landscape.

A more natural ground cover where the berries can be left in place rather than “cleaned up” creates a much more sustainable situation in the garden.

Crabapple branch in full flower hangs in front of a grey Keter shed.helping to set off the dark pinks of the crabapple flowers.

A Crabapple branch in full flower hangs in front of a grey Keter shed.helping to set off the dark pinks of the crabapple flowers.

Pruning crabapples: leave them natural

Please refrain from over pruning your crabapple trees into ridiculous balls or other unnatural shapes. I’ve seen too many crabapples that have been trimmed back to the extreme leaving only a trunk with a small ball of branches. I guess this is done to keep the tree small. Like most trees, it is best to leave them to grow into their natural shape, which in the case of a crabapple, usually mean a spread as wide as their height. Celebrate them and enjoy their natural beauty.

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A front garden landscape design for the Pacific Northwest

Alexa DeBouef Brooks’ natural garden design complete with a plant list for this Seattle based front garden.

Acid-loving plants put to the test in small Seattle garden

This small Seattle front garden design plan by Alexa LeBouef Brooks puts native acid-loving plants to the test.

The Seattle area landscape designer first removed what was once a grass lawn and then had to deal with two very large and established cedar trees that were already on the property and had, over the years, turned the soil in the front garden acidic.

The design is installed in a neighborhood just outside of Seattle and very close to the University of Washington.

Alexa explains that the site is a small front lot with two very large and established cedar trees, one on either side of the garden.

Her goal was to create a natural, sustainable garden that both looks good year-round and is able to deal with changing environmental conditions associated with climate change in the future.

“You are limited in what you can plant underneath our Northwest conifers because they demand every drop of water available and make the soil very acidic.”

A front garden design plan of a Pacific Northwest garden in the Seattle area. Notice that there is no grass in this garden planted with native, acid-loving plants.

All the plants included in the design are acid loving plants and should establish well in the area. The House is East facing but gets adequate sunlight throughout the day.

The client wanted this garden to be an homage to a best friend who had recently died.

(Be sure to click on the link here for more on Alexa LeBouef Brooks and Understory Gardens.)

Also, if you are interested in native plants, be sure to check out my post on Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest.

Alexa explains that for years the friends had planned on creating a native garden together.

“I feel honored to have been a part of this project, and help the clients vision come to life."

Below is a chart showing the plants Alexa used to create the garden. On the left are the number of plants and on the right is the name of the plants.

Chart showing the list of plants used in the front garden of this Seattle-area home.

Above is a plant guide for the garden with the numbers listed to the left of the plant’s name.

Alexa LeBouef Brooks is a young landscape designer in the Seattle area who is using her passion for native plants along with her background in fine art to create exciting natural and woodland gardens.

She recently told Ferns & Feathers that the “development of my style of gardening grew from my desire to always be connected to the natural beauty I spent so much time in as a child. Although I embrace multiple garden aesthetics, the native and natural style of gardening keeps me rooted in the land I call home.”

Understory garden logo

Through the excellent work of the Seattle-based, non-profit organization called Plant Amnesty, many of Alexa’s clientele are already aware of the importance of protecting the ecology of the area.

The organization’s focus is to educate the greater Puget Sound area on proper pruning, responsible gardening and land preservation.

“I find that most clients who seek gardeners and designers through Plant Amnesty have a shared interest in maintaining the integrity of our delicate ecology and environment. Even outside of my Plant Amnesty clients, when a potential client sees my business name and website, they are anticipating a particular style of gardening from my work. Most are open to the suggestions I make when designing their gardens and plugging in additional plants to an existing design as well as garden maintenance methods,” Alexa explains.

Changing the way we garden is important to Alexa. Climate change is an ever increasing problem in the Pacific Northwest as well as elsewhere and Alexa is passionate about designing and installing gardens that will meet the future needs of her clients.

Issues around water conservation and installing plants that can not only deal with the increasingly hotter summers Seattle residents face, but the colder winters, are an important part of Alexa and Understory Gardens’ approach to the new challenges on gardening in the Pacific Northwest.

If you are on the lookout for high quality, non-GMO seed for the Pacific North West consider West Coast Seeds. The company, based in Vancouver BC says that “part of our mission to help repair the world, we place a high priority on education and community outreach. Our intent is to encourage sustainable, organic growing practices through knowledge and support. We believe in the principles of eating locally produced food whenever possible, sharing gardening wisdom, and teaching people how to grow from seed.”

Plant list for Seattle front garden design plan

Below is a list of the plants used in the garden in case the chart is difficult to read

1 Ribes sanguineum (Flowering Currant)36Oxalis oregana (Redwood Sorrel)

3 Polystichum setiferum (Alaska Fern)

9 Cornus se. 'Kelsey' (Kelsey Dogwood)

2 Dicentra 'Gold Heart' (Bleeding Heart)

6 Erigeron glaucus 'Bountiful' (Seaside Daisy)

5 Mahonia nervosa (Cascade Oregon Grape)

13 Sisyrinchium 'Rocky Point' (California Blue Eyed Grass)

11 Tellima grandiflora (Fringe Cups)

2 Oreostemma alpigenum (Alpine Aster)

4 Adiantum pedatum (Northern Maidenhair Fern)

7 Blechnum spicant (Deer Fern)

3 Helictotrichon se 'Sapphire' (Blue Oat Grass)

24 Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry Dogwood)

5 Heuchera cylindrica (Alpine Alumroot)

2 Balsamorhiza sagittata (Arrowleaf Balsamroot)

2 Vaccinium ovatum (Evergreen Huckleberry)

1 Rosa nutkana (Nootka Rose)1Arctostaphylos d 'Howard McMinn' (Manzanita)

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How to garden in the shade (Why shade gardening is important in 2022)

The Natural Shade Garden originally published in 1992 has inspired gardeners to embrace shade in this era of climate change.

What to plant in a shaded area of the garden

I don’t know why shade gardening developed a bad reputation in some circles, but times are changing and gardeners are beginning to recognize the benefits of gardening in the shade.

For woodland gardeners, learning to get the most out of the little sun our gardens receive has always been a key factor in the success of our shade gardens. And, learning how to deal with varying levels of shade in the garden – full shade, part shade, open shade – is a constant learning process.

Is shade in the garden a good thing?

Some gardeners may still ask: Is shade good for a garden?

The answer is a resounding yes, especially as many of our gardens are hit by the extremes of climate change. Shady areas not only allow us to grow plants we couldn’t in a sunny area, shade helps to cool our gardens the wildlife that live in it and the soil that our plants depend on for nutrients.

If the soil is too hot, it will dry out too quickly and lose its effectiveness as a growing median.

The Natural Shade Garden, written by garden writer extraordinaire Ken Druse in 1992, helped to introduce many gardeners to the benefits of gardening in the shade.

Since then, the combination of climate change – with its extreme heat and droughts – forced gardeners to rethink their approach, and the growing awareness of our role in rewilding urban landscapes, has slowly convinced many more gardeners to embrace the benefits of shade and woodland gardening.

A fern garden takes centre stage under the canopy of shade created by large and mid-size trees

In fact, Druse’s book, The New Shade Garden updates The Natural Shade Garden with information on dealing with the problems associated with climate change as well as providing a new generation of gardeners less concerned about visual beauty in the garden and more concerned about the garden’s ability to reduce carbon dioxide in the environment. Take a moment to check out my earlier review of The New Shade Garden.

In his book The Natural Shade Garden, Druse challenges readers to imagine an idyllic garden where shade plays a major role in the landscape.

Why we love a shade garden

The author opens by asking readers to imagine a walk in the woods where they might come across a sunny meadow, and a stream cutting through waist-high flowers.

“Follow its path and you’ll come to the edge of the woodland. This half-shade is the habitat of the evergreen and deciduous shrubs: mountain laurel, blueberry bushes and deciduous rhododendrons, for example.”

A stream runs through a beautiful woodland which can be used as inspiration for a woodland shade garden.

A stream running through a woodland provides inspiration for the creation of the New Shade Garden.

Even if we have never taken this “walk in the woods” there is a certain familiarity with his description of the experience. Maybe it reminds us of a favourite garden or, maybe, it’s the garden of our dreams and one we long to experience.

The Natural Shade Garden is a roadmap to help us get there.

In the book’s opening, the author goes on to explain that the “small trees that line the forest – dogwoods, redbud, and shadblow (serviceberry) – mingle with the spreading shrubs. Pass into the darkness and you’ll find more woody plants of the under story blooming in turn: witch hazel, Fothergilla, and oakleaf hydrangeas…. Spring in the deciduous forest explodes with masses of flowers that bloom and fade before the emerging leaves veil the light from above.”

A Cornus Kousa dogwood, Cornus Mas and a Redbud emerge through the ferns in early spring in this woodland shade garden.

A mature Cornus Kousa dogwood (centre), a smaller variegated Cornus mas (left) and a Redbud (pink flowers in back) grow up through the fern garden in the woodland shade garden.

Shade gardens focus on texture rather than raw colour

To some – those who worship colourful garden beds – Druse’s idyllic garden might sound rather dull.

But to the more experienced gardener – those who recognize the importance of a tranquil garden that celebrates leaf texture, shape and architectural interest over the use of gaudy colour – the shade garden represents a new awakening, free of daily chores including the constant upkeep associated with deadheading, fertilizing and heavy watering.

It’s where ferns can take centre stage in the heat of summer. Where hostas are at home growing through the native ground cover of wild ginger and where birds build their homes in the many tree and shrub layers that are the source of much of the shade in the garden.

Throughout the book, Druse takes us on a journey through shade gardens pointing out the ingredients to success.

Let’s explore some of the plants and shrubs that Druse suggests gardeners use to create the successful shade garden.

What plants grows best in the shade

Info graphic shows 5 great shade plants for the woodland garden

Info graphic shows 5 great shade plants for the woodland garden.

Best ground covers for a natural shade garden

Any plant that spreads to cloak the soil can be used as a ground cover. That includes low-growing shrubs, herbaceous perennials, vines and grasses. Druse explains that even “a good-sized hosta, can be used as a ground cover…. A mass planting of evergreen azaleas might be considered a ground cover.”

Druse doesn’t leave out the “most famous ground cover of them all: grass lawn.”

“No other living plant can stand so much foot traffic. But there are problems with lawn (My post on eliminating lawn). Besides the fact that it has to be mowed often, fertilized endlessly, watered, weeded, and mowed again, it doesn’t like shade very much.” Druse explains that lawns are a “gross-feeder” that “perishes not only from lack of light, but also from insufficient nutrition.”

So what are the alternatives?

The Japanese-inspired woodland garden includes a combination of moss and epimediums to form the ground cover layer.

Natural moss and epimediums form the ground cover in the Japanese-inspired shade garden.

Moss: If you are blessed with moss already, enjoy it, explains Druse. “I’ve met one gardener,” Druse writes, “who gave up trying to keep a lawn in the shade and let his soil go to moss. He was very surprised to find that it kept up quite well, even under teenagers and touch football.”

Today, moss as a lawn substitute is not rare. In Japan and more humid areas where moss grows naturally, it has become a more common ground cover.

Moss is best used for smaller areas where it can be kept clear of garden debris and kept moist year round.

Moss may not need mowing, but it does require some upkeep to ensure it thrives and looks its best.

Back in 1992, when The Natural Shade Garden was written, moss was not as available as it is today. Now, sheets of moss can even be purchased to create large areas of beautiful, soft mosses. If you have mosses growing in your garden, take note of the conditions and experiment with it in other areas of your garden with similar growing conditions.

Wild columbine, maidenhair ferns and pachysandra and epimedium combine to form a tapestry of ground covers in this woodland shade garden.

Wild columbine, maidenhair ferns, epimediums and pachysandra form the ground cover in this part of the shade garden in our front yard.

Other grass alternatives include:

(Be sure to check out my post on best ground covers.)

• Irish and Scotch mosses: are actually sun-loving perennials that look and act much like traditional moss. (Click here for my post on moss-like ground covers)

• Ajuga, vinca, moss pink and moneywort all can take some light foot traffic.

Dry shade tolerant ground covers include:

Japanese pachysandra


Epimediums (Be sure to check out my post on Epimediums)


American barrenwort (Vancouveria hexandra) (hardy to zone 5) “is a light and airy alternative to so many of the leatherleaf subshrubs,” explains Druse.

This small sumac is an excellent small tree that has the look of a Japanese Maple.

A sumac pruned beautifully to give the look of a cut-leaf Japanese Maple.

Berry-producing ground covers include:

• Bunchberry is the smallest dogwood that sports the same white dogwood flower bracts that its larger siblings the flowering dogwoods have. Bright red flowers follow in fall. (Be sure to check out my separate post on Bunchberry here.)

Contoneasters: Both evergreen and deciduous varieties.

Cowberries: A native cranberry

Creeping snowberry also called wintergreen

Oregon Grape

Mock strawberry

These are just a sampling of the ground covers that Druse lists in great detail.

Some of the best shrubs and deciduous perennials for shade

The Natural Shade Garden turns the spotlight on the middle layer of the woodland garden stating: “A garden makes its strongest impression in the middle layer – between the gound covers and the trees. It’s where the eye naturally comes to rest. So, it’s an area that requires special consideration. This is home ground to the herbaceous perennials and the flowering shrubs.”

It’s these plants that will form the framework of the landscape, Druse explains.

“Choosing plants from the woodlands and the edges of the forest, and carefully selecting and preparing their new home, will be your mission.”

Favourite shrubs and perennials for the Natural Shade Garden

Early bloomers to add colour:

• Baneberries

• Cimicifugas

• Goatsbeard

• Astilbes

• Meadowsweet Filipendula purpurea

• Meadow rue

• Columbines

• Corydalis

• Dutchman’s-breeches

• Hellebores

• Solomons seal

• Foxgloves

•Cardinal flowers

• Sedums

• Hostas are essential for the natural shade garden.

Shrubby plants for the New Shade Garden


• Rhododendron

• Oak Leaf Hyrangea

• Rough leaved Hydrangea

• Annabelle Tree Hydrangea

• Star magnolia

• Viburnums (Check out my story on 7 viburnums for the woodland garden)

• Red-twig dogwood

• Rose of Sharon

• Winter hazel

• Mountain laurel

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Paperbark Maple: Understory tree with year-round interest

The paperbark maple (acer griseum) is a mid-size understory that fits both small gardens as well as larger woodland-style gardens.

Paperbark Maple ideal for late fall colour in small urban yards

Paperbark Maples are as useful in the winter landscape with their exquisite, peeling cinnamon-coloured bark, as they are in summer when they perform as a beautiful, mid-size understory tree.

But don’t underestimate the Paperbark Maple’s outstanding performance in late fall when they light up the landscape long after most of the other deciduous trees are left naked.

Where to plant the Paperbark Maple for best results

Be sure to plant Paperbark Maple (acer griseum) in an area of your garden where you can appreciate it in every season.

Paperbark Maples are the ideal tree for a small garden or as an understory tree in a larger woodland garden.

The paper thin bark of the paperbark maple does not begin until the tree is about seven years old.

The paper thin bark of the paperbark maple does not begin until the tree is about seven years old.


Our Paperbark Maple is just steps away from our patio where we spend most of our time. It takes centre stage in late fall when its leaves just begin turning colour long after all the other deciduous trees have dropped their colourful leaves.

Paperbark Maple pictured here just beginning to take on its fall colours.

This Paperbark Maple is just beginning to take on its fall colours.

The Paperbark Maple is a lovely oval to rounded small tree with an open habit and upright branching. In fall, the dainty, three-lobed soft-green maple leaves turn a rich, rusty red.

How long does it take to reach maturity?

Acer griseum are a slow growing tree that will eventually reach about 25 ft. tall and between 15-20 ft. wide.

But unless you are buying a mature specimen, don’t expect the tree to reach those heights any time soon. Paperbark maples grow 6 to 12 inches a year depending on growing conditions.

The leaves of the paperbark maple beginning to take on their fall colour.

Exfoliating papery bark is the show stopper year round

While the tree’s fall colour is often overlooked, the tree’s exfoliating papery sheets of bark that peel to reveal cinnamon-brown new bark is rarely overlooked in the landscape. It’s the bark, not unlike that of the river or white birch trees that makes acer griseum a special tree in a landscape.

How long before the bark on a paperbark maple begins to peel off?

If you have planted a young tree, don’t be surprised if you do not see any exfoliating bark for a few years. This can take up to seven years and is more evident on mature trees.

Do paperbark maples have pest problems?

Remarkably free of serious pest problems, the trees tolerate a wide range of conditions from sun to shade and wind.

They can also be attractive as a place to nest for birds, but are not known to be particularly effective in attracting either birds or other wildlife. The trees put out small yellow flowers in spring which can attract pollinators followed by two winged seeds about 1 cm long with a 3 cm wing, which can be a food source for backyard wildlife.

How to grow and use Paperbark Maples in the landscape

They like to grow in soil that is kept consistently moist, but not soggy, and are best grown in zones 5-8 in filtered sun, full sun or partial shade.

They are effective as an understory tree in a woodland or shade garden but because they like some sun, paperbark maples can be used as a specimen tree in a more open garden.

The compound leaves have a 2-4 cm petiole with three 3-10 cm long dark green leaflets.

What companion plants look good with Paperbark maples?

Good companion plants are various sedges, hostas and, of course a range of native spring wildflowers from trilliums, bloodroot and anemones, to bluebells. Keep the plants around the base of the tree on the shorter side so you can appreciate the full effect of the peeling bark.

These deciduous trees are at home in foundation beds in both front or back yards as an accent plant to greet visitors with its impressive bark. They can also work well in more wild, woodland settings, and in wetland conditions as transitions between the more formal garden and open spaces.

Paperbark Maple (acer griseum) entering into the final stages of fall colour. The hints of green still clinging to the leaves gives it a delicate presence in the autumn landscape.

Paperbark Maple (acer griseum) entering into the final stages of fall colour. The hints of green still clinging to the leaves gives it a delicate presence in the autumn landscape.

These trees are not native to North America. The Acer griseum originates from central China and was introduced to the U.K. in 1901. It came to North America a few years later. Cultivars include the columnar Copper Rocket.

What are good alternatives for the paperbark maple?

While the paperbark maple is an impressive, four-season tree that is at home in both the shade garden as an understory tree or as a specimen in a more sunny location, it may not be the best choice if you are looking for more native and wildlife-friendly trees in your landscape.

Other options to consider over the paperbark maples are, of course our native dogwoods ranging from the pagoda dogwood (cornus alternifolia), flowering dogwood (cornus florida), Redbud (cercis canadensis), Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) and the serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

Our native serviceberry is an excellent choice maintaining similar growth habits, beautiful white flowers in spring followed by red berries in fall that are a favourite food source for birds and other wildlife. It’s fall colours (oranges and reds) are also similar to the paperbark maple.

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How to use Japanese Maples in the landscape

Japanese Maples are not native to North America but they are becoming more and more common understory trees, used primarily for their stunning beauty in the landscape.

The Japanese Maple is a popular small- to mid-size tree that fits into any landscape, but is especially at home in today’s more compact urban properties.

The enormous selection of varieties available – from the weeping, cutleaf trees that can be tucked into the smallest of spots and are at home in containers, to the full-size acers that add architectural interest and hits of colour to the understory of larger woodland gardens – makes Japanese Maples a staple in today’s landscapes.

There is an incredible variety of Japanese Maples (genus Acer), some that have red/purple leaves, others that feature green leaves and still others that boast a more golden foliage. Some varieties even have a variegated leaf. Many Japanese Maples have a palmatum leaf structure, but some have more lacy, cutleaf foliage that range from mildly serrated to more extreme forms. Some Japanese Maples grow tall (up to 20-25 feet), others are more upright, ideal for narrow areas.

Even the bark of the Japanese Maples vary widely in both colour and textures.

There is definitely a Japanese Maple to fit any and all landscapes.

Japanese maples are generally pest free. Although deer may check them out, they generally leave them alone. I have never experienced a problem with deer in our garden. Male deer, however, have been known to use the smaller trees either to remove antler velvet, or as a sparring partner during mating season. That’s never a good thing for maintaining the shape of your maples.

For more on Japanese Maples and Japanese-inspired gardens, be sure to check out my post on Five tips to create a Japanese-inspired Gardens.

A few examples of the Japanese maples in their fall colours.

Japanese Maples are relatively slow-growing trees that can easily take 20-25 years to mature into beautiful specimens. The upright varieties can put on maybe a foot of growth a year once they are established, while the smaller weeping varieties might only put on six inches or less.

With this in mind, if you want a large specimen, you might have to invest in a larger (more expensive) specimen from a good nursery.

Don’t be surprised if it takes three or even four years after planting a large specimen to begin showing signs of real growth again. For the first few years after planting, the tree’s roots will be working to settle into their new environment and will put on very little top growth.

If you want to see what your Japanese Maple can become, just take a look at the spectacular Japanese Maple that makes its home in the Portland Japanese garden. (Link to outstanding photos of the tree) Photographers are actually known to make annual pilgrimages to the tree each year in fall just to try and capture its magnificence.

A stunning red-leaved Bloodgood Japanese maple graces this front garden surrounded by other maples.

A stunning red-leaved Bloodgood Japanese maple graces this front garden surrounded by other maples.

While they are not native to North America, Japanese Maple trees can be an important addition to a woodland garden adding year-round interest to the understory, while providing nesting spots and other benefits for birds and other wildlife.

These stunning trees that grow in zones 5-8, are native to Japan where they have developed many different cultivars, each with their own growing styles. Some golden varieties of Japanese Maples do not do well in the colder zones. If you are looking to add one of these stunning trees, ensure it has extra protection from extreme cold and winds during the winter months.

Used effectively as an understory tree, the larger Japanese Maples can work in landscape plans to form the perfect transition from the height of say, a two-storey home, to the garden’s ground level.

Japanese Maples can be used in containers in the warmer zones (7-8-9) where the containers do not freeze completely.

Do not put prized Japanese Maples in containers in zones 5 and 6a without providing significant winter protection. (I made that mistake and lost two trees during a particularly cold winter.) Consider moving them into a greenhouse if you want to grow Japanese Maples in a container in these colder zones.

The smaller threadleaf weeping varieties of Japanese Maples work beautifully as specimen trees in rock gardens or as part of a water feature reflecting the flowing nature of a waterfalls.

Most of us are familiar with the classic “Bloodgood” variety. These are the larger, hardy red-leaved Japanese Maples that are quite common in neighbourhoods where they have been growing for decades.

A cutleaf weeping Japanese Maple backed by grasses and grounding a large boulder that is part of a Japanese-style garden.

A cutleaf weeping Japanese Maple is backed by grasses and helps to ground a large boulder that is part of a Japanese-style garden.

How to use Japanese Maples effectively in the landscape

Used effectively as an understory tree, the larger Japanese Maples can work in landscape plans to form the perfect transition from the height of say, a two-storey home, to the garden’s ground level. The building forms a backdrop to show the delicate architecture of the tree. A stucco or light-coloured building, for example, can work beautifully to show off the structure of the tree in all seasons.

The smaller threadleaf weeping varieties of Japanese Maples work beautifully as specimen trees in rock gardens or as part of a water feature reflecting the flowing nature of a waterfalls.

Elsewhere, the mid-size trees are perfect to place a small bench beneath the long horizontal branches to create a focal point in the garden.

The red/purple leaf varieties act as a break from the sea of green in the summer landscape. Consider planting Japanese Forest grass below them for a natural look. All gold Japanese Forest grass works nicely with the Bloodgood maples. In our front garden, I have planted Japanese Forest grass under the large Bloodgood to form a loose groundcover. (You can actually see it in the image below.)

Japanese Forest grass provides a base for the mature Bloodgood maple in our front yard.

Japanese Forest Grass surrounds the Bloodgood maple in our front yard.

What native trees are good alternatives to Japanese Maple

The traditional Japanese Maple is an elegant, mid-size tree with a horizontal branching habit with interest in all seasons.

That sounds a lot like our native dogwoods, including both the Pagoda Dogwood (cornus alternifolia) and the Flowering Dogwood (cornus florida). Both are excellent native alternatives to the Japanese Maple. For more on Dogwoods, be sure to check out my post on Six of the Best Dogwoods.

Below, is an example of how a smaller sumach tree can be the perfect native alternative to a Japanese Maple. The fall colour on this sumach is absolutely stunning.

Small well-shaped sumach trees can be a perfect alternative to Japanese Maples.

This exquisite well-shaped sumach tree is the perfect alternative to a Japanese Maple in the front garden.

Another good alternative is the Mountain maple (Acer glabrum) is a small understory tree that grows between 10-12 feet tall with pink flowers in spring. Its leaves turn bright red in fall not unlike Japanese Maples.

Redbuds, both western redbud (cercis occidentalis) and Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) are perfect alternatives to Japanese Maples. Redbuds grow to between 15-30 feet and sports pink flowers in early spring. Check out my post for more on our native redbuds.

Four tips to growing Japanese Maples

Japanese Maples are not difficult to grow but there are steps you can take to ensure their success. They are not an inexpensive tree to plant so anything we can do to give them a good start is a good idea.

  • When choosing a location, ensure your tree is planted in an area with good drainage. Japanese maples do not like wet feet and their roots could eventually develop root rot and succumb to being planted in a very wet area. The soil should be allowed to dry out between watering. If you must plant a tree in what you think is a wet area, amend the soil as much as possible with sand and grit to promote drainage. Dig a large hole and fill the bottom with stone to keep the roots above water. When you are planting the tree, make sure you plant it an inch or two higher than the soil level to ensure it does not sink into a water-logged bowl.

  • Do not plant Japanese Maples too deep whether you are planting in a wet area or not. Japanese Maples, like all trees, need oxygen to the roots of the plant. When planting the tree, consider planting it higher than the soil level in the pot it was growing in, especially if you are planting it into a clay-based soil. Create a berm around it so that as it settles into the ground it does not sink below its original soil line. Planting the tree too deep will force the tree to put out feeder roots where the trunk is below ground. Instead of putting on top growth, all its energy will go into putting out root growth where there should not be any. This will slow the tree’s growth and possibly kill it over time. It’s especially important with grafted Japanese Maples. The graft should never be planted below the soil level. It goes without saying that the trees benefit from mulching around the roots but not directly around the trunk of the trees. We’ve all seen the volcano of death style of mulching that almost always leads to a weakened tree and eventual death.

  • The final set of tips is actually aimed at homeowners trying too hard to create the perfect landscape. I am a strong believer that turf grass should never (or rarely) be grown right up to the trunk of the tree. There are several reasons for this, but among the most critical is the tendency for homeowners, or worse lawn care companies, to injure the tree’s trunk by either hitting it regularly with a lawnmower, or even worse, girdling the trunk with a weedeater. Once the bark around a tree’s trunk is damaged severely, the tree is unable to get food and water up to the main body of the tree leading to eventual weakening and death. This can happen over several years of abuse by the lawnmower or weedeater.

  • Over fertilization, especially later in the season (June and beyond), can threaten the health of the tree by forcing it to put out too much growth just before the tree goes into hibernation. Extreme cold will then kill off this new growth prior to spring. Japanese Maples are slow growing trees. Have patience. Fertilizing is probably not necessary, but if you do feel you want to add a slow release fertilizer, apply it in early May and keep the nitrogen level low (no more than 15)

    Below are two images of a Japanese Maple known as Full Moon Maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') that never gets large. Fertilizing it will only injure the tree rather than encourage more growth. This link shows a more mature specimen.


This full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') seen here in early fall is a golden-coloured tree that stays small even in maturity.

This full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') is a golden-coloured tree that stays small even in maturity.

This full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum') is a golden-coloured tree that stays small even in maturity.


Japanese Maples in our woodland garden

In our garden, Japanese Maples take centre stage in both the front and back yards. In the front, three Japanese Maples combine with two full-size maples and a serviceberry to create the upper and lower canopies so important for a woodland style garden. The main Japanese Maple (acer Bloodgood) was the first tree planted in our landscape 25 years ago and welcomes visitors to the pathway leading to the front door.

It has come a long way from the tiny tree I originally planted to a graceful acer that has spread to form a lovely canopy over the walkway. I’ve had to raise the canopy of the tree several times over the years, but I still like to keep it low enough that I’m forced to bend a little to walk beneath its branches.

Japanese Maple leafs fill a bird bath creating a colourful highlight in the garden.

Japanese Maple leafs fill a bird bath creating a colourful highlight in the garden.

A second Acer palmatum, (Beni Schichihenge) was added later as a large specimen Japanese Maple that adds a touch of elegance to the landscape and is especially striking in its autumn clothing with its delicate pinkish-orange leaves.

A weeping cutleaf variety adds colour to the Japanese-inspired garden where it softens the hard-edge of the large boulders that grounds the one side of the garden.

Together, they form a triangle in the front landscape that helps to bring a cohesion to the front garden adding colour to the spring, summer and fall landscapes.

There is no denying that Japanese Maples steal the show in fall when their vibrant colours shine through for a number of weeks before they shed their colourful leaves, sometimes all at once following a frosty morning.

On those days, the leaves from our main Japanese Maple form an incredible carpet of crimson red leaves making for the most perfect groundcover for a number of days before they begin to dry out and curl up.

How to grow Japanese Maples

It’s important to remember that Japanese Maples are understory trees, meaning that they do not like to receive full sun for the greater part of the day. Doing so will likely cause the leaves to burn as the summer heat is turned up.

In colder zones such as zones 5-6, Japanese Maples may be able to take more direct sun, but in the hotter zones it is imperative to grow the trees in partial shade and keep them away from mid-day and afternoon sun.

Some direct light results in better colour for many of the varieties.

Japanese Maples can handle heat, it’s the sun that will burn the leaves. New foliage is especially susceptible to burning. Depending on where you are, a couple hours of morning sun is fine but going beyond 1 pm in full sun will likely begin to do damage to the health of these trees.

Make sure they are protected later in the day when the sun is at its strongest. This is especially true in very hot locations.

Salt can also cause the Japanese Maple leaves to burn, whether the salt is in the air near oceans or if your area has hard water. By adding a little gypsum to the soil at planting, the minerals in the water will be leached out. Top dressing the soil around the roots with a little gypsum can also help.

Japanese Maples, like most maples, benefit from deep watering, especially in hot climates or in the heat of summer. While they would not be considered a deep-rooted tree, they are not shallow rooted either.

Deep watering also helps flush out salts that build in the soils.

For more on deep watering, check out my post Why is the Tree in my Front Garden Dying.

When to prune Japanese Maples

It’s best to prune Japanese Maples in either winter or summer. Pruning them in the spring will remove the beautiful new growth that make these trees stunning in early spring and summer.

Winter is an ideal time because you can see the shape of the tree best and work with the branch structure to enhance its architectural interest.

Japanese Maples should never be sheered or shaped into a ball. They are meant to be elegant trees with long horizontal branches that lend a delicate look to them. Their growth pattern is not unlike many of our native dogwoods that like to spread out horizontally.

If you are unsure about how best to prune Japanese maples to enhance their inherent beauty, consider hiring a trained arborist who understands how to properly prune these trees to enhance their inherent qualities.

A typical tree service, known more for cutting down trees, might not be the best to use for pruning your Japanese Maples.

Can you grow Japanese Maples from cuttings?

Take cuttings from spring growth when it is still flexible and not quite what you would called woody.

Put them in a glass of water immediately, before putting them into potting soil with plenty of perlite and a little rooting hormone if possible.

Strip off a number of leaves to create nodes. This is where the roots will eventually emerge.

Keep the cuttings well watered and misted throughout the spring and you could be blessed with new trees perfect for creating bonsai specimens.

Planting a Japanese Maple

One of the keys to getting the perfect Japanese Maple is to pay particular attention to the shape of the tree before setting it into the ground.

Japanese Maples like neutral to slightly acidic soils so start with a good draining soil mix and consider adding a little acidifier to the soil – a good azalea or rhododendron mix would work well. If you have hard water in your area, a little gypsum in the planting hole will help remove some of the minerals in the water. Add just a small amount, maybe 2-3 per cent.

Backfill the soil about halfway and then water in the tree to ensure it gets a good start. At this point you could add a couple handfulls of a mild fertilizer in a 5-3-1 ratio.

Continue backfilling around the tree until the soil is an inch or two below where the soil level was in the pot. Give it another good watering and then add mulch to lock in the moisture in the soil and protect it from direct sun.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Columnar Oak: Keystone plant perfect for today’s small yards

Columnar Oaks are the ideal compromise for today’s smaller front and backyards that might be overwhelmed by massive, native Red and White oaks.

Oak trees are critical to the survival of insects, birds and other fauna

It’s no secret how important Oak trees are for a healthy, natural environment, but not everyone has space in their yard to dedicate to such massive trees.

That’s where the columnar oaks (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’) come into their own. These trees are smaller, more narrow and able to fit into the smallest of yards, but still pack many of the benefits that our full-size, native oaks provide.

Columnar oaks or English Oak is an Asian and European native tree. It prefers average well-drained soils in full sun, but adapts to a wide range of soil types and conditions.

These oaks can take 20-30 years before they can bear acorns – an important food source for many mammals. In the wild, it is found in northern USA and Canada.

Five reasons to plant a columnar oak tree

  1. They are a perfect tree for small, narrow spaces in both front and backyards.

  2. They can be used to screen out views, even on second storeys, when ground space is limited. Their branches grow low to the ground providing screening from the ground up.

  3. Oaks are attractive to wildlife and considered a vital food source for birds as well as insects and caterpillars.

  4. Columnar oaks are low-maintenance, trees that can withstand drought, salt and other urban issues that can stress out other, less vigorous trees.

  5. Columnar oaks actually boast four season interest from the dark green leaves of summer, to the rusty/brown leaves of fall and beige leaves that cling to the branches throughout winter.

‘Fastigiata’ or Upright English Oak is an upright, columnar, deciduous tree that matures into a dense elongated oval shape with a short trunk. They can work as a landscape specimen or in a group to form a very tall privacy hedge.

Oak leaves from a columnar Oak changing colours in late fall.

Oak leaves from a columnar oak looking beautiful as they transition to its fall colours.

They do best planted in full sun in well-drained acidic or slightly alkaline soil. If you live near the ocean or plant it in an area that is heavily salted in winter, these trees can continue to perform well. As an added bonus, especially during these times of climate change, the columnar oaks are also drought tolerant and can survive in more severe urban conditions. (For more on problems faced by urban trees see my articles on The Internet of Nature or How Trees Communicate.)

For more on the importance of oak trees in our garden and natural landscapes take a few moments to check out my other posts on Oak trees:

Propagation for the Columnar Oak is from seed, but don’t be surprised if the seed doesn’t always grow true.

These columnar oaks have been used as an effective privacy screen teamed up with blue spruce. The combination of trees provide effective habitat for backyard birds and other wildlife.

What are the benefits of oak trees?

Doug Tallamy, renowned entomologist, advocate for native gardening and author of the book Bringing Nature Home, and the Nature of Oaks as well as a number of other highly acclaimed books on the subject, calls oak trees a “keystone plant” in our environment. This rating goes only to a select few native plants that provide food and habitat for an enormous number of insects, caterpillars and fauna that, in turn, are critical as a food source for birds and other wildlife.

Theses gorgeous oak leaves show the beauty of these trees as the change from summer greens to glorious fall colours.

These gorgeous colours show how beautiful the leaves look in fall. They eventually turn a lovely beige colour as winter progresses and remain on the tree to provide shelter for birds and other animals.

In fact, oaks top the list of Tallamy’s “keystone plants.”

Tallamy cites a 2003 study that found a “single white oak tree can provide food and shelter for as many as 22 species of tiny leaf-tying and leaf folding caterpillars.” And that is just a tiny fraction of the fauna that depend on a single oak tree. In fact, the mighty oak supports 534 species of fauna, more than any other tree we can plant in our gardens.

There are about 400 species of Oak worldwide. North America boasts 90 different species with 75-80 in the United States and 10 in Canada.

Unfortunately, the emergence of smaller and smaller lots in today’s subdivisions makes planting a full-size white or red oak tree difficult for most homeowners. Although the trees are relatively slow growers and beautiful specimens in the landscape, they eventually grow to become massive trees that, if not planted with plenty of room to grow around them, might have to be removed or, at the very least, severely pruned as they mature.

Columnar oaks along a driveway in fall

These Columnar oaks along the driveway present a formal entrance to the home but also provide some privacy.

How to use Columnar oaks in the landscape

This is where the columnar oak comes into its own. These trees grow tall (up to about 60 feet (18 m), but the spread is only about 15 feet (4.5m) making them the perfect tree to tuck into a narrow space say along a driveway or in a corner of the yard to provide privacy.

Our neighbour actually uses a trio of columnar oaks grouped together anchoring two blue spruce trees to provide privacy. In this instance, these trees perform more like a dense, high hedge. The combination can be stunning at different times of the year, but especially in fall when the oak leaves begin to turn a rusty brownish/red while the remaining leaves hold on to their dark green leaves into the late fall and even into winter. In the dead of winter, many of the leaves remain on the plant, not falling off until the new spring growth pushes them to the ground.

Columnar oaks form a narrow privacy hedge.

In a perfect example of a shared landscape, we benefit from the trees’ architectural interest and, most importantly, their environmental benefits as a food source for so many woodland and backyard birds. The grouping of trees provide the perfect safe habitat for a variety of song birds looking for dense cover among the deciduous oaks and the evergreen branches of the blue spruce.

Can columnar oaks be used as a privacy hedge?

Another neighbour on the street has used three of the trees down the edge of their driveway to form a narrow, but very tall and effective screen. Again, the result is a dense, natural screen that is attractive to birds throughout the summer, including winter where the remaining leaves provide a safe escape out of the cold wind and an effective roosting spot.

These columnar trees may not provide all of the benefits of our native oaks, but they are far superior to many other non-native trees that offer little to no benefits to birds and other wildlife.

If you are interested in planting one of these trees, there are a number hybridized columnar oaks available for homeowners. A search on a high-end plant nursery near me shows a total of seven varieties available.

These hybridized columnar oaks include the following: Green Pillar Pin Oak (Quercus Palustris Pringreen), Crimson Spire English Oak (Quercus Robur Crimschmidt), Pyramidal English Oak (Quercus Robur Fastigiata), Skyrocket English Oak, Kindrid Spirit Oak, Chimney Rire Hybrid Oak, Regal Prince Pyramidal Oak.

You can check out these columnar oaks, including access to detailed information on growth habits, by going to Connon Nurseries’ informative website or a website of a nursery in your location.

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Vic MacBournie Vic MacBournie

Sumac: First signs of fall in the garden

Staghorn Sumac is an excellent addition to the garden both to add architectural interest and provide a food source for birds and animals.

Important food source for birds and other wildlife

It’s early October and the native Sumac is already lighting up the roadsides and welcoming the first signs of fall in the woodland garden.

Along roadsides and escarpments, where this fast-growing native shrub or small tree (grows to about 30-feet high) gets plenty of sun, Sumac lights up with brilliant oranges, yellows and reds.

It’s often the first plant nature photographers focus on when in search of early colour in the fall landscape, and it’s a perfect addition to the woodland garden. Sumac has compound, serrated leaves that are a bright green in summer before taking on its fall cloak.

Small, beautifully shaped sumach in front landscaping.

This small sumach in beautiful fall colours takes on the look of a Japanese Maple in the front garden of this home.

How did Sumac get its name?

There is no missing the velvety bark on the branches that cover Staghorn Sumac. This velvet resembles the velvet that covers the antlers of male deer (stags) throughout the summer, earning Sumac the name “Staghorn”.

There are more than 30 varieties of Sumac in North America with more native varieties in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Early signs of fall colour among the Sumac

Sumac showing early signs of fall colour. If you are looking to add fall colour to your garden as well as a good source of food in late summer/early fall, you could do worse than leaving a corner of your yard for some Sumac.

Is Sumac a food source for birds and other wildlife?

Not only is Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) an incredibly colourful addition to the woodland, its fall berries, that grow in large clusters atop the shrub’s branches, are also a very important source of high-value food for birds especially migrating birds.

Staghorn Sumac puts out small greenish-yellow flowers that attract pollinators. They grow in the shape of a cone in spring and become the reddish-haired fruit clusters as summer turns to fall.

These hearty fruit clusters, that often remain on the plant well into winter, are vital resources for hundreds of bird species including our backyard favourites like Cardinals, Gray Catbird and a host of woodpeckers ranging from the impressive Pileated to the small Downy and larger Hairy woodpeckers. Add to that list the American Robin together with other thrush species. In a more wooded natural area, don’t be surprised if it attracts Ruffed Grouse and wild Turkeys.

As an added bonus these plants are deer resistant.

Staghorn sumac is dioecious, meaning that it has individually male and female plants.

These shrubs/small trees are extremely hardy, and are both drought and salt tolerant. They prefer a sunny location and dry to moist soil and will not tolerate shade or wet soil. Use these fast growers as an erosion control plant if you have problematic areas.

A grouping of Sumac in full fall colour.

Where I live, The Niagara Escarpment is the dominant geological feature that cuts through the landscape. The Staghorn Sumac lights up the many cuts through the escarpment and turns the roadsides into sparkling jewels at certain times of day.

Staghorn Sumac is native to the more southern half of Ontario, and eastward to the Maritimes.

Sumac species include both evergreen and deciduous types. They generally spread by suckering, which allows them to quickly form small thickets, but can also make the plants overly aggressive in some circumstances.

There are usually several varieties available at nurseries, but this attractive native is probably all you will need.

Other forms of Sumac

At one of my local nurseries there are three Sumacs listed including the Staghorn Sumac. The others are Fragrant Sumac, and a dwarf variety of fragrant sumac called fragrant gro low Sumac as well as Cutleaf Smooth Sumac.

Cutleaf Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra Laciniata) is a smaller hardy shrub (hardiness zone: 2B) with finely cut tropical-looking leaves that add texture to the garden. Grown primarily for its ornamental fruit, and its open multi-stemmed upright spreading habit. It lends an extremely fine and delicate texture to the landscape and can be used as a effective accent feature. Click on the link for more information on the Cutleaf Smooth Sumac.

Gro Low Sumac is described as low growing and compact shrub with interesting foliage turning brilliant colors in fall and bright yellow flowers in spring. Makes an excellent ground cover as it tends to sucker, filling in areas quickly. Does well in shade. Click on the link for images and more information on the Gro Low Sumac.

Fragrant Sumac is described as a rugged and durable medium-sized shrub with interesting foliage turning brilliant colors in fall and bright yellow flowers in spring. Tends to sucker, forming a dense spreading mass, attractive for a garden background or for naturalizing, good in shade.

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