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Susan Banks
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'Best of' lists fill in blanks of new plots

Saturday, March 10, 2001

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Garden Editor

If you were in a position to start your garden from scratch, what would you do?

That's the position I'm in this year, and the possibilities are endless at my new plot since it's pretty much a blank slate.

With some 20 years of gardening experience under my belt, I'll sure look at things a lot differently than I did when I started. I know more -- well, maybe slightly more -- and there are all kinds of new and interesting plants that were not available when I started, like ornamental grasses.

So, it's with renewed interest that I'm reading the lists popping up in every kind of publication, rating plants and picking "best of" lists. Here are a few to mull over:

The Perennial Plants Association's Quarterly Winter Journal for 2001 rated the performance of ornamental grasses and grass-like plants for hardiness, ornamental value and invasiveness. Here are a few of the ones that earned top rankings:

Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' -- columnar habit, consistent performance, sterile hybrid.

Festuca cinerea 'Elijah Blue' -- very blue foliage.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Bitsy Ben' -- early showy silvery flowers on 4-foot plants.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Cosmopolitan' -- variegated, slow to go dormant.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' -- very fine textured, late flowering.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens' -- very hardy, red fall color, 4 to 5 feet tall.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberfeder' -- performs well in all zones, open-spreading form.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' -- nice variegation.

Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' -- erect, bluish leaves, may get rust disease.

Paul W. Stetson rated the best of the hardy waterlilies in Horticulture Magazine's March issue. Here are a few of the chosen plants:

Best Dwarfs: 'Chrysantha' -- 2-inch reddish flowers; 'Joanne Pring' -- a pink sport of 'Helvola' with 3-inch green leaves; Nymphaea tetragona -- a true dwarf with multitudes of 2-inch pure-white flowers.

Best Medium-Sized Marliac Hybrids: 'Chromatella' -- a century-old plant that has deep yellow flowers and mottled leaves; 'Indiana' -- the best changeable variety (the flowers start orange and by the third day are nearly red).

Best Marliac Varieties for Larger Pools: 'Hollandia' (also known as 'Darwin') -- soft-pink flowers and a long blooming period; 'Virginalis' -- a free-flowering, pristine white variety, it's the all-time best hardy white water lily.

Best New Varieties: 'Peaches and Cream' -- a distinctive changeable, blending yellow and pink; 'Perry's Baby Red' -- a free-flowering small variety great for tub gardens; 'Perry's Fire Opal' -- an extremely double deep pink. It can be slow to start, but once established is in a class by itself.

Best New Varieties Introduced by Dr. Kirk Strawn: 'Colorado' -- a salmon-pink, which is a new color for hardy water lilies, very free flowering; 'Gypsy' -- a new look in red varieties with mottled leaves and very free flowering; 'Mayla' -- arguably the finest new pink variety, with 8-inch fuchsia flowers (the plant is large and must have room to spread, but it is a must if you have the space); 'Steven Strawn' -- a recently developed deep red hybrid whose sepals are white streaked with deep red. The green leaves are variegated, an unusual feature in red varieties.

While we're on the subject of water lilies, the April issue of Fine Gardening had an interesting note on choosing soil for pond plants. It seems that cat litter works well as a potting medium in the pond. According to Fine Gardening, you should be sure to use litter made from calcified clay, which is mined from the earth, cleaned, baked and pulverized. Avoid products that contain shredded paper or other nonclay materials and make sure the litter has not been chemically treated or deodorized. The litter is good at holding nutrients and moisture, yet won't muddy the pond water if disturbed. It won't float or clump, either. Worth a try, I say.

William Cullina, nursery manager and propagator at The New England Wild Flower Society's Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., chose a list of "wildly successful natives" for shade for Country Homes/Country Gardens magazine's early spring edition. He says all are hardy enough to withstand New England winters so they should do fine here. As an added bonus, they get better from year to year. Here are a few of his picks:

Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)

Appalachian bugbane (Cimicifuga rubifolia)

False goatsbeard (Astilbe biternata)

Foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

James A. Baggett lists the 10 best spring-flowering trees and shrubs in Country Living Gardener's April issue. A couple are marginal in this zone, and are noted:

Azalea -- evergreen shrub to 6 feet tall, with a similar spread; needs acid soil.

Common horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) -- an impressive spreading tree, 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide. 'Baumanni' is listed as an excellent cultivar.

Saucer magnolia -- a statuesque tree that may reach 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. (Zones 6 to 9, marginal here)

Hawthorn (Crataegus viridus) -- a thorny tree to 30 feet tall and wide; bright red fruit in fall.

Princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa) -- a fast-growing tree with large, tropical-looking foliage; to 40 foot tall and wide.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) -- a fragrant native shrub that may reach 20 feet tall and as wide; dark blue fruit, yellow fall color.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) -- a graceful native understory tree to 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide; red-purple fall color.

Fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia) -- (Zones 6 to 8, marginal here) a compact tree or small shrub to 35 feet or more and up to 22 feet wide; handsome gray bark.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) -- a clump-forming shrub to 20 feet tall and as wide or wider. Pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Double-file viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomementosum 'Mariesii') -- shrub with horizontal-tiered branches, to 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide. One of the best cultivars of this superior species.

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