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Spring gardens will get the blues

Back when I was a beginning gardener, with just one trowel and a pair of cotton gloves, you couldn’t find blue flowers in the garden. Red? Check. Yellow? Check. Pink? Check. But if you wanted blue, you were pretty much limited to planting ageratum – a short, fussy water-guzzler.

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Two of the new blue verbenas for 2014, part of a wave of new blue annuals.
PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade

Times have changed.

In Landscape Ontario’s trial garden last August, blue flowers were everywhere: bright Blue My Mind Evolvulus, Superbenas (a patented verbena) Royale Violet Ice and Royale Silver Dust, satiny Supertunia (yes, a patented petunia) Indigo Charm and the cleverly named petunia Flashmob Bluerific. There were even garden geraniums (pelargonium to proper gardeners) doing their best to be blue.

I don’t know why this sudden wave of blue annuals has appeared. Maybe there’s a demand for blue flowers in the US to use in patriotic red, white and blue flower beds. Or maybe it’s because most people say blue is their favourite colour. Maybe climate change is making us look for cooler colours in our hot summer gardens.

Whatever the reason, count on seeing a lot more blue flowers at garden centres this year.

Perennial of the Year

Not blue, but also newsy, is the 2014 Perennial Plant of the Year: panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’, one of the many beautiful ornamental grasses that add drama and movement to our gardens.

This one is dark green and fairly upright, unlike some grasses that arch out to touch the ground. Because it’s narrow at the base and broader at the top, you can tuck smaller plants in around it. The stems of ‘Northwind’ are sturdy, but flexible, so they’ll make that characteristic swishing sound that long grasses make when breezes blow through them.

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Perennial Plant of the Year, as chosen by the Perennial Plant Association, is panicum virgatum 'Northwind'.
PHOTO: courtesy Perennial Plant Association

Airy plumes of rose flowers appear in mid- to late summer, and the whole plant turns golden in fall. In winter, the pale stems and leaves continue standing, adding visual interest to snowscapes.

The Perennial Plant Association (PPA), the group that names the plant of the year, looks for certain characteristics in their choice:

• Grows in a wide range of climates

• Low maintenance

• Pest- and disease-resistant

• Easily available

• Looks good in several seasons

• Easily propagated.

Also known as switch grass or panic grass, the panicum grasses are native plants that are easy for beginners to grow. The PPA says, “It will grow in any soil, from sand to clay, is drought-tolerant once established and even withstands periodic flooding.” If you don’t have space to plant it in the ground, you can grow it in a large container.

Like most grasses, ‘Northwind’ does need full sun. It will put up with light shade, but flops over in deeper shade. It’s happy in windy areas and can withstand road salt, so ‘Northwind’ (and its panicum relatives) works well as a border along pavement that has to be salted in winter.

Height is about one metre, and it’s hardy to about -30°C.

 

Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer

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