Perennials Archives

What’s not to love about Heucheras?

by Larry Hurley, Behnke’s Perennials Specialist

We have a number of things on sale in perennials this week (starting July 14), including daylilies, the remaining Astilbes, and Heucheras.  Here’s a bit about Heucheras.

Heuchera – one of its common names is Coral Bells – is a North American native plant with several species native to Maryland.

Most of what are sold are hybrids combining the best traits of several species of Heuchera.  Some are grown for the small flowers, some for the bold foliage, and a lucky few for both. Pretty much what we have in stock at the moment are the hybrids featuring colorful foliage.  In the last several years, a number of hybrids with improved summer-heat tolerance have been released for sale, and I have found them to be robust both in pots and in the ground.

Great in containers in morning sun with afternoon shade, they are a good specimen plant or filler plant. The foliage comes in chartreuse, gold, brown, purple or silver tones with the color being strongest in the cooler weather of spring and fall.

Depending on how sheltered they are and the severity of the winter, some of the Heucheras make a good foliage display year-round.

In the ground, they are best in bright shade, or with a few hours of morning sun and shade the rest of the day. They need good soil drainage.  That means no standing water after a rain storm; maybe planted on a bit of a slope.

Planting in the summer is always more challenging than planting in the fall or spring.  That said, if you water them every couple of days for the first two weeks or so, they should get established without any difficulty.

Time for a Summer Tune-up!

by Susan Harris

Perennials to Prune for Rebloom
It’s late June when not much is blooming (thankfully, my hydrangeas ARE in bloom), and early-blooming perennials are looking pretty bad.  But many of them will perk up, put out new leaves and even rebloom if you just give them a little attention – NOW.

Above are two prime candidates for pruning – the Salvia ‘May Night’ in the foreground and the Tradescantia in the upper left. Both will rebloom nicely if given a haircut after their first bloom.  In the case of the Tradescantia (common name Spiderwort), cut them back hard to remove the really ugly foliage.  New leaves will then emerge.

Perennials to Prune Prevent Flopping, Improve Shape

Tall asters like the ones above are notorious floppers, but if you cut them back now – before the end of June – they’ll be shorter, bushier, and bloom about a week later.  And most importantly, they’ll stand up on their own, so it’s well worth the effort!

Tall Sedums like this ‘Autumn Joy’ also benefit from an early summer haircut, especially if they’re leggy from getting a bit too much shade or overdue for dividing.

To learn MUCH more about care of perennials, especially how to make them look their best, consult The Well Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

More from Larry Hurley!  He covered summer tune-up of hanging baskets, annuals and herbs in this blog story from last summer.

by Susan Harris
Have you ever noticed a “Sandy’s Plants” label on one of your new perennials? Well, meet grower Sandy McDougle and her wholesale-retail growing facility on 35 acres just east of Richmond, VA. If you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a stop – not just for the opportunity to buy some rare finds but to marvel at the extensive and well-labeled display gardens. Sandy welcomes groups and is happy to give them a tour through her gardens if they arrange it ahead of time.

(In fact, a day-trip to Sandy’s and to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will leave right from Behnkes –  scheduled for spring of next year.)

Why, here’s Sandy showing off the sun-tolerant Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ with Blue Fescue and assorted groundcovers.

Next, the dramatic Arundo donax ‘Peppermint Stick’ with daylilies, cannas and arborvitaes in the background.
Below, hellebores and ferns over a bed of Acorus look fabulous.

More hellebores and their shade-garden companions.


Back in the sun, Sandy’s “Fairy Garden” is fun, and demonstrates some of her favorite Stepables-brand creeping perennials.  Sandy’s the sole grower of Stepables east of the Mississippi River.

Sandy’s Back Story
But enough about plants – how about the woman who’s been supplying them for decades now? I love this story because it emerged organically, so to speak – not planned or inherited from the family.

It all started when, as a young mother and school teacher, she planted a whole lot of creeping phlox in her front yard along the road, and the owner of a nearby garden center asked if he could buy them from her – for a whopping 50 cents each (this was 30 years ago, mind you). She happily agreed – this was found money! The next step toward becoming a big-time grower was her visit to Viette’s Nursery* in Central Virginia, where she spent $167 on 2 boxes of plants and watched her husband balk at the extravagance. But when she discovered that her new hostas could be divided into five smaller ones she caught “propagation fever” in a big way, which not only pleased the husband but also allowed her to feed her plant addiction as never before.

(*Join us July 16 for our trip to Viette’s at the very best time of the year – their Daylily Festival!  It’s here on our Events page.)

These days, Sandy’s Plants is quite a family operation.  Ten years ago Sandy’s then-26-year-old daughter, with a horticulture degree under her belt, took over the management of the business, leaving Sandy to do what she enjoys most – trialing plants, speaking to visitors about perennials and their care, generally spreading the word. Sandy’s tech-savvy son-in-law handles the excellent website and other duties that I neglected to write down (as we chatted over burgers). Sandy’s other offspring went a decidedly different route – into law and now politics. He serves in the Virginia Senate.

Creeping Phlox

by Larry Hurley

Are you getting tired of the “one nice day in a row” weather we’ve been having so far this spring? I know I am.  It feels like the coast of Washington State instead of the ‘burbs of Washington, DC.  That said, there are some mighty fine perennial gardens in the Pacific Northwest, and the cool weather has extended the blooming period for plants in the gardens here, so maybe we are on to something.

Our perennial departments are so full of plants that we are running out of space; around 25,000 plants between the two stores.  We have a lot of interesting perennials in smaller pots this year, good for containers or if you want to plant 5 or 7 of something.


Heucheras in an assortment of colors

My personal favorite, Heuchera.  Sometimes they are called coral bells for the flowers, which on some of the varieties are actually coral-colored and bell- shaped.  Most people grow Heuchera and related Heucherella (Foamy Bells) for the spectacular foliage colors: green, gold with red highlights, purple, nearly black, silver…it’s hard to believe they are real.  They are perfect for container gardening if you have a spot with some afternoon shade.

Itoh Peony

Itoh hybrid peonies.  These are hybrids of “regular” and “tree” peonies. They don’t die down completely in the fall, but make little woody stems that overwinter above ground like tree peonies.  They are vigorous and have colors that are unusual for peonies including yellow and coppery.  Expensive–oh, yeah.  But these are big, heavy plants, ready to bloom.

Plants that multiply are great for filling up gardens without busting the budget, so I asked Larry Hurley to recommend some for our blog readers.   But because self-seeding plants CAN be a headache (or worse), Larry asks us to first be sure we really want them.   Plants that spread from seed will help create a cottage-garden, free-wheeling look that works well in an informal garden but simply creates a weeding problem in a more formal garden.  Okay, point taken.  Now let’s get to the plants!  (All plant text by Larry.)

Hellebores (L) and Pulmonaria (R)

Self-Seeders for the Shade
Hellebores will produce seed and you will get a modest crop of seedlings over time. They stay pretty much right under the parent plant unless you move them.  With many perennials there are some seed dormancy issues: they need some alternating periods of warm and cold temperatures before the seed will germinate.  Hellebores are like that. They also require three years to flower from the time the seed germinates, so it may be five or six years before you actually see blooming plants. They will show a range of flower colors, they are unlikely to be identical to the parent plant.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria) is another perennial that gently sows around the shade garden is  Although there are a number of named clones (cultivars) of lungwort, the seedlings in my garden all tend to look about the same: silver-spotted leaves with blue flowers fading to pink, like the old cultivar “Mrs. Moon.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Virginia Bluebells self-sow over time.  Again it takes several years before you see much happening, but eventually, you will get a nice patch of bluebells if you start with several.

River Oats, (Chasmanthium) is a shade-tolerant grass that spreads very aggressively.  It’s a terrific native grass for part-shade and moist situations, but it moves like the wind; you might want to remove the seed heads before they ripen. Personally, I let it go in a low area and it’s covered about 30 square feet.  I just keep it mowed where I don’t want it go mad.

Self-Seeders for Sun

Agastache, being native to the southwest US, many of its cultivated varieties (especially the orange and pink ones) don’t overwinter well here. The blue- flowered hybrids, which include a Korean species in the mix, overwinter the best here.  I don’t have experience with the seedlings in the ground; however, I have observed that Agastache will sow prolifically into its own pots, and the Agastache that we overwinter will have a carpet of seedlings the next year.

Columbines (Aquilegia) are all seed-propagated plants but many are hybrids, and won’t germinate true to the parents. Mr. Behnke used to tell me that you had two choices with Aquilegia: deadhead and the plant might survive a couple of years, or let it go to seed and allow the seedlings to come up here and there over time, living for a couple of years with their offspring moving from spot to spot.  In the latter case, the parent plant was more likely to die.  I don’t find that they germinate particularly well, but you should find a few seedlings in the second year after the seed ripens.

Clockwise from upper left: Goldenrod, Aster, Rudbeckia, Purple Coneflower.

Asters and Goldenrods are notorious self-sowing plants and because they form tough underground stems (called rhizomes), they are tough to dig up.  You definitely want to deadhead before the wind-borne seed spreads unless you are in a very informal setting.  If they are hybrids, the resulting flowers will revert to mixed colors and sizes.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia) is hard to deadhead because each flower lasts one day and they flower for a long period of time. In my experience, the seedlings of the cultivars, which may be pink or white, generally go back to the wild form, which is blue.  This is another good meadow plant, and another one that is very tough to dig out.

False Indigo (Baptisia) has large seeds and after a couple of years you will get seedlings pretty much around the base of the plant. I don’t have any experience with the new hybrids, but the species like Baptisia australis come true to the parent.  They form a deep taproot, but are easy to transplant when still young.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea) is the subject of countless of new hybrids, the offspring of which won’t look anything like the parent.  The old pink cultivars like ‘Magnus’ and ‘White Swan’ are different – their offspring will look like the parent, as long as there’s just one cultivar in your garden and there are not others around.  These should naturalize well, and you should start to get seedlings the year after the seed ripens in the fall.

Black-eyed or Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) also comes in dozens of varieties, the most popular of which is Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’.  It’s a seed-produced plant, and as such, should come true from seed in the garden. In fact, in one of the many oddities of the horticulture business, we at Behnke’s were growing Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ from seed that we were importing from Germany.   Our German supplier was getting the seed from a large wholesale perennial grower in the U.S., who was harvesting it from plants growing in pots at their nursery.  Well….I thought it was interesting at the time.  The species Rudbeckias like Rudbeckia maxima and Rudbeckia triloba – anything without a fancy name like ‘Sunshine Ecstasy’ or something like that – will self-sow and come true from seed.

Editor’s Note: Larry finds Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria) and Maltese Cross (Lychnis chalcedonica) to be vigorous germinators that are “pesty” and suggests avoiding them.  Not me, though!  I love my Rose Campion and can always find a place for the few extra it produces each year.  Maltese Cross I’m unfamiliar with.  SH

Grasses for Sun

Panicum or Switchgrass is a native grass, and it has a reputation as a heavy sower.  The named cultivars are grown for either blue-green foliage (Midwest origin) or red fall color (East Coast origin). The seedlings will not come true, so you will likely want to deadhead; or, again, let it go in a meadow situation.

Editor’s note:  Miscanthus is a large group of grasses, some of which are, in Larry’s words “big, bad invasive plant, primarily south of our region”.  He doesn’t recommend it, adding that we should “Beware of early blooming cultivars which are more likely to produce viable seed here than late blooming cultivars.”  Behnke’s only carries the late-bloomers that have not been shown to be invasive in our area, like the cultivar ‘Morning Light’ that’s been growing in my garden for 15 years now and been well behaved.  SH

Posted by Susan Harris. All photos by Susan Harris.

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