Adrian Higgins: Thinking Outside the Plot With Novel Plants
If you garden in one place long enough, you eventually run out of room to plant new goodies. This is a problem when you visit a nursery of rare and choice plants. Your eyes are bigger than your real estate.
I now have three superb shrubs in pots, a witch hazel, an edgeworthia and a magnolia, and I'm not sure where I will put them. This quandary runs counter to all my sanctimonious advice over the years, but that's what I get for traveling to Fairweather Gardens, a boutique nursery in Greenwich, a coastal town in South Jersey.
"Gardeners live for novelty," said Robert Popham, who opened the enterprise with Robert Hoffman in 1992. Since then, business has flourished as the mail-order nursery's reputation for unusual plants has spread.
My new magnolia is the Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldii), which has been around for decades but deserves a lot more attention and use. It is a large deciduous shrub that needs a bit of shade and will eventually grow to about 15 feet tall and wide. The flowers appear in June and are sublime: snow-white petals surrounding a showy center of rose-red stamens. The blooms hang down and are sweetly fragrant. This shrub would make a perfect alternative to the overused big rhododendrons and, being deciduous, would spare you the spectacle of wilting leaves in freezing weather.
The witch hazel is a variety named Angelly, which I saw in flower in early March and decided I would have to get one. A recent introduction from the Netherlands, it remains more upright than other hybrid witch hazels and hence is easier to place. It has lots of enormous lime-yellow blossoms and would look great against a backdrop of evergreens. I may have to widen my screen border to accommodate it. It carries a light fragrance.
The edgeworthia is another plant deserving much more use. It is a deciduous relative of the daphne, coarse-twigged after the blue-green leaves drop. It bears through the winter conspicuous flowerbuds that come March open as clusters of tiny yellow tubes wrapped in silver hairs. I picked up a variety named Akebono, whose flowers are red instead of yellow and strongly perfumed. After a few years, it will reach about five feet tall and as much across. As with the witch hazel, it would look good placed in front of an evergreen backdrop. I can't imagine where I will plant it.
I think, though, that instead of being chastised for buying plants with no place to put them, I should be commended for the painful restraint of not acquiring all the other plants that took my eye during my recent visit to the nursery.
I'm not single-mindedly fanatic about conifers, as some are, but the conifers at Fairweather Gardens were sorely tempting. They had a new Japanese red pine variety named Golden Ghost, with variegated needles that looked stunning: a light golden that ages through the season to a near silver. Hoffman suspects it would need to be placed away from direct afternoon sunlight to prevent needle scorching.
The baldcypress becomes a big, spreading tree after many years. I was struck by an upright form named Peve Minaret, whose needles are plumelike. It would be a terrific conifer for a wet site. It grows slowly, less than a foot a year.
Ogon, a golden-needle form of the dawn redwood, needs sunlight to brighten the foliage and would serve perfectly as a large specimen tree in the landscape. Both the redwood and the baldcypress drop their needles in the fall, but not before they turn a lovely orange-brown.
The redbud variety Hearts of Gold is an exquisitely showy ornamental tree. The young leaves are tinged red but then stay a cheery yellow through the season, with the leaves at the branch tips brightened the most by sunlight. Forest Pansy is a handsome but commonplace purple-leafed version of the redbud, and if I were planting a redbud today, it would be Hearts of Gold.
There is a lovely evergreen bush native to the Gulf Coast but hardy in Washington and areas to the north. Southern gardeners know it as the anise tree, though it is a shrub with pleasing coarse leaves and novel flowers in spring, like starbursts. The species Illicium floridanum has maroon flowers. The variety Alba has white blossoms. It needs moist but well-drained soil and benefits from a little shade, as much perhaps as an azalea or rhododendron. In time, it will grow to about six feet tall and four feet across.