Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26 And Still Green

The snow has been gone for several weeks now and it has been cold. Down to about -12 C. I briefly considered changing the name of this Blog from "Niagara Tropicals" to "Plants I Have Killed". In spite of the cold though, here are a few hardy plants that have retained their green foliage. All pictures taken on February 26.

My favourite little Yucca nana.

Amazingly tough Campanula percifolia. And it has amazing blue flowers in spring and again late summer.

You can't see it on the picture, but some of the flowers on the Erica (heather) are opening.

A cute little Dianthus.

Digitalis Spice Island. This is my favourite Foxglove with cool orangy flowers all summer.

If you look closely you can see the flower buds of the Helleborus peeking out of the soil.

Another evergreen fern. This one is called Autumn fern for its bronzy new foliage in spring.

I suppose everyone has seen a Heuchera by now. Still they have their place in the garden.

The Leucothoe did better this winter then in the past, in spite of the lower than usual temperatures.

Euphorbia is not for everyone as the white milky sap can cause dermatitis. But handled carefully it is a great plant.

And lastly a pot of assorted cacti that made it through as well as top left Yucca elata and right Yucca iforgeta

Friday, February 13, 2009

The mid-winter scratch test.

So far I have looked mostly at plants that photograph well in winter. But many great summer plants have no winter interest at all, they are just bare sticks at the moment. A little test that I like do do periodically is the scratch test. Make a small scratch in the bark with your thumbnail to see if the underlying tissue is green, indicating that it is alive. I checked all of my new plants this morning and here are the results.

Clerodendrum trichotomum: green right to the top
Albizia: green right to the top
Albizia Summer Chocolate: green almost to the top
Lagerstroemia (I can't recall which one): smaller branches are dead but the larger ones are green underneath.
Quercus virginiana: green nearly to the top
Vitex: green to the top
Loropetalum chinensis: green about 2/3 to the top
Ficus carica: green to the top
Leptodermis oblonga: (this is hardy but I liked it because it flowers all summer) green
Magnolia ashei: green to the top

While the winter is by no means over, this little test reasures gardeners like myself that there is a chance some of their out of zone plants will make it.
I also checked the banana today, it is a variegated Musa that I don't think is hardy. The stems are all mushy but I will be interested to see if new shoots emerge in spring.
The snow is all gone now so I found two more surprises in the garden and got the camera to photograph them.

Epimediums are perfectly hardy, but this is the first year I've had one and I didn't realize what a dependable little evergreen it was. These belong in every garden.

The other little surprise was the original Sabal minor which has now seen four winters in Niagara. I mentioned in an earlier post that it grew a new leaf every year despite my complete neglect. And while it is not a stunning specimen, here it is pictured on February 13 in Canada. Remember that I give it no protection. Imagine what this tough little guy could do if I looked after it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 10 Damage Report

Now that most of the snow has (temporarily) melted away it's possible to see how the plants have fared so far. Most still look ok, some are doing better than I expected and a few others don't look as nice as previous winters. All picture taken on February 10, 2009.

The Aucuba serratifolia (left in picture) and Prunus laurocerasus have no browning at all so far.

Aucuba Gold Dust, which looked dead a few weeks ago has bounced back nicely. This is the first year for this one.

Magnolia D.D. Blanchard looks amazing for the cold we have had. This is the most sheltered of the Magnolias, but still! I spray all the Magnolias with Wilt-Pruf (an anti-dessicant) in the fall before a hard frost.

Magnolia Victoria has seen four winters in the garden and although it has done very well in the past, this year it looks awful. There is a lot of browning and while I'm sure it will live I'm not sure how much foliage it will lose come spring.

Quercus virginiana (Live? Oak) is another broadleaf evergreen that sometimes survives here. It's not looking good but it did the same thing last year and then grew new leaves in spring so maybe.

I am really surprised at the Gardenia Kleims Hardy. I haven't seen it for about a month (buried under snow) and I fully expected it to be dead. And while it isn't a vision of lushness it is green and very much alive. Snow cover is not dependable in Niagara but this winter it's been fairly constant.

The melting snow also revealed some alive parts on the Loropetalum chinensis. I don't hold out much hope for this one, but it might make it.

Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae looks very good for the time of year. They typically brown by mid-winter so I think the constant snow cover helped keep these green as well. Let's see what happens to them now.

I'm not happy with how the Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana) looks. Just a few weeks ago it was green and now it is not looking too thrilled to be suffering through a Niagara winter.

This variegated Liriope, which I had forgotten I planted last fall, seems unfazed by the winter. I'll have to plant more of it.

Fargesia robusta (the clumping bamboo) is shedding a few leaves but that is typical this time of year. I expect it to produce 7-8 foot tall shoots this spring. And it might grow 9-10 foot tall by spring 2010 (I hope).

The Phyllostachys (running bamboo) is about 50% wilt. I fully expect it to live, I just wonder how it will look in May.

Yucca elata is one of four Yuccas in the garden (I'm not sure what some of the other are as they were given to me). All the Yuccas are looking great.

All the cacti are looking fine but the Mazari palm (Nannhorhops ritchiana) is having a bad winter. The Sabal minor (the only plant that is wrapped in my garden and consequently not pictured) looks amazing under a mulch of leaves)

A little pencil Cholla cactus (right in picture) and Ephedera.

Hebe sutherlandii (left in picture) is much browner than two weeks ago. The little Euonymous on the right is doing better.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What's Growing So Far

Plants in my garden can be grouped into six categories:

1) Broad leaved evergreens such as southern Magnolias, Aucuba, some Viburnum species and others.
2) Desert plants inluding various cacti, Yucca and Agave
3) Tropical flowering plants like Canna, Albizia, Gardenia and Clerodendron
4) Bamboo
5) Palms and bananas
6) Tropical looking hardy plants like Hostas (which we are not going to discuss here).

Broad Leaved Evergreens
Click on pictures for a better view.

Evergeen Magnolias are a favourite
in southern states, but amazingly they survive here as well. They stand out in summer with their large glossy foliage, which is retained right through winter. Some varieties may brown somewhat by April but new leaves will follow. I am currently trying three in my garden. They are in order of hardiness: Magnolia grandiflora Edith Bogue, Magnolia g. Victoria and Magnolia g. D.D. Blanchard. The latter is on a sheltered east facing wall and the other two are out in the open. Victoria (top left) has survived four winters, DD Blanchard (bottom left) two and Edith Bogue (bottom right) is experiencing it's first Niagara winter.

Other broadleaved evergreens that are doing well for me are several varieties of Aucuba. I have both the variegated (below top left) and green (below top right) forms, but the variegated forms add a definite tropical touch to the landscape. These are best in a sheltered location protected from winter wind and mid-day sun both of which can burn the foliage. That having been said, the one I have out in the open looked all but dead for the last few weeks with temperatures around -10 C, but today it's 3 C above freezing and the leaves have perked up nicely. The other broad leaved evergreen that is performing very well is the evergreen cherry laurel, Prunus laurocerasus (below bottom left and bottom right, at right in winter). These stand up better to extreme cold than Rhododendrons. Cherry laurels produce masses of fragrant white blooms in spring.

Desert Plants

Most gardeners in southern Ontario are probably familiar with hardy cacti in the form of Opuntia or Prickly Pear. These plants grow wild from Canada down to Patagonia so it's no surprise that they survive Niagara winters. But many lesser known species of cacti will grow here as well. Pencil Cholla Cactus (below, top), Corypantha vivipara (bottom left) and Cylindropuntia imbricata (bottom right) have all wintered several years in my garden. In some texts the hardiness for Cylindropuntia is said to be 5 C above freezing. The one in my garden has survived two Niagara winters, and I have seen others nearby that have grown to five feet tall...In Canada? So don't always believe what you read. Instead, experiment and have fun!

Needless to say, Cacti are desert plants and will not do well in wet soil. Plant these in raised beds of gravely soil or near foundations where the ground is drier. The ones I have tried will hang limp in cold weather, but they have all recovered in summer.

Yuccas are another group of plants not uncommon to our climate, but the one typically seen is Yucca filimentosa which is stemless. Other types of Yucca produce an above ground stem which gives mature specimens the appearance of a palm tree. Some of these will survive our winter as long as they are grown in well-drained soil and protected from rot caused by snow and excessive rain. It is not clear to me how quickly (or slowly) they will produce a trunk. The best bet for our particular climate I am told is Yucca elata as it seems to be slightly more tolerant of wet soils than other types. So far in my garden it is holding up well, although it has no trunk yet. Stay tuned.

Tropical Flowering Plants

There are many types of tropical flowering plants, some of which are hardy in our zone 6 climate, while others need a little protection to come through.

My favourite currently in my garden for its finely textured foliage is Albizia julibrissin also known as Mimosa Tree. I have two in the garden, the straight green form (top) and the much rarer Albizia Summer Chocolate (bottom left). Both produce the silky pink flowers (bottom right) in summer. Albizias are a bit late to leaf out in spring giving them a generally dead appearance in May, but the summer foliage is worth it.

Clerodendrum trichotomum is the only species of this tropical genus to survive in Niagara. There are several growing at the Niagara Parks in Niagara Falls and some winters these behave as die-back shrubs, with new shoots coming from the roots and in milder winters they produce new buds from the old wood. Either way they produce interesting flowers in summer (top) which give way to fruit in fall (bottom). This is the first winter for the one in the garden.

Another flowering plant that is experiencing its first Niagara winter is Gardenia Kleims hardy pictured last summer and below a few weeks ago. So far it's holding up well to the cold under a layer of snow. But winter is not over yet so time will tell.


The name alone tends to frighten some people because bamboo has a reputation for being aggresive. Some types like Phyllostachys are indeed aggresive spreaders, but these can be managed with barriers or by pulling back new shoots in spring. Other types like Fargesia are well behaved clump forming plants. Either way they add a touch of the exotic to the Canadian landscape. Until a few years ago bamboos were difficult to find. But growers are suddenly producing lots of them and these are available at most garden shops. The trouble is they are young plants that will take some years to reach landscape size. If possible try to find field dug specimens that will add to your landscape instantly. A field dug Fargesia in my garden produced enough stems in four years to make four new clumps. I am also trying Fargesia robusta which is supposed to grow up to ten feet here, but it is still a young plant and nowhere near that size. I have noticed however that its foliage (bottom) stands up much better to frost than the other Fargesia.

Hardy Palms and Bananas

Well here's where things get interesting. A banana in Canada, can you imagine. The truth is some types (Musa basjoo, Musa sikkimensis and a few others) do survive here with proper protection and although they are late to grow in spring, they more than make up for this in growth rate, reaching 10 to 15 feet by late summer under ideal conditions. So what do they need? Bananas will grow best here on a south facing wall in rich soil that is kept moist. This helps feed their growth. When winter approaches the tender roots will need protection from frost and this is easily accomplished by piling bags of leaves up around the stems. More on this later.

Palm trees in Niagara? Why not!
A google search of hardy palm trees turns up several names.
Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) is thought to be the hardiest.
Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) is a shrub palm.
Windmill Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) the hardiest of the true trunk forming palms.
Mazari Palm (Nannorrhops rtchiana) is a new arrival from Afghanistan.

I have tried all four of these in the garden and the only one that has survived more than two winters is the Sabal minor. It is now in the garden for four years and every summer it produces new growth. Mind you it's only four inches tall and will probably never be more than this. The fact is a palm tree survived in Niagara with no winter protection. I have since planted a larger Sabal (pictured above) and wrap it up nicely for winter.

The Needle palm survived two winters and I'm convinced it would have been alive still had the rabbit not chewed off the new growth.

The windmill palm lasted well into the first winter, but not beyond that. And the very expensive Mazari palm which is experiencing it's first Niagara winter is all but dead.

Stay tuned for updates.