Ethereal Blue

Who doesn’t love blue? Flowers that mimic the dawn sky or the Caribbean can cool the eye in a woodland while others bring a stunning vitality to full sun gardens and containers. I have photo folders for both Foliage and Flowers and recently made one called Blue. It’s worth looking into for new ideas - here are some of my favorites from my gardens.

Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’

Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’

Scilla is a tiny bulb (corm) that’s commonly called wood squill as they naturalize in shady areas and do well in woodland settings - they emerge before the tree canopy so can maximize the light conditions. They’re very small so I like to plant them in clumps to get a bigger effect. Note the purplish stems and the deeper blue striations on the backs of the petals. These bloom in very early spring.

Muscari armeniacum, blue grape hyacinth

Muscari armeniacum, blue grape hyacinth

Grape hyacinth is a really electric blue that borders on purple - a must for walkways in sunny spots. Muscari are deer resistant, attract early pollinators, and have a very mild scent - and they’re good for cutting. I grow them with variegated Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ in amongst peonies. After blooming cut stems back; the strappy foliage will persist through the summer and fall.

Ipomea ‘Heavenly Blue’

Ipomea ‘Heavenly Blue’

For a couple years I grew this morning glory on my vegetable garden fence and enjoyed its riotous behavior but soon tired of its prolific self seeding. ‘Heavenly Blue’ lives up to its name though - and each flower has a white-cream-yellow eye that brings bees into the pollen-rich center. Good for arbors, fences, and tuteurs.

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blue spires

Look to Delphiniums and Salvias for summer spikes in a variety of heights. This is Delphinium grandiflorum ‘Butterfly Blue’ which grows only 10” tall - it’s a good one for a mixed border. I grew the super huge Pacific Giant type delphinium for a couple years but ultimately found them to be too much work - they’re so tall they require heavy staking and they often flop even when tied securely. This type of hybrid is also short-lived. Something that’s smaller and more manageable is what I’m after. I have a lot of Salvia - both annual and perennial - and love their floriferous wands and the bees they attract. Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is an annual I put in containers every year, and S. ‘Indigo Spires’ is another standout with long lasting deep blue color.

Clematis vine with a good combination of blue and purple

Clematis vine with a good combination of blue and purple

Clematis is another genus with good color options. Usually grown as a climbing vine, there are many shrub forms (called bush clematis) that are cold-hardy. I’m intrigued by this cultivar offered by Bluestone Perennials called ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’ with its cloud of smaller blue and white flowers and easy care.

Salvia ‘Victoria’ in the vegetable garden

Salvia ‘Victoria’ in the vegetable garden

The longest lasting blue in my gardens every year - Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’ (mealy cup sage). Planted in early June and cut throughout the growing season, it will continue to bloom until frost. Love this one.

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’

Here’s another annual that I usually always make room for - commonly called floss flower, look for it at garden centers in 4” pots and transplant to a sunny border or container. This is another long-bloomer if kept deadheaded and it also makes a cheerful cut flower that looks great with zinnias of all colors. There are many cultivars, ‘Blue Horizon’ has been around a while. I’ve also grown ‘Artist Blue’ and found it kept producing until frost (along with marigolds) in my USDA Zone 5 garden.

Gardens of Spain

Traveling and seeing gardens always brings inspiration. I'm currently immersed in photos of the Alhambra (Grenada) and the Royal Alcazar (Seville), preparing for a talk on the gardens of Spain. I can taste the wine and olives and feel the pull of antiquity - a nice diversion in the middle of winter!

Spain's gardens and courtyards are full of glazed tile - walls, fountains, benches, floors - even doorways have intricate and fanciful designs. Tiles from the 17th-19th centuries predominately feature a rich shade of royal blue that mixes beautifully with pots of orange and lemon trees and cools the eye in hot temperatures. 

Colorful stairway leads to terraced gardens at the Royal Alcazar, Seville

Colorful stairway leads to terraced gardens at the Royal Alcazar, Seville

A bench with blue geometric designs, Royal Alcazar, Seville

A bench with blue geometric designs, Royal Alcazar, Seville

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Water is everywhere, bringing tranquillity and sound - small pools, trickling fountains, marble basins. This is the main element in all the outdoor spaces. The Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was my favorite place to explore. It's the most important of all the royal palace gardens and a must-see for its many rooms spread out over a large complex of palace buildings on a hillside overlooking Granada.

Views over the palace grounds and ramparts, Alhambra, Granada

Views over the palace grounds and ramparts, Alhambra, Granada

These are some of the oldest gardens I've visited (some dating to 11th c.). and I found myself transported through time. Are there design lessons here? Absolutely. The pleasing combination of elements can be reinterpreted easily if you're looking to create a peaceful haven on a patio or backyard.

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Classic Elements

  • walls (enclosure, privacy)

  • water (sound, light, focal point)

  • scented plants (sensory/tactile, mood)

To get the look of a classic Spanish courtyard, use vertical surfaces for climbing vines (roses, clematis, honeysuckle, English ivy) and add a fountain and some glazed blue containers filled with mint and scented geranium (pelargonium), lemon verbena, and colorful marigolds... Tapas anyone?  

Rockin’ Red Winterberry

With a little planning, it’s possible to have bold, beautiful red in the garden year-round. What a difference color makes during the colder months, when there’s little to catch the eye. If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to improve outdoor spaces or want to design a winter garden, think about adding a group of winterberry shrubs. It's a U.S. native species with several cultivars to choose from, many developed at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Here are two favorites that grow in my Vermont garden. 

During the summer these multi-stemmed shrubs blend into the background; with mid-green foliage they add bulk to a sunny woodland border edge. I've located several plants just off our driveway against a background of evergreen cedars. It's a pop of color that says "welcome home." 

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Sparkleberry Winterberry
(Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’)
 

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA zones 5 to 9; find your zone)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 5 to 9 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Tolerates wet soils; attracts birds

This cultivar produces bright red fruits that attract birds during winter. Plant with Ilex ‘Apollo’ (the male cultivar) for the best fruit set. Use it as a small tree if space is limited.


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Winter Red Winterberry
(Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’)

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 3 to 9)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 6 to 8 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Adapted to swamps and wetlands; attracts birds

This is a better selection for gardeners in cold regions — and it’s more compact. The male cultivar for this plant is I. ‘Southern Gentleman’. It makes for an eye-catching border and is very low maintenance.

For winter containers branches of winterberry holly look fantastic mixed with pine boughs, fir tips and other evergreens, and they last a long time indoors, too.

In the landscape birds will eat the red berries — watch for robins, cardinals, juncoes, grosbeaks and cedar waxwings.