Northern Shade Gardening

Tall, Dramatic Actaea

Monday, September 28, 2009 Category: Perennials

The tall flower wands of Actaea are very dramatic as they open in the fall garden. They rise above the other plants and look very fresh as many other perennials are going into decline.  Actaea (used to be Cimicifuga) (bugbane) are a great solution if you need a tall plant for a shady border. I have four groups of these around the garden, and the showy flowers at eye height or above add rhythm and beauty to the garden.

These perennials used to be classified as the genus Cimicifuga, but now they are grouped with the other short Actaea. Beyond the genus change, I find the classifications a little confusing, as many of the cultivars such as ‘Atropurpurea’ are listed under different species. Also, A. ramosa seems very similar to A. racemosa.

Actaea ramosa (bugbane) flower buds

Actaea ramosa (bugbane) flower buds

The flower wands of these tall Actaea ramosa are long and thin, with many buds. The initial buds have a purple colour, and are attractive before they even open. In my zone 3 garden, these flamboyant perennials start flowering towards the end of September. I have some that flower with only an hour or so of direct sun a day.

Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower buds with conifer

Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower buds with conifer

Here are the buds of Actaea racemosa. These plants are  over 2 metres (6 ft) tall, so I was shooting up as I took the photo, and they are displayed against the green conifer background.

Actaea racemosa flowering

Actaea racemosa flowering

The open Actaea racemosa flower wand is whipping around in the wind. Because it is so tall, it was swaying a metre (3 ft) to either side. That little guy hung on to the tip the whole time. You can see as they open, that the flowers are fluffy white. The central stalk has opened first, and the side wands are still in the bud stage. Although they are tall, the stems don’t need staking. Even after swaying in the wind, the 2 m (6ft) stems are upright, although the flowers on top can have a natural curve.

Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower stars

Actaea racemosa (bugbane) flower stars

Actaea racemosa has a sweet scent. Some Actaea have an unpleasant smell, so I was pleased when this one bloomed. The pleasant scent actually carries for a few metres, even from just one bloom. In the above closeup, you can see how they form starry clusters on the ends of the wand. The long, thin flower clusters add emphasis above the foliage, like exclamations marks in the garden.

Actaea (bugbane) leaf with purple edge

Actaea (bugbane) leaf with purple edge

The foliage of these forms of bugbane makes an attractive backdrop for other perennials. The leaves have a purple tinge to the edges. There are other varieties that have an even stronger all over purple colour to the leaves. I especially like how the leaves come out in layers. It reminds me of the cloud pruning of an evergreen. The central stalk has a distinct purple colour too.

Bugbanes like moisture, but in the shade they seem to do fine. I would be careful planting it in sun, as I had one  in a pot waiting to be planted that dried out very quickly, with the leaves turning crispy.

I have some Actaea simplex that are also tall, but the plants have a different form, and they bloom later. A. simplex bloom too late for zone 3, as the frost gets them before the flower wands open.

Actaea are an excellent plant for the back of the shade garden. They have good looking leaves, a dramatic form, and eye catching towers of flowers in the fall. As most perennials grow tired and start to fade back, these plants will put on a great final show. You can read more about Actaea and see more photos.

Planting Tulip and Muscari Bulbs

Friday, September 25, 2009 Category: Bulbs

Here is a pretty bulb combination of tulips and Muscari (grape hyacinths) that I’m planting to bloom in the spring garden. They should flower at the same time in pink and blue, both with the extra petals of doubles.

Tulipa 'Fox Trot' bulb package

Tulipa 'Fox Trot' bulb package

The double early blooming pink Tulipa ‘Foxtrot’ are planted at the back. Aren’t those tulips pretty? They remind me of my favourite peony, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. These have a multitude of light pink petals, like the double peony. They are short, about 30 cm tall (1 ft). I fell for these ‘Foxtrot’ tulips when I saw the picture on the label, even though I didn’t originally plan to plant any tulips. I saw the double pink photo and instantly imagined a large group of them, highlighted with a large group of smaller blue bulbs in front.

Muscari armenicaum 'Blue Spike' bulb group

Muscari armenicaum 'Blue Spike' bulb group

The above photo of Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ is from my garden last June. ‘Blue Spike’ became my favourite grape hyacinth last spring, when a newer group of them bloomed for an extended period. They bloomed for almost a month, which is a long time for the little blue bulbs. They also have large flowers for such a small bulb. Their extra petals, with very open flowers, creating a dense spike of intense blue. Here is a post from earlier in the year about the Muscari.

The Muscari armeniacum ‘Blue Spike’ grow about 15 cm (6 in). When planted in front of the 30 cm (12 in) pink tulips, the difference in their heights should be just right to show off each type of bloom. I’m hoping the tips of the Muscari will be just under the bottom of the tulip flowers.

Muscari 'Blue Spike' (grape hyacinth) bulbs being planted

Muscari 'Blue Spike' (grape hyacinth) bulbs being planted

For the grape hyacinths, I dig  hole about 7 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) deep, and about 30 cm (1 ft) across, between some later growing perennials. Then I put the bulbs with their pointy side up, about 5 cm (2 in) apart, and cover them back up. I leave a bit of loose soil in the bottom of the hole, so I can balance the bulbs upright with a bit of support, and then they don’t get knocked over when I pour the soil back back over top. Digging a series of large holes for groups of bulbs is the most efficient way when you have a number of them to plant.

Tulipa 'Fox Trot' bulbs being planted

Tulipa 'Fox Trot' bulbs being planted

Here are the ‘Foxtrot’ tulips in their planting hole. It’s about13 cm (5 in) deep, and they are about 13 cm (5 in) apart. I make a number of these holes in the garden bed, between the perennials that will hide their foliage after they bloom.

Muscari  'Blue Spike and Tulipa 'Fox Trot'

Muscari 'Blue Spike and Tulipa 'Fox Trot'

Here is a composite of what the ‘Foxtrot’ and ‘Blue Spike’ should look like together. I think these two bulbs will bloom at the same time next spring with the taller pink tulips rising up behind the shorter blue Muscari. I could have planted a few first to test the bloom time, but instead I decided to jump in with planting 54 tulips and 180 more Muscari bulbs. I need a larger number of the Muscari, since they are smaller bulbs, and planted closer together. About 3 times as many grape hyacinths should balance out the tulip planting. If they don’t manage to bloom in tandem, they will still make a nice sequence, but I’m hoping for an overlap.

Here’s how the tulips and Muscari look in the spring. The flowers of these double early tulips did bloom at the same time as the Muscari, making a beautiful display. You can see more detailed photos of  the ‘Foxtrot’ tulips in this post.

Have you been planting any bulbs for spring blooms?

Planting Crocus Corms

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Category: Bulbs

It’s  a lot of fun planting spring flowering bulbs in the fall.  As you bury the little brown lumps, you can imagine all of the spring colours that will appear. I’ve planted  360 crocus corms that will form a yellow and purple patch under the lilac tree. I’ve included some Crocus vernus for their large showy flowers, and some Crocus chrysanthus which will flower earlier, in charming soft colours. I placed the packages on the ground in their approximate positions, so you can see what it might look like next spring. I can’t wait to see them blooming in early spring.

crocus packages under lilac

crocus packages under lilac

These crocuses are being planted around some hardy geraniums under a lilac tree. The geraniums get a later start in the spring, so the crocus will flower unhindered, and when they are done, the emerging geraniums will help hide the foliage until it dies down.This garden area is in part shade, but there should be enough light for these sun lovers, since I limbed up the  maple earlier this year, removing some of the lower branches. It should be bright enough to open their flowers; I hope.

Crocus vernus (Dutch crocus) packages

Crocus vernus (Dutch crocus) packages

The Crocus vernus (large Dutch crocus) are planted together in the back half of the garden bed. They progress from purple to purple stripes to yellow, going towards the front of the bed. At the very back are the dark purple ‘Remembrance’. There is a small group of ‘Remembrance’ here already, and I’ve added more to extend the group across. Just in front are some ‘Silver Coral’ These are white with purple marks on them. To the left are ‘Pickwick’, which are purple striped, while to the the right are ‘Striped Beauty’, also with purple stripes. The ‘Yellow Mammoth’ are in front of all of the purple crocuses.

crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus) packages

crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus) packages

The earlier flowering Crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus) are at the front of this garden bed. These are smaller, and should flower first early next spring. I’ve planted them in a very similar colour arrangement. Across the back of the snow crocus section are some ‘Blue Pearl’, which are a very pretty lavender blue colour. To the left in front of them are ‘Fuscotinctus’, which are yellow with purple stripes. In front on the right are ‘Gipsy Girl’ (I’ve seen this sold as ‘Gypsy Girl), which are also yellow with maroon stripes. The pale yellow  ‘Cream Beauty’ are across the very front of the Crocus chrysanthus group.

Crocus vernus 'Striped Beauty' bulbs being planted

Crocus vernus 'Striped Beauty' bulbs being planted

Here are some Crocus vernus ‘Striped Beauty’ corms in their hole, ready to be buried. For small bulbs like this, I dig a hole about 7 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) deep and about 30 cm (a foot) in diameter, and plant 10 to 15 bulbs in a random pattern. Then I cover the hole up, and tap it down. Afterwards I water all the bulbs to settle them in.

There are 360 crocus corms here so far. As I planted, I kept picturing what it will look like when the crocuses flower next spring. I think this purple and yellow patch will be very uplifting with its spring colours. I appreciate the earliest flowering plants the most, after the long winter desert of white. In spring, I’ve often wished that I had planted more bulbs, but I’ve never wished I planted less.

You can see and read more about how the Crocus vernus flowered here, and there are pictures of the Crocus chrysanthus blooms here. There is also more about planting crocus bulbs and what their flowers look like in this other post.