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What is the Best Flower?

sulfer butterfly on pineapple sageAdd Color to Your Life

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make all the difference!

Your landscape is installed. All the trees and shrubs are in place. The walkways and furniture are there. Now, for the fun part!  You can stop right now and enjoy your new outdoor space, or punch up the volume and appearance with flowers. Follow these mentoring tips to get the look that matches what you see in the catalogs and magazines.

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Professional results don’t come easily, so make your efforts worthwhile. You’ll end up spending about the same amount of money doing things the right way as you would the wrong way.  Read on to find out which flowers work best in the landscape for professional-level landscape planting plans for public, commercial, industrial, and high-end residential sites.

Let’s get started. Let me know the look you are trying to achieve, and your great ideas for what works best for you.  Here’s a link soon to the soon-to-be published draft version 0.0 of a new Advanced Guide to Flowers, based on years of experience working with the pros and evaluation of thousands of landscape projects. 

Super-hero Sedum Autumn Joy

A Perennial for the Landscape

new growth on sedum autumn joynew blooms on sedum autumn joysummer sedum autumn joysedum autumn joy after frost

There are a very few perennials that can be used successfully in a commercial landscape setting, and Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ is one of them. The current botanical name is listed as Hylotelephium telephium, but have never seen it used in the trade. Sedum x ‘Autumn Joy’ will do just fine, unless you are a botanist. Autumn Joy Sedum can perform almost as well as any woody ornamental ground cover. The reason it is successful is because it transforms every season.

The Persistence of Perennials

Faithful, but not Foolproof

perennials, how long do perennials live

Perennials provide a sense of time and place to a landscape. It is wonderful to see familiar color return each year. Nature’s clock uses flower blooms instead of numbers to display progress through the seasons. The Iris and Baptisia tell us spring is here. The Daylilies and Coreopsis announce mid-summer. The Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod tell us the children will be going back to school. Year after year, perennials choreograph their burst of color.

Perennials come back each year, at least for a while. Some are more faithful than others. Some are just reliable, self-seeding annuals. Some will come back, but only if you divide them every few years. Some are perennial, but only if the outdoor temperature stays above freezing. Don’t be fooled by the perennial sales pitch. You can count on a perennial living a year or two longer than an annual, but after that, the return each spring is dependent on the species. Perennial is a relative term.

Most perennials go dormant sometime during the year. Perennials are herbaceous plants with soft, tender, watery stems that cannot withstand freezing. During winter months, their foliage will either disappear or dry up and become debris, harboring pests. Bare ground will be an invitation for volunteer weeds, so in winter perennial beds require a cover crop, compatible succession planting with cold-season plants, or a thick layer of mulch. When designing a garden, you will need to anticipate months with bare ground and plan for annual maintenance requirements as the growing season begins and ends.

Plains Coreopsis Is the Ultimate Wildflower

Plains Coreopsis Will Not Be Tamed

plains coreopsis, wildflowers

Plains Coreopsis is a reseeding annual. Seeds that fall to the bare ground in the early fall germinate into low rosettes. They stay there all winter, waiting for warm weather in early summer, when they suddenly sprout into four-foot-tall, delicate, airy plants. The new blooms start out as tiny orbs at the tips of the fine-textured foliage, and soon pop out in cheerful circles of bright color. Most have maroon eyes set inside yellow edges, but this can vary. Occasionally, a plant will be solid maroon or solid yellow, depending on the amount of bleed between the two colors. By mid-July the flowers have set seed, and hold their small, round seed heads until fall. Plains Coreopsis has a life cycle that starts in fall, rather than spring, like a typical warm-season annual.

When sowing seeds, be sure the ground is bare. Plains Coreopsis likes to start with a clean slate. If you let Plains Coreopsis reseed on its own, it will locate randomly, scattered in spots not covered by other growth. It likes newly disturbed areas more than established, static plots, so it will never behave in a typical ornamental perennial bed. The stems are so long and thin, it tends to droop badly with the weight of its open blooms, so it will need staking if you want to prevent it flopping to the ground. Bending over to gently drop seed is its way of moving to good soil where it can germinate on bare ground. The seeds don’t need to be buried in soil. They are content to sprout from empty ground. They will self-seed for a few years, declining in numbers unless you provide them with new spots and a change of scenery. Each fall I gather several dried plants full of seed heads and scatter them in various open, sunny spots, hoping they will choose to germinate in at least one or two areas.

Flower Shows

Experiences from an Industry Insider

flower show tipsFlower show are competitive events for displaying floral design, garden design, and horticultural specimens. The National Council on State Garden Clubs continues to be the standard for local flower shows. Some horticultural society flower shows have large participation and attendance, and they motivate commercial entities and organizations to create large display gardens. Two well-known flower shows are The RHS Chelsea in Chelsea, London and The PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, both sponsored by horticultural societies. These large shows require corporate sponsorship and huge venues. I’m afraid they are becoming too difficult to stage and finance, since priorities are changing from gardening to video games. A more typical flower show is run, top to bottom, by volunteers interested in the thrill of garden design and plant material.

I’ve participated in a few large-scale flower show displays. The image above shows the setup for a display of hundreds of forced daffodils in bloom. It was fun to construct and quite beautiful for the brief moments it was in place. Everything must be set up and taken down within a few days. The amount of work is arduous, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone try it without trucks, a crew of heavy-lifters, and access to large props and masses of plant material. After creating a few displays, I have to say, the process not fun unless you really love to show off. The real fun is in seeing the display gardens built by other groups.

Church Floral Decorations

Respectful Creativity

church floral arrangments, church decorations, altar guildDecorating a church service is a careful, respectful process. Before doing anything, you should contact the local Altar Guild to check on specific requirements. Arrangements for the altar require a reservation. There may be height and width restrictions. There may be special, water-proof coverings required. There may be special restrictions on how and where you can place floral decoration. You may not be allowed to hang arrangements on the edges of pews or in windows. There will almost surely be restrictions against using nails or glue to affix items to the structures in the sanctuary! Don’t assume anything.

Most churches frown on the use of artificial material. There are practical reasons Christmas wreaths and garlands must be artificial, since they will be on display from late November to early December, but even when artificial greenery is allowed in certain areas, it may not be in all. Many churches do not allow artificial, taped music, much less silk flowers. Typically, anything beyond the altar rail must be live of dried, real plant material—no plastic!

Lighting and candles can get tricky, too. Most altar guild members have stories to tell about damaged caused by candle wax or flames. The simple act of blowing out a candle can cause molten wax to spew across priceless furniture and expensive fabric. If you plan on using candles or electrical receptacles, check first with the altar guild, and be prepared to explain how you will protect items nearby.

Advent Wreaths

Live Materials Only

advent wreath, advent wreathsCreating an advent wreath that will last through five worship services over several weeks can be a challenge. Typically, the wreath materials beyond the altar rail must be only live greenery and flowers or dried, live material. Advent wreaths can be purchased with an oasis ring for foliage, but they are expensive and the ring is often small and dries out quickly. Here is a solution for an advent wreath that can go the distance.

Use an artificial wreath with fairly long greenery stem wire and fits the display pedestal or table. Use cleaned and prepared pine cones along the base of the wreath, wrapping the wire greenery stems around each cone to secure it to the wreath. If the stems are wrapped tightly, they will not be visible under the scales of each cone. The wreath in the picture has three tiers of cones that hang over the brass pedestal, and the top tier rises above the oasis to hide it from view. Bend any remaining stems at the top of the wreath flat to form a platform for oasis. The artificial wreath acts as the structural base and attachments for the oasis and live plant material.

I used black plastic bag pieces to line the platform before adding the oasis, to keep any additional water from leaking through the wreath onto the ground. The advent wreath will need to be refreshed with water every five to seven days to keep the greenery alive. Even so, you will probably need to remove some spent foliage and add a few fresh stems every two weeks.

Pull two of the wreath stems up from the platform area at equal intervals along the top of the wreath, and use them to tie down and secure, wet oasis blocks. Oasis is heavy when it is wet. The wreath in the photo used blocks sliced in half around the rim. Half-blocks are more substantial than purchased advent wreath oasis rings. Full blocks would require a very sturdy wreath pedestal! The wire stems can be joined and twisted around the oasis. Any wire stem excess will be hidden by the foliage.

Halloween Decorations


Halloween decorations, holiday yardsMy neighbor goes over-the-top with his Halloween decorations. He does such a good job, adjacent homeowners get a bit nervous! The all-out, outdoor display includes a large cemetery, Frankenstein, Dracula, Witches, Werewolves, Zombies, and Children of the Corn, all life-size in carefully authentic depiction of horror. People drive from far and wide to slowly cruise past the elaborate, “dead-like” light display, complete with dancing skeletons in the windows and singing pumpkins. My neighbor passes out free candy and collects money for his favorite charity each Oct 31st.

Garlic Chives

Architectural Flowers

garlic chives, architectural flowers, herbsGarlic Chives are very useful. They come back year after year and provide clean, white blooms, clustered at the top of strong (relatively), single stems in late summer/early autumn. They can be used for cooking. They can be easily seeded to fill in empty spots in a perennial bed, and they make a perfect, knee-high edging plant for a long border. They are architectural because they have strong structure and the blooms remain a reliable, uniform height.

This is an easy-care plant. It can tolerate Zone 3 cold, and will remain evergreen in Zone 8. Even though it is invasive in Australia, you can control it without much trouble. The seed heads open late in the season. They are held compactly at the top of the stems. If you catch them before the seed clusters dry and the large, black seeds start popping out, you can control its spread. All it asks for is sunshine and water.