Catalogue Daydreaming in January

What winter dreams are made of. Photo: Kit Flynn


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Beginning Dec. 26, the garden catalogues start to pour in. The planting season is short – and growers know that they have to get the word out on their new products as soon as possible. They also know that we, looking at bleak landscapes, are susceptible to pictures of spectacular flowering plants. We yearn for color in our gardens.

My plea to you is to hold off a bit from wildcat ordering. That Delphinium x belladonna Bellamosum pictured might not fare so well in your garden. Is that Phlox paniculata Bright Eyes resistant to powdery mildew? How do I plant a bareroot rose?

This is the time to do a little research — and while it’s fine to order from these large online nurseries, please remember your local nursery. This is not an easy business, the planting season consists of weeks, not months and your local nursery knows what should grow well in your garden.

There are other guides to help you get past the catalogue hyperbole. Many of the old standbys in nurseries, such as Phlox paniculata David, Leucanthemum superbum Becky and Geranium Rozanne, became popular after they were designated “Perennial Plant of the Year.” This year’s winner is a rather large plant, Aralia cordata Sun King.

Begun in 1990, the Perennial Plant Association seeks to highlight a plant that (1) maintains a long interest in the garden; (2) can exist in a wide swath of the U.S.; (3) is low maintenance; and (4) is relatively pest-free. A list of the winners and descriptions can be found at:

Another plant guide to highlight is the Gold Medal program. Falling under the aegis of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, this program also profiles trees, vines, shrubs and plants for the home gardener.

Winners for 2020 include Coreopsis verticillata Zagreb, a coreopsis that was also highlighted in the Mt. Cuba Center study. For a list of past Gold Medal winners, go to:

Many growers simply don’t have time to test a plant for several years as they feel they must strike while the iron is hot. Six years ago, echinaceas were in the horticultural line of fire — soon there were echinaceas in almost every color of the rainbow. What happened?

Gardeners, including myself, bought them only to have these hybrids fizzle out. They had the looks, but without the stamina they couldn’t survive.

Ten years ago, the lilac Syringa pubescens subsp. patula Miss Kim was a hot item billed as a lilac that would grow in the South. More of a shrub than a tree, my Miss Kim perfumed the garden in her fourth year before succumbing to our heat and humidity. Today, while Miss Kim is still marketed, it is not heavily promoted in the South.

It takes shrubs and trees four or five years to demonstrate their hardiness in a particular region. Therefore, turn to expert advice rather than to garden catalogue exaggeration.

It’s important to do your homework and remember there is a lot of information on the Internet. For example, I was looking at Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra Bleeding Hearts. A long botanical name often indicates an awful lot of hybridization, which can be good or bad: Good in that undesirable characteristics are bred out of the species, but bad because durability also might be on the losing end.

In the case of this particular heliopsis, it turns out it likes more alkaline soil than I can provide for it so while it is handsome, I decided it isn’t for me. You can find a lot of great plants in these catalogues, along with some duds — duds, you will agree, are better avoided as they are no fun to grow. So, browse through the catalogues, have lovely day dreams, but before you place your order, do your research first.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email:

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