Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
A few days ago, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to fit blogging into my day, with so much to do outdoors. Well, after spending all day cutting down ornamental grasses yesterday, and taking the alpacas for a walk, building a new raised bed out back, and emptying the compost bins today, I am permanently stuck in my desk chair, never to rise again (at least until bedtime). So, I have my answer: I’ll play in the garden until I’m too tired to move, and then I’ll blog. In my last post (Gorgeous Golden Shrubs – Part 1), I started discussing some of my favorite golden shrubs. And oh yes, there are many more.
The elderberries (Sambucus) could easily have a post all to themselves. I’ve found the purple-leaved ones to be rather finicky, but not so with the yellow-leaved selections. At the top of this entry is golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’) serving as the centerpiece of one bed in my front garden. This one is starting its seventh year in that spot. Beginning in its third spring, I cut it back to 6 to 12 inches almost every year. Here it is in early May…
…and in late July…
As you can see, it still forms a sizable mound – about 8 feet by 8 feet – by the end of each growing season.
I skipped cutting it back one year, and by the following spring, I found that the outer branches had layered themselves (taken root where they touched the ground), giving me more than a dozen new plants. I found homes for a few and couldn’t bear to destroy the rest, so they become the backbone of the Arc Borders, as shown below, three years after they were planted.
As superb as S. nigra ‘Aurea’ is for foliage color, it’s not especially interesting up close. For great color and superb texture too, my favorite is S. racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’. This one works much better when allowed to form a large shrub without being cut back each year. It has far better-looking bark and such elegantly arching branches when allowed to grow unpruned that whacking it back hard each year doesn’t do it any favors, and it seems to weaken the plant as well.
The photo above shows a five-year old plant that was cut back in early spring, so its growth is mostly upright at this point in early July. By late August (below), you can see it’s arching out again, but it’s still not as pretty as it could have been if I’d given it a larger spot and allowed it to fill out normally.
One challenge with ‘Sutherland Gold’ is finding a site with enough sun to keep the golden color along with evenly moist soil to keep it from scorching. For a site that’s definitely full sun with average, sometimes-dry soil, Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) could be a better option. Tiger Eyes does fine cut right to the ground each spring, and its foliage color is outstanding: greenish yellow in spring, clear yellow in summer, and reddish to pinkish in fall.
Another great multi-season shrub is ‘Sunshine’ red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea subsp. occidentalis).
Its bright yellow leaves hold their color well through the growing season, though they can bleach out if the afternoon sun is too strong and the soil dries out. Even in ideal conditions, they’ll be a softer yellow by early fall.
The foliage takes on reddish to pinkish shading later on in fall, then drops to reveal deep red stems for the winter. On this one, I cut out one or two of the oldest stems each spring instead of cutting it to the ground, because it’s not especially vigorous. In the world of ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius), the dark-leaved selection Diabolo (‘Monlo’) and its offspring Coppertina (‘Mindia’) seem to get all of the attention. Coppertina’s other parent, ‘Dart’s Gold’, is also a beauty, however, with the same interesting peeling bark, arching branches, white flowers, and rosy summer seedheads but yellow foliage instead of purple.
You can cut this one back hard every spring if you want to try to control its size, but, like ‘Sutherland Gold’ elderberry, ‘Dart’s Gold’ ninebark really looks best when allowed to grow with just occasional removal of a few old branches.
Well, this topic has certainly taken on a life of its own. There are still several more of my favorites left, so I’ll break them into yet another post (Gorgeous Golden Shrubs – Part 3). Probably would have been easier to just write a book. Oh wait, I did: Foliage!