Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Ah, the rituals of spring: spotting the first green sprout, finding the very first flower, delighting in the first daffodil. And, best of all, plant shopping! I have a few favorite local places for my regular shopping, but at least once each spring, I take a road trip to a place I consider a plant-shopper’s paradise: Black Creek Greenhouses in East Earl, Pennsylvania. Located about a half-mile off of Route 625 in eastern Lancaster County (also known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country), this glorious range of greenhouses has it all: a beautifully organized facility, incredible prices, and an amazing selection of both old favorites and cutting-edge new cultivars. So, let’s grab a cart and start shopping!
Our first sight on entering the greenhouses is a variety of attractive and creative garden and container displays. (To be honest, I usually barely glance at them, because I’m focused on shopping. But I have noticed that they – and a collection of strategically placed benches – seem to be popular with bored spouses waiting for their partners to finish filling their carts.)
Ok, that was pretty. Now, let’s turn right and head for the corner so we can start shopping systematically. This route takes us through the aquatics area. Not being much into water gardening, I usually zip through this part, but it’s fun to take a peek into the tubs of different fish for sale.
Now, we’re finally to the plants. First are the benches of aquatic plants, with pots sitting in about an inch of water and plastic bags handy if you don’t want your chosen pots to drip into your cart. I make a point of checking these benches carefully, because some of the plants, such as variegated St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum ‘Variegatum’), adapt just as well to normal garden soil.
Continuing down the first aisle, we have lots to choose from: mainly good-sized potted tender perennials and vines on the right and thousands of veggie seedlings on the left.
Cruising the next few main aisles, we get to the serious business of choosing from the annuals and tender perennials. At these prices (2 pots for $2.89), it’s hardy to resist just about anything!
Two especially exciting finds: variegated purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’) and variegated scarlet sage (Salvia splendens ‘Dancing Flames’).
Another oddity: Jamesbrittenia ‘Britney Grand Pink’. Remember when the little white-flowered bacopa first got popular a while back? Then we found out that we could still call it bacopa, but it was really a Sutera? Well, apparently Jamesbrittenia used to be part of Sutera, and it’s also being called bacopa. At this point, I’m totally confused. You too, huh? I picked up one and will report back if it does anything interesting.
Ok, let’s keep shopping. By the time I reach the herb section, I’ve usually filled both levels of one cart and started on a second. And now…the perennials! Um…better grab another cart, I think.
Part of the fun of checking out the offerings is spotting interesting combinations, such as this display of Persicaria virginiana ‘Lance Corporal’, with maroon-marked green leaves, next to the red-and-silver foliage of P. microcephala ‘Red Dragon’.
It’s also a good opportunity to compare cultivars. Here is ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) in front and P. caeruleum ‘Brise d’Anjou’ in back. On the bench, it’s tough to tell them apart; they look quite different in the garden, though.
And best of all, the large blocks of both annuals and perennials provide perfect conditions for what cool-plant guru Dan Heims refers to as “sport fishing”: in other words, looking for interesting mutations. The trick is learning which are worth acquiring and which aren’t worth bothering with. It’s pretty common to find variegated seedlings among the snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and flowering tobaccos (Nicotiana), for instance, but I find that they usually don’t do much once I get them home. My experience with oddball perennials is much more positive, and this year, I think I snagged some great ones.
For instance, Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) generally hates me, but I had to buy this ‘HGC Josef Lemper’ (above). Almost every plant showed a bit of variegation in one or more leaves, and I don’t think it’s supposed to have markings like this.
Delphiniums don’t like me much either, but this block of ‘Summer Blues’ included several variegated pots, and three of them jumped into my cart when I wasn’t looking.
Below are several more mutants I found irresistible: a hybrid delphinium with a few white-splashed leaves; a yellow-streaked clump of what’s supposed to be Polemonium yezoense ‘Purple Rain’; and several pots of Lobelia ‘Fan Burgundy’ with white-frosted foliage.
One challenge of sport fishing is accepting that not all out-of-the-ordinary foliage is safe to buy. This flat of yellow-mottled red valerian (Centranthus ruber) caught my eye, and I almost grabbed a bunch before realizing that I was looking at a virus problem.
Overall, I was thrilled with the neat new cultivars I found among the perennial offerings. Here are some highlights:
Caryopteris ‘Hint of Gold’: Supposed to be a selection of C. x clandonensis, but it looks very much like C. incana. It’ll be interesting to see how it compares to C. incana ‘Jason’ (Sunshine Blue).
Coreopsis verticillata ‘Sunbeam’: A sport of ‘Moonbeam’, apparently.
Phygelius ‘Croftway Purple Prince’: The genus usually isn’t hardy for me, but I’m willing to try again, because the tag picture looks fantastic.
Eryngium ‘Jade Frost’: White-edged green leaves with pink markings too: just lovely.
Um…I think we’d better head for the checkout now.
The final challenge (after paying for all this leafy joy) is figuring out how to pack everything into the car.
Whew – it fits. In fact, I could probably squeeze in another flat or two. Or, maybe I’d better call it a day. Time for lunch, and then a long drive home. Thanks for joining me!