Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
First, I’d like to welcome all of the new readers to Hayefield. As some of you who have been here before guessed, the special garden visitor I mentioned in my last post was Anne Raver of the New York Times. It was such a surprise that she wanted to write an article (Where Foliage Eclipses Flowers); I figured she and my two editors from Storey were just looking for an afternoon of garden touring. You can imagine what a lot of plant talk four garden nerds can fit into just a few hours.
While the attention has been fun, it’s also great to finally have some time to get back to blogging – especially blogging about neat plants. As usual, it was hard to choose just three, but I’ve ended up with something old, something sort of new, and something I think will be very new to most of you.
To start, an old-fashioned annual known by the quaint name of love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus). The very first year that I tried this heat-loving annual in my previous garden, it was absolutely glorious. After that, there and then here at Hayefield, I had a spell of several years where I simply couldn’t get it going; as soon as I set out the seedlings, the cucumber beetles demolished them. I took a break for a few years, then decided to try again this year, and I’m so glad I did. For whatever reason, the cucumber beetles weren’t very active at the critical time, so the plants had about a month to get established before the pests attacked, and they were vigorous enough to withstand a bit of damage.
Usually reaching 4 to 6 feet tall, love-lies-bleeding grows from tiny seeds that I usually start indoors in late March or early April (4 to 6 weeks before our last frost date), then set outdoors in mid- to late May. You can also sow them directly in the garden around your last frost date, but keep in mind that the plants take 10 to 12 weeks to start flowering, so the flowering season will be short where frost comes early. Here in southeastern PA, the flowers start to form in July and keep going well into October.
Love-lies-bleeding flowers appear in fuzzy-looking, 1- to 2-foot-long chains that drape gracefully over lower companions. The color is typically a rich red to pinkish red, but you can find a few other colors too. ‘Coral Fountains’ is a new cultivar with softer-pink flowers. ‘Viridis’ is pale green to yellowish green. I used to think it was really neat, but after a garden visitor likened the dangling green chains to…well, a snotty nose, I haven’t really been able to enjoy it since. Another variant of the regular red is ‘Pony Tails’, with lumpier flower clusters rather than solid chains.
If you try love-lies-bleeding, keep in mind that it gets really big. I plant companions close to mine, so they tend to mostly grow upright before cascading at the tips. At work, I planted a group of them to fill a fairly large area, and each one has expanded to about 4 feet across from side branching. I strongly suggest providing a sturdy stake for each plant, especially if they’re growing in fertile soil, if they’re getting some shade (they’re generally best in full sun but can tolerate partial shade), or if you water regularly. Otherwise, your love-lies-bleeding will lie bleeding all over everything (as above), and the results may not be pretty. You can find seeds of the red species from a number of seed sources; Select Seeds carries ‘Coral Fountains’ and ‘Viridis’ as well, while Territorial Seeds sells ‘Pony Tails’.
The something-newer cool plant is a selection of purple coneflower (Echinacea). Unlike most of the newest offerings, ‘Prairie Frost’ is one you’ll grow mostly for the foliage. Each of the deep green leaves is neatly edged with bright white, making it a beauty even if it’s not in bloom. I’ve seen the rich pink flowers described as large, but those on my plant (and in most pictures) appear to be relatively small, especially because of the short petals.
Reaching to about 2 feet tall and about 1 foot across after three years, ‘Prairie Frost’ grows well in full sun or partial shade (mine gets morning sun only) and average, well-drained soil. It’s tidy, well-behaved, and essentially trouble-free, making it a great addition to a border as both a foliage and flowering accent. The hardiness rating is generally given as Zones 3 to 10.
And for the newest cool plant, I present ‘Chocolate Ball’ sedum (Sedum hakonense ‘Chocolate Ball’). Can you see it?
Yep, it’s almost exactly the same color as moist mulch! Most of the time, I think that’s pretty funny, though I’ll admit that it can be a problem too: I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve almost stepped on it because I can barely see it from normal eye level.
To make the most of ‘Chocolate Ball’, try putting it next to something paler or brighter: light-colored stepping stones, perhaps, or a pale gravel mulch, or a silvery, blue, or chartreuse-leaved companion. We’ve had the plants at work for just a month or so, and they’re still just an inch or two tall; apparently they won’t get much larger than that. We’re also not positive about the hardiness: Our supplier says Zone 7, but most references give Zones 9 to 11 for the species, so I guess we’ll have to find out the hard way. But I think we’ll plant some in containers, too; they’ll show off better than way, and it’ll be easier to bring some of them indoors for the winter. I don’t think ‘Chocolate Ball’ is commercially available at the moment, but I understand it’s supposed to be released very soon, so keep an eye out for it in this winter’s mail-order catalogs and next spring’s retail displays. If you adore sedum ‘Angelina’, I think you’ll love ‘Chocolate Ball’ too!