Nothing beats expert advice for free.
For gardeners in the Philadelphia area, there are two sources to mine: Jenkins Arboretum in Devon and Meadowbrook Farm in Abington. Both have programs that test and recommend good landscaping choices in many categories: trees, shrubs, ferns, wildflowers, vines and ground covers.
Say hallelujah! This means no more meltdowns at the garden center, where the springtime crowds are huge, the selection dizzying, and the information deficit legendary. Here, knowledgeable people have done the hard work for you — and chosen plants for all the right reasons.
Their picks have been deemed tough, easy to grow, attractive in more than one season, genetically wired to thrive in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and easy to find in the local marketplace. Many are also beneficial to wildlife.
Its Green Ribbon program, founded in 2003, recommends native plants only, and if you still think natives are boring, Steven A. Wright, the arboretum's first curator of plant collections, would like to have a word with you. "They're fantastic," he says.
A former high school agricultural science teacher with a master's degree from Louisiana State University in forestry and entomology, Wright recalls falling in love with native plants on an insect-collecting mission in the swamps of Louisiana. In one of those serendipitous life-changing moments, he came upon a "blue-purple, frilly, multitiered flower" — a native passionflower — that knocked him out. "That kind of pulled it all together for me," he says.
Green Ribbon native plants, which can be found in the 46-acre arboretum and bought in its plant shop, are chosen by committee, but Wright has his own favorites. Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), for example. This shrub is a member of the witch hazel family, and you can see the resemblance in its spiky, bottlebrush-like flowers that are creamy white and smell vaguely of honey. In the fall, its blue-green leaves turn red, orange, purple and yellow all at once.
Fothergilla has an attraction for history buffs, too. It was named for John Fothergilla, a Quaker physician and gardener who had connections to John Bartram and his son, William.
Wright also likes Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), especially a new variety called 'The Rising Sun,' which features tangerine-hued, heart-shaped leaves and purple sweet pealike blossoms that skitter up and down the branches in early spring. With redbuds, he says, "There are so many choices. Several are variegated, but they can have yellow foliage, red flowers, double flowers. They're tall, they weep ...
"Unfortunately, people don't know about this. They'll go and buy a Japanese maple because everyone has one," says Wright, who grew up in rural Tioga County and is a Delaware Valley College grad. "They're beautiful, absolutely, but if you can do the same things in the landscape with a native, and do something for wildlife, why not?"
Another Green Ribbon selection is even less known: Allegheny spurge or Pachysandra procumbens, a native ground cover with bigger leaves, richer color and better manners than the overused Japanese version, Pachysandra terminalis.
Jenkins also suggests, and sells, Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), so named because early settlers used the evergreen fronds for Christmas decorations — or maybe it was because the leaves are shaped like Christmas stockings. No matter. It's a good bet for woodland gardens or rocky slopes.
And for a native wildflower, Wright says you can't beat the low-growing Tiarella cordifolia, better known as foam flower, with its frothy, starlike flowers and heart-shaped leaves. It comes in many iterations. "Beautiful," he says.
On to Meadowbrook Farm, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Since 1978, committees comprising PHS folks, nursery owners and others have recommended 122 "little-known and underused woody plants of exceptional merit" as Gold Medal winners. But like the trees, shrubs and vines it seeks to promote, the program remains largely unfamiliar to the public.
That should start to change in 2013. PHS' senior plant buyer Casey Combs says the program will be expanded to include perennials, a consumer favorite, and each year, the committee's recommendations will be announced and displayed at the Philadelphia International Flower Show alongside new introductions from the nursery industry.
An arborist by training, Combs is partial to Gold Medal trees, such as Magnolia grandiflora, the jumbo southern magnolia that stays green year-round. He likes the creamy yellow flowers of 'Elizabeth' and the lemon-scented blooms of 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' and 'Edith Bogue.'
"I'm a big fan of magnolias. They're good alternatives to arborvitaes, which are like green blobs in the landscape," says Combs, who grew up in Doylestown and studied conservation biology at Syracuse University.
He also likes Mahonia bealei or leatherleaf mahonia, a weird, deer-resisant shrub whose yellow blooms hang like a chain and are followed by purple berries. "They're Dr. Seuss-looking," he says.
Gold Medal plants are scattered about the 25-acre landscape at Meadowbrook and sold there, too, so you can see up close what you're getting.
Which prompts one last bit of advice from the plant-whisperers. Despite their due diligence, sometimes even the experts have second thoughts. Wright wonders, for example, if Green Ribbon winners cardinal flower (2006) and wild columbine (2008) ought to be reconsidered for their aggressive habits.
"You take some of these plants out of their natural habitat ... they're in mulch, in a nice garden with no weeds. Before you know it, they're all over the place," he says, confirming rule No. 1 in the garden and perhaps the only sure thing out there: Right plant, right place.