Gardening can be considered a metaphor for life. Some gardeners like their gardens – and their lives – simple and predictable. They plant things that they know will succeed and look good: daffodils, daylilies, marigolds, purple cone flowers and such. I grow all those things, but I like to take some risks, too. After all, I could be run over by a bus before the end of the growing season (though my mother did a good job of teaching me to look both ways before crossing). And I want to have the joys of growing special plants that are not necessarily hardy here.
I’m a plant collector and get great joy in growing plants that are outside their climatic zone (or that require special conditions) and seeing them do well. Taking a risk in the garden is different than racing motorcycles or skiing down the north face of Mt. Washington. Yes, I did once spend $75 on a yellow ladyslipper that did not make it through the winter because a dog dug it up, exposing the roots. But that was not personally perilous. I recommend taking some risks in the garden.
My most recent ≈risk≈ was planting a shrub variously called, spicebush, Carolina allspice or sweet bubby. Those names are from my bible of woody plants, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr. Sweet bubby – that’s worth planting just for the name! Its Latin name is Calycanthus floridus Just as plants with botanical names including canadensis indicate northern origins, plants with floridus indicate southern plants. So it may not do well here.
I am a sucker for plants in bloom. I was recently at EC Brown≠s nursery in Thetford Hill, VT (www.ecbrownsnursery.com) and saw that new-to-me shrub, spicebush or sweet bubby, in bloom, and had to take one home. The blossoms are a deep dark red, globe-shaped and about 2 inches in diameter. According to Dirr≠s book, it is considered hardy to Zone 4, but “-15 or -20 is the breakpoint – flowers occur on short shoots from leaf axils along the entire stem length, i.e. where buds are present; even if shoot tips are winter killed, the potential for good flowering is excellent.” So I am optimistic that it will survive and thrive for me.
After my sister, Ruth Anne Mitchell, died unexpectedly two years ago I planted some plants of dubious hardiness here in her honor. Ruth Anne was a risk taker – she was an intrepid international traveler who thought nothing of hiking a hundred mile through a war zone such as Liberia during the civil war there. While working for an international aid agency she was once captured by teenage rebels carrying automatic weapons and who were high on drugs. They thought she would be scared. Not so. She lectured them, and asked if they would treat their mothers like that. Chagrinned, they brought her to their adult leader who reprimanded them and then let her continue on her way.
Among the plants that I planted in memory of Ruth Anne that did not survive were bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), trailing arbutus (Epigea repens) and that yellow ladyslipper. I also planted 3 blue Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia ), and 2 died that first winter. The third bloomed but died the following winter. Undaunted, I bought 3 more from Cady≠s Falls Nursery (www.cadysfallsnursery.com) in Morrisville, VT this year. That one successful poppy, with true sky-blue blossoms, gave me great joy, taught me where to plant it – and gave me the willingness to try again.
Of all the flowers I planted for Ruth Anne, the most successful was the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata). My bible of perennials, Steven Stills≠ Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants, lists it as only hardy in Zones 5-7 (minus 20 to zero in the coldest parts of winter). The first year after planting it limped along, but this spring it sent up numerous flower spikes with lovely pink flowers before the leaves appeared. And now those umbrella leaves are a foot across and the clump covers a 4-foot circle.
The key to out-of-zone success is getting the soil and sun requirements right for the plant. Acidity, drainage and exposure to cold winds really do make a difference. Even though the books by Dirr and Stills cost well over $100 for the pair, I think they are worth the investment: they tell you not only cold hardiness, they tell you what kind of soil is needed. I know the world wide web is supposed to have all answers, but I like an authoritative book that I can depend on.
Most nurseries have Dirr’s book on hand, and will let you read it before deciding if you should invest in a woody plant. Dirr’s book is very personal, with his strong feelings expressed, and anecdotes about where he has seen a particular plant growing. I use Stills≠ book to tailor the soil for perennials at planting time: he details the fertility needed, so I know if I should add plenty of organic fertilizer, just a little, or none at all.
Take a good look at your own garden. Are you willing to try some new plants? I spent hours this past weekend pulling out the roots of Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) so that I could plant my new spicebush or Œsweet bubby≠. And if it doesn≠t survive? Well, I’ll have a good place to try another interesting plant!