February 2012

Coral bells ring in their own year

'Southern Comfort' coral bells (Heuchera) with a blue flowering lungwort (Pulmonaria). Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries

Plant breeders tend to have their own specialties. For instance, mention coral bells and in the plant world, Terra Nova Nurseries comes to mind. That’s because Dan Heims, owner of the Oregon company, has introduced more coral bells than anyone else in the last 20 years, including the popular ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Peach Flambé’.

There are about 50 species of coral bells (Heuchera), a plant found only in North America. Because of their diversity, they are one of the most popular perennials for the landscape.

In spring and summer, stalks of tiny bell like flowers sway above clusters of leaves. Because coral bells are evergreen, they retain their intricate leaf patterns and dynamic colors for four seasons.

In a recent phone interview, Heims said got interested in coral bells in the 1980s, shortly after Blooms of Bressingham introduced ‘Palace Purple’ a huge breakthrough in leaf color.

Throughout his travels, he studied samples of coral bells in botanical collections of North American species throughout Europe, some as old as 1601, said Heims, an award-winning plant breeder.

Another break through came with the pairing of a strain of heat tolerant coral bells (H. villosa) found primarily in the south with other heuchera species.

The infusion of  “villosa blood” resulted in an explosion of coral bells with wonderfully colored leaves and improved staying power in a variety of climates. Coral bells do best in part sun to shade and well-drained soil.

The National Garden Bureau, a trade group of seed merchants, plant propagators, educators and others, has named 2012 the Year of the Heuchera. Heims said he’s “pleased and honored to have the NGB honor heuchera as the first perennial” to have its special year.

Spring bulbs bring the season indoors

Hyacinth forced into bloom perfume the air. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Hyacinth forced into bloom perfume the air. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

As I sit and write this column, the fragrance of a white hyacinth vies for my attention.

Not far behind are blue and pink hyacinths just about ready to bloom. The hyacinths spent fall and winter in a paper bag on my enclosed, but unheated porch. Those several weeks on the chilly porch prepared the bulbs for forcing indoors.

Some garden centers may still have hyacinths, tulips or daffodils that have been pre-chilled and are ready for forcing. Or, you can buy pots of bulbs forced into bloom at garden centers, florists and grocery retailers.

These bulbs add a bit of seasonal beauty indoors at a time of the year when we are starved for natural color and fragrance. Pots of forced bulbs also make the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day.

For the longest period of enjoyment, keep forced bulbs in a cool, bright spot away from direct heat. Usually people toss the bulbs after they are done blooming, but many can be transplanted into the garden in spring. If you want to do that, keep the foliage attached to the bulb. The leaves replenish the bulbs nutrients and can be removed when transplanted after they turn yellow or brown, a process called ripening.

Cut tulips last about a week when kept in fresh water and in a cool locations. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Cut tulips last about a week when kept in fresh water and in a cool location. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

If all of this seems like a lot of work, consider buying a bunch of tulips or daffodils at the florist or grocery store.

Select flowers that still are tight, but showing a bit of color. When you get the tulips, daffodils or hyacinths home, make a fresh cut on the stems and place in a clean vase with cool water.

Place the vase in a bright area away from direct heat and cold. Within a day or two, the flowers should open. They will last about a week to 10 days. Change the water every day or two. Do not use floral preservative mixes with bulbs.

Donovan Miller taught hundreds of children how to love plants and gardening

Donovan Miller taught children and teachers at Cold Spring School how to grow and love plants. Photo courtesy Cold Spring School

You think you know everyone in the gardening community, when suddenly there’s a flurry of e-mails about someone you never met.

That’s what happened with Donovan Miller, a tireless educator and volunteer, known to many for his work at Cold Spring School, Indianapolis Public School’s only environmental studies magnet.

Although retired, Miller never really sat still and spent the last decade defining a legacy that embraced his love of nature, teaching and sharing. Diagnosed last July with inoperable malignant pleural mesothelioma, Miller died Feb. 2.

“Donovan in retirement got in touch with his inner child,” says Wendy Ford, who worked with Miller on the Cold Spring project.

Miller also tended the wildflower garden at the Indiana State Museum and dressed up as a cardinal, the state bird, to entertain children. He became a Marion County Master Gardener and was active in the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society, where he headed up the youth outreach committee.

To fulfill his Master Gardener commitment, he volunteered at Marian University’s EcoLab, where he spied an unused greenhouse on the campus of Cold Spring School next door.

He got permission to revitalize the greenhouse, creating educational programs for the 240 students and 40 staff members and teachers at the school, said Cathlene Darragh, principal a Cold Spring School. “He gave so much to the staff and students. With great patience, he taught us how to grow things and he shared his life stories.”

In recognition of Miller’s efforts at Cold Spring School and many other volunteer projects, the Hoosier Environmental Council named him the 2011 Land Steward of the Year.

Cold Spring School is closed due to renovation. When staff and students return this fall, there will be a dedication of the newly named Mr. Donovan’s Greenhouse.  “We loved him so much,” Darragh said.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day February 2012

(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This Valentine’s Day was greeted with a nice dusting of snow, one of those that makes everything really pretty. The Valentine’s Day snow to remember, though, was in 2007, when much of the Midwest, including Indianapolis, was blanketed with heavy snow.

I had to cancel plans to go to Chicago for a sustainable landscaping conference. It took three days for me to dig myself out. This year’s snow job took about 15 minutes to remove from the driveway.

A white Ashwood Garden hybrid hellebore lurks below the snow. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The snow also gave me a good opportunity to take the photos and assess the garden for this month’s Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, which is hosted the 15th of every month by Carol Michel at May Dreams Gardens. This begins the sixth year for Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day.

It’s been an exceptionally warm winter. Oh, it’s not like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where I was a few weeks ago. But it’s been in the 40s for weeks with only occasional dips below freezing.

(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The 2012 Valentine’s Day snow did cover up any flowers that braved the elements. In addition to ‘Cinnamon Snow’ (Helleborus), which is still quite showy, a white Ashwood Garden hybrid hellebore was blooming. But you’ll have to use your imagination because of the snow.

Imagination also is required to appreciate the Iris reticulatas that have broken ground and soon will begin their beautiful, but brief appearance.

(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Thanks to fellow garden writer Veronica Sliva for introducing me to snow flowers, a lovely term that describes many shrubs and other plants.

And, I’m grateful to my Epimedium, a truly beautiful ground cover any time of the year. Right now, it has its winter color. Soon, I will cut it to the ground to make way for the delicate yellow flowers that come in March.

The holiday container takes on a Valentine’s color combo and still looks good, even though the salal (Gaultheria shallon) has taken on a dried hue.

Amaryllis cheers a winter day. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

But, for the most part, the last few weeks have increased my appreciation of amaryllis (Hippeastrum), which have done a great job of cheering the indoors.

Holiday container retains beauty through Valentine's Day. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sahrp

Mild Indiana winter challenges plants

Gardeners all over the Eastern United States have been tweeting, blogging, e-mailing and gabbing about the — until recently — warmer than normal winter.

Hoosier gardeners were not immune. Temperatures hovering in the 40s coaxed spring bulbs from the ground early and encouraged leaf buds to fatten up. Some perennials also started to sprout new growth.

'Cinnamon Snow' hellebore has been blooming since late December. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The dilemma is always what to do when cold weather returns. Should the early emerging plants be protected from normal winter temperatures? Fortunately, the answer is almost always no.

Adding mulch, such as leaves, wood chips or shredded bark, can actually heat up the soil, causing spring bulbs and perennials to grow faster.

Cold temperatures might damage some new growth, but for bulbs, the flowers are still inside and likely unharmed.

The flowering parts of perennials also are still protected, but the leaves might show some damage when spring growth begins. Some shrubs may show weather damage when they leaf out in spring, but they will likely grow new replacement leaves.

Some perennials are programmed to bloom now. Winter blooming hellebores (Helleborus nigra, H. x  ballardiae, H. foetidus) have leathery hand- or claw-shaped evergreen leaves. They bloom from December into February. The flowers last for months, frequently changing color as they age.

‘Cinnamon Snow’, the earliest blooming hellebore I have, is one of the Gold Collection series from Skagit Gardens, which sent me the plant to trial a couple of years ago. It is a welcome beauty.

Also blooming are the yellow, white and blue Cool Wave pansies, sent by Ball Horticulture last fall for me to test. These new additions to the series that includes Wave petunias should be available at garden centers this spring. Mine are growing in a couple of containers placed where I can see them blooming, even under snow. Very cool, indeed.

Tips to care for Valentine’s Day flowers

Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

Valentine’s Day is next week, and soon special people will receive tulips, roses or other flowers to honor their love.

Most likely, the flowers, especially the tulips or roses, will be red — the color of love, passion, blood and heat. Other popular colors are white, peach, pink and these colors variegated with white or cream. And, while heat may be good for the romance, it’s not such a good thing for cut flowers.

Here are some suggestions for buying and caring for cut flowers:

  • At the florist or bucket shop, select flowers with tight buds. The tighter the buds, the longer the flowers will last in the vase. The buds should show color, however.
  • The retailer should place the flowers in a box, wrap them in paper or cover them with a paper or plastic sleeve. Protect the plants from freezing temperatures as you travel. Don’t leave the bouquet in an unheated car for extended periods.
  • Once received, the bouquet should be taken from the box or wrap as soon as possible. Snip the ends of the stems and place the bouquet in a vase of water that is slightly cool until ready to arrange the flowers. Store in a cool place out of direct sun. Roses, especially, need to get in water as soon as possible.
  • When ready to arrange, make another cut on the ends of the stems. May experts suggest cutting with a sharp knife at a 45-degree angle. They say a knife doesn’t crush the stems the way scissors can. Sharp hand pruners also work well. The 45-degree angle exposes more stem surface to take up water.
  • Arrange the flowers. What the arrangement looks like is a matter of personal taste. Some people like tight bouquets that cover the top of a vase or bowl, while others prefer more open arrangements. The flowers should not be more than about one-third to one-half taller than the vase.
  • In one of those natural wonders, tulip stems continue to grow after they’ve been harvested. Tulips may stretch about an inch, usually toward light, so allow for that when arranging the bouquet.
  • Floral preservative is recommended for the vase water for cut flowers, but not for cut bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips and lilies.
  • Place the arrangement in a cool, bright spot but out of direct sun and away from hot and cold drafts. The cooler the location, especially at night, the longer the bouquet will last.
  • Every day or two, change the water in the vase and snip off the ends of the stems. Replenish floral preservative as needed. Toss when the flowers look bad.

New plants to consider when browsing catalogs and online retailers

Million bells, such as Superbells Cherry Star (Callibrachoa) trails nicely from hanging baskets, window boxes and other containers. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

This time of year, gardeners scour mail order and online retailers’ seed and nursery catalogs for the latest and greatest new plants for their landscapes.

And plantsmen have been breeding annuals, perennials and more to satisfy the hunt. Most of these plants also can be found in garden centers. Here are a few to consider:


Look for improved cultivars of million bells (Calibrachoa), including Catwalk Lipstick Pink from Hort Couture and Proven Winners’ Superbells Blackberry Punch and Cherry Star. Breeders have added contrasting veining, colored centers or stripes in these trailing plants. They’ve also made the flowers larger.

Ball Horticulture’s ‘Bonanza Deep Orange’ marigolds (Tagetes) out performed any I’ve ever trialed, showing incredible stamina during the hot, dry summer last year. Spider mites, a frequent pest of marigolds, did not seem to notice them.


Innocence red hot poker has a bit more staying power in hot weather than previous cultivars. Photo courtesy Blooms of Bressingham North America

Breeders of Christmas and Lenten roses (Helleborus) have improved these shade-lovers that bloom in early winter or spring. Newer cultivars have flowers that are more upward rather than downward facing, making them even showier. Look for spring blooming plants in the Thriller and Shade series, such as Ice Follies and Plum Shades or winter bloomers in the Gold Series.

Red hot pokers (Kniphofia) are being improved by at least two breeders, Terra Nova Nurseries and Blooms of Bressingham. This favorite plant for sunny English gardens suffers in our hot, humid weather, petering out as soon as summer arrives after just a week or two of blooms. But newer ones, ‘Bressingham Comet’ or ‘Innocence’ are able to withstand the weather. The Popsicle series rebloom, but they are not winter hardy here, so consider them as a long-blooming annual in our climate.


Cool Splash (Diervilla) is a native honeysuckle shrub with clean, variegated foliage making it a good substitute for variegated dogwoods. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

If you’re looking for an alternative to variegated dogwood shrubs (Cornus alba), consider Cool Splash bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sessifolia), which has beautiful creamy white and deep green leaves that stay clean and fresh in shade to part sun area. Yellow, slightly fragrant flowers are insignificant.

HortusScope for February 2012

Here’s a calendar of garden and nature related events and activities in Central Indiana. It is provided as a public service by Wendy Ford of Landscape Fancies. Please click on the green link below to download your copy.

HortusScope February 2012

February garden checklist posted

The checklist of things to do in the garden in February is posted.