Garden superstars

  • By Sarah Jackson / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, March 7, 2007 9:00pm
  • Life

Gardens are getting smaller.

Sure, some people own acreage or bigger city lots, but for many of us, gardening isn’t so much about age-old collections spread over massive landscapes as it is about small groups of plants that really pack a punch, especially in tight spaces.

We want plants that can do double, triple or quadruple duty.

Forget finicky.

We want rare varieties, four-season interest, fragrance, long bloom times, cool variegation, funky bark, tidy growth habits, drought tolerance and superior pest and disease resistance, and we want it all in the same plant.


Breeders and growers in the Northwest, of course, have heard the call, which means you can expect to see all kinds of cool new plants for this spring.

Fran Sharp, sales manager at Briggs Nursery, said Northwest gardeners can be particularly selective because of the mild climate. We’re now growing more USDA Zone 7 and 8 plants, which aren’t as cold hardy.

“People are willing to try some different things. I consider the gardening public in the Northwest to be pretty sophisticated compared to other parts of the country,” Sharp said. “We have this really broad plant palette. People can be more choosy.”

Briggs, a grower in Elma, west of Olympia, will supply a new line of azaleas to garden centers this spring from Ivan Arneson, a hybridizer in Oregon who found a way to make the plants compact, as well as resistant to powdery mildew, the great deciduous-azalea curse.

But Arneson didn’t just come up with one variety. Briggs is growing seven.

Now, instead of seeing cool flowers followed by dusty, diseased leaves, you can grow beautiful azaleas all the way into fall.

Keep an eye out for Arneson Flame (great fall color), Arneson Gem (yellow orange flowers), Arneson Little Gem (more compact), Arneson Ruby (rich, red flowers), Arneson Cameo (single pink blooms), Arneson Golden Solitaire (large, single pure yellow blooms) and Cascade Pink (pink and yellow flowers).

“Deciduous azaleas have great fall color,” Sharp said, adding that the plants even bloom when young, usually in early or mid-spring. “They’re really tough.”

Another up-and-coming Briggs plant is Daphne x transatlantica Summer Ice.

Though daphnes have a reputation for being temperamental, Summer Ice is reportedly a dream.

It boasts evergreen, variegated leaves, awesome fragrance and blooms that last from spring to fall, if not longer.

“It blooms forever,” Sharp said. “It blooms almost year round at my house. It’s the daphne for the home gardener.”

It’s the perfect plant to flank your front walk or some other prominent location. Thanks to a successful debut a couple of years ago, it was the nursery’s 2006 Plant of the Year and a 2006 Great Plant Picks selection, too.

If perennials are more your scene, you might consider some of the new euphorbias coming out of Skagit Gardens, a commercial grower near Mount Vernon that caters to independently owned garden centers.

These shrubby, hardy perennials are just starting to emerge for their early spring show in local gardens, and the four new varieties from Skagit Gardens should be highly coveted by fans of the genus.

Blackbird, Glacier Blue and Shorty all offer fantastic and seasonally varied foliage, much like regular euphorbias, but they’re much more manageable, reaching only about 18 inches.

That’s an ideal height for your patio pots because the plants won’t end up sprawling like naturally occurring species euphorbias.

“This trio is particularly good for containers,” Hewlett said. “They’re more compact. They still have good vigor, but on a smaller scale. They’re good for the urban small garden.”

Blackbird features foliage that is exceptionally deep purple and, if grown in full sun, darkens in late summer to almost black.

Euphorbia Rudolph, which grows to about 24 inches tall, is another gem Skagit is producing for nurseries this year. Bright red bracts emerge in winter to remind you of the most famous reindeer of all, a fun addition to your front-porch pots at Christmastime. Spring brings yellow-green flowers with red centers.

Euphorbias are big now, Hewlett said, because gardeners are interested in foliage color and shape, a driving force in the gardening industry.

“They’ve just been really well received because you can combine them and get some different textures,” Hewlett said. “They have such a long season. Euphorbias are perfect for the Northwest.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or

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