Plant testing program finds golden groundcovers
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Nine shrubs and groundcovers with various shades of yellow and gold foliage -- all meant to brighten the garden -- are featured in this year's Beautiful Gardens lineup.
Since 2009, the Virginia-based plant introduction program has tested and promoted new and underused ornamental species for cold hardiness zones that range from zones 4 to 8. (Most of West Virginia is zone 6, except for the eastern mountains, which are zone 5.)
Linda Pinkham, a professional gardener in Smithfield, Va., helps select nominations for the program, and grows many of them for her own personal perspective.
If you think yellow plants look weak and unhealthy in a garden, Pinkham thinks differently, based on years of professional experience.
"Yellow is the happiest color, the one that advances the most toward the eye, the one that can be a unifying addition to a mix of plants," she says.
"Plants in gold and yellow have to be placed wisely -- not lined up in rows or symmetrical patterns, but dispersed throughout the garden to make it 'pop.'
"My husband, Bill the landscape designer, had trouble convincing clients to let him add yellow plants to the site. I kept telling him he had to say 'chartreuse' instead of yellow. All good flower arrangers know that no matter what colors you use in an arrangement, using a little, or a lot, of chartreuse will make it 'sing.'"
Les Parks, curator of herbaceous plants at Norfolk Botanical Garden, is also partial to bright, bold foliage.
"Used in the garden, gold or chartreuse has a real way of bringing in light, particularly in shady situations," he says. "The colors also mix well with burgundy, purples and black."
Here's a close look at this year's selections:
Mother Lode juniper (Juniperus horizontalis Mother Lode), zones 4 to 7: Creeping, flat evergreen has brilliant gold foliage that goes bronze in winter. Deer-resistant, it spreads 6 to 8 feet but stays 4 to 6 inches tall; it needs full sun and tolerates drought.
Little Honey oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia Little Honey), zones 5 to 9: "It's a good plant for shady spots, even if it never blooms," says Parks. "It stays small [4 feet tall and wide], has attractive white flowers, the bark exfoliates and the bright yellow foliage turns a nice burgundy red in fall." Give the plant part shade and well-drained soil.
Drops of Gold Japanese holly (Ilex crenata Drops of Gold) zones 6 to 8: "It almost shouts at you in the garden, it's so bright," says Pinkham. "Visitors to our garden love it." The plant grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide; best coloration happens in full sun.
Mellow Yellow spirea (Spiraea thunbergii Ogon) zones 4 to 8: "This is my favorite on the list, and it's in full bloom now," says Parks. "Beginning in February, it produces dainty, baby's-breathlike flowers, which usually last until mid-March. The real draw for me is the golden-to-yellow green foliage on arching branches, which adds a fine texture to the garden. In the fall, the plant tends to lose its green tints and goes more golden. In my garden, this plant never completely defoliated in this year's temperatures." The deer-resistant plant grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide, and attracts butterflies.
"Ogon can be pruned hard each winter to keep it 3 to 4 feet tall and wide," says landscape designer Peggy Krapf of Heart's Ease Landscape and Garden Design in James City County, Va. "It works well with a contemporary or informal style landscape."
Golden Japanese spikenard (Aralia cordata Sun King) zones 4 to 8: The evergreen quickly forms a plant 4 to 5 feet tall and wide. Contrasting reddish-brown stems supports its bright yellow, tropical-looking foliage; in late summer, interesting racemes of tiny white flowers attract honeybees, and are followed by black berries. It likes part shade, and is deer resistant.
All Gold forest grass (Hakonochloa macra All Gold) zones 5 to 9: Deer-resistant grass spreads to form 18-inch-high and 24-inch-wide clumps that glow chartreuse in shade and brighter gold in sun.
Brigadoon St. John's wort (Hypericum calycinum Brigadoon) zones 5 to 7: "This gold leaf St. John's wort is grown primarily for the foliage," says Parks. "In shadier sites, it's more chartreuse green and with more sun it's yellower. More ground cover than shrub, it stays mostly evergreen. Exposed to cold weather, the leaves take on an orange to red cast."
Golden monkey grass (Liriope muscari Pee Dee Ingot) zones 6 to 10: "It's best grown in some shade to thrive, because it will scald in afternoon sun," says Parks. "It does add a nice texture and bright color to shadier areas, and is more interesting than green liriope, and it a great addition to containers, as well."
"I love using it in drifts on the edge of mixed borders," says Pinkham.
Taiwan stonecrop (Sedum nokoense) zones 6 to 8: This creeping succulent is covered with bright golden yellow flowers over an extended period in summer; in winter, its foliage takes on burgundy tints. "It needs perfect drainage," says Pinkham.