For better or worse, nurseries and seed companies each year send me a few plants or seeds to try out and perhaps write about. The “for better” part is that I get to grow a lot of worthwhile plants. The “for worse part” is that I have to grow some garden “dogs.” (I use the word “dogs” disparagingly, with apologies to Leila and Scooter, my good and true canines.) Before my memory fades, let me jot down impressions of a quartet of low, mounded annuals that I trialed this year.
Calibrachoa Superbells Blackberry Punch was billed as heat and drought tolerant, which it was. As billed, it also was smothered in flowers all summer long. It’s a petunia relative and look-alike. Still, I give it thumbs down. But that’s just me; I don’t particularly like purple flowers, and especially those that are purple with dark purple centers.
I’ll have to give Verbena Superbena Royale Chambray a similar thumbs down. It’s that purple again, light purple in this case. Also, the plants weren’t exactly smothered with flowers and most prominent, then, were the leaves which were not particularly attractive.
Golddust (Mecardonia hybrid) made tight mounds of small yellow flowers nestled among small yellow leaves. I give this one a partial thumbs up. The flowers were too small and there weren’t enough of them even if the leaves alone did make pleasant, lime green mounds.
And finally, a rousing thumbs up for Goldilocks Rocks (Bidens ferulifolia). This plant also was a low mound of tiny leaves, needle-shaped this time. Sprinkled generously on top of the leaves all summer long were sunny yellow blooms, each about an inch across and resembling single marigolds. Flowering was nonstop, even up through the many recent frosts here, right down to 24° F.
Bidens in the the’ botanical name caused me slight pause when I planted Goldilocks, not because of any political reservations, but because the common name for this genus is sticktight, or beggartick. You know those half-inch, flat, 2-pronged burrs that attach to animals -- and, inconveniently, your socks -- when you walk through wild meadows? Those are Bidens, trying to spread. (Not to be confused with the round, marble-size burs of burdock.) No problem with Goldilocks Rocks that lined my vegetable garden paths. The flowers were too low to reach any higher than my shoes.
I’m always amazed at how much cold plants can tolerate this time of year. Even with last night’s low of 18° F., unprotected plants are still hanging on. They look frosty this morning but will defrost gradually as the sun rises higher in the sky, and by afternoon look as perky as they did a month ago. Not cucumber, tomato, or pepper plants, of course; they’ve been cleared out of the garden for a couple of weeks.
Still looking and tasting good are arugula, spinach, leaf lettuces, turnips, radishes, and, of course, mâche. Mâche, although tasting and appearing delicate, will last all winter, even growing whenever temperatures warm up a little. Pot marigolds and snapdragons have also been unfazed by the cold, and, besides being alive, actually look the part. ‘Mums also would be unfazed, if I grew them, which I don’t because they look frozen in time rather than alive.
There’s even fruit still out in the garden. I found a few overlooked hardy kiwifruits (Actinidia arguta) still hanging on the vines. Most people are surprised that I can grow kiwifruits. I can’t; it’s too cold here. But I can grow hardy kiwifruits, which are very cold hardy.
The vines, originally from Asia, were introduced into this country about a hundred years ago as ornamentals. Apple-green leaves with red stalks and peeling, gray bark were enough to wow gardeners. For decades, people admired the beauty of the vines without noticing the fruits.
About 30 years ago, people began to realize that there were edible fruits among them thar’ leaves. The fruits are diminutive cousins to the fuzzy kiwifruits seen in markets. Hardy kiwifruits, though, have smooth, edible skins, and everyone who tastes them agree that they have better flavor. You just pop them into your mouth as you do grapes.
Hardy kiwifruits also are easy to grow. They are vigorous vines so need to climb a trellis or arbor. You also need a male plant to pollinate up to 8 females. Annual pruning, similar to grape pruning, is needed to keep the plants in bounds and make the fruits bountiful and easy to pick.
I consider the plants so worthy of attention that I devoted a chapter to the history, growing, propagation, and varieties of them and their kin in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.