There's something comforting about planting the tried-and-true in the
garden. A sense of continuity and tradition. But sometimes, those
familiar stand-bys can seem a little dull and boring. It doesn't have
to be that way.
Today, I have some ideas for turning "okay" into "Oh Wow!"
How? By looking for plants that are perennial favorites... but then
selecting variants from that plant's family that are a lot less
familiar. Take the tried-and-true and give it a tweak!
Hydrangea macrophylla Cardinal Red
Let's start with a plant that is familiar to just about everyone: the
hydrangea. It used to be the plant of choice with people looking for
flowering shrubs. Because of that, hydrangeas seemed to be everywhere
and as a result they began to lose their appeal. But I've noticed
that the humble hydrangea is once again becoming popular, particularly
with a younger generation of homeowners.
Select a slightly unusual variety - such as the Cardinal Red - and
your planting puts a unique twist on an old stand-by. Not only is the
foliage attractive, but the huge red flower heads put on a great show
all summer. One of the reasons for the popularity of hydrangeas is that
they are shade tolerant and grow well on the shady side of a building
or under trees. I like to see them planted as specimens, or massed
together for stunning borders. The dried flower heads look good in
flower arrangements, too.
Another option, if you're laying out cool colors for your garden,
could be the hydrangea Nikko Blue that will look delightful amid all
those purples, pinks and whites.
Hydrangea macrophylla Forever Pink
Two things make this hydrangea a little different. It's a dwarf
variety, making it perfect for a low hedge or foundation planting.
Secondly, Forever Pink blooms about one month earlier than most other
hydrangeas and usually continues looking good until frost.
But why stop at hydrangeas?
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica "Little Henry")
If you're looking for a compact shrub that's easy to grow,
relatively free of diseases and provides year-round color, Little Henry
could be for you.
The lightly-scented pure white flowers remind me of a spectacular
display of bursting fireworks, frozen in time. But it's the foliage
that boasts the most dazzling color. The dark green leaves take on a
reddish tinge in early fall that develops into dark crimson and scarlet
and the days get chillier. The fantastic blood-red foliage even
eclipses the more familiar Burning Bush.
Little Henry is an easygoing fellow who tolerates soil from moist to
dry and light conditions from full sun to shade. As always, if you
cannot find this plant easily, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
and I'll see if I can get you some shopping information.
Rosa "Carefree Delight"
Your neighbors might have roses, but they probably don't have this
variety. Many horticulturists consider the Carefree Delight to be one
of the most beautiful, long blooming, and hardy, disease resistant
shrub roses available today, so this is definitely a possibility if
you're looking for a twist on a traditional favorite.
This is what you might call a "living fence" and forms a dense wall
of foliage and hundreds of blooms with very little effort on your part.
The flowers start out as dark pink buds that develop into white-eyed
blossoms and often continue from late spring until frost.
Giant Pussy Willow (Salix chaenomeloides)
Yes, pussy willows are a familiar sight. But this one looks like it is
on steroids! To give you an idea, it has catkins the size of a
rabbit's foot and can grow to about ten feet high. It's not easy
to find but quite easy to grow.
I like the silver-grey foliage in the summer and the glowing red-yellow
bark in the winter. Seeing the red buds turn into furry catkins in the
early spring still brings out the kid in me.
So look for unusual twists on old favorites and put a unique face on a
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs
and landscaping to email@example.com and for resources and
additional information, including archived columns, visit