Now that the garden has gently shifted into architecture and mush, it’s time to reflect on the plants we grew this season and decide whether we’ll continue to grow them for seasons to come.

Whether sexy new introductions or old favorites, plants excite each one of us for totally different reasons and what lights up my world may only cast a weak CFL shadow on yours, so before I share my favorites from this year, I’ll also share the characteristics that make me sit up and take notice:

For ornamentals, it must thrive in the vagaries of my Mid-Atlantic Zone 7 climate which taketh away just as much as it giveth. The General Wow Factor (GWF), must be high, as evidenced by how often I find myself standing in front of it grinning. I’m looking for a strong foliage presence, whether for shape, color, texture or height; and if it flowers, a good balance between blooms and structure. Envy also plays a tiny role.  I’m not going to pretend I don’t relish the sound of “What is THAT?!?”

For edibles, the production vs. work ratio must be well-balanced and it should display well in the garden and on the plate – – but I value taste above all else.

Characteristics that don’t interest me:

  1. How ridiculously rare it is.
  2. How difficult it is to grow.
  3. How it would be beautiful if it were grown somewhere else.

Thus, I give you my top performers this year in three categories: ornamental perennials & shrubs, ornamental annuals/half-hardy perennials, and edibles.  Next year I’ll try to convince my editor I need more copy space for bulbs & conifers. Most photos were taken in my garden, but every once and awhile I completely neglect to capture a beautiful plant on film and must rely on the photos of others.

Why am I using Latin names you ask, irritably? Because if I recommend sword fern, I want to make sure that you know I’m talking about Nephrolepis obliterata, not Polystichum munitum which both go by that name.  (It’s an old argument and I’m not giving up – Google will make it less painful for you and common names are used as well.)

Some are new introductions for 2018 (perk of being a garden columnist), some are old favorites, and some may have been completely forgotten by the trade (which is why we should always go to plant swaps).

However they got into my garden, they absolutely stood out once they were there.


Favorite ornamental perennials & shrubs


Hydrangea paniculata ‘Baby Lace® – I don’t take the job of recommending a new panicle hydrangea lightly.  There are many out there and if you can see the form of the plant through the ridiculously large clusters of blossom, you’re lucky.  The compact variety ‘Baby Lace’ strikes a terrific balance, and as a bonus, is a very strongly stemmed plant.  Better than ‘Little Lime’ in my opinion. Sun/pt. shade.


Hydrangea paniculata ‘Baby Lace’


Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’ – I grabbed three of these from Cavanos Perennials this spring, gave away two and two months later wished I hadn’t been so damned generous.  Large dark green leaves are underlain with silvery purple, and in late summer, bright yellow-orange blooms shoot up on four foot stems.  In a partially shaded, moist position, this is a plant that makes you look like a professional.  You can pass on ‘Desdemona’ – she’s as wispy and wet as her namesake. Pt. shade.


Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’ with autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora)


Selaginella braunii A cool little non-fern that brings a new texture to my fernery with wide flat fronds shaped like arborvitae foliage.  Still standing strong in late November whilst all around is mush and madness. Pt. shade/shade.


Selaginella braunii with Pulmonaria ‘High Contrast’ – another great perennial. (Garden of Tammy Schmitt, VA)


Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ – Before you rubbish the idea of having ‘brown grass’ in your garden, consider the contrasts to be had.  Besides, ‘Red Rooster’ is not brown – it’s a multi-hued kaleidoscope of burnished threads  – and it’s vertical.  Convinced?  I should think so. Sun.


Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’ (foreground) provides a terrific naturalistic contrast to this trough planted primarily with the greens and whites of gardenia, euonymus and other carex.


…and on its own in the summer garden. (Photo courtesy of Pan American Seed)


Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Ice Breaker Max’  One is tempted to say “there is no other hellebore for me,” but one would be caught out in one’s lie by one’s garden. Nevertheless, ‘Ice Breaker Max’ is an incredible up-facing hybrid that is so generous with its pure white blooms and so long lasting that I want to stop gritting my teeth against the cold and whistle instead.  If you see it, trip the guy who’s holding it, tuck it under your arm and run.  Shade/Sun.


H. x ericsmithii ‘Ice Breaker Max’ – a beacon of light in January and February.


Callicarpa x ‘Pearl Glam®  I have grown C. americana for many years, and it was wonderful to have this dark-foliaged cousin join the party last year.  This year, bigger, more upright, and definitely worth watching for future greatness. Sun.


Callicarpa ‘Pearl Glam’ (photo credit: Proven Winners)


Rosa hybrida ‘At Last®’ – Delicate true salmon color (I’m not talking about that bright orange farmed nonsense), incredibly long season, and a fragrance to boot. This landscape (or shrub) rose is aptly named ‘At Last’ – I loved it all season, but when it continued to bloom in fall against reddening ilex berries I was lost. Sun.


‘At Last’ landscape rose with Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’


Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ & ‘Marvel’ – For those who have never warmed to the coarseness of M. aquifolium, these new introductions may have you rethinking the genus. ‘Soft Caress’ is airy and delicate beyond words, and requires a bit of shelter from wind. ‘Marvel’ is a slimmer, trimmer mahonia – steadfastly upright and bursting with blooms. Pt. shade.


M. eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’


Ligustrum sinense ‘Sunshine’ – Not sure why this one surprised me (the hype has been fierce), but it did.  A fast growing burst of chartreuse foliage with a fine, touchable habit. GWF on this one very high, particularly when you remember that it’s sterile and won’t take over the garden. Great as a low hedge. Sun/pt.shade.



Stachys byzantina ‘Helene von Steine – I feel as if this lamb’s ear should have a bullet list of credentials after its name.  Weed-smothering. Sun or shade loving. Robust grower. Large, silvery grey foliage without the pain of heavy, awkward flowering stems. The list goes on but I mustn’t. Sun/shade.


‘Helene von Steine’ stachys is a great contrast to berrying shrubs – particularly red ones like this ‘Winter Red’ ilex


Favorite annuals & half-hardy perennials

Dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’ – I’m a sucker for black foliage and yellow flowers on dahlias and this one was more vigorous than average and sported a rosy tinge to boot.  It also gave birth to an impressive amount of tubers so I’m all set for next year. Sun.


Dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’ (photo credit: Proven Winners)


Nephrolepis obliterata – (sword or Kimberly queen fern) – Walk past the Boston ferns and head straight for this Australian sword fern.  They filled whiskey barrels without breaking a sweat this season and lasted through the frosts right up until the freeze.  I could have brought them inside, but after consulting with a skeptical friend who is better at this than I am, has a greenhouse, and has ‘been there, done that,’ I decided to shell out next spring for a barrel refill. Sun/pt. shade.

A container arrangement with Nephrolepis obliterata (Kimberly queen or sword fern)


Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ – Impact.  Period.  My three-year-old plant (now dug and stored in the garage) was 12 feet tall this year and even made non-gardeners pay attention. A red banana that just keeps getting better – and readily available at many garden centers. Sun/pt. shade.


‘Maurelii’ at the beginning of the season…


…and by the end.


Brugmansia arboreaThere’s every chance that with a foot of mulch, this gobsmackingly beautiful angel’s trumpet might make it through the winter.  Even if it doesn’t, I’ll be growing it again.  And again. Sun.


Brugmansia arborea with Zinnia ‘Moulin Rouge’ and Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’


Zinnia elegans ‘Moulin Rouge’ – A custom seed mix from Renee’s Garden Seeds that focuses on deep blue reds and large blooms.  I’ll be picking next year’s zinnias specifically to pair with this one. What a stunner. Sun.


‘Moulin Rouge’ zinnia with Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’


Lantana ‘Luscious™ Bananarama™’ – So upright and vigorous it made me start adding lantana to the annuals list. Features a strong woody branching habit that you’d swear was hardy.  You’d be wrong. Sun.


‘Luscious Bananarama’ Lantana with zinnia (photo credit: Proven Winners)



Lomandra longifolia ‘Platinum Beauty™’ On the fence over whether this grass like perennial will successfully overwinter in my garden but not on the fence over how much it added to the garden this year. Giving one to a friend with a greenhouse as insurance. Hope I get it back. Sun.

Ficus tikouaThis fig been a fun addition to my California Garden this year, but the jury is out as to whether it will be root hardy. (It’s evergreen in Z9-11.)  Planted a rooted cutting in May and in two months I had a ground hugging, rock embellishing, large-leafed crawler that looked as if I’d placed its thick brown stems precisely where I wanted them.  Let’s hope all those rocks and grit encourage it to keep breathing – I’ll keep you posted. Sun.


Lomandra longifolia ‘Platinum Beauty’ & Ficus tikoua


Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum ‘Dark Opal’ – This incredible African blue basil was still growing beautifully after a couple frosts.  The hard freeze finally knocked it down.  A bushy, sterile hybrid that will not stop blooming, yet the foliage is just tremendous. Sun.


‘Dark Opal’ African Blue Basil (bottom rt). ‘Siam Queen’ Thai basil (bottom left) is almost weedy in comparison.



Xanthosoma aurea ‘Lime Zinger’ – The two foot long chartreuse leaves had me speechless, but that’s a good thing cause I’m running a little high on word count this week. General Wow Factor 10++ Sun/pt. shade.


Xanthosoma aurea ‘Lime Zinger’

Favorite edibles


Tomato ‘Oh Happy Day’ – This tomato tops the edibles list for strength, health & vigor – and the taste is a great balance of acid and sweet.  It’s rare to find all of that in one tomato, and I predict that this new Burpee intro could give Better Boy a run for his money in the future.  If you see seeds or plants, grab them and try it for yourself.


‘Oh Happy Day’


Tomato ‘Midnight Snack’ – An AAS (All-America Selection) Winner for 2017, this is one of the most beautiful and tasty snacking tomatoes I have ever grown.  Lasted right up until the end of the season where some of my other cherry-type tomatoes had given up the ghost.  Highly recommended.


‘Midnight Snack’ tomato


Pepper ‘Take Two Director’s Cut’ – New for 2018, this Burpee introduction is a terrific, prolific combo of two tasty snack peppers – ‘Lemon Dream’ and ‘Tangerine Dream.’ Fun for containers.  Oddly enough I never shot photos of this lovely plant, but Burpee was kind enough to oblige with a pic of crunchy, beautiful results.


Take Two Director’s Cut Peppers (photo courtesy of Burpee®)



Beans ‘Magic Beanstalk’ – An heirloom scarlet runner that proved its worth by reseeding itself in my garden this year.  If you cut the beans into inch long segments you can throw them into everything from stir fries to casseroles.  It’s always a bonus when a vegetable is incredibly ornamental as well as delicious – and ‘Magic Beanstalk’ is all that AND vigorous.


‘Magic Beanstalk’ scarlet runner bean


Cucumber ‘Chelsea Prize’ – You buy them wrapped in plastic – grow them yourself instead.  Long and straight, crunchy and great with or without peel.  Add a bit of oil and vinegar and you have an instant salad. Another favorite from Renee’s Garden Seeds, for which, surprisingly, I must beg photos.  This year I grew another slicing cuke –  ‘Suyo Long’ – but in the end preferred the smooth skin and uniformity of ‘Chelsea Prize.’


‘Chelsea Prize’ cucumber (photo credit: Renee’s Garden Seeds)



Lettuce ‘Garden Babies’ – The true twelve-dollar-salad butterhead with a quick maturity.  I have loved and will always love. Whether planted in the garden itself or in containers, it grows vigorously and beautifully with yummy crisp hearts and tender leaves.  However, be warned: actually picking this piece of art is difficult when you know it’s going to leave a gap in your picture-perfect potager!


‘Garden Babies’ butterhead lettuce from Renee’s Seeds


Bushel & Berry™ ‘Peach Sorbet’ – A compact blueberry with lots of berries and exquisite fall color in shades of salmon and red.  My favorite so far of the Bushel & Berry line of compact fruiting shrubs. Keeping containers moist can be a challenge, but absolutely necessary for blueberries.  Consider ceramic or plastic containers over terracotta for more moisture retention.


‘Peach Sorbet’ from Bushel & Berry™ growing in a patio planter. (Photo credit: Bushel & Berry™)


Winter Squash ‘Climbing Honey Nut’ – A mini variety from Renee’s Garden Seeds with lots of baby butternuts perfect for two single servings.  They store very well and can spend a couple weeks decorating an autumn table before you actually eat them – bonus!


‘Climbing Honey Nut’ butternut squash


Summer Squash ‘Gold Rush’ – An old AAS Winner that wins every year in my garden. It has a beautiful waxy cast to it that it almost looks fake, but the texture is firm and the taste is excellent.


‘Gold Rush’ summer squash


Have your own list?  I’d love to hear a few of your favorites below.


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Frederick News Post