Friday, March 4, 2011

Shrubs for your Soul

For all those gardeners who haven't happened upon it, there is a new online gardening magazine titled Toil the Soil at  For the first (and free!) issue, I wrote an article in it about Plains-adapted flowering shrubs for MidWest gardeners titled "Shrubs for the Soul."  I thought I should post the text and some of the pictures here as well on my own blog, since the clickable pictures should be better quality here.  It may take a couple of parts:

Shrubs for the Soul:  Plains-adapted flowering shrubs for the winter-weary Midwestern gardener.
 Imagine that it is February 1st, 2011 and the biggest winter storm of the decade is throwing snow and ice at your windows and creating six foot high drifts around your shrub roses. You are a gardener in the Kansas Flint Hills who hasn’t seen a single sprig of green plant life for 2 months and your soul aches for any sight of a cheerful spring bloom. You are also an amateur writer who is trying to choose a topic for a new garden magazine and you’re under a short deadline. I’d be willing to bet my entire mail-order plant budget that eighty percent of you would choose, under those circumstances, to write about the spring-flowering shrubs that your heart pines for. The other twenty percent might write about either starting seeds indoors or about forcing spring bulbs, but I’m a conventional kind of guy, so I’ll stick with the cliché.

Here in the Flint Hills of Kansas, shrubs that can survive our cruel, arid Zone 5B winters, flower reliably in the soggy clay abetted by the April and May downpours, and then hold on steadfast through the hot dry summers, are indeed few and far between. Some spring shrubs counted on for the earliest displays in some regions of the country, such as the Witch Hazels (Hammelia sp.), need more acid soils to thrive than we can usually provide in the Flint Hills. I have, for instance, a specimen of ‘Jelena’ witchhazel in my garden and it is seen seldom enough in the area that most gardeners who visit either ask what it is or express surprise to see it. Those shrubs that do thrive in our soil and climate, however, are the pillars of Kansas gardener’s hopes in the Winter and provide the restoration of those gardeners’ souls each Spring. Eight intrepid shrubs that are well-equipped for the Kansas and Great Plains climate are:
'Meadowlark' Forsythia
Forsythia sp: Everyone with any gardening experience in the MidWest knows that Forsythia is going to be on this list, so we might as well get it over with early. Many varieties of Forsythia grow and perform very well here, and in fact, Manhattan, Kansas and the surrounding towns are pretty well covered in early April with the pastel combination of yellow Forsythia shrubs and pink Redbud trees. Some varieties of Forsythia can sustain damage from the more extreme winter temperatures of the Flint Hills, so it is useful to search out and plant the hardier varieties. Forsythia x int. ‘New Hampshire Gold’ (USDA Zone 4-8) is a mounding, arching shrub to about 5 feet tall that has reliably flowered every spring for ten years in my current garden. I tend to prefer the less brassy yellow tones of the newer Forsythia ovata ‘Meadowlark’, however. ‘Meadowlark’ has a taller and stiffer form to about 6 feet tall and the blossoms are much larger and showier than ‘New Hampshire Gold’. ‘Meadowlark’ was developed in a collaboration between the Arnold Arboretum and the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and is widely proclaimed as the hardiest of the forsythias (Zone 3-8), with buds resistant to cold damage to -35®F. Variegated Forsythia varieties, such as ‘Fiesta’ are planted here in hopes of a better display in the off-flower seasons, but they often suffer damage when fully exposed to the hot prairie sun and buds are not as reliably cold-hardy as the varieties previously mentioned.

Magnolia stellata
Magnolia stellata: One of the earliest flowering shrubs in my garden is Magnolia stellata, the Star Magnolia. I know that some gardeners in other zones or climates might think of this magnolia as a tree, but it definitely remains shrub-sized everywhere I’ve seen it in Zone 5. . I have cultivar ‘Royal Star’ which grows to around 10 feet, but other larger M. stellata cultivars are also available. But, regardless of ultimate size, this beauty is a god-send for early fragrance. I’ve never been particularly excited about the smallish 3-inch white blossoms against the bare branches, not like I am with some of the larger and more colorful magnolias, but the Star magnolia more than makes up for it in scent production. The survival of this one has encouraged me to try a few other of the hardier magnolias, including ‘Jane’, one of the “Little Girl” hybrids from the U.S. National Arboretum, and Magnolia acuminata ‘Yellow Bird’, a recent introduction from Monrovia. Both are reportedly hardy to at least Zone 5 but they are too young to be certain performers in my garden.

Syringa sp: Lilacs of all species and types are well-adapted to the alkaline soils of the Kansas Flint Hills and are cold-hardy far beyond our region. They bloom early in April in Zone 5, and sometimes the earlier blooming cultivars can be burned by a late frost or even dusted with snow. Although the hundreds of Syringa vulgaris cultivars all do well,  Korean lilacs and newer cultivars such as ‘Josee’ also thrive in the Kansas sunshine.  And the scent!  What would the scent of a Kansas spring be without Lilacs? 

Lilacs 'Wonderblue', 'Yankee Doodle', and 'Annabelle', left to right
the next week or so, I'll post the rest of the article, including a discussion of honeysuckles, viburnums (yes, in full sun!) and mockoranges.  But not right away, because I've got other things to touch on first!

1 comment:

  1. So pretty!!!! Please come and link up to Cottage Flora Thursday's sometime - love finding new gardening bloggers....i'm your newest follower! xoox


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