Category Archives: Plant Geekiness

Layering: The Key to a Professional-Looking Landscape

One reason this landscape bed is so appealing is the effective use of layering. Notice the tall spruce and ornamental tree used as top layers. Then below, plants progress downward from tall/medium shrubs to tall perennials, and finally, to ground covers.

One characteristic that visitors often notice in a well-designed landscape is plants of varying heights.

Juxtaposing plants of different sizes is called layering.  This practice generally involves using trees and tall shrubs as backdrops for smaller shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs.  With experimentation, you can create layers in your own garden.  It just takes some planning.  And when plants don’t always grow as tall or short as expected, you have to do some plant shuffling.  But fortunately, most plants are portable and relatively easy to move.

When designing a landscape, I think in terms of five layers:

Shade trees and large evergreens.  These landscape giants grow about 30 to more than 50 feet high. Examples are honeylocusts, oaks, maples, Kentucky coffee tree, and American elm.

Ornamental trees and small evergreens. Plants in this category grow about eight to 25 feet high. Some of my favorites are autumn brilliance serviceberry, Tina dwarf crabapple, spring snow crab, Russian hawthorn, and golden raintree.  As for small evergreens, I take their “mature height” on nursery tags with a grain of salt because most of them grow huge.  However, the dwarf Alberta spruce grows very slowly and stays relatively small.

Medium/large shrubs and grasses. Here, I’m talking about shrubs and grasses that grow six feet or taller.  Think of viburnums, rose of Sharon, chokeberries, serviceberries, Peking cotoneaster, redtwig dogwoods, tiger eye sumac, Cheyenne mock orange, bluestem joint fir, mugo pine, and Swiss stone pine, for example.  Tall grasses include big bluestem, giant sacaton, and Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus.’  Don’t forget about vines, as well, to add height to your garden.

Tulips and alliums pair well with blue avena grass, adding a layer by poking up above the grasses. Here, coral tulips contrast beautifully with spiky blue grass in terms of color, texture, and form.

Small shrubs and grasses, tall perennials, and tall bulbs. Small shrubs and grasses can range anywhere from about two to five feet tall.  One of my favorite plants in this category is blue avena grass, which grows about 2.5 feet high and wide.  First of all, it isn’t as allergenic as most grasses.  Second, it’s a four-season plant.  Third, it’s blue, which is sometimes a difficult color to find in plants for the garden.  And fourth, it looks fantastic with reds, purples, and oranges.  Pair it with coral tulips in early spring and purple alliums in late spring/early summer.

Some easy-to-grow small shrubs are emerald mound honeysuckle, Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, meidiland ground cover roses, shrub roses, color guard yucca, Carol Mackie daphne, Genista lydia bangle, gro-low sumac, spirea, weigela, and leadplant, to name a few.  The sand cherries, meidilands, and gro-low sumac make outstanding taller groundcovers, especially when you underplant them with shorter groundcovers.

Notice the height progression from the Genista lydia (green in foreground) to the red-leaved Pawnee Buttes sand cherry and on up to the fading tan sunset hyssop. Then in the upper right-hand corner, there’s a taller serviceberry.

Tall (as in two to five feet) perennials that dress up your garden include Joe Pye weed, hyssop, coneflower, shorter varieties of hardy hibiscus, daisies, asters, lavender, crocosmia, black-eyed Susan, oriental poppies, Rozanne cranesbill, bloody cranesbill, red hot poker, and tall garden phlox.

Bulbs that add height in the lower region of the garden are iris, daylilies, alliums, tulips, daffodils, frittilaria, Asiatic lilies, and dahlias.

Ground covers. This category of low-growing (one to two foot), spreading plants often gets short shrift in the garden, even though they provide continuity and help prevent weeds.  You wouldn’t build a house without flooring, so why wouldn’t you want an underpinning for your garden?

I use Veronica pectinata as a fluffy blue carpet from which bulbs can emerge each spring.  Other delightful choices include prairie winecups, orange carpet hummingbird, creeping phlox, Siberian bellflower, Angelina and other sedums, soapwort, candytuft, dead nettle, and creeping thyme.

If you haven’t thought about ways to layer plants in your garden, I encourage you to do so.  You may find the results rewarding.


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Easy-Growing Plants Offer Colorful Excitement All Season Long

Goblet-shaped blooms of xeric Callirhoe involucrata adorn the garden from late May to October.

In an ideal garden, I suppose individual plants would bloom all season long, providing continuous color.  Here in Colorado, season-long bloom is rather uncommon, other than with annuals.

As for perennials, bulbs and shrubs, a long bloomer along the Front Range could be defined as one that produces flowers non-stop for four to six months.  Fortunately, there are a few stalwarts out there, including those mentioned below.

  • Catmint (Nepeta). My favorite catmint is little Trudy—a sterile, drought-tolerant cultivar that grows into a compact mound of lavender fluffiness lasting from May to October.  If Trudy begins to poop out in the summer heat, simply shear her back, and she’ll be fluffed out again in a week or two.  This perennial grows about a foot high and 1.5 feet wide.
  • Prairie winecups (Callirhoe involucrata). Winecups generates vines up to 2.5 feet long that are loaded with burgundy blooms about an inch in diameter.  This stalwart perennial grows about six inches tall and can handle the hottest, driest conditions in your landscape.  Like little Trudy, winecups blooms from May to October.

    Perky lavender Rozanne cranesbill lights up the landscape from June to September. When blooms start to fade, cut Rozanne back judiciously to encourage new bloom.

  • Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Gerwat’ Rozanne). If you love lush, lavender blooms, Rozanne is for you.  This hardy perennial grows in full sun to part shade and boasts blossoms about an inch in diameter.  The plant itself grows about 1.5 feet high and 2 to 2.5 feet wide.  Rozanne isn’t as drought-tolerant as catmint and winecups, so water it once or twice a week in hot weather. She’ll give you color from June to September.
  • Coreopsis and Blanket flower (Galliardia). These two beauties will bloom from June to September.  I’ve stopped growing them, however, because they require such frequent deadheading.
  • Stella de Oro daylily (Hemerocallis ‘Stella de Oro’). Unlike most other daylilies, Stella d’Oro blooms from May to August, displaying soft yellow blossoms.  Stella grows about 1 foot high and eventually will spread to the point that you’ll need to divide her to make new Stellas.

    It’s hard to beat fire meidiland for sheer showiness. This tough, yet beautiful groundcover rose will delight you all the way from June to September.

  • Roses.  There are quite a few roses that will bloom from June to September.  One drought-tolerant favorite is Linda Campbell, which grows about 5 feet high and wide, with deep red flowers.  Long-blooming groundcover roses include sea foam, white meidiland, fire meidiland, scarlet meidiland, and magic meidiland.  When looking for long-blooming roses, check for “good repeat” or “continuous repeat” in the plant descriptions.



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Reseed Your Way to a Lusher Garden


Agastaches, such as Sonoran sunset (left) and sunset hyssop, reseed in some gardens, but not in others. The seedlings seem to spread more prolifically on bare ground or in sparsely mulched areas.

Do you have what it takes to grow self-seeding plants? Maybe, if you don’t mind seedlings popping up here and there, and you have the guts to destroy plants that turn thuggish. Because let’s face it–reseeders aren’t for everyone.

But for budget-conscious gardeners, self-sowing can offer an inexpensive way to fill gaps in a garden or cover large chunks of real estate in a hurry.

Let’s say you want to create a cottage garden in your back yard, but you’re concerned that self-sowers will crowd out your existing plants. You can select gently reseeding annuals and perennials.

The trick to successful reseeding is being able to recognize seedlings so you don’t mistake them for weeds and kill them. Study the leaf structure of mature plants, then compare it to that of the seedlings. The seedlings with long, slender leaves on the right and in the rear are sunset agastache. The plants to the left, with broader leaves, are Sonoran sunset agastache. Notice the tiny plant just sprouting at the far right? It’s another Sonoran sunset agastache.

Well-behaved annuals include sunflowers, pansies and sweet alyssum. As for polite perennials, consider low-growing bloody cranesbill with its bright fuchsia blooms; lady’s mantle with its fluffy lime-green clusters; or cupid’s dart with its purplish-blue flowers resembling bachelor buttons. You can also choose English lavender, bleeding heart, lupine, purple coneflower, chocolate flower, penstemon or agastache, as well as biennial snapdragon.

If you’re more interested in populating a large, sun-scorched area to prevent weeds, pick seedy characters that spread quickly. Aggressive annuals, such as California poppies, larkspur, bachelor buttons, cosmos and blue flax will sprout in your yard for years to come. You can also toss in a few strong-willed perennials, such as hardy four o’clock, with its deep-pink trumpet-shaped blooms and mint-green leaves; globe thistle with its architectural growth habit and spiky blue flowers; and knautia with its burgundy, pincushion-shaped flowers on long stems.

Broadleaf weeds or desirable perennials? These are baby soapworts, which can spread 24 to 36 inches wide and produce masses of pink flowers in spring.

Other quick spreaders include prairie winecups, Jupiter’s beard, Mount Atlas daisy, catmint, yarrow, hollyhock, rose campion, soapwort, and salvias such as May night. And don’t forget ornamental grasses, such as Mexican feather grass and little bluestem.

In the vegetable garden, lettuce is notorious for producing babies if you allow the plant to go to seed. You may also find volunteer tomatoes, spinach and purple mustard.

Check around your compost pile, too, for baby cantaloupes and other squashes that may have sprouted from seeds of decomposed parent plants. You’ll need to protect these little ones from the cold in early spring, but you can transplant them to your garden once the weather warms up.

Chives, both common and garlic, can reseed to the point of weediness in the garden. So can dill. Other self-sowing herbs are culinary sage, cilantro, some sorrels, catnip, oregano, borage, calendula, parsley and chamomile.

If you eventually discover that you have too much of a good thing, you can discourage reseeding by deadheading or yanking plants before they go to seed.

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Cultivate Low-Water Lushness with Drought-Tolerant Groundcovers

Soapwort flows past a boulder where Steve, my tabby, acts as overseer. Directly behind Steve, you can see bonfire euphorbia just starting to bloom with bits of yellow bracts showing. To the left of the soapwort sits Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, and in the center of the background is orange carpet hummingbird, which will burst forth with neon orange flowers in the next week or two.

While traveling through Louisiana years ago, I was amazed by the sheer lushness of the trees, grass and flowers.

Here in Colorado, I rarely spot lush residential landscapes.  What can you expect in such an arid climate?  All the same, I love luxuriant gardens in which plants simply flow into each other.

Most trees and shrubs, by their very nature, offer a degree of lushness, which is why homeowners love them.  But groundcovers can add a whole new level of richness.

I’ve been experimenting with various low-water groundcovers to create a sense of lushness in my Fort Collins landscape.  It has taken about four years to get close to achieving the sumptuousness I’m looking for, but I’m making progress.  I’ve propagated new plants from existing ones to keep costs down.

My goal has been to provide successional bloom; in other words, have something new flowering throughout the season for aesthetics and for pollinators.

Here are plants I’ve used successfully.

Spring bloomers

Woolly speedwell (Veronica pectinata).  One of my all-time favorites, woolly speedwell offers an evergreen carpet for flowering bulbs in early spring.  Then around April or May, small blue blossoms emerge on this ground hugger, creating a spectacle of color that lasts for three or four weeks.  Although drought tolerant, woolly speedwell performs best in part shade with regular watering.   To propagate it, dig up a chunk and move it where you need it.

Bloody cranesbill is one of the toughest groundcovers I’ve ever grown. It thrives in both sun and shade, offering a flush of bright fuchsia flowers in the spring.

Soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides).  This sun-loving, evergreen beauty begins blooming in late spring and continues into early summer with a profusion of perky pink flowers.  There’s a white-flowered soapwort, as well.  Soapwort reseeds prolifically, covering a significant amount of real estate in a short time.  Many web sites claim that soapwort spreads 15 to 18 inches.  Don’t believe it.  Some of my pink bloomers routinely grow 40 inches wide and eight inches high.  If you want to discourage soapwort’s spread, simply pull off the seed heads.

Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).  Candytuft resembles a wedding bouquet with its profusion of white blooms.  The plant’s attractive deep green leaves keep their color year-round.  This underused plant begins flowering in late spring and extends well into June.  Candytuft will grow about two feet wide.  You can divide it for more plants.

Summer bloomers

Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).  An early summer bloomer, bloody cranesbill produces bright fuchsia blooms in both sun and shade.  After its initial flush of flowers, this groundcover will continue to produce occasional blooms throughout the growing season.  It grows about 14 inches high and 36 inches wide, and is extremely drought-tolerant.  Propagate it by division.

Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Gerwat’ Rozanne).  Rozanne is Bloody’s cousin with bigger, longer-lasting blooms.  In my garden, Rozanne grows about 20 inches high and 36 inches wide, and explodes with two-inch-wide purple blossoms from June till September.  Like bloody cranesbill, Rozanne will grow in both sun and shade, and can be propagated by division.  Although drought-tolerant, Rozanne prefers regular watering.

Sumptuous Rozanne cranesbill provides purple blooms from June till September.

Prairie winecups (Callirhoe involucrata).  This hardy groundcover sends out 30-inch runners loaded with rich magenta goblet-shaped blooms.  Winecups begins blossoming in late May and keeps on going till frost.  The easiest way to propagate prairie winecups is by seed.

Bonfire euphorbia (Euphorbia epithymoides ‘Bonfire’).  I’ve loved this mounding plant ever since spotting it at the Colorado State University perennial trial garden years ago.  Its showy red/orange/purple foliage makes this plant a show-stopper throughout the growing season.  But when it blooms, whoa Mama!  Bonfire’s brilliant yellow bracts grab the attention of passers-by, who often pause and ask questions about the plant.  Although often described as a groundcover that grows 18 inches wide, my four-year-old bonfire is 30 inches wide and 14 inches high.

Meidiland groundcover roses perform spectacularly in the garden, especially in hot, dry areas. This fire meidiland, with its double blooms, is a show-stopper.

Groundcover roses.  My favorite groundcover roses are the meidilands, which come in red, pink, yellow and white.  These ground-hugging, weed-squelching stalwarts thrive in the hottest, driest growing conditions and feature stunning, deeply colored blooms.  I favor fire meidiland, in particular, with its lush double blooms, but have also grown red meidiland successfully.  Another delightful groundcover rose is seafoam, a white variety that grows in the White House rose garden.  My only caveat with white roses is that they’ll turn brown if you grow them in sun that’s too intense.  The roses bloom from June till frost.  Groundcover roses are easy to propagate by simple layering.

Hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides).  This gorgeous plant will grow in sun or shade.  I like growing it under trees.  It’s drought tolerant, but grows best with regular watering.  In July, plumbago delivers striking gentian blue flowers, followed by lovely copper-colored seed heads.  Then in the fall, the foliage turns red.  Plumbago spreads readily by itself, but you can encourage it by digging up a chunk to plant where you need it.

Fall bloomers

Except for bloody cranesbill and bonfire euphorbia, all of the summer bloomers mentioned above continue flowering through the fall.  Another summer/fall bloomer is orange carpet hummingbird (Zauschneria garrettii).

Groundcovers act as organic mulches that save you time and money you might otherwise spend on wood and rock mulches.  If you haven’t used groundcovers on a large scale, I encourage you to try them.



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Kick-Ass Plants for Badass Territory

Kick-ass plants can provide color and interest even when they’re not in bloom. In this fall landscape, you’ll see (clockwise from lower left) Genista lydia, fiery Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, Sonoran sunset hyssop, sunset hyssop, blue avena grass, and orange carpet hummingbird.

Unless you’re one of those rare Colorado gardeners with a shady yard, you probably have spots that get blasted by the sun—in other words, badass areas.  And you likely have heavy clay soil, too.

The southwest corner of my front yard is badass.  Besides getting hammered by western and southern sun, the area sits next to a sidewalk, which radiates heat.

So when I designed this space, I selected kick-ass, drought-tolerant plants with fall color and winter interest in mind.  I also wanted most, if not all, of the plants to attract pollinators.  Here are the plants that made the cut.

Around July, these kick-ass plants burst with color, particularly the fuchsia-colored Sonoran sunset hyssop, salmon-and-lavender sunset hyssop, and neon orange carpet hummingbird. The Genista lydia in front erupts in electric yellow flowers in the spring. Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, behind the genista, produces white flowers in the spring. Because of their successional bloom, the plants (other than the blue avena grass) provide nectar to pollinators throughout the growing season.

Lydia broom (Genista lydia). This evergreen, groundcover shrub explodes with electric yellow flowers in the spring.  Its branches are somewhat scruffy, which is probably why you can’t find it in nurseries these days.  However, there’s a new smaller cultivar with more attractive branching:  Lydia bangle broom (Genista lydia ‘Select’).  Bangle grows 12-24 inches high and 18-24 inches wide, and produces the same showy yellow flowers that Genista lydia   I haven’t seen this plant in Fort Collins nurseries yet, but The Tree Farm in Longmont sells it.  So I’m guessing this cultivar will migrate north to local nurseries before long.

Pawnee Buttes sand cherry (Prunus besseyi). In April, this low-growing shrub pumps out fragrant white flowers, followed by black berries in the summer.  In the fall, this plant’s foliage is pure magic, when sunlight catches its fiery red leaves.  Then in winter, Pawnee Buttes’ perky little branches stand at attention.  This shrubby ground cover will reach 15-18 inches high and 4-6 feet wide.  Don’t let its width scare you, though.  Pawnee Buttes responds very well to pruning if you want to keep its width at four feet or so.

Sonoran Sunset hyssop (Agastache cana ‘Sinning’). This herbaceous, woody-based perennial blooms prolifically with fuchsia flowers from early June through October.  Then in late fall, its blooms turn tan, providing winter interest.  Pollinators, especially hummingbirds, love it.  Sonoran Sunset grows 15-18 inches high and 12-15 inches wide.  If you have heavy clay soil, be sure to amend it with compost to improve drainage.  Once this plant is established, don’t overwater it.  I’ve killed a couple that way in a moister part of my yard.

Sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris). Sunset hyssop features salmon-and-lavender blooms.  It’s taller than Sonoran, reaching 2-4 feet high by 20-30 inches wide.  So I plant it as a backdrop to Sonoran.  Agastache has a reputation for being a short-loved perennial, but all of my sunset hyssops are going into their fourth season.

Orange carpet hummingbird (Zauschneria garrettii). As the common name suggests, this plant is beloved by hummingbirds for its tubular, neon-orange blooms from June to October.  Zauschneria spreads quickly and grows 3-4 inches high by 15-20 wide.  It’s one of those plants you’ll be able to share with neighbors.

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). It’s not easy to find blue plants for a garden’s color scheme.  That’s one reason I like blue oat (avena) grass so much.  Unlike many ornamental grasses, blue oat grass, doesn’t reseed and take over your yard.  This well-behaved plant delivers arching stalks of airy plumes in early summer, and grows about 2-3 feet high and wide.  This is the only plant in my badass area that doesn’t provide nectar for pollinators.

Cut the hyssops and blue oat grass to the ground in March or April as new growth emerges.

All of these plants offer nearly year-round interest except for orange carpet hummingbird, which dies back in winter.  They also bloom at different times so that pollinators have food sources throughout the growing season.

On April 14, I’ll be offering two short programs on kick-ass plants at the Sustainable Lifestyle Expo at the FirstBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado.  Colorado State University Extension agents, specialists and volunteers will provide research-based demonstrations and talks on more than 30 topics. Expo tickets are $10 for adults.  Admission is free for ages 17 and under.

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Keep Your Flowers Fresher Longer

What’s the #1 longest-lasting cut flower? Zinnia. These pollinator-attracting plants reach about 1 to 4 feet tall and are available in many colors.

With Valentine’s day approaching, many of you may find yourselves with bouquets of fresh flowers.  And others of you may be cutting flowers from your gardens later this year.

Either way, you’ll want to keep those flowers fresh as long as you can.

Guess what’s the most effective method for keeping these lovelies in pristine condition.  Pennies?  No.  Bleach? Unh-unh.  Aspirin, hairspray, vodka, vinegar with sugar?  Not even close.

ProFlowers, the online florist, tested all of the methods above and then some.  The test results indicated these two methods work best:  One, refrigerate your flowers each night; and two, add ¼ cup of soda pop (preferably clear, such as 7-Up) to the vase water.  This reportedly works even better than flower food.

If you pick the flowers yourself, be sure to cut them with a sharp knife or bypass pruners in the morning or early evening rather than during the mid-day heat.  Then insert the stems in clean water right away.

Roses, such as the Fire Meidilands shown here, are stunning in cut-flower arrangements.

Whether you receive flowers as a gift or harvest them yourself, cut the stems at an angle for better water absorption, and remove all leaves below the water line to minimize bacterial growth.

Opinions vary concerning water temperature, but most sources recommend lukewarm water in the vase.  Add more water as needed, and clean the vase every few days.

Keep the flowers away from full sun, fruit, and hot and cold drafts.

Among the longest-lasting cutting flowers are zinnias, carnations, alstroemerias, delphiniums, daisies, peonies and sunflowers.  So plant your garden accordingly for bountiful blooms and durable arrangements.


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Unsung Heroes Brighten Winter Landscape

Japanese barberry feeds birds and the soul with its colorful winter berries.

Easy-to-grow plants with winter interest are Japanese barberry, Angelina sedum, creeping and upright Mahonia, color guard yucca, and ornamental grasses.

Yes, I know Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is somewhat overplanted in Colorado.  But there’s a reason for that.  This sun-loving shrub is extremely hardy.  The birds love the berries, especially in winter.  And people love the berries for their brilliant red color, especially in an otherwise-drab winter landscape.  The Kobold variety even resembles boxwood—a plus for gardeners who love the look of boxwood but don’t want to deal with its inherent problems in Colorado.

Angelina sedum explodes with yellow, orange-red, purple and green foliage in the winter.   This indestructible plant will gradually spread, and babies can be easily transplanted.  In warmer months, the foliage turns chartreuse.

Low-growing Angelina sedum generates explosions of color throughout the garden.

Mahonia aquifolium and Mahonia repens always have something going on.  They hold their leaves year-round, offering deep green foliage in warm months and reddish foliage in winter.  Each spring, Mahonia produces bright yellow flowers, followed by blue berries, which birds love.  Mahonia, like Japanese barberry, is tough and drought-tolerant, but grows best in shade.

Mahonia repens takes on subtle red hues when temperatures turn cold.

Color guard yucca displays yellow-and-green-striped leaves in warm weather.  When winter rolls around, the sword-like foliage becomes even more interesting by adding a bit of coral color to the yellow and green.  I’ve grown this non-patented beauty for about three years and have divided it to propagate three more plants.  The mother plant is 16 inches tall and 24 inches wide.  I’m hoping it’ll flower one of these years.

Hints of coral enhance Color Guard yucca’s yellow and green sword-like leaves in winter.

Ornamental grasses are stalwarts that provide architectural elements in the winter garden.  Don’t cut them back until late February or early March.

Other favorites for the winter garden are Harry Lauder’s walking stick, red twig and yellow twig dogwoods, yews, pines, firs, spruces, junipers and hawthorns.

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Low-Cost Propagation Methods Can Multiply Your Shrubs

This multi-caned red twig dogwood can be propagated by using simple layering, division, runners or stem cuttings.

In last month’s post, I explained how to use simple layering to propagate shrubs with branches close to the ground.

But what about shrubs that don’t have low-hanging branches?  Fortunately, there are other propagation approaches you can use: Dividing root balls, transplanting runners, and taking stem cuttings.  Within a short time, you can have several baby shrubs for transplanting around your yard.

Dividing root balls.  There are many shrubs that don’t respond well to division because of their tree-like growth habit from a single trunk.  But there are other shrubs, primarily those that produce multiple canes, that divide nicely.  Examples include butterfly bush, rose, dogwood, spirea, potentilla, lilac and forsythia.

To propagate by division, dig up the root ball of the mother plant.  The root ball may fall apart by itself, leaving several cane clumps with roots attached.  If not, use a shovel or knife to cut the ball apart, being careful to minimize damage.  Make sure that each cane clump has a good root ball.  Then transplant the clumps to their final resting places.

Transplanting runners.  Some shrubs produce runners, called rhizomes (underground) or stolons (above ground), which create suckers.   These shrubs are called colonizers because, over time, they’ll create colonies of themselves if left unchecked.  Colonizers include serviceberry, dogwood, lilac, sumac and kerria.

If you want to propagate and transplant a baby shrub from the mother shrub, look for a branch growing several inches from the mother plant—a branch that looks like it wants to strike out on its own.  Carefully dig around that branch to see whether it’s attached to its own runner.  If you spot a runner, dig it up, coat it with a rooting hormone, such as Clonex, and gently place it in a hole in a pot or in the ground.

If you’re using a pot, mix peat moss with sand or perlite for a loose, well-draining medium.  If you’re planting the runner in the ground, dig a trench about six inches deep and fill it with sand.  You should moisten your growing medium with water, then poke a hole in the medium with your finger so you can insert the runner into the medium without disturbing the rooting hormone.  Then gently backfill the hole.  After that, just keep the runner watered the same as you would a regular plant.

Then wait about four months or so to give the runner time to develop auxiliary roots before transplanting it to its new home.

Taking stem cuttings.  This approach, in my experience, is the diciest of the propagation methods.  So if you can propagate a shrub by layering, division or transplanting runners, I suggest that you use one of those methods instead of taking cuttings.

In spite of difficulties, I have successfully propagated red twig dogwoods from cuttings.  But my success rate was only about 60 percent. Professionals have better equipment and are far more adept at propagating from cuttings than I am.

With layering and division, I’ve had a 100-percent success rate, and with transplanting runners, I’ve averaged about 75%.

If you have your heart set on propagating a shrub that can’t be propagated with the other methods I’ve described, then cuttings are the way to go.

There are three types of woody plant cuttings:  softwood, semi-hardwood and hardwood.  Softwood cuttings are taken from tender new growth in the spring or early summer.  Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken from partially matured growth in the summer.  Hardwood cuttings are taken from mature stems during the fall and winter.

Different types of shrubs root more readily from different types of cuttings.  Daphne and euonymus, for example, propagate most readily from semi-hardwood cuttings.  Viburnum, on the other hand, propagates most readily from softwood and hardwood cuttings.

To determine which shrubs require which cutting types, I check my reference book, Plant Propagation from The American Horticultural Society.

When I propagated red twig dogwoods, I took semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer and stripped off all the leaves.  Then I dug a trench, filled it with sand, and planted the cuttings the same way I did for the runners mentioned earlier.  I then mulched the cuttings with black plastic.  The following spring, I planted the cuttings in their final resting places.  Four of my seven cuttings survived the winter and transplanting.  I used rooting hormone on three of the seven cuttings.

If you want to get serious about rooting shrubs from cuttings, I suggest consulting Plant Propagation for step-by-step instructions.

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A Plant Geek’s Haphazard Approach To Propagating Shrubs

The equipment and supplies for simple layering are simple–gloves, sand, compost, anchoring pins, rooting hormone, pruners and a spade. The mother plant, a Genista lydia, sits in back.

Have you ever wished you could get three shrubs for the price of one?  Well, you can, with a little know-how and patience.

You simply propagate new plants from the mother shrub.  There are several ways to do this, including layering, dividing, digging up runners and taking stem cuttings.

Today I’ll cover simple layering.  In a future post, I’ll review other propagation methods that you can perform in your garden.

My study of propagation began last fall when I bought Plant Propagation, an excellent reference book produced by The American Horticultural Society.  I learned about hardwood and softwood cuttings, heating pads, cell trays, rock wool and all manner of horticultural mechanisms.  And I soon realized there were all kinds of propagation equipment and supplies that I didn’t want to spend money on.  So I experimented on the cheap.

I wanted to propagate more Genista lydias from my existing genista.

This shrublet is one I started last spring from layering. So it has been in layering mode for 6 months. I’ll wait until next spring to transplant it.

First, I tried taking a genista cutting and growing it in a sand/potting soil mixture in a pot with a plastic bag over it to retain heat and moisture.  Within a week or two, tiny green buds started popping up all over the cutting.  But a few weeks later, the cutting rotted and died.

So after doing more propagation research, I decided to try simple layering.  You can perform simple layering on any shrub with branches low enough to reach the ground.  I used it successfully last fall on red meidiland ground cover roses.  So I figured it might work for Genista lydia, as well.  Other candidates for simple layering include climbing roses, spreading cotoneaster, forsythia, lilac, viburnum, daphne, raspberries and blackberries.

Here’s my approach:

Step 1.  Collect your tools and equipment.  Mine include gardening gloves, pruners, spade, anchoring pins (I had edging pins on hand, so I used those.  But you also can use smaller, less expensive landscape fabric pins), rooting hormone (such as Clonex or Garden Safe TakeRoot), compost and general purpose sand.  The Clonex set me back $20, but everything else is stuff I already had around the house.  You can make homemade rooting hormone, if you want.  Just google online for recipes.

After digging your trench, strip all leaves from the underground portion of your selected branch and scrape a thin coat of bark off of the bottom of the branch. Then anchor the branch to to soil. I took this photo before pushing the anchoring pin farther into the ground so that you could see the pin more easily.

Step 2.  Select a young branch that’s at least 10 inches long.  You’ll need to bury some of it and have enough branch left over to leave some vegetation above ground.

Step 3.  Dig a trench 4 to 5 inches deep and about 6 inches long beneath your selected branch.

Step 4.  Strip all leaves from the portion of the branch that will be buried.  Scrape a thin layer of bark off of the bottom of the branch to encourage rooting through contact between the plant tissue and the soil.  You can also apply rooting compound at this point, but I generally just wait until the transplanting phase to use it.

Step 5.  Anchor the stripped portion of the branch to the ground with one or more anchoring pins.

Once you’ve anchored your branch to the ground, cover the anchored portion with 2 to 3 inches of a 50/50 compost/sand mixture. Then backfill the remainder of the trench with soil.

Step 6.  Cover the anchored portion of the branch with 2 to 3 inches of a 50/50 compost/sand mixture.  Then backfill the remainder of the trench with soil.  I’ve found that the compost/sand mixture improves drainage and prevents rotting, which is often a problem in heavy clay soils.

Step 7.  Position the above-ground portion of the branch so that it’s as vertical as possible.  You can even stake the top, if needed.  I don’t stress out if the branch isn’t perfectly vertical because I’ll be digging it up later to transplant it anyway.  At that point, I can reposition the top as needed when I replant it.

Step 8.  Mulch the trenched area and water it regularly.  Then wait.  Depending on your growing conditions, your new shrublet may be ready for transplanting in 4 to 6 months.  I typically transplant in spring or early fall for best root growth.  I dig a hole, coat the new roots of the shrublet with rooting compound, place the shrublet in the hole, and backfill with a mixture of two-thirds soil and one-sixth each of compost and sand.

There is one caveat to propagating your own plants asexually—that is, by any method other than planting seeds.  Don’t propagate patented plants.

Here’s the deal when it comes to patents.  When a breeder introduces a new plant, the breeder applies for a patent, which is valid for 20 years.  It’s only fair that the breeder should have an opportunity to recoup its costs and make some profits for developing the new plant.  Once the patent has expired, it’s all right to homeowners like you and me to propagate the plant asexually.

So do your research online to find out whether the plant you want to propagate has a patent in force.  Otherwise, you could face severe legal penalties.

This Genista lydia transplant looked dead within a few weeks of being moved to its new home in April. But the small plant hung in there and began producing blooms by June.

June 27, 2019 update:  In April of this year, I transplanted a Genista lydia branch that had been anchored in the ground for a year.  Once in its new home, the branch began turning brown from transplant shock.  But by June, it had grown new branches and even bloomed.  When transplanting Genista lydia, don’t give up on it too soon.


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Bury Bulbs Now for Spring Surprises

Corydalis ophiocarpa’s yellow blooms brighten the landscape in early spring.

Some things in life are just worth the wait. Take spring-blooming bulbs, for example.

In autumn, you dig a hole, gently insert a small vegetative object and cover it with soil. Then you wait. Come late winter or early spring, vibrant little beauties start poking their heads above ground, and before long you’re looking at a lavish display of pre-season blossoms–an end-of-winter announcement.

October is prime time for planting spring- and early-summer-blooming bulbs in Colorado, but you can get away with planting in early November, as well.

If you haven’t bought bulbs yet, you probably can still find some at nurseries, hardware stores and even big box stores, such as Costco.  The ones from the hardware and big box stores may not be premier quality, but they’ll get you by—especially if you just want to experiment.

Siberian squill’s nodding blooms add a woodland feel to the garden.

If you want top-quality bulbs from, say, mail-order catalogs, you’ll have to wait till late April/early May for the best selection of spring bloomers.

Why bother with bulbs?  Because they extend your growing season. Some bulbs, such as crocus and winter aconite, bloom as early as February, long before most perennials start waking up in April or May.

On top of that, bulbs are cheerful, exotic and easy to grow.  And they come in a massive variety of shapes, colors and sizes.

Allium 'Globemaster'

Globemaster allium, with its giant head that measures 6 to 8 inches across, is astonishing. It blooms in late spring or early summer.

Some of my favorites are Corydalis ophiocarpa with its ferny leaves and bright yellow flower stalks; Siberian squill with its delicate, nodding blue heads; and allium with its dramatic drumstick-like demeanor.  If you can’t find Corydalis ophiocarpa, you can find its darling cousins, such as C. solida or C. lutea.

Then, of course, there are ever-popular tulips and daffodils.

When planting bulbs, be sure to dig the hole two to three times as deep as the bulb’s height.  So if you have a tulip bulb that’s one-inch tall, for example, make your hole two to three inches deep.  Also, make sure that you insert the bulb so the pointy end faces up.  Otherwise, you’ll never see blooms.

I’ll admit that bulbs aren’t the first plants that I install in a landscape.  I want to get the trees, shrubs and perennials in place first.  But once that’s done, I like to tuck bulbs into small openings here and there in the garden.  They create such a nice surprise.

Try a few bulbs.  You’ll see what I mean.



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