Chief of Container Operations,
Saunders Brothers, Inc.
Each June, representatives from our five partner companies all come together to debate which of the (400+) hardy perennials and woody plants we evaluated that year are good enough to move up. Only 10 were outstanding enough across our trial area to be certified as Handpicked for You® this year. Look for these outstanding varieties in participating Handpicked for You® independent garden centers.
Boxwood are the little black dress of the gardening world – they go well with everything, but if asked about boxwood varieties, most gardeners would likely only recall “American” (Buxus sempervirens) and/or “English” (B. s. ‘Suffruticosa’). There are scads of less well-known selections that offer different shapes, sizes, colors, and now problem-solving performance in the landscape too. ‘Little Missy’, bred by West Virginia nurseryman Norman Cole, checks most of those boxes. ‘Little Missy’ is delightfully compact at 2’ x 2’, thrives in full sun to full shade, and sailed through -18F without injury. Little Missy is also naturally resistant to leaf miner and extremely tolerant of boxwood blight.
There are so many bigleaf Hydrangea on the market that it takes a real standout to…well…stand out. In this case, it took an explosion. Hydrangea macrophylla Cherry Explosion is hardy to USDA zone 4 and is a reliable bloomer even when it dies back to the ground. After a particularly rough winter in our trials, we were surprised to see new growth emerging from the ground already had flower buds! By June, this 4’ x 4’ mound explodes into bloom with lacecap flowers each with a ring of unusually large, cherry-red florets and a carpet of little, light pink, star-like blooms in the center. The bright cherry color is best in soils with a higher pH but can be changed to purple in more acidic locations.
Like Hydrangeas, there are a lot of beautiful roses on the market, but today’s gardener wants problem solvers in addition to beauty and that’s a much shorter list. Rosa True Bloom™ True Passion comes through on both counts. You’ll first notice copious, vibrant orange-red, fully double flowers that keep coming and coming – they don’t cycle. Then you’ll realize how nice the foliage looks – practically no blackspot even in the multi-year no spray trials at Swarthmore’s Scott Arboretum.
Few plants turn heads like Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ which has the bold texture and vibrant color of a tropical, but is hardy to -40F. It’s equally great in containers and in the ground, but requires several seasons in the ground to reach its full 6’ tall potential. ‘Sun King’ prefers consistently moist soil and will flag during dry spells. For best color, this foliage powerhouse needs some sun. In northern climates, it can be grown beautifully in full sun, but in the mid Atlantic and gardens south, requires some afternoon shade. Aralia ‘Sun King’ was chosen by the Perennial Plant Association as their Perennial Plant of the Year for 2020.
Once found only in the gardens of plant geeks, hellebores have steadily risen in popularity thanks to a host of problem-solving attributes including their unusual late winter bloom time, deer resistance, and tolerance for dry shade once established. Breeders also made them more pot friendly and bred the flowers to face out rather than down. With the Frostkiss® series, breeders raised the bar a few notches further. The first of the series, ‘Anna’s Red’, combined deep reddish purple flowers, stunning marbled foliage, and a robust habit. The marbling to the foliage is pink on young growth quickly turning silver as the leaf matures. Mature plants can easily reach 18” high and 24” wide with 50 or more open flowers. ‘Penny’s Pink’ boasts dusty rose-colored flowers on the same stunning foliage as ‘Anna’s Red’. ‘Glenda’s Gloss’ takes the flower show a step further with a wide raspberry margin that bleeds into the white petals. ‘Dorothy’s Dawn’ is the latest in the series to bloom (March or later) and has sublime light pink flowers, but the foliage show cranks up with newly emerging leaves boasting wide light pink veins that turn silver and then light green as the leaves mature.
Upright sedum are a staple in the dry sun garden thanks to their tough disposition and reliable late summer flower show that appeals to gardeners and pollinators alike. For most of growing season though, they’re nondescript green blobs holding their ground and waiting for their season to shine. Sedum ‘Joyful’ changes that paradigm with ornate toothed foliage elevating the simple sedum from ubiquitous landscape workhorse to intriguing foliage component in the long season before bloom.
Every now and again a plant comes along that changes the standard - Carex ‘Feather Falls’ PPAF is one of those. This very vigorous evergreen clumper is great for shade as you’d expect, but also grows well in full sun without burning. It’s officially 1.5’ tall by 2’ wide, but when our group visited the breeder in the Netherlands, we were met by 3’ wide specimens of ‘Feather Falls’ spilling out containers. The super-sized plant has beautifully curled evergreen foliage and works well in the ground or spilling out of pots.
It’s hardy to at least -20F and like all Carex it’s deer resistant.