Expert bloggers' favorite perennial picks

I've been trying to deny the calling of the seed catalogs and the desire to peek at the vernal witch hazel and the warmest corners near the house where the bulbs come up first (it is only January, after all) but there is only so much a gardener can do during an unseasonably warm winter.

That's why I called on some of my favorite gardening bloggers to share with their favorite perennial. These three ladies are experienced and creative gardeners so I knew they'd bring an interesting perspective.

First up is Genevieve from North Coast Gardening. I've written about Gen before because I love her blog North Coast Gardening which is full of great tips and product reviews.

Gen's pick: Korean tassel fern

My favorite perennial is one that often gets overlooked in the shade section, tassel fern. Anyone championing it would have an uphill battle from the start, since its botanical name is nearly unpronounceable—Polystichum polyblepharum. Say that three times fast! But tassel fern is easily the most elegant, easy-to-grow plant I know for shade. Its foliage has a glossy sheen that looks great against pretty much any shade shrub, and the rich green color softens rock walls or other strong hardscape elements. It's even evergreen! You can buy it at Plant Delights if your local nursery doesn't carry it.



Isn't that fern lovely? And evergreen would be lovely! Plants Delight lists it as being hardy to zone 5b (which more of us are in now that the plant hardiness zone map has been adjusted) so I'd definitely love to try it. By the way, if you really do want to know how to pronounce some of those tongue-tying plant names, check out Fine Gardening magazine's pronunciation guide.


Next up is the tireless Kylee who blogs at Our Little Acre, gardens in Ohio, writes for a couple gardening magazines and is the book review editor for Horticulture Magazine. She's also an excellent Words with Friends player.

Kylee's pick: Toad lily

As Erin said to me, asking me to name my favorite perennial is akin to asking me which is my favorite child. It all depends on when you ask. If it’s June, I might say Astrantia; ask me in July and August and I might say Orienpet or Oriental lilies. (Who doesn’t love their fragrance?)

Then there are ones that have such intricate features that are fascinating when you examine them up close, like my Five-leaved Akebia (Akebia quinata ‘Alba’), with its white blooms every so lightly striped with purple.  Or the Chinese globe flower (Trollius chinensis ‘Golden Queen’)—so lusciously fringy.

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Akebia quinata ‘Alba’


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Chinese globe flower


But ask me which perennial I most look forward to seeing and which one I’d miss if I didn’t have it and I’ll tell you toad lilies. Such an ugly common name for such a beautiful flower! Botanically, it’s Tricyrtis, with various species names tagging along behind.  (hirta, amethystina, formosana, etc.)

It’s not the showiest plant in the garden, at least not for most of the summer. It’s a little later to emerge in the spring than some perennials, and it’s definitely later to bloom, but that’s one of its best traits. When September and October come along and 80% of the garden is waning, Tricyrtis is putting on the best show of its life.

Each bloom looks like a little spotted orchid. There are some that aren’t spotted too, such as ‘Togen’ (often misspelled ‘Tojen’), which happens to be my favorite bloom among my collection of a dozen or so different cultivars. I like ‘Dark Beauty’ too, for its sea of blooms and ‘Miyazaki Hybrids’ for the way they bloom at the leaf axils up and down the stems.

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Tricyrtis 'Togen'


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Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki'


The blooms aren’t the only sway they hold over me. The foliage can be just as varied. ‘Lightning Strike’ is streaked, while several cultivars have subtle green-on-green spotting. And did I mention they do all this in the shade?

I think these work better as a specimen plant, perhaps because the blooms are diminutive. Seeing them planted en masse wouldn’t necessarily pack the punch that other plants do. But a few clustered here and there in the shade garden will cause you and your garden visitors to take notice. They’re generally hardy in Zones 5-8/9, maybe colder, although since they bloom so late, in colder zones the flowering time may get cut short by early frosts.

By the way, I love both of my two daughters the best.

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Kylee (middle) with her two equally loved daughters Kara and Jenna.

Would you believe I have NO toad lilies in my garden? Sounds like I'm going to need to change that.


And last but not least is Linda who blogs at Each Little World. Linda gardens in my old stomping grounds of Madison, Wisconsin, and I hope to be able to stop in and see her amazing gardens in 2012. I think Linda and her husband Mark do garden structure better than almost anyone. They have that whole "backbone of the garden" thing down.

You might be surprised to see what Linda sent to me as her favorite perennial. I didn't tell any of the contributors what plant the others were writing about (and I didn't know until they sent it either). What I love is that while Kylee focused on the beautiful blooms of Tricyrtis, Linda loves them for their interesting foliage. I have to admit. I once saw them on her blog for a Foliage Follow-up post (on the 16th of every month), and I had to ask what they were because I was so taken by the amazing foliage.

Linda's pick: Toad lilies

If I look in my plant files it’s easy to discover my favorite perennials by noting which plants have multiple listings. By the numbers, I’m currently growing 17 Epimediums, 18 Geraniums and 22 Hemerocallis, to name just a few. They’re all wonderful plants, but to rise to the level of “favorite perennial,” that plant is the one that I wait for the longest: toad lilies (Tricyrtis species). I think the anticipation of watching a clump get fatter and taller as the season stretches on is guaranteed to turn that plant into a favorite. Fall bloomers like toad lilies (I’m growing 11 varieties) are there in the garden almost from the start of the spring, patiently waiting for their moment. Even though they’re not blooming, they put on a show all season with their arching stems and bright green, gold and patterned foliage. And they keep my attention to the very end: either wondering if they will flower before the first frost arrives or basking in their beauty as their tiny orchid-like blossoms sway amidst the falling leaves.





That last photo makes me swoon. Yes, I'm totally sold on toad lilies.


Are you growing any of these? What's your favorite perennial (and, like I told the great contributors, you HAVE to pick)?

Thanks again to Gen, Kylee and Linda for participating. Your blogs are a continual source of inspiration to me!



Does it feel warm in here to you?

The USDA released an updated plant hardiness zone map Wednesday and for many people it shows what a lot of people have been thinking (but maybe thought they were imagining): it's getting warmer out there.

Maybe less cold is a better way to describe it, since the plant hardiness zone map is based on minimum temperatures.

Much of the country has been experiencing an unusually warm winter so far and Wisconsin has been no exception. And as much as I'm thoroughly enjoying the relative lack of snow (we had none until two weeks ago and we've probably only had a total of 6 inches or so) and the mild temperatures (we only had three days of sub-15-degree temps, which is extremely unusual here), I'm also a little worried. This is just not right.

I know that everyone talks about the winters of their childhood (well, everyone in the northern part of the country does at least) being different. I know I remember massive snow forts and a snow pile that allowed us to walk up to the top of the 6-foot fence on the edge of our yard. We had a lot of snow last year, but nothing along the lines of that. So I definitely do feel that in general, winters here are warmer than they used to be. I also sort of feel like the seasons are shifting (i.e. September used to be the start of autumn but now it really feels like the nicest month of summer and spring doesn't come until May at the earliest) but that's a crazy theory for another time.

Here's what the new USDA plant hardiness map looks like:



You can click here to go to a clickable version of the map that will blow up your state so you can see exactly where you land.

Here's what it used to look like:

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If you look closely, a lot of the zones seems to have slipped north and many of us find ourselves in a half (or more) zone warmer.

Here's what Wisconsin's zone map used to look like:



And here's what it looks like now:



There used to be a zone 4 "thumb" that stuck into southeastern Wisconsin, almost all the way to the lake and now that is gone completely. The entire Lake Michigan coastline is now zone 5b.

So what does this mean to gardeners? On a small scale, probably not a lot. Nurseries and plant companies tend to be big zone pushers to begin with: On more than one occasion I've brought a plant home from a nursery only to read up on it some more and find that it is really only zoned to zone 6 (which is nowhere to be found around here, even now) and even though under the old zone map I was more likely to be shopping in a nursery closer to zone 4 than zone 5b, there were far more zone 5 plants than zone 4 plants. I have a few zone pushers in my garden, and most of them have been purchased with the knowledge that they will need a very special spot protected from winter winds and a lot of help from me in the form of protection. Some live, some die, as is the way with plants. I guess I'll know feel a little more comfortable with my zone pushers, but I bet it won't be long before nurseries start routinely stocking zone 6 plants because honestly, they will make it through a lot of winters, but some year we will have a winter like we used to have, and then we'll all be crying about the loss in our gardens.

How will your garden be affected by the zone map change? Will you change your buying habits? Are you excited to have the USDA's "OK" to plant some great things you've wished you could plant all along?

Your homework for the weekend

I have a homework assignment for you. If you are not watching PBS' "Downton Abbey," then you must change that.

First, you must set your DVR to record it on Sunday night. It's at 8 p.m. CST, but check your listings to make sure you record it at the correct time.

Once you have done that you must go to and catch up on what you've missed. Unfortunately it looks like they've removed Season 1 from the website, but you can at least read the synopsis if you don't want to get it from Netflix or iTunes. I watched it on my iPad on the PBS app, so check there if you're sporting the appropriate technology. Season 2 is up on the website, so do watch. It's a lot of hours of stuff to catch up on but trust me, you'll be hooked and nothing else will matter.

After you've watched the two Season 2 episodes, go to My Favorite and My Best and read the hysterical recaps. Well, don't do that if you don't care for a bit of colorful language, but if you don't mind a bit of bawdiness, check out the recaps of the first and second episodes of the season. Be prepared to laugh so hard you cry.

After you've done all that come back here and tell me how grateful you are that I made you do it.

Kitchen dreaming

It's no secret that I love magazines. Nothing brightens a day more than coming home to a new issue in the mailbox. Interestingly enough, when it comes to shelter magazines, probably 90 percent of what I see in magazines is pretty/intriguing/fantastic/interesting but is not translatable to my life. What makes magazines great is that other 10 percent. The pictures and articles that illustrate what has been lurking in your head. The ones that say, "Look at me!"

The last two moments I had like that have come from Coastal Living magazine. The first was when I had just finished repainting the front door a darker blue and then saw a photo in Coastal Living and had to be talked off the ledge from repainting it immediately.

The second one happened this weekend when I saw pictures from a casual Key West home (you'd think that would be redundant, but it's unbelievable how many Key West homes featured in magazines end up feeling stuffy and overdone). The idea behind the house was "Modern vintage" which, the more I think about it, sort of sums up what I'm feeling my style has been lately. What grabbed me from the get-go was the kitchen.

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Although sprucing up the working part of the kitchen isn't something we'll be doing immediately, it is part of the long-range plan. It won't be a total overhaul or anything, because most of what is there is just fine. But I'd consider refacing the cabinets (at the very least they need to be repainted) and replacing the counters. I know the cabinets will be white (I'm just a white cabinet kind of girl, I guess) but I've always envisioned a dark countertop. White on white kitchens are all the rage these days and I feel myself falling for the trend. What I like about this kitchen is how the cabinets are an off-white but the counters are true white. I think it's a really interesting look and not one I've seen before. It's all tied together with the great shell backsplash.

Up until now, I've envisioned some variation of a subway tile backsplash in our kitchen, but the mosaic in the Key West kitchen is interesting with just a touch of sparkle, but not too fancy. I'm a little bit obsessed with it.

Another trend this kitchen embraces is the whole open shelving concept. I have to admit, it's a super sharp look, but it's just not for me. First of all, it's one more area to "style" and this is something I struggle with. Also, half of our dishes are in the dishwasher most of time, so you either have a half-full shelf or you have to buy more dishes to fill it and then it's overstuffed when they are all clean. And lastly, all of the upper cabinets in my parents' kitchen are open and those dishes get dirty. About once a week my mom washes the top dish on every stack whether it's been used or not. For me, it's not practical. And while I can get behind a bit of form over function in a lot of spaces, for me, form has to follow function in the working part of a kitchen.

It's just a little something for me to obsess over during the depths of winter, before I allow myself to start dreaming in earnest about gardening.

P.S. I realize there's a great deal of irony in the fact that the images I posted are obviously screen shots from my iPad since I'm always extolling the virtues of real, printed magazines. In my defense, I'll just say that Coastal Living hasn't updated its website with the contents of the February issue yet and I couldn't wait to show you this kitchen so I had to view the magazine on my iPad (free for print subscribers) and screenshot the pages.

Pet the nice moss

Does that sound a little wrong? Because I do.

I couldn't blog about it because it would have ruined the Christmas surprise, I bought three Moss Rocks for Christmas gifts this year. I ordered them well in advance because I wanted to make sure I'd get them in plenty of time. My mom, sister-in-law and I (yes, I buy gifts for myself; and yes, sometimes I wrap them up and put them under the tree) all got "Cobble" size (medium) Moss Rocks for Christmas. I bought  them in lichen, toadstool and raindrop (sagey green, off white and turquoise) and decided who should get each color when they arrived.

I have to say, these things are just the cutest little buggers. It's so weird, but everyone's first reaction when they see them is to say "Awwwww." And then the next thing they do is pet them. I'm serious. Your first reaction is to reach out and fluff the little guy's fuzzy head.

I brought mine to work and keep it on my desk so I can pet it throughout the day. I'm a toucher, much to the dismay of everyone I work with. I absolutely must be fiddling or touching or playing with something all the time. I don't even realize I'm doing it, actually. I will pick up someone's stapler while I'm talking with them and start dismantling it in the middle of a conversation. I completely and accidentally invade people's person space by picking up something on their desk. I usually carry a pen with me everywhere I go, which helps because I fiddle with my pen instead of something off some random victim's desk. It's weird. It might even be a little OCD, but who doesn't have a little dose of OCD in them?

Anyway, the Moss Rock seems to help a bit with those tendencies. Plus it's helping me do better at keeping my desk clean, because it looks so much cuter all by itself with its candle friend when it's not covered with a pile of paper.

Just to clarify, Moss Rocks didn't send me anything or ask me to do anything, and frankly has no idea I'm writing this post. I just really love the Moss Rocks I bought. Obviously ... since I've admitted to sort of molesting them. Although I'm wondering if maybe I have a problem with that (see previous offense here). Is there a 12-step program for plant molesters?

How-to: A beautiful pinboard

I have great news: progress is being made on the office redo (mentioned here, here, here and here). I stopped updating you guys on it because it got downright depressing when I was having so many problems with the counters (sadly mentioned here, here and here).

Rather than wait until it's all finished and show you it all at once, I thought I'd break out a couple of the projects and tell you about them first.

If you recall, the goal was to update my outdated, dingy and totally uninspiring office at work on a shoestring budget. Since I spend more time in this space than any other, I didn't mind putting a little bit of my own money and a lot of my time into fixing up this space. While I was planning the space, I was struggling with what to do in the "backsplash" area, and it was reader Robin from Three Acres & 3,000 Square Feet who suggested a fabric covered bulletin board. What a great idea.

Here's the old office looking like a total junk yard. Which it pretty much was. Below is a mock-up of the vision for it.



Functional and beautiful, not to mention much easier than wallpaper or some kind of fancy paint treatment.

So I made these fabric covered pinboards that might just be the best part of the whole room.


I started with Homasote handipanels because they work great as a pinboard. These are pressed fiberboard used for soundproofing and crafting. I had never heard of them before I started researching this project on the Internet (pretty much no matter how self explanatory a project may be, I start with Google). I was hoping to have these cut in the store because they can be really messy to cut, but the place I bought them from didn't have them. Fortunately they are really easy to cut with any kind of saw including a regular drywall hand saw.

Because I was covering such a long area, I had to use three boards. I also had outlets to contend with, so once I had the boards cut to size, I needed to mark the location for the outlets. Of course you can measure this, but I'm going to be honest here: I'm horrible at measuring. Well, I can measure, but somewhere along the line, things tend to get lost in translation. So I marked the outlets in a way even I can't screw up (this works with drywall too). With the outlet covers removed, I covered the actual outlets with a bit of painter's tape.


Then I grabbed the little lipstick palette I keep in my desk for emergencies, and picked the bright red color that I will never, ever wear, and brushed it on the tape over the actual outlets.



Then I lined the board up and pressed it against the tape so the lipstick would mark the board.


After the board was marked, I lined the outlet cover up with the lipstick mark and used it as a template to mark the area I'd need to cut.


Once I cut the outlet holes, I stapled two layers of thin batting on each board. For the outlet holes I cut an X and stapled around the hole.


The hardest part of this project by far was lining up the pattern. If I had used a solid fabric I could have knocked a good two hours off, but, of course I didn't.  I used a heavy upholstery fabric with a flocked velvet pattern that I picked up on sale from Calico Corners a couple months ago (Sultana Lattice from the Iman collection). I ended up needing two yards, but only because I had to match the pattern. I could have gotten away with a yard and a half if pattern matching wasn't an issue.

Here I was getting a general idea of where I would cut for each piece.


I had to line up the fabric not only so it was straight on each board, but so that the pattern matched up from board to board, giving the illusion of one long board. Mostly this just took some trial and error but it was pretty tedious.

Stapling the fabric to the boards was about as simple as it gets. I just made sure I was keeping equal tension on the fabric as I pulled. The only slightly tricky part was the corners. For those I just pulled the fabric tight across the corner and put in one staple.


Then I cut the excess fabric off and folded it over as neatly as possible and put a few more staples in.



I wanted to velcro the panels to the wall so I wouldn't damage the wall but the batting made that difficult. I took a furring strip we had leftover from something, cut it in pieces and hot glued it to the back where I wanted to attach the velcro. Then I just stuck it to the wall.

You can see where the seams are, but I think I did a pretty good job lining up the pattern.




I'm really happy with how it turned out. Not only is it beautiful and spices up the place a bit, but I have a convenient place to hang notes (although I'm trying hard not to clutter it up). And an added benefit that I wasn't expecting is that it added a bit more soundproofing along that wall.

I spent about $30 for the Homasote boards. The fabric was a bit of splurge at about $45. Certainly this is a project that could be done very inexpensively by keeping the size of the board a bit smaller and by choosing a less expensive fabric (burlap would be very cool).

* Unfortunately it seems that if you go to a direct link to an old post you can't view the comments, but if you look at it on the general blog page you can see them fine. I'm sure this has something to do with adding the new comment form. I'm hoping I can get it fixed but in the meantime, sorry for any inconvenience.

New year, new look

You might think that since the blog redesign (No. 6, I think) happened around the first of the year, that it was all part of my master plan. Please, think that. I makes me look efficient. Also not at all like the procrastinator that I am.

The sad fact is that I started this months ago and I'm first getting around to getting it up now. But this time, I did the design myself. I've worked with two blog designers in the past, and they both did a nice job. But as I've mentioned before, I have a tough time explaining the vision in my head to other people. I can see it plain as day, but I can't describe it accurately. It's not that I lack the words (ha!), it's just that I don't see the details in my head but I know them when I see them, if that makes any sense. Making this worse, I'm also very particular, especially about issues related to typography. I know my fonts pretty well and I definitely have some I like and some I abhor. Making a designer search for the font living in my head but as yet unidentified by name seemed cruel. So I thought I'd torture myself with it a bit.

I also wanted something a bit more colorful, and I think this design provides that. I'm going to try to make an effort to improve on things more regularly, but the main difference you'll notice as a user is a new comment form. I've never really been happy with the Blogger comment form. It always seems sort of clunky to me and I hate that I can't directly respond to your posts. So I'm using a third party comment form that I hope you'll find easier to use. Please give a try and let me know what you think. I can always go back to the old way if necessary. You don't have to have a blog or an account anywhere to make a comment, just fill in your name and email and you should be good to go.

You can also share posts more easily now. At the bottom of each post there are some small social media buttons, which you can click on to share on various sites. I urge you to use them frequently.

If you ever see something that needs improvement, please let me know.

Oh, and no guarantees on how long this design will be around.

What would your white room look like?

My godmother is one of those amazingly good women who doesn't deserve what is happening to her, like so many others in this world. She is suffering from pancreatic cancer and it's going to take her life. She's been in a rehabilitation facility for the past several weeks but right before the new year she moved into a hospice facility. You wouldn't think that would be cause for celebration, but for her, it was.

She moved into a room that is empty. Save for a bed, wheelchair and some of the medical necessities she'll need, the room is empty room with white walls. She gets to bring the rest. That may sound depressing, but for a women who lived and cared for her parents until they passed away and then took over a house that was, at least to her, untouchable because it bore the stamp of her parents, it is an opportunity.

"Can you imagine being able to do anything you want in a room, starting from scratch?" she said. And it got me thinking: What would I put in that room?

Of course in this situation, you're probably more interested in WHO is in the room, rather than what is in the room, and certainly I'd want to pack it with a steady stream of good friends, beloved family and of course, my favorite four-leggeds. But beyond that, what would the room look like?

I think I'd start with paint. I'm not actually sure if they allow you to paint, but I think there is no better time to ask forgiveness rather than permission. I would be hard pressed to pick one color and stick with it so I'd probably want to repaint about once a week, but I think I'd stick with bright colors.


Certainly the wonderful Wythe Blue would be among my chosen colors.

Source: via Erin on Pinterest



I'd enjoy this fresh green with a fair amount of yellow in it for awhile.

Source: via Erin on Pinterest



I'd want to take a turn with orange but I don't know if I could stand it on an entire wall. Maybe a big, wide stripe of orange (except with gray instead of tan) would work.

Source: via Erin on Pinterest


I'd do yellow for awhile too, but I can't stand overly sunny yellows. I like this one with lots of green in it.

Source: via Erin on Pinterest



I'd also have huge prints of favorite photos of family and friends made, maybe to be made into wallpaper on one or more of the walls, similar to what the Novogratzes did in a couple rooms. That way my friends and family would always be close even when they weren't with me.

I loved this photo blown up as wallpaper in a room for triplets that the Novogratzes did on an episode last fall.

Source: via Erin on Pinterest


I'd get a good-sized television because you can bet I'd watch whatever the heck I felt like watching. I'd also spring for a couple of great chairs and a comfortable sofa. Why not? And yeah, I'd charge it.

I'd bring in a nice bookcase and surround myself with every book I could possibly think about wanting to read. I'd have a mini fridge stocked with all my favorite drinks and the favorites of my friends, because we'd be having some good parties in there.




I'd also call up a good florist and tell them to sent a new floral arrangement every five days. I'd get a few orchids, some Christmas cacti, a Moss Rock or two and my grandmother's ficus tree. I'd have basil growing in the window and I'd eat it on everything all the time.





I've not seen my godmother's room yet, but apparently she's thrilled with it. My dad and brother helped move some of the stuff from her house up there over the weekend. I can't wait to see what she's done with it.

So, what would your white room look like?

Technical difficulties

Well, this wasn't exactly the big splash I had planned for my new blog layout, but I seem to be having some technical difficulties getting it uploaded. So, some of what you see is new and some is old. Hopefully I'll get it up and running soon (I think the problem is Blogger's not mine because I have it running just fine on a test site). In the meantime, thanks for bearing with me.

What a scintillating post to start off the new year.