Spring 2011: What's HOT, What's NOT

Image from Tom Stuart-Smith's 2009 Chelsea Garden.
The week after the Academy Awards, the internet is abuzz with fashion experts declaring who was the best dressed and who wasn’t at this year’s show.  This ritual is ridiculous yet captivating.  I yell, “Who cares!” at my screen, yet find myself clicking through the slide show.  The disasters are as interesting as the beauties. 
And then it hit me.  Why not do the same for plants?  When it comes to designing plants, I am as opinionated as any Hollywood fashionista.  And probably as obnoxious.  There are so many undervalued plants whose gleaming moment has come.  And then there are a host of other plants whose overuse of them has made them, to be honest, clichéd.  Gardens are not immune to fashion trends, otherwise why are you reading those glossy garden magazines?  So here it is dear readers, my recommendations of what will be hot this spring 2011, as well as a list of plants whose moment has passed.  Remember, just because a plant is on the “not” list, doesn’t mean it’s not a great plant.  It’s just not trending now.
What’s Hot . . . What’s Not:
1.  HOT:  Iris germanica, Bearded Iris.  NOT: Iris sibirica, Siberian Iris
Iris 'Action Front' in Andy Sturgeon's design for the Daily Telegraph. Image
from Daily Telegraph.
The bearded iris is making a comeback.  For years, it seemed almost everyone had a clump of bearded irises lost along a fence line.  But the same reasons the plants became ubiquitous (drought tolerant, easy to divide) are now fueling their resurgence.  That plus a slate of gorgeous new introductions like Iris 'Rose de la Vallée’.   The flowers are a soft-peachy apricot that sport a tangerine beard, giving the bloom depth and elegance.  Or consider Iris ‘Action Front’ whose appearance in stately planters in Andy Sturgeon’s groundbreaking Telegraph Garden helped elevate his garden to top prize.  ‘Action Front’ combines sensuous peachy bloom with a sultry mahogany beard.  Perhaps the best reason to consider Bearded Irises is that they last forever and can be handed down through the years. 
While I love the elegant Siberian Iris, its constant need for water and its short bloom span (only 4 days!) make it rather unsustainable for most garden situations. 
2.  HOT: Amsonia tabernaemontana, Blue Star   NOT:  Amsonia hubrichtii, Arkansas Bluestar

The bluish foliage of 'Blue Ice' in the
heat of the summer, D.C.

I know I’ll get flack for this one, but it’s true.  The world has now discovered the wonderful Amsonia hubrichtii, with its soft blue flowers and strong fall colors.  It’s no longer trendy.  Plus, it can be hard to site in small gardens.  Instead, consider the delectable Amsonia tabernaemontana, another Bluestar native that’s more compact and versatile than its cousin.  In fact, the cultivar ‘Blue Ice’ is a long-blooming, super-compact (12-15”) native that’s perfect for almost any garden.  I like to use it as an edging perennial.  I think its bluish, fine textured summer foliage is more interesting than Amsonia hubrichtii.  Plus, Amsonia tabernaemontana has the same electric yellow fall color as its cousin. 

3.  HOT: Red, Pink, and Orange Agastaches, Hyssop  NOT: Colored Heucheras
Image from Sooner Farms
Agastaches are having their moment.  For years it seemed like Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ was the best the genus had to offer designers, but now there’s so many great Agastaches.  Agastache rupestris (Rock Anise Hyssop) is a native that offers gorgeous silver foliage and rosy orange flowers.  Long blooming, too!  The cultivar ‘Firebird’ is a real standout.  A hybrid of A. coccinea and A. rupestris, this plant offers longer blooming, more compact flowers than either parent.  My favorite though is Agastache ‘Ava’ a native hybrid with raspberry red calyxes that bloom from midsummer until frost.  You can purchase these great Agastaches online at Sooner Plant Farm.
As for heucheras, here’s my question for plant breeders: does the world really need another colored heuchera?  Sure, they’re fun in a container, but some of those colors in a landscape are downright obnoxious.  ‘Caramel,’ ‘Tiramisu,’ and ‘Encore’ are particularly garish.  Plus, plants really should not be named after desserts.  It’s just wrong. 
4.  HOT: Calamagrostis brachytricha, Korean Feather Reed Grass  NOT: Calamagrostis x ‘Karl Foerster’
If you haven’t seen Calamagrostis brachytricha on the cover of garden magazines, you haven’t been paying attention.  Trend-setters such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith have used this late-blooming grass to great effect in their designs.  And why not?  The grass catches and holds light like a candle, with brilliant pinkish-tinged inflorescences that bob in the afternoon sun.  Korean Feather Reed Grass can even tolerate some light shade.  The inflorescences don’t really appear until late August, so plant this grass like you might a fall-blooming Anemone: subtly hidden until it’s moment of glory.
The ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed Grass is one of the world’s great grasses, but it has become so overused, it’s hard to make a statement with it.  Dear designers, once you see a plant in front of McDonald’s and gas stations, it’s probably time to reconsider whether you should use it. 
5.  HOT: Molinia caerulea, Moor Grass   NOT:  Pennisetums, Fountain Grass
Why don’t more nurseries sell Molinias?  By far, one of the most interesting and versatile grasses a designer can use.  The Moor Grasses hail from the heaths and moorlands of Eurasia.  The great advantage of these grasses is their structure.  Molinias are low clump forming grasses whose rather inconspicuous basal foliage explode like a water jet in midsummer, creating striking architectural flowers.   Because of their low, clumping foliage, Molinias are perhaps the best grasses to interplant other perennials into, allowing room and light for neighboring forbs.  ‘Skyracer’ and ‘Transparent’ have been in the American market for years, but the best cultivars are the lower, more architectural ones like ‘Heidebraut,’ Moorflamme,’  ‘Strand ‘Poul Peterson.’  Stunning as a specimen or in mass.  Check out Nancy Ondra's image of a Molinia here.
Fountain Grasses have suffered the same fate as the Feather Reed Grass: exhaustion from overuse.  Though a wonderful plant, Fountain Grass has become almost as prosaic as junipers or barberry and other ‘landscaper’ plants that you expect to see in parking lots of strip malls. 
6.  HOT: Rosa rugosa, Salt Spray Rose    NOT: Rosa ‘Knockout’, Knockout Rose
Modern naturalism is all the rage now, and what better plant to compliment that movement than the Saltspray Rose?  This overlooked rose has all the qualities to make it desirable for today’s urban and suburban landscapes: drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant, salt-resistant, and adaptable.  Rosa rugosa is more rugged, more delightfully loose, and more confidently carefree than other shrub roses.  What could be more modern cottage-garden than a pile of Saltspray Roses mixed with ornamental grasses along a fenceline?  You thought seedheads were hot, well I got one word for you: ROSEHIPS!  Luscious, bright-orange, glossy rosehips cover the plant after it blooms.  Plus, this rose has better fall color, with tones of yellow, orange, and red.
I must pay my respects to the Knockout Rose.  It introduced America to the concept of the landscape rose, getting us away from those chemical dependant tea roses.  However, this plant is just everywhere, dotting that recognizable lipstick pink from sea to shining sea.  There are just too many fabulous heirloom shrub roses for designers to justify using another Knockout Rose. 
What plants do you think are trending?  What plants are you lusting after this spring?  Let me know!
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