We have had several really good frosts here in coastal Maine (USDA zone 6a) this fall. The frost knocked back most of our annuals and perennials but a few really stood up longer than we expected. This year was odd because even though we waited until late October to change our seasonal beds, we had to remove some annuals that looked really good. In these seasonal beds, our gardeners planted close to 23,000 bulbs for a fabulous show next spring. Some of the fantastic looking annuals I have written about already including Salvia ‘Mulberry Jam.’
Now that the temperatures are gradually dipping lower and lower, along with the daylight getting shorter (the sun is setting on the western horizon around 4:30 pm), we are readying our list of winter projects to keep us going until spring returns to Maine. Probably one of the most important tasks is to design our annual displays for next summer once the bulbs are removed. The challenge I learned this year is that spring here is slow and draws out from early April until mid-June. Our tulips are done flowering in mid to late May so we really need plants that can go in while the air and soil is still cool, yet thrive when we reach our summer highs in the mid-80’s to low-90’s. Yes, you read that right. Summer here in Boothbay rarely has days over the mid-80’s. When temperatures here go above 85, the weather folks describe the day as “hot.” I laughed at first but once you realize that no one has air conditioning for a respite from the heat, you understand where they are coming from.
Now that I have described the summer planting design challenges, let me tell you what I am thinking and one plant in particular that I really want to bring into the landscape. We really need something bold to contrast with so many fine textured annuals but something different from the canna lilies or bananas that have been used so much in landscapes that I am worrying that they are becoming banal. One fantastic plant that I have yet to see in New England is Phormium tenax or New Zealand flax. If you live on the west coast, especially in California, I can already hear your response. Really? I know, this New Zealand native has been planted so much along the California coast that one there might think of it as banal as an east coast canna. Trust me, the light is different up here in this high latitude so it will stand out. I can just picture a 5-6′ tall Phormium in the center of a bed. The dark, upright leaves would serve as a wonderful backdrop to our other flowering annuals. The straight species is attractive but the variegated ‘Yellow Queen’ or even the dark ‘Platt’s Black’ could certainly start a conversation. I would like to grow it along with Pennisetum ‘Vertigo’ to see how the two compare in our garden. Phormiums can take full to part sun and are cold hardy down to 15 degrees F and below. The straight P. tenax species is probably the hardiest. When I worked at Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC, we had a 7′ tall plant that stayed in the garden year-round.
The big challenge is finding plants in Maine or getting them shipped to Boothbay. One of my favorite nurseries in the world, San Marcos Growers, lists 62 different selections of Phormium. The trouble is that San Marcos is located in Santa Barbara, California. Are any of you planning on driving a moving truck from central California coast to New England in 2014? If so, do you have room for a bunch of wonderful plants?