A Special Place In The Sun
Three months of flowers!
This is Nancy Burns' final garden column for Patch. While grateful for her readers' support, she is going to take more time to fiddle in her own garden and re-acquaint herself with her husband and new cat! Patch is pleased to report that, next week, GARDENER'S GARDEN will be continued by Eleni Silverman, a certified Master Gardener, Vice President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven."
If you had a space in your front lawn or garden that was sunny and just perfect for one spectacular specimen small tree or shrub, what would you plant there? I recently had this dilemma (or opportunity) when I removed a seven-year-old Kousa dogwood that was not a very floriferous fellow.
Going down my mental check list for "Right Plant, Right Place"—lilacs don't thrive in our heat and get powdery mildew. Too sunny for a hydrangea. Already had a native dogwood up front. A camellia can be lost in one brutal winter in our zone 7, plus too much sun again. A bridal wreath spirea, forsythia or weigela will eventually get as wide as a Volkswagen bug. I wanted a plant that had a long blooming period, and I didn't want an evergreen or wide plant for this specific area.
Like most gardeners, I want a continuous show of non-stop color from April to October. As the end of June can be a time in the garden when not much is putting on a spectacular show, I researched what plants would bloom at that time.
My solution was the crepe myrtle. Its blooms are borne on big showy trusses from late June to September. But I wanted this particular crepe myrtle to meet very specific requirements: 10 ft tall, "vase" or V-shaped (not bushy down low), have an unusual flower color, and be very winter hardy. (The 'blue' or lavender ones, while gorgeous, are not particularly hardy around here).
Then came the adventurous part: looking at all the options on the Internet, mail order catalogues and going around to local nurseries and demonstration gardens to see what was out there. Seems breeding of the crepe myrtle has come a long way from the days when they all grew 30 plus feet tall, and one had to cut them back drastically every few years to keep height in check.
There are now crepe myrtles which grow no taller than 8 inches ('Rosy Carpet'), others which grow only to 36 inches high and then, of course, every height all the way to 40 feet. Some are weeping, some have bi-colored flowers, white ones have reddish-cinnamon bark, most have peeling bark. Since 1962, our U.S. National Arboretum's crepe breeding program has resulted in more than 25 varieties which have shown improved winter hardiness and mildew resistance.
Crepe myrtles range in color from white to pink, blues and lavenders to dark red, the new bi-colors, and many have great fall foliage colors. These new varieties are not your mother's crepe myrtle!
Crepe myrtles appreciate moist soil, good sun, not a lot of nitrogen fertilizer because it makes the leaves (rather than the flowers) flourish. Pruning the trunk tops back ("crape murder") destroys the architectural beauty of a free-growing crepe, so choose your plant based on final mature height. However, prune base suckers—keeping only five to seven trunks as permanent.
If you want many options to choose from, call The Crape Myrtle Co., at 352-486-6922 early for the best selection. I found my perfect crepe already growing in a neighbor's yard: Lagerstroemia indica 'Centennial Spirit', a deep crushed-raspberry color flower with each truss ranging from 8 to 12 inches long. 'Centennial Spirit' crape myrtle has an upright growing habit to 20 feet (taller than I really want, but I will nibble a little off the top each year—not letting the major trunks grow as thick as one's arm before pruning)
Right now, it is 7 ft tall, but I know in two years, it will earn its special place in the sun!
Nancy Burns is a certified Master Gardener, Belle Haven Garden Club President for the past seven years, co-author of two award-winning gardening books, member of the Landscape Designers' Group and the Landscape Design Council as well as being completely fascinated with plants and landscape design.