In the gardening world, old favorites feel fresh again.
Hydrangeas, roses, lilacs – all are finding renewed interest in today’s landscapes. So are juniper, clematis, hibiscus and a long list of other oldies but goodies.
These 2017 versions of familiar stalwarts offer more than nostalgia. New varieties improve on these plants’ inherent qualities and make them a better fit for how we garden now – with less space, time and water.
“We’re seeing more hardiness and ease of care,” observed Kate Karam, a plant expert for major wholesale grower Monrovia Nurseries. “I hate saying ‘easy care’; plants aren’t living plastic. But we’re seeing a lot more lower-maintenance plants. The new roses, for example, are a lot less trouble.”
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Gardeners are rediscovering ornamental shrubs and perennials, especially ones with big blooms that grow in small spaces.
“We’re beginning to see a lot more interest in older plants,” Karam said. “We’re selling a ton of azaleas; that was a surprise for us. With new varieties, these old-school shrubs and perennials take on a whole new allure.”
Thanks to hybridizers, these modern mainstays have more disease and drought resistance, easier care and longer bloom seasons. Many shrubs offer year-round color or garden interest, too.
“Take junipers; that’s a bulletproof landscape plant. You can drive a car over it,” Karam said. “We’re now seeing junipers in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We’re seeing them in different colors (such as gold or variegated) or that change color in winter. It’s a great problem-solving plant.”
An example: Monrovia’s Jazzy Jewel juniper, a ground-hugging evergreen splashed with gold. In winter, this juniper turns shades of bronze and purple while retaining its golden tips.
It’s not just conifers with added color interest. Proven Winners, for example, introduced Golden Treasure, a miniature birch that starts each spring with red, orange and yellow foliage before its leaves turn chartreuse. By late fall, its foliage becomes bright gold, adding more interest.
It’s that something extra that elevates these common shrubs.
“People are looking for solutions and things that are different,” Karam said. “We have so many easy-care plants now, people want something more than just low maintenance.”
Not that long ago, many ornamental plants were at risk. During the Great Recession, consumers stopped buying pretty shrubs and other decorative plants. Gardeners concentrated on growing things they could eat. Many wholesale specialty nurseries and flower farms folded.
While the nursery business started bouncing back elsewhere around the nation, California’s epic drought further dampened sales on ornamental plants, particularly those that required more than weekly irrigation.
With winter rains rehydrating our gardens and our outlook, such ornamental classics as hydrangeas are coming back in style with a plethora of new varieties.
“These new hydrangeas are smaller size,” Karam said. “They’re long-blooming but compact with greater hardiness. Some recent introductions had huge blooms, but the plant collapsed under their weight. These new varieties have thicker stems to hold those bigger blooms upright.”
Examples are Monrovia’s Seaside Serenade Cape Cod hydrangea, which offers full-size mophead blooms on a neatly compact shrub, and Strawberry Shake, a patio-size panicle hydrangea with giant flowerheads that start creamy white and fade to rose. Unlike most hydrangeas, Strawberry Shake blooms aren’t affected by soil acidity and will stay pink.
In addition, the leaves are thicker, making these new hydrangeas more tolerant of heat and cold as well as full sun and drought. They’re less likely to wilt as temperatures climb.
How popular are innovative hydrangeas? Let’s Dance Diva and Let’s Dance Rave, two varieties introduced by Proven Winners, both advanced to the company’s 2016 Shrub Madness Final Four.
Modeled after the NCAA men’s basketball bracket and March Madness, Shrub Madness allows gardeners to vote for their winners among 64 shrubs. More than 82,000 votes were received in last year’s online contest. Voting is now underway for 2017’s “plant playoffs.”
Winner in 2016 was At Last, an apricot-hued floribunda rose that bested the two hydrangeas and Bloomerang Dark Purple, a re-blooming lilac that flowers in spring and again in fall. What made this rose a champion was its care-free nature, non-stop bloom and knockout fragrance.
When it comes to plant popularity, the longer the bloom season, the better – especially in a compact package. And it’s not just shrubs getting smaller. Favorite perennials and vines also are shrinking.
“The new clematis are so much improved,” Karam said. “I think of them as a miracle plant; they bloom from the ground up. The new ones are really compact and grow well in containers, too.”
Tall and thin shrubs work in tight spaces, too. Proven Winners’ Purple Pillar rose of Sharon is a bi-color hardy hibiscus – an almost indestructible shrub – that grows only 2 to 3 feet wide but 10 feet tall. In late summer, its branches are covered with two-tone purple trumpets.
Interest in native plants and pollinator gardens continue. It’s no coincidence that the North American native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) became the Perennial Plant Association’s 2017 Plant of Year.
Color always grabs consumers – including gardeners. This year, expect to see neon oranges and eye-popping purples.
“People want big, bright bold colors,” Karam said. “In 2017, orange is going to be crazy. The orange in the new gazanias, that color is off the chart!
“Purple also is big this year. (Monrovia) has a new salvia that’s the boldest purple sage we’ve ever had. We’re seeing a lot more orange and purple across the board. We live in a stressful world and color makes us happy.”