Home & Garden

Marjorie Harris's 10 essential plants

By: Marjorie Harris

Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

Marjorie Harris's 10 essential plants

By: Marjorie Harris

If you cannot make up your mind about where to start, use these plants, all of which are quite readily available. In my estimation, no gardener should live without them. This collection includes small trees, shrubs and perennials, along with my favourite grass, and will make an excellent framework on which to build.

1. Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) is a four-season small native tree or large shrub. Growing up to 21 feet (6.3 metres) tall in sun or shade, it is bedecked with sparkling white flowers in spring, delicious purple-black berries in summer, and scarlet foliage in autumn. The bark is a velvety striated grey in winter. Superb as a standalone specimen, it also makes a fine screening plant in a woodland setting. Zone 4.

2. Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Dissectum Atropurpureum') is a low-growing (8 to 10 feet/2.4 to 3 metres), wide-spreading tree with finely cut purple leaves that turn neon orange in autumn. Like all Japanese maples, it needs shade from the hottest sun. Zone 6.

3. Black elder (Sambucus 'Black Lace') is the plant to have if you can't grow Japanese maples. It has the same glorious cutleaf foliage, except that it's an amazing purple-black. It also has pink lightly fragrant flowers in early summer followed by black berries that birds love. This one grows from 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 metres) high. It needs either full sun or part shade to maintain the foliage colour.

4. Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum 'Summer Snowflake') is an incredibly versatile shrub that grows anywhere from 4 feet (1.2 metres) to 7 feet (2.1 metres), depending on how rich the soil is and how warm the zone. White lace-cap flowers will bloom from June until the autumn frosts blast them away. Zone 5.

5. White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate') is a perennial with deep purple-brown foliage all summer and a froth of white flowers in autumn. Growing about 4 feet (1.2 metres) tall, it likes moist soil in sun or part shade. Zone 4.

6. Bowman's root (Gillenia trifoliata) is a native perennial from Eastern Canada with brilliant flowers in June and gorgeous autumn tones. It reaches about 3 feet (90 centimetres) in sun or shade. Zone 5.

7. Black snakeroot (Cimicifuga 'James Compton') is a spectacular member of a family of perennial black bugbanes. Growing to about 32 inches (80 centimetres), it has deep purple-brown leaves with fragrant white bottlebrush blooms on long stems. It likes sun and rich soil but will tolerate shade and still retain its colour.

8. Large merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora) is an eastern woodland native perennial of extraordinary beauty that grows about 2 feet (60 centimetres) tall. Its lily-like nodding yellow bells bloom in May amid long, gracefully dangling leaves. Zone 3.

9. Golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') is a perfect perennial, growing in sun or shade, in a border or in a container. It forms a cascading mount 10 inches (25 centimetres) high. Normally hardy to Zone 6, it could grow in Zone 5 in a sheltered spot with a protection of winter mulch. And it's well worth using as an annual in colder areas.

10. Hosta (Hosta 'June') with its blue-edged leaves is a standout among many great hostas. The centre of the leaves starts out cream and gradually turns a stunning chartreuse. The leaves are topped by violet flowers in midsummer. It reaches a height of 15 inches (38 centimetres) and a spread of 3 feet (90 centimetres). Zone 3.

If you have room, add one magnificent large native tree to that list. I live at the edge of the Carolinian forest so my choice is a Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica), which grows to 70 feet (21 metres) and has grand feathery leaves about 3 feet (90 centimetres) long resembling a prehistoric fern.

Your own essential list
My essential plant list includes the items that I think are absolutely necessary for the best of all gardens. If you aren't in the right zone, find a plant that comes close to those on the list. Soon you'll be making your own essential plant list. Just remember to always make sure you select plants that have a good form and look splendid in as many seasons as possible. Winter bark and berries, spring and summer blooms, autumn leaves and foliage. A combination of all these items is what you're after.

Click here to read Marjorie's tips on designing with containers.

Marjorie Harris is the national gardening columnist for the Globe and Mail and the editor-at-large of Gardening Life magazine. She is the author of several gardening books, including The Canadian Gardener and Botanica North America. She lives in Toronto, where she gardens seriously and for the amusement of her husband, writer Jack Batten. To learn more go to Marjorie's website at www.marjorieharris.com.
Excerpted from How to Make a Garden: The 7 Essential Steps for the Canadian Gardener by Marjorie Harris. Copyright 2006 by Marjorie Harris. Excerpted with permission from Random House Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced except with permission in writing from the publisher.

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Marjorie Harris's 10 essential plants