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Iowa Gardening: Bloom Time 2012

Zones 4 and 5


Gardeners, start your trowels!

Story by Deb Wiley

Iowa gardeners dig new plants.

They enjoy the chance to buy the latest trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, or vegetables — but prefer selections that have been carefully vetted by garden center professionals.

“I think most experienced gardeners are leery of things that are new,” says Keith Kovarik, who operates K&K Gardens with his wife, Kelli, in the northeast Iowa town of Hawkeye.

Kristy Ostrander, owner of Ostrander’s Flowers in Eldon, says her southeast Iowa customers sometimes ask for new plants seen in magazines, and that can be frustrating.

“A lot of times it’s things we’ve never heard of,” she says, noting the experienced cautiousness of many area gardeners. “People around here tend to go with what they know works.”

That’s also true in southwest Iowa, where Jacque Greene, owner of Kelly’s Flowers, Gifts and Garden Center in Creston, introduces new annuals in creative combinations that she preplants in containers. “I’m trying to get a few younger customers excited about gardening or at least get them into container gardening if I can.”

Northwest Iowa’s Jane Hogue, owner of the Prairie Pedlar of rural Odebolt, introduces her customers to choice annuals in the display beds on her country-chic farm. Visitors are greeted with a healthy pop of color.

Customers of Loki’s Garden tend to be a bit more adventurous, “totally on the lookout for what’s new and interesting,” says Justin Hancock, one of four co-owners of the Des Moines-area garden center known for out-of-the-ordinary plants.

To satisfy them, Hancock hunts for superior traits, such as “a new color in the genus, if it blooms more than the standard variety on the market, if it has a new habit, if the seeds are sterile, or if it’s variegated. I’m a fan of just about anything variegated.”

Spring is on the horizon, and Iowa gardeners will soon find an array of new — or fairly new — plants on the benches of the state’s top independent garden centers. Ready, set, dig!


Falls series of trailing heucherellas
Heucherellas — a cross between coral bells (heucheras) and tiarellas — are tough performers for Iowa shade gardens. Now try the first trailing heucherellas: ‘Sunrise Falls’, ‘Redstone Falls’ (right), and ‘Yellowstone Falls’. “They’re perfect additions to combo planters or by themselves in a hanging basket,” says Hogue. “They also spill along the ground as a showy groundcover.” Consider using them in place of the annual sweet potato vine. Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries.

Falls Series
About 7 inches high, 30 inches wide
Sun to shade
Zone 4

Veronica ‘Tidal Pool’
‘Tidal Pool’ veronica, a drought-resistant groundcover, was bred by experts at Chicago Botanic Garden. A dense mat of blue flowers covers the plant in April and May. “It’s the perfect companion for accenting spring bulbs — imagine it with white ‘Thalia’ daffodils,” suggests Hancock. “The slightly fuzzy foliage helps smother weeds the rest of the season.” Plant it in a dry, sunny spot and let it slowly spread. Photo courtesy Jim Ault / Chicago Botanic Garden.

‘Tidal Pool’ 
2 to 4 inches high, up to 30 inches wide
Full sun
Zone 4

Hardy hibiscus
More types of hardy hibiscus come on the market every year, and Kovarik welcomes them. “This is another one people don’t believe is hardy in our area.” He likes ‘Party Favor’, ‘Cristi’, ‘Sultry Kiss’, and the Summerific series, all with large, 8- to 10-inch-wide flowers. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries.

Hardy hibiscus
5 feet tall and wide
Full sun to part shade
Zone 4 


If you think roses won’t survive Iowa winters, think again. Kovarik is zealous about the Easy Elegance line of shrub roses. They’re tough and beautiful, and many in the collection trick you into thinking they’re hybrid teas. “Honestly, every gardener should have a rose in their garden,” says Kovarik. Try Como Park, with medium red petals, and Champagne Wishes, in antique white. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries.

Easy Elegance
Full, double, semi-double flower forms.
Full sun
Zones 4 and 5


Iowans are discovering the pleasures of succulents. Ostrander recommends them because they come in many colors and textures, tolerate heat and drought, and are easily overwintered inside. Hogue likes ‘Zorro’, a giant echeveria with rosettes that can reach 16 inches wide and foliage color that matures to a dark chocolate red with bright pink margins. “A bowl or trough of mixed succulents is perfect for weekend travelers,” she says of gardeners who aren’t around to water. “These plants can survive in shallow containers with very little water.” Photo courtesy Proven Winners.

Up to 8 inches tall, up to 12 inches wide
Part sun to full sun, Overwinter inside

Special Delivery

Muscatine native Chris Hansen is the co-owner of Great Garden Plants, a mail-order Web-based company in Michigan. Iowans will appreciate the beauty and toughness of the new sedums and hellebores he’s breeding.

‘Dazzleberry’ sedum, a new groundcover option for full-sun locations, has 8-inch raspberry flower heads on clumps that reach 8 inches tall and 18 inches wide. The smoky blue foliage is colorful all season. “It’s one of the first sedums to bloom in late summer,” Hansen says. “And it remains colorful for more than seven weeks!” Place it alongside black asphalt or curbs; it can take a beating.

8 inches tall, 18 inches wide
Full sun
Zone 4


Like all hellebores‘Grape Galaxy’ — introduced in 2010 — is deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, and grows in both clay and sandy soils. This shade-loving plant boasts more than 10 weeks of 3-inch purple-spotted blooms and deep green leathery leaves. Photos courtesy Great Garden Plants.

‘Grape Galaxy’
20 inches tall, 24 inches wide 
Full shade
Zone 4



SunPatiens are just what they sound like: impatiens for the sun. Greene, Hogue, and Ostrander all recommend them. “I look for them to replace geraniums,” says Ostrander. “You don’t have to deadhead them, they’re disease-resistant, and they take full sun and heat.” They come in a wide variety of colors and grow faster and larger than their New Guinea impatiens look-alikes. Keep them well watered for best performance.Photo courtesy Sakata Ornamentals.

Many colors (Vigorous Orange shown at top)
18 to 30 inches tall
Full sun

Gryphon’ begonia
“I’m a big begonia pusher,” Greene says. “They are plants you can leave for a few days and grow almost anywhere.” Some begonias produce flowers, but she loves foliage begonias such as ‘Gryphon’ for the shade, where its silver and green leaves light up dark areas. “So many people have deep shade because their homes are older and the trees around them are mature.” Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau.

10 to 24 inches tall and wide
Full to partial shade


Petchoa SuperCal Pink Ice
This combination of a petunia and calibrachoa offers the best of both worlds, says Hancock. “Like a petunia, it grows great in the ground or in containers, but it also has large flowers in a jewel-tone shade of soft pink.” An added bonus: It tolerates cool temperatures well. “So you can enjoy it longer into the fall.” Photo courtesy Sakata Ornamentals.

SuperCal Pink Ice
Trailing habit
Full sun


Scaevola Suntastic
Most fan flowers come in a purple-blue shade, but the new ‘Suntastic’ is a buttery yellow. Hogue recommends it as “one of those heat-loving, drought-tolerant varieties that survives most summer conditions.” Photo courtesy Burpee.

8 to 10 inches tall, 12 to 14 inches wide
Full sun

‘Silver Stream’
Love alyssum? Hogue recommends ‘Silver Stream’. It’s more compact than Snow Princess and stays covered with white double flowers even in Iowa’s heat. “It’s a wonderfully fragrant alyssum that is a showstopper both in the ground and in containers,” lauds Hogue. “Keep it watered and it performs magnificently. It’s very useful in wedding containers for a soft, lacy look.” Photo courtesy Danziger Flower Farm.

‘Silver Stream’
8 to 12 inches high, 12 to 15 inches wide
Full to partial sun

Trees and Shrubs

Fine Line buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula)
While common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is invasive and spreads aggressively in the Iowa landscape, Rhamnus frangula is an almost-sterile buckthorn. It was introduced several years ago, but “people still don’t know that much about it,” says Kovarik, who calls it a K&K favorite.

“It’s absolutely wonderful in full shade, and you can use it in a container,” he says. “I’m using it to replace ‘Emerald Green’ arborvitae, which has a lot of deer issues. It has fine-leaf foliage like no other plant, and it holds on to those leaves very late in the fall, then turns yellow. It gets very cold before it drops its leaves.” Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries.

Fine Line buckthorn
5 to 7 feet tall, 2 feet wide
Sun or shade
Zone 2


‘Tor’ birchleaf spirea (Spiraea betulifolia ‘Tor’)
With spectacular fall color and a petite growth habit that never needs pruning, ‘Tor’ birchleaf spirea (top) is “unlike any other spirea,” says Kovarik. “I guarantee you’ll be happy with it.”

Don’t grow it for the tight clusters of white flowers; grow it as a low-maintenance landscape plant, he advises. “It turns brilliant red in fall, and it’s much showier than burning bush. It’s very bright red, just gorgeous.” Gardeners seeking a replacement for the suspect burning bush — which has been placed on the watch list as a possible invasive — might consider ‘Tor’. Photo courtesy Bailey Nurseries.

3 to 4 feet tall and wide
Full sun
Zone 3

Solar Eclipse redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘JN3’)
“It stopped me in my tracks,” remembers Hancock of his first encounter with this variegated redbud. The new leaves emerge tangerine-orange, then fade to chartreuse before turning lime green. “That’s cool, but what makes it really fun is that each leaf has an irregular green edge,” says Hancock. “Like other redbuds, it has pink flowers in spring, though with leaves like that, who needs flowers?” Photo courtey Greenleaf Nursery.

Solar Eclipse
12 feet tall and wide
Sun to partial shade
Zone 4


Fruit trees and plants are best sellers. “Our fruit sales have more than doubled from three years ago,” says Kovarik. “People are definitely going back to trying to produce fruit themselves.” K&K Gardens offers SnowSweet apple trees a cross done by the University of Minnesota from ‘Connell Red’ (one of Kovarik’s favorites) and ‘Sharon’. He also offers honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) ‘Tundra’ and ‘Borealis’. “They look like a blackberry only larger.”

Loki’s Garden sells pawpaws and American persimmons. “Two more things that are way cool,” says Hancock. Photos courtesyBailey Nurseries.

SnowSweet apple (right): 12 to 16 feet tall 
honeyberries : 4 to 6 feet tall and wide (below, left))

American persimmon: 35 to 60 feet tall, 20 to 35 feet wide (below, center)

pawpaw: 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, Full sun (pawpaw seedlings protected), (below, right)

All Iowa cold hardy (Pawpaw to Zone 5)





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