Episode 72 – Layering Plants in the Garden + Landscape

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

What do the most interesting gardens all have in common? A focal point. A path and a border. Great plant variety. But layering—without overcrowding—is tricky. There is far more to it than simply putting tall plants in the back and short plants in the front. 

Join us on the YouTube link above or at your favorite podcast platform to learn all about the elements of a layered garden or landscape, and to hear Rick recite this week’s Lim-a-Rick:

Layers are a form of preparation,

A multi layer clothing proration,

When you’re hot you’re hot,

When you’re not you’re not,

First we freeze then there’s perspiration. 

Three layers I thought would suffice

No need for self sacrifice

There’s a reason they call it a sweater

I sweat and then I get wetter

And in minutes it turns to ice.

So in winter I’ll dress in layers,

Apparel it comes in pairs,

Soon I’ll be sweating,

And then I’ll be getting,

Your sympathetic stares.

You can also learn more about designing and planting in layers in our Gardening Simplified Landscape Guide.

Why? Two reasons: Cesky Gold dwarf birch is a 2-4’ tall shrubby dwarf birch is a great plant for layering in your garden or landscape, and since we’re coming to you today from some extremely cold temperatures, it’s also one of our hardiest shrubs, surviving even down to USDA zone 2. That’s as cold as -50 degrees F air temperature, not wind chill!

I’m guessing I have a good idea of what comes to mind for most people when you say “birch” – the snow white  trunk of the paper bark birch, or perhaps the orange-white bark of the river birch. Well, Cesky Gold dwarf birch is neither! It’s a shrubby birch that reaches 2-4’ tall and wide, and naturally grows with a tidy, dome-like habit. It has elegant, slender branches that fan out from the center of the plant. Its foliage is these neat, tiny little leaves that emerge bright gold. Those little leaves give this plant lots of space and texture, and that makes it perfectly suited for mixing and layering in the garden. Color is at its best and brightest in spring, but you will see that bright yellow new growth through the season. It matures to a nice cheery chartreuse-green.

Cesky Gold dwarf birch comes to us from breeder Michal Andrusiv of the Czech Republic, which is also where the name, Cesky Gold, comes from.

A few growing tips for Cesky Gold dwarf birch:

  • For best golden color, grow it in full to part sun. It can grow in full shade, however, the foliage is not likely to take on vivid gold tones and the habit will be more open.
  • It is not a particularly drought tolerant plant, so avoid dry conditions. It would, however, thrive in clay soil or in any situation with regular irrigation.
  • Little to no pruning is required.

If you’d like to add Cesky Gold dwarf birch– or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

First, a quick update from Kurt in England, whose flooded garden we discussed on last week’s episode. The rain has stopped, the flood waters have receded, and the plants appear to be okay! We didn’t want everyone thinking that Kurt’s garden was all mud and sadness, so we’re sharing this photo he sent of the garden in fairer weather.

A summer garden on a sunny day with a very large fig tree right in the center.

On our episode dedicated to USDA hardiness zones, we talked about lots of the system’s shortcomings, but this issue right here is where it is best applied. It addresses the lowest average temperature an area will experience, and then the lowest average temperature a given plant can tolerate. So by simply looking at the USDA hardiness zones of the fig tree and Perfecto Mundo reblooming azaleas – both of which happen to be USDA zone 7 – we can estimate that they can survive temperatures as low as 0°F. So, in theory, as long as your temperature doesn’t dip that low, your plants should be okay. But let’s get back to those hardiness zone system shortcomings for a moment – what those numbers don’t tell you is just how long a plant will be able to survive temperatures that low. So if you are only going to experience a brief dip to very cold weather, your plants should be fine. If you are going to have prolonged periods of very cold weather, then you might consider protecting your plants. Frost shields and frost blankets, available at your local garden center, are a good solution for this, but you could use old sheets or blankets or even burlap. Do not use plastic. And make sure whatever you put down is secure and won’t blow away with the strong winds that often accompany cold snaps. 

Of course, with a big fig tree like Kurt’s, protecting with cloth isn’t exactly practical, so that might be a situation where you just have to hope for the best. The good news is that it is not going to die from that cold – it may experience dieback, which of course would be a shame for such a lovely tree form fig, but you won’t lose it entirely. 

We commend you for doing such a thorough job researching this topic, Marvel! The mixed results you’ve been reading vividly show the importance of having a reason why you are pruning something. The results vary so much because each addresses a different potential reason to prune an elderberry, because each will give different outcomes. In the case of, say, roses, the reason for pruning them is pretty much always the same: you prune to cut back to thicker buds lower on the stem for thicker, more vigorous growth, which also results in more flowers and better flower coverage. As such, the advice for pruning roses tends to be quite consistent. But in this case, there are a number of reasons someone might want to prune an elderberry, and furthermore, they aren’t a species that generally needs or benefits from regular pruning, so the advice is all over the place. As such, you need to determine why you might want to prune it. Is it for size control? Do you want to coppice it and grow it as a foliage plant? Is it for managing elderberry borers, a native insect that can cause branches to wilt?

Here’s my advice: I generally do not recommend pruning elderberries as a matter of course. You are correct, they bloom on old wood, and pruning after they bloom would remove the potential for any berries to develop, if that’s important to you. Further, if you were to have a variety like Black Lace, which blooms in June, this would mean pruning in summer, and we have found that elderberries tend to recover poorly from summer pruning. Now, if you want to control the size of your plant, you could prune it in spring with the understanding that it would remove flowers and fruit every year. 

As for the dead, diseased, and damaged wood, that doesn’t count as regular pruning and can be removed any time it is noticed, though early spring, before the leaves emerge, tends to be a good time to do it. So, once you’ve determined your reason for pruning, you can decide which approach best fits those goals, and act accordingly.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

In this episode, we’re joined by author and designer Debra Knapke for a discussion on biophilia: human’s innate need to connect with nature. It’s a term coined by E.O. Wilson in his 1984 book, Biophilia. Join us to learn what it’s all about, how it manifests in our daily lives – even if you don’t consider yourself a gardener. Find the whole conversation on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above.

Pink rose of Sharon flowers bloom on a plant with variegated foliage.

Episode 92 – Weeding by Example

Ah, weeds – maybe the #1 thing that discourages people from gardening. But weeds are interesting and become a lot easier to manage when you apply some basic IPM principles. Featured shrub: Sugar Tip rose of Sharon.

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