By Mel Bellar
One of my favorite educational (and slightly silly) podcasts is called “Let’s Argue About Plants” which is produced and hosted by the editors at Fine Gardening Magazine. Sometime this Summer they had an entertaining episode about red in the garden that is the inspiration for this article.
A lot of serious gardeners don’t like red (or hot colors in general) in the garden. But me? Just like my red glasses, I love it as an accent! A pop of color! Red can be very impactful as flowers, foliage, berries and even branches. But there are certainly many opinions as to “what qualifies as red.” I have a double standard when it comes to what I consider to be red in the garden; I want flowers to be real red, not burgundy, and not orange, but I consider a bright purplish or deep oxblood red to suffice for foliage.
Red(ish) foliage is a great way to break up the generally monochromatic green shrub/tree backdrop of the landscape and provide season-long interest. There are numerous red-leafed shrubs that work great in the Catskills; Summer Wine, Coppertina and Center Glow are all ninebarks with good reddish coloring that make quite a statement as a specimen plant, or can also be used to create a rhythm with some repetition in a larger context. I never used to trust Japanese maples to survive in our neighborhood, but due to our warmer Winters I have started planting Bloodgood (good red name!) and Emperor (which is even redder) Japanese maples. Their leaves are as red as leaves can be in the Spring and Summer and these small trees have a beautiful habit and do well in some shade. They also have brilliant red Fall color, which even the most adamant red-hater will probably like.
Fall color is a whole other thing when it comes to red. Most folks ogle over red then, and there is certainly lots of it with all of our red maples, Acer rubrum. I will not plant the invasive burning bush any longer, but it does have an impressive ember color in the fall, as do blueberries. Another red shrub that I love is the Grace smoke bush. It is a cross between our native green smoke bush, Cotinus obuvatus and the Cotinus coggygria “Royal Purple” and it can be very red, especially in the late afternoon and toward Autumn. It is a particularly beautiful plant and a great accent in the garden.
Moving on to perennials, native bee balm (Monarda) is a staple of the Catskill garden, and has an excellent red representative, Jacob Kline. There are many monardas that are dancing around red, but Jacob Kline is a real red and I love it. A swath of this sturdy plant will create a bright focal point in the garden and make the hummingbirds very happy. Lucifer Flower (Crocosmia) is a perennial that I use to add some red hot to the Summer garden. It is considered a zone 5 plant, but it flourishes in my garden and I have proliferated it throughout many gardens. Cardinal Flower is a great fire-engine red native option that will thrive in very wet areas as well as in shadier areas. They are hummingbird manna. There are dozens of varieties of red peonies to be found. However, I have not been that enthusiastic about peonies because I hate the way they have been bred to have such a dense flower that they flop the moment after they bloom. There are a lot of heirloom varieties with single petals, including some red ones that I am going to try. Personally, I have not had great luck with Knockout Roses, but if you are in love with roses there is a nice red variety that is supposed to be hardy in our area.
Annuals are not really my thing, but there are some red ones that I find exciting. The red annual poppies are lovely, but for some reason I have never managed to get them going in my garden. What’s up with that? Also, I love red nasturtiums, of which there are many. Alas, they, too, have not been very successful for me, but I am going to try again. The Fine Gardening folks mentioned an annual salvia called “Hot Lips.” It looks a little pink-leaning in the photos on the Web, but its height, vigor, cuteness and propensity for long blooming make it an attractive option. I am going to give it a shot.
If I had only one red plant to use, it would be Japanese Blood Grass. It is not supposed to be hardy here and it is on the invasive species close to red. Red twig dogwoods are a prevalent native shrub that provide great beauty in the late Fall through early Spring and add essential Winter interest. And finally, Dropmore Scarlet Honeysuckle (a native, and almost red) is a wonderful vine that adds a perfect shock of red to a trellis or arbor.
If you don’t like the idea of red plants, add a red bench, chair or umbrella. I have a red gazing ball snuggled into some low conifers to offer a little red surprise.
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~