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Gardening outside the box

Well, I survived that frigid spell we had in mid-February and all the back- and-forth weather that followed. Eventually, however, I got so desperate to get back to digging in the dirt that I had to take desperate action. I attended the Lewis Ginter Winter Gardening Symposium.

Every year I hope for at least one or two ideas that will inspire me to do something different. Three years ago that special idea was to plant Aechmea blanchetiana in pots and in mixed perennial borders in sunny areas of my garden. The Town of Farmville Horticulturist David Fowlkes had the same idea, and so we’ve had dueling Aechmeas for several years now.

This year was no different. Fowlkes was at the Symposium and, like me, he was looking for new ideas. Specifically, what could he plant in town that would be unexpected, easy to grow and that would make people stop and look for a moment or two. There were so many “out of the box” ideas this year that we both have lots of new things to try.

Here’re a few that I think are worth trying this spring.

• Sink tubs in random areas in a sunny perennial border, fill them with water, and plant lotuses. Why not! Lotuses grow just as well in tubs as in large water gardens. They have great architectural interest throughout spring, summer and fall. The leaves are beautiful, especially when dusted with rain drops. The blooms are oh so pretty, and the seed pods and dried leaves at the end of the season are equally striking. Can’t you just imagine visitors’ surprise when they see lotus blooms rising above the rest of a border?

• Plant rows of milo or grain sorghum along a walkway or border or use it as a specimen plant. It is drought tolerant and will add various shades of green, lots of texture and a huge element of surprise. Most visitors won’t expect to find it in your garden. Cotton and amaranth would be interesting choices too.

• Add an element of tropical lushness to the garden by planting hardy banana trees. Can you imagine the show stopping splendor of seeing banana trees planted with our traditional boxwood? For even more tropical lushness, add some sun tolerant coleus, Mandevilla, and hardy palms. Tall billowy grasses would like stunning too.

• Plant lots of elephant ears, just don’t limit your choices to the traditional green ones. There are so many varieties these days — tall, short, green, dark purple, green with purple stems and veins, and even ones with splotchy leaves. Mix them up with graceful grasses and cannas. Many elephant ears will over winter in the ground here if extra mulch is added.

• If your garden is small, try integrating the vegetables into the rest of the garden rather than keeping them separate. Cherry tomatoes look fabulous espaliered along a fence or wall. Beds of asparagus can be used as hedges to separate different “rooms” in the garden.

• Leave part of the grass around a bed or other area in the garden uncut for a few weeks. When you cut around it, cut a design so that the taller grass adds new motion and interest to the garden. You can change the design easily or just go back to plain grass with very little effort.

Spring isn’t quite here yet, but there’s hope – new blooms, tiny leaves in an incredible array of greens and even warm breezes on some days. It’s time to inspect my tools, review all my notes, and get back outside again. After all, a garden is never finished.

CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email is cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.