After a winter many thought would never end, it's gardeners' time to shine

With one of the region's snowiest winters finally in the rearview mirror, greenhouses and garden centers throughout the suburbs are stocking their shelves with new and colorful plants and shrubs.

“After this very long and cold winter, I think that everybody’s ready to go," said Matthew Hirsh, greenhouse manager of Chapon's Greenhouses in Baldwin Borough. "There’s a lot of cabin fever out there.”

Hundreds of tiny, cranberry-colored flowers are on the shelves of Chapon’s. The unique "Hip Hop Viola" is just one of the new plants Mr. Hirsh is excited about.

Local garden centers showcase new plants

Four local garden centers picked their favorite new plants for the season. (Video by Doug Oster; 5/1/2014)

“It looks like a little bunny face and ears,” he said about the new plants from Hort Couture. The company offers three varieties: "Cranbunny," "Honeybunny" and "Bluebunny."

Plant breeders continue to introduce varieties that are different but also easier to grow, he said. “A lot of these new plants are bred to be very easy, self-cleaning and durable.” Gardeners often find something they love and stick with it, but Mr. Hirsh said he hopes they will stretch a little in their gardens. “You’ve got to experiment — try something new and see how it works,” he said. "It’s thrilling when the staff sees new plant material coming in, each one fantasizing about how it will work in their own landscapes."

Mr. Hirsh is carrying a new line of deer-resistant plants called Deer-Leerious. The plants — rated by their resistance from “Not Eatin’ This” to “Not Likin’ This” — include Korean rock fern, dianthus "Everlast Lilac With Eye" and pulmonaria "High Contrast."

Although Pieris japonica is not one of the plants in the line, it has long been regarded as deer resistant. Older varieties can get taller than 10 feet and bloom with tiny white flowers. "Passion," however, is covered with stunning deep red, bell-shaped blossoms in late spring. The shrub is very hardy and easy to grow, reaching nearly 5 feet at maturity.

Petunias, a favorite summer-blooming annual, are available in new choices this year. “Two-tone plants are a big deal this year,” Mr. Hirsh said. "Cha-Ching Cherry" is one of his favorite bicolor petunias. The flower begins blooming in a solid, deep red and then forms light stripes. "Lavender Starlet" and "Orange Starlet" have dark-colored veins that get more intense toward the center of the flower. "Glamoflauge Grape" petunias have a solid, light purple flower set off by dramatic green-and-white variegated foliage.

For the first time this season, all of the vegetable and herb plants at Chapon’s are grown organically. Also this year, the greenhouse is carrying quick sprout potatoes that are potted and ready to plant. "All Blue" is just that — a potato with blue skin and blue flesh. "Kennebec White" is a more traditional-looking potato with white flesh.

Handing down gardening bug

At Soergel Orchards and Garden Center in Franklin Park, Randy Soergel has a brand new variety of Mecardonia named "Gold Dust." The low-growing plant sports buttercup-colored flowers that are perfect for the front of a border, along walkways or among rocks. Mr. Soergel said they also would be perfect in a fairy garden, which have become popular over the past two seasons. “Make sure it doesn’t dry out,” he said of the shallow-rooted plant. One of his tips for gardeners is to make sure moisture levels are correct. “The most important thing to know is that a plant will die if you forget to water it just once.”

The garden center is carrying grafted tomatoes this year. “They are disease-resistant, offer high yield and good flavor from an older variety," Mr. Soergel said. Heirloom varieties are grafted onto a vigorous root stock. Varieties include "Mortgage Lifter," "Yellow Cherry," "Brandywine" and "Carmelo." He recommends the tomato for small spaces and containers.

One of the most popular plants at the garden center are Calibrachoa. Superbells' "Safron," "Blackberry Punch" and "Cherry Star" are three new varieties that bloom in profusion all summer. Mr. Soergel has a tip to keep them looking great all season: “When they look absolutely perfect, give them a haircut so they look good for the rest of the season.”

"Silver Sword" azalea is a variety with a completely different look — it blooms with pink flowers over variegated green-and-creamy-yellow foliage, providing a long season of interest.

Greek globe basil is great for adding a little special design to the garden, he said. It’s a topiary basil trimmed like a ball on top of a small, tree-like stem. “It has a really nice fragrance. You need to keep it pruned back, too, so it stays nice and bushy,” Mr. Soergel said.

One of the most striking of the new plants he is carrying is "Goshiki" false holly. The plant looks like a standard holly but has white-and-green variegated leaves, which make quite an impact in the landscape. The plant needs more light than an American holly to become highly variegated.

Mr. Soergel believes it’s a great idea to grow something different, saying the only way for gardeners to find out if something works for them is to try it, and they may discover a new favorite plant.

He loves to interact with the families who visit the garden center, showing parents how to share their love of working in the dirt. “Passing gardening onto the next generation becomes the responsibility of our generation,” he said.

New season, new plants

Penn Hills Lawn and Garden owner Jayme Visnesky has spent most of her life around plants, growing up with the business that her mother, Beverly, started in 1984.

Ms. Visnesky has been running the business for 13 years and enjoys the start of the season and the new plants it brings. One of her favorites is "Double Take" flowering quince. It blooms with double red flowers and is fruitless, deer-resistant and drought-resistant after established. This shrub is carefree and “it’s a good plant for easy gardening,” she said.

One of the trends in gardening is re-blooming shrubs such as "Bloom-A-Thon" azalea. Not only does the plant bloom in the spring, it flowers again in the summer and then in the fall, too. “It brings five months of color," Ms. Visnesky said. The plant is evergreen and is perfect for mass plantings but needs to be protected from deer. “You need to keep it fertilized," Ms. Visnesky added.

Old-fashioned Weigela has beautiful spring blooms but can be a one-trick pony. "My Monet Sunset" has attractive variegated foliage that maintains interest after the pink blossoms have faded, and the leaves turn deep red in the fall.

The "Thriller" series of hellebores offers tough, spring-blooming perennial flowers of many colors and forms with evergreen foliage. Hellebores bloom with the crocus and, once established, are carefree shade plants. They are deer- and rabbit-resistant, too.

Anyone who has bought goji berries in the store knows how expensive they are. The beautiful people use them to keep looking beautiful. Now gardeners can grow their own. "Sweet Lifeberry" is an easy-to-grow goji berry shrub that loves full sun and produces lots of berries.

Gardeners looking for a bulletproof shrub should consider ninebark "Tiny Wine." This native plant with dark purple foliage and pretty white flowers is nearly indestructible.

Like Mr. Soergel, Ms. Visnesky wants gardeners to try something they’ve never grown before.

“Finding something new to garden with every season is the fun of gardening," she said. "It’s what makes us excited.”

A symphony in bloom 

One of the new offerings at Janoski’s Farm and Greenhouse in Findlay is the "Simmons Overture" day lily. It was named after R.P. Simmons, chairman of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra board of trustees, in honor of his 80th birthday. A portion of the proceeds from all sales of the flower are donated to the orchestra.

“With this day lily, you’re getting it all," manager Patty Janoski said. "You’re getting a beautiful plant that’s going to bloom with over 500 blooms a year, plus it’s going to come back next year. Of course you can always separate those day lilies and have many, many plants.” The flowers have a lavender/rose color with a black eye and gold edge.

Janoski's is carrying a container plant this year called the "popcorn plant." It has bright yellow flowers and, best of all, it smells like toasted popcorn. It also attracts bees and hummingbirds.

"Cool Wave" pansies love spring weather, but this variety will bloom all the way into July. They are offered in light and dark blue, mixes, purples and yellow. “Sometimes when you leave those pansies in the ground and don’t pull them out, they will trickle back for you next year and bloom again,” Mrs. Janoski said.

One of her favorite plants is Scaevola. "Fairy" is available in blue, pink and white. “It’s a very hardy plant," she said. "I tend to grow mine in the ground, taking them out of the hanging basket. They take full sun. If you miss a day of watering, they won’t be done, they will perk right back up for you.” 

"Aloha Pineapple" and "Aloha Mango’"are two new varieties of Calibrachoa that the nursery is carrying this year. Mrs. Janoski describes them as nothing more than a small petunia. “They are pretty hardy, they like their regular watering and regular feedings, they do great in combination planters or in window boxes,” she said.

Even though Mrs. Janoski works with plants all day, she still enjoys time in her own garden. It’s a place for her to think and have some alone time, and it's also where she tries the new introductions.

She mainly likes to do that so that she can tell her customers, “I tried this last year and it did real well. Because if it lives in my yard, it’s going to live in your yard.” 

Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at Twitter: @dougoster1.

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