Winterberry Holly | Ilex verticillata

With fall comes an initial blaze of color as the trees turn, followed by a whole lot of brown and gray. Luckily we have a gorgeous plant for fall color: Winterberry holly, or Ilex verticillata if you like botanical names.  There are several varieties, but some of the more commonly seen winterberry hollies in the DC metro area are:

  • ‘Winter Red’ – a prolific berry producer that grows to 6 to 8 feet
  • ‘Red Sprite’ – a dwarf variety that stays to around 2 to 4 feet
  • ‘Apollo’ – a male pollinator that hangs out at around 8 feet. You can’t have berries without a boy plant. Yay, nature!

I was just measuring a site for a new client and the folks who did their original landscaping loved winterberry holly. Here’s a great example of what they do in late September:

And, here’s a different client site, taken in December. Oh no, where are the leaves?! Oh, that’s right. Ilex verticillata is a deciduous shrub, meaning that it will drop its leaves in the fall. With berries like this, who needs leaves?

All the berries make winterberry holly an excellent choice for those wanting to provide something for the birds. The above photo of the leafless holly was taken right before Snowpocalypse burst upon us a couple of years ago. The happy birds stripped the bushes bare over the ensuing weeks and were later seen looking for South Beach Diet birdseed. True story.

Want to buy Winterberry Holly in Virginia?

Plant Profile: Mountain Fire Pieris

profile card for mountain fire pieris

If you’re looking for a funky little accent plant, Pieris japonica is a great choice, and the variety ‘Mountain Fire’ seems to do pretty well in northern Virginia. What’s also important is that the deer don’t seem to want to eat it.

Plant Profile” Justin Brouwer Boxwood

Justin Brouwer Boxwood plant profile card

This is a boxwood I specify a fair bit. Why? Scale. Justin Brouwer stays tight and compact. The ones in the profile picture were taken at the home of the grower’s relative. They were planted over twenty-five years ago, if I remember correctly, and they’ve maintained a tight ball roughly 30 inches in diameter. I prefer the look of a boxwood that’s not sheared really hard, just lightly pruned and shaped. These work out perfectly for that.

Boxwood are a fascinating plant, actually. I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Lynn Batdorf, the curator of the National Boxwood Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. It was one of the most incredible plant geekfests I’ve ever been to- so cool! The man loves his boxwood (note: the plural of boxwood is boxwood. Boxwood lovers will dopeslap you if you throw an “S” on there), and he’s an amazing wealth of knowledge. Here are some boxwood fun facts he shared:

  • The landscape use of boxwood dates to twelfth century Eastern Europe. It was believed that evil spirits would hide in plants near the home and sneak inside; boxwood, being denser than water, is too dense for evil spirits to hide inside, so boxwood were planted by the front door as a safeguard from spirits. That’s where the foundation planting tradition comes from. I know! How cool is that?
  • Because it’s so dense, boxwood doesn’t swell or shrink, making it a popular choice for seafaring navigational instruments
  • While we associate boxwood with colonial America and old European gardens, there are ten times as many tropical varieties as temperate varieties.

My favorite part of the talk? Mr. Batdorf showed a slide of an as-yet unnamed boxwood. He said “Look at the exfoliating bark. A boxwood with exfoliating bark. Isn’t that exciting?!” And we all went “ooooooh!” and leaned forward. It was like watching the IMAX “To Fly!” at the Air & Space Museum and looking around at everyone leaning 45 degrees to vertical as the biplane loops around on screen.

My name is Dave Marciniak, and I am a plant nerd.

Plant Profile: Chinese Fringe Tree

Chinese Fringe Tree

This is actually a fairly under-utilized plant, which is a darn shame. I love the Chinese Fringe Tree (chionanthus virginicus), partly because it’s just so unusual that its blooms stop people in their tracks. The best advice I can give if you’re on the fence – and lucky enough to live in northern Virginia – is to go take a look at some great specimens in bloom. The photo here was taken the first week of May last year, on the walkway exiting the new Mount Vernon visitors’ center. I was killing time waiting for a landscape contractor to meet me at a site down the road, so I grabbed my camera and got some use out of my annual pass. The squirrels were incredibly fearless. I thought this little guy was going to run right up my pants leg.

Plant Profile: Otto Luyken Laurel

Everyone and their brother does a favorite plant, plant of the week, etc. I decided to change it up a little and present the plants a little differently. I used to love the detailed background info that came with my action figures when I was a kid, so I took the idea of a personnel dossier and applied it to my plant profiles. Here’s the first one:

otto luyken action figure profile

I’m a fan of Otto Luyken laurels as a good, solid structural plant in the landscape. They’re quiet and unassuming, but with their broad, glossy evergreen leaves they provide a rock-solid base for your landscape year round. They are the bass player of the rock band.

Planting Shrubs and Perennials for Cut Flowers

While I was driving around today, I kept hearing a commercial for one of the big box home improvement stores, advertising a special on Knockout (R) roses. In the ad, they talk about how easy they are to care for, and “they make great cut flowers.”shrubby-roses

Are they high? Seriously, Knockout roses have their place: if a client wants months of blooms on a plant that requires almost nothing from them, they’re great plants. I actually use them a fair bit on commercial sites, because Knockouts aren’t susceptible to many of the common rose issues, they’re inexpensive, and you could throw a rookie landscape crew member at them and he or she would be hard pressed to screw up so badly as to kill the plant. But as a cut flower? Not so much. If you want roses for cut flowers, plant real, old-fashioned roses. We all know what a rose is supposed to look like, and Knockouts are just different enough that they’ll disappoint you.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about some good cut flowers. Whether you’re entertaining or just treating yourself, a vase full of flowers can brighten up your home. Here’s a list of a few you can grow yourself very easily:

  • Solidago (Goldenrod)- Beautiful bright yellow flowers- this one’s a favorite. As a perennial, it grows like a weed… because in many cases, it’s regarded as a weed. There are some gorgeous, prolifically flowering varieties like “Golden Fleece,” or you may even find it growing wild at your place.
  • Achillea (Yarrow)- Achillea comes in a wide range of colors, from gold to pastel pinks. It’s a really bulletproof little plant, too.
  • Paeonia (Peony)- This one’s a nice spring bloomer. You can find peonies in some very soft, pastelish hues of pink, as well as pure white. However, my color preferences are in the “obnoxious” family, so I like the fuchsias and magentas. ‘Felix Krousse’ is a beauty in that range.
  • Daisy-looking flowers- These include Echinacea (Coneflower), Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), and Leaucanthemum (Shasta Daisy).  Rudbeckia, especially, is a tough little plant. It’s also a self-seeder, so… give it some space. Trust me.

There are also shrubs that can provide beautiful cut flowers:

  • Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon)- Beautiful, small, hibiscus flowers, BUT be warned: it’s an aggressive spreader, and one rose of sharon wil pop up all over your bed. I finally cut mine down, yanked the stump, and built my compost bunker over it. If you have the space, or the free time to stay on top of it, though- very pretty!
  • Rhododendron- I love rhodies. They don’t feel the same way about northern Virginia or the Piedmont, though. Rhododendrons love a sandy, well-draining soil, which means your best bet here is to plant them on a hillside or a mound. The blooms make it all worthwhile, and one in a bowl is a centerpiece.
  • Beautyberry (Callicarpa)- not for the flowers, but the berries. The branches get covered with bright purple berries.
  • Forsythia- They’re such a classic harbinger of spring that we even time gardening tasks by them: “Oh, forsythia are blooming? Time to put down pre-emergent!” Forsythia can also do a great job of brightening up your house as we head out of winter.

Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive; any flower can make a gorgeous cut flower. However, these are some easy ones to get the wheels turning. If you want it all worked out for you, give me a call- I’d love to help create a cutting garden for you!

Root-bound Plants

ruutballinBehold, a happy little one-gallon Stella D’oro daylily (please ignore the mess behind it- it’s a work truck). I picked up this one and 29 of its friends, for a great price from a wholesale grower. It’s a really full pot, and it’ll make an instant impact on the landscape. But when I popped it out of the pot, I saw this:


(insert horrified scream here)

This is a great example of what people refer to when they talk about root-bound or pot-bound plants. It’s a vigorous little guy to begin with, and he’s probably spent his entire life in that pot, getting plenty of water and liquid nutrition. Plants grow roots, but they can’t grow through plastic nursery containers- the roots have to go somewhere. So, just like marathon runners on a Carnival cruise, they go in circles. This is a bad, bad thing; if I were to plant this daylily as-is, it would do fine for the first year. Eventually, however, it’s roots would continue to wrap around itself, never reaching out into the soil and eventually strangling itself. This is an even bigger problem with trees and shrubs.

How much can the roots grow like this? I’ve teased out the bottom-most roots so you can see:ruutballin-3

That’s pretty impressive! Those are roots that could be working their way through the soil, seeking out water and nutrients. But let me back up for a second.

I have read, in many places, that you should always inspect the roots of a plant at the nursery or garden center before you buy it. If they look like this, we’re told, put it back! Well… yes and no. If I was contemplating the purchase of an expensive ornamental evergreen, for example, I would want to start with every factor in my favor. Perennials, or inexpensive shrubs? We can fix that. You’ve probably heard to “tease” the rootbal a bit before planting, to encourage the fibrous roots to push out into the surrounding soil. With some corrective root pruning, you can also encourage a pot-bound plant to do the same.  In short, you want to cut the roots short enough that you can manipulate them to grow laterally from the root mass. I find that I have to do this, to some extent, to almost every container-grown shrub I buy. I hate sharpening my expensive Felco pruners, so I keep an inexpensive folding knife ($9.97 at Lowe’s) on my belt for this purpose. That’s been a great investment; I’ve used that same knife for the last year to root prune, as well as cut rope, burlap, and plastic nursery containers. It’s still sharp, and it’s cheap enough that I never worry when I misplace it- although I’m such a cheapskate, I will spend twenty minutes hunting it down.

I’ve often found that root-bound plants are also incredibly dried out. If I go ahead and plant them the way they are, they’ll never really absorb water the way I need them to. For this reason, I always keep a few five gallon pails in the truck. Fill the pail with water and drop the plant in for five minutes or so. When you pull it out, that root mass will be completely waterlogged, giving your plants a good jump on their water needs.

There’s a danger here, though. After an hour of pruning off these long, fibrous roots, I had the worst craving for angel hair pasta tossed with garlic and olive oil.

All-Too-Common Gardening Mistakes

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Landscaping, gardening, whatever you want to call it- it’s pretty forgiving. I’m of the school of thought that you can’t actually have flowers that clash with one another, and if you don’t have a perfect blend of textural variations in a mass planting, it probably still looks ok. But the one that will get you is “Right plant, wrong place.”dscf0017

Here’s a picture I took today. Those are crape myrtles right against the foundation- including one growing INTO the electric meter! Honestly, if that one was planted from a 15 gallon pot, the root ball must have been almost touching the foundation then. These trees are goners. The homeowner had no choice but to remove the trunks that were rubbing against the house. At this point, they no longer have that gorgeous crape myrtle form, and they’ll always be in the way. This is a new client, but if I have my way- they’re gone. I doubt I’ll get any argument.


That’s right, these were Leyland Cypresses, used as foundation plants. They continue on the other side of the steps, where the plant bed is less than four feet wide. Last year, I had Leyland Cypresses taken down in Reston, each over fifteen feet wide and fifty feet tall. I despise these garbage trees to begin with, so I felt no pain having these ripped out!

dscf0016If you squint, perhaps you’ll see that there’s a basement window back there. I would think that part of the appeal of a raised ranch is that you get tons of light on all levels of the home. Unfortunately, plant choice has eliminated that possibility here.

so1blueridgeThere’s a nice-sized older home back there… somewhere. I’ll bet that the Nellie R. Stevens Holly dwarfing the front entry was cute and innocent looking when it was planted.

So what’s my point? The biggest, and yet most easily preventable gardening mistake we can make, is to make no attempt to understand the mature size of the plants we select. The tag that you find on a plant at the nursery is a good starting point… sometimes. It’s important to remember, however, that many of the tags are put on by the grower, not the retailer. So, talk to the folks at the nursery and see if their experience matches what the tag says. Also, if you’re reading this, you have internet access- and volumes of botanical info at your fingertips. Simply typing the name of the plant into google gives you hundreds of sites. I usually start with the .edu sites nearest to me first, and work from there. 

Books are always awesome. If you ever want to show your appreciation for my slaving over this blog, I’m fine with paperbacks. Just sayin’. Seriously though, Michael Dirr is THE guru of shrubs. Any book by him will become an invaluable part of your library. And lastly, may I recommend talking to your local designer and/or garden coach? After all, we’re in the business of taking the stress and the guesswork out of your landscape endeavours!

Plants for Small Spaces- Part 4


More plants for small spaces! This one here is Harbor Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo, or more accurately Nandina domestica ‘Harbor Dwarf’. It’s a compact, tidy little evergreen that, at most, will get 3 feet tall and wide- but that’s pretty big for this plant. Like most nandina, any blooms are inconsequential, but it does get attractive clusters of berries. It’s a good, solid performer that certainly won’t overtake your space. As far as maintenance, please- I’m begging you- prune the individual canes to slightly different heights to preserve a natural appearance. Don’t just run the power hedge clippers over the top; there’s nothing sadder-looking than a nandina that someone has tried to shape like a boxwood. This little speciman is never going to get wild and unruly on you, so you can allow the structure to be a little “loose” and it will just get more attractive every year.

Jasminum nudiflorum
Jasminum nudiflorum

I know what you’re thinking: “My gosh, what an unruly mass! Has he lost his mind?” Well, not in this instance, and here’s why. Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is actually a pretty small plant, about 2.5 feet by 2.5 feet. What you’re looking at here is a massing of several, with some deciduous shrubs behind them making things look a little crazier than they are. The exciting thing about winter jasmine is that it blooms SO early. It’s typically the first flowering shrub to pop in the spring, and the Chinese call it “Yingchunhua,” which means Welcoming Spring Flower. The biggest concern with winter jasmine is that it will root where it touches the ground, sort of like forsythia, so you just need to keep an eye on it in the garden.

So with such a wild look, is it something you’d actually use in a spot where a plant for a small space is important? Absolutely! I’ll take pictures this spring- I interplanted winter jasmine and cotoneaster on top of a retaining wall, so that the bright yellow flowers will stand out against the dark green foliage of the cotoneaster. You could do the same thing with a backdrop of azaleas or blue hollies as well. Prune it back after it flowers, and it’s an easy plant to maintain.

Cryptomeria Japonica ‘Yoshino’

Cryptomeria japonica 'Yoshino'
Cryptomeria japonica

There’s not a lot going on in the garden today, so I figured I’d snap a picture of my cryptomeria, aka Japaenese Cedar. It’s a fantastic tree: quick-growing, sturdy, and tolerant of a wide range of conditions. This one sits in a soggy part of the yard. I was a little hesitant to put it here because most of the info I’ve read has said that cryptomeria prefers a well-drained soil, which is not something I have much of in our yard. I planted it a little high, graded up to it with soil from my compost heap, and it’s taken off like a shot. I estimate it’s put on a good 18-24″ of growth in its first year. I’m quite curious about what it’ll do when it actually gets established.

I make no secret of the fact that I despise Leyland Cypress as a privacy screen in subdivision settings. Because of its narrow growth habit, you can work a Cryptomeria into a mixed planting screen to great effect. Interplant it with an evergreen with a broad, dark leaf and you’ll have a screen with some textural and color interest. With just a little thought, you can spend the same amount of money as you would on Leylands and have a planting that will just get richer as it matures.