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IN THE GARDEN: Perennial creeping phlox has stunning blooms that require minimal effort — but is dull without them

by Janet B. Carson April 8, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) comes in pink, purple, white and a few bi-colors, thrives with neglect and does well in nutrient-poor, rocky sites. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

Q: Can you tell me the name of this purple ground cover?

A: The ground cover in question is a perennial plant called creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). It comes in pink, purple, white and a few bi-colors. It is stunning when in bloom, but not overly attractive the rest of the year. The good news is that it thrives with neglect, and does well in poor, rocky sites.

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Q: I have several loropetalum and variegated cedar bushes that are definitely dead. Could you suggest hardy replacement shrubs that grow no higher than 3-4 feet and can tolerate full sun? Something that is evergreen and blooms would be nice. Thank you for your time and suggestions. I live in Little Rock and enjoy your weekly column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A: The reason loropetalum took off in our state is that they are evergreen, can take full sun and partial shade and bloom well -- many dubbed them the azalea for full sun. The same was true of Indian hawthorn, but both plants have taken major hits with our cold weather. Encore azaleas are touted as full sun bloomers, but I prefer to give them a bit of afternoon shade, and they too were damaged this winter but are rebounding nicely. I think the kicker is "evergreen and blooming." I strongly encourage plant diversity. There are some fabulous variegated abelias that would work, and while normally evergreen, most lost all their leaves but have leafed back out. Look at the plant tags to see mature height. Add a few "green" plants, like dwarf holly or boxwood to give some fill, and intermix with full sun-loving deciduous bloomers like dwarf itea, summer blooming spirea and dwarf buddleia (butterfly bush). The latter does hold a lot of foliage in the winter most years, but did die back to the ground this winter. It will grow rapidly, fill in and bloom all summer through fall. You could also intersperse some shrub roses in the mix for more summer color, along with more compact panicle hydrangeas or viburnums, which bloom for a long time, but do lose their foliage.

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Q: You once told me the Ruby Slipper needs a colder winter to really bring out the red in the blooms. Does the arctic air in December count? Or does it require a longer, sustained-cold winter? Right now, it's the happiest thing in my yard. Wish I could say the same for my gardenias.

A: The red coloration that appears near the end of the bloom's life requires cool to develop and so that's when the cooler weather is needed, not in the spring when they first bloom. Some of the newer oakleaf hydrangeas and panicle hydrangeas are touted for the pink or red color the blooms fade to after being white. That coloration is better in areas with cooler weather in late summer and early fall. They still bloom beautifully here, but I don't think a cold winter can help with a hot summer. Let's hope this summer is kind to us. I am seeing good new growth on larger gardenias, but I have seen no signs on the dwarf gardenias yet, but I am still waiting. Patience, Grasshopper!

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Q: Do you know what kind of tree this is? [The reader sent a photo.] It has a thicker, fluffier look than a Bradford pear and the blooms have a hint of pink. They also bloom a little later than the pears.

A: It is a flowering cherry tree. There are upright forms and weeping forms.

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DEAR READERS: Please join me Monday, April 10, for the spring plant sale at ACCESS Academy, 1500 N. Mississippi St. in midtown Little Rock. I will give two short talks — one at 8:30 a.m. and one at 4 p.m. — on the best planting locations for the plants they are selling. I will not only give you information on caring for these plants, I will be around to answer any questions you might have.

Seating for the talks is free but limited, so to secure a seat, register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/602870270207.

The plant sale is open to all every week from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Saturday through June 3.

While ACCESS is known for annuals and perennials, they do have some shrubs, vegetables, herbs and tropicals as well as a few roses. Blooming gardenias, hydrangeas, two varieties of elderberry and roses are going to be quite popular. A wide variety of annuals including Angelonia, calibrachoa, lantana, verbena, Sunpatiens and more are available in a variety of sizes.

Lush hanging baskets are filled with petunias, lantana, bougainvillea along with some mixed baskets.

Each year they try something new. Some exciting new choices include topiary black-eyed Susan vine and climbing sweet potato vine, along with unique begonias and sunflowers. New perennials include monarda, hyssop and several new salvia varieties. Whether you have sun or shade, there are plants for all gardens, and they look great.

The ACCESS horticulture program is a student-run business located at the ACCESS Academy and Young Adult Campus. All proceeds benefit the ACCESS Gardens horticulture program in providing therapy, educational, and vocational training opportunities for individuals with special needs.

ACCESS Academy and Young Adult Campus on Mississippi Street in Little Rock serves more than 150 individuals with special needs. This campus encompasses students from kindergarten to young adults, and all participate weekly in the gardening program. ACCESS is a 501c3 nonprofit offering evaluation services, full-time education, therapy, training and activities for individuals with developmental delays and learning disabilities.

Retired after 38 years with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Janet Carson ranks among Arkansas' best known horticulture experts. Her blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet. Write to her at P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, AR 72203 or email jcarson@arkansasonline.com


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