Spring planting is time to let your creativity bloom

Brian Hallett

As I write this column I must mention that today — the first day of spring — I have shoveled snow away from the greenhouse twice in order to enter. As any gardener knows, there is nothing quite like the green of new plants or the smell of fresh soil. This alone is why each year I shovel my way inside, turn on the heat, clean the water system and start planting.

We all enjoy spring for the sights and smells after a long winter and I encourage you to take a walk through your garden space. Not a regular walk, a real walk with both eyes and nostrils open, way open. I will offer some suggestions for some plants that will liven up your space with color and add some fragrance to your garden. In addition, I will share some shade plant suggestions to replace our old and true friend the impatiens, specifically impatiens walleriana.

When I visit my friend, Julie, she puts me to work “dead-heading” her lavender. Actually, we always take a walk through her small, albeit beautiful backyard garden and end up in front of the lavender. I am amazed that it grows so vigorously in Northern New York and I always enjoy seeing plants from my greenhouse doing well in someone’s garden. As I trim away dead blossoms, the smell of lavender surrounds me and attracts quite a few bees. It reminds me how important scent is in a garden and what an integral experience it is to losing yourself in the outdoors. In a small space like a balcony or deck, using plants that give off a scent can make the experience that much richer.

Here are four of my favorite fragrant plants perfect for a small space:

There are hundreds of varieties of lavender, but I normally sell and grow hidcote lavender. You can go for whatever your local nursery has available and what smells best. I like hidcote lavendar because it’s very drought tolerant, likes plenty of sun and with some winter shelter and proper drainage is a perennial in the north country. I plant lavender with some gravel in the bottom of the hole and some good draining soil. It’s also important to remember to cut off the dead flowers — as you cut them off at the second or third node (where the leaf grows from the stem) the plant will be triggered to produce more. And even the dead blossoms keep their scent, so you can collect a bundle and keep it in the house. Hidcote is a true English lavender with a sweet aroma and a gorgeous dark purple flower. It is cold hardy and easy to dry for crafts.

I plant scented geraniums in pots, window boxes and in the ground. This is what I plant closest to the seating area on my deck so anyone who sits close by is enveloped with the subtle odor that comes from this plant’s leaves. I really like the lemon-scented geraniums. Plant the variety of scented geraniums called pelargonium citrosum “vanieeni,” also known as mosquito plant, in containers on the deck or patio to repel mosquitoes from the area. Incidentally, marigolds, basil, rosemary and mint also naturally deter mosquitoes.

Geraniums, in general, are easy to grow, are heat and neglect tolerant and the scented ones are no different. Plus, there’s a huge selection. Chocolate, citrus and mint are all strains you can find in many local nurseries.
Honeysuckle (lonicera) is a flowering vine that can give off a powerful scent. Its super sweet fragrance and pretty tube-shaped flowers make for a great fence cover or trellis plant near an open window, porch or walkway. Hummingbirds adore honeysuckle vine and after growing one you will, too. These easy-care climbers will grow in large pots and in the ground. Honeysuckle vine bears strongly scented flowers in mid to late summer as the garden starts to wane and provides birds with colorful red fruits.

Mint is pretty much a magical plant for me. You can eat the leaves, drink the tea made from the leaves and you can’t really kill it (plant it in a separate pot or plant it in a buried container in the garden). As you brush against it in the garden or in a hanging basket it releases its scent. As you cut off leaves it releases scent, and if you plant it in a place that is on the damp side it will grow where grass and other ground covers fail to thrive. I like having some by the front door. Containers of herbs and scented plants by the front door are nice to walk by, easy to care for and easy to use. The list goes on and on with plants that have amazing scents.
Spring planting will be here before you know it, and many of you can’t wait to get at your gardens. But one plant that is considered a staple of the shade garden is off-limits this year.

Garden centers and local nurseries would normally be filled with impatiens, but now they are, in many cases, not being sold. The hearty staple plant that blooms so beautifully in shade and lines so many gardens suffered a devastating disease last year. Impatiens downy mildew is a destructive foliar disease of imaptiens walleriana that is capable of causing complete defoliation or plant collapse, especially in landscape planting under moist conditions and cool nights.

Plant experts from Cornell University have said it’s not just a Northern New York problem. Impatiens are the No. 1 flower bed plant in the nation, and the “downy mildew” disease is worldwide. The leaves defoliate, they turn yellow and you see spots. You’ll just be left with blank stems.

An example of impatiens that Mr. Hallett planted in previous years. Photo courtesy Brian Hallett/Halletts' Florist and Greenhouse.

I recommend that you not plant impatiens for up to three years because the disease survives the winter in the soil and it can spread via wind. If you planted impatiens in window boxes or planters remove and replace the soil before planting this spirng. If you do plant impatiens and you see signs of downy mildew, remove infected plants and apply a fungicide. You should not compost any infected plants. Instead, either burn them or bag them up.
I suggest people altogether avoid planting impatiens this year. At this point, I am hearing that the big box stores are ordering impatiens the same as usual, essentially forcing growers to produce them even if they are scared to. They are banking on the public not being aware of the disease, or not being afraid of it if they are.

The good news is there are some beautiful alternatives to impatiens. I would recommend with a good conscious that you plant New Guinea impatiens, sunpatiens, coleus, potato vine, creeping jenny vine, dragon wing begonias, tuberous begonias, wax begonias, torenia, lamium and begonia bonfire. There are many other things you can plant.

It’s a good time to have a conversation with the folks at your local garden center. Read your plant tags for spacing requirements, what kind of light and water the plants you purchase will need and let your creativity bloom this year.

-Brian Hallett is an art teacher at South Jefferson Central School in Adams. His family owns Halletts’ Florist and Greenhouse in Adams, which celebrates 30 years in business this year.