Top 1% of December Plants

ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea)

ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea)

The occupiers have left Zuccotti Park, but the ornamental kale remains.
Zuccotti Park is actually not a park at all but a small plaza of polished stone and marble. I recently happened to visit Wall Street, in downtown Manhattan, and stumbled upon Zuccotti Park completely by chance. I was unexpectedly invigorated by this random encounter, if only because of the plantings of ornamental kale that grace the plaza.
The plush, ruffled ostentation that defines ornamental kale – heads of violet and alabaster surrounded by basal leaves of bluish green – is without compare in the botanical world. When it comes to the variety of plants used for annual color, ornamental kale is in the top 1 percent where December garden performance is concerned.
The closely aligned ornamental cabbage will remind you of ordinary cabbage except that interior leaves are white, pink, lavender or red. These plants can live for up to a year, albeit in attenuated form. When warm weather comes in the spring, they will start to bolt or send up flower stalks. If you cut the incipient flower stalks as soon as they appear, you will increase the lifespan of your ornamental kale and cabbage beds.
Unlike the above, most winter annuals often prove to be delicate and problematic. When planting them, you are never quite sure what might happen.
Pansy may die suddenly due to infection from the same soil fungus that kills petunia and annual vinca. Therefore, never plant pansies in the fall where petunias or annual vinca were growing in the summer. Snapdragon is susceptible to rust, geranium budworm and sudden wilt. Stock has fragrant flowers but blooms only briefly. Primroses are subject to chlorosis and mollusk depredation.
Antelope Valley residents take note: The colder the weather, the more robust and brilliant your ornamental cabbage and kale will be. For full expression of cabbage and kale colors, temperatures must drop below 50 degrees for several consecutive nights. If we experience an early frost, so much the better, since the cabbage loopers and aphids that attack these plants and their relatives are generally put to rest by a single frosty night.
A visit to Manhattan in December, at least before everything is blanketed with snow, is instructive if you live in a cold winter region of Southern California and are on the lookout for plants that survive freezing weather. Residents of Palmdale and Lancaster, for example, can be confident that whatever survives a Manhattan winter will survive an Antelope Valley winter, too.
Glossy abelia, for example, is a shrub for sun or shade that grows well in Manhattan. Glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora) is a highly versatile plant that seems to grow in almost any kind of soil, as long as drainage is decent. I would not call it drought tolerant but its slightly higher than average demand for water will be amply rewarded with shiny, dark green foliage and nearly constant white, bugle-shaped flowers.
Glossy abelia makes an excellent background subject, billowing to a height of 5 feet, with whimsical, ballistic shoots that grow fast and are launched in every direction. It can be pruned at will with confidence that its extreme vim and vigor will lead to immediate regrowth. In hot weather, two weekly soakings should be sufficient to keep it happy. Abelia ‘Edward Goucher,’ growing 3 to 4 feet tall, is a smaller pink flowering cultivar.
Michaelmas or Frikart’s daisy (Aster frikartii) is a must for morning sun exposures. Michaelmas daisy blooms more heavily than any other fall perennial, whether you are in Manhattan or Acton. Growth of the plant is asymmetrical and lavender blue flowers are put forth formlessly, with reckless abandon, without rhyme or reason or limitation. No gardener should be without a Michaelmas daisy or two. Regardless of when it stops blooming, delay cutting it back until next spring.
Toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.) has demure, lavender spotted flowers that will remind you or certain orchid types. Toad lily gets its name from spotted petals that are supposed to recall certain spotted and croaking amphibious creatures. No need to concern yourself with pruning since toad lily dies completely back in winter.
Three variegated Manhattan ground covers will do well in any Southern California garden, whether you live by the beach, in the desert or on top of a mountain.
Dead nettle (Lamium maculatum) is the glowing ground cover of choice for shady gardens. Dead nettles have triangular leaves with distinctive white patterns. Depending on the cultivar, leaves may have white stripes, white ink blots or white margins. Alternatively, the leaves may be completely white except for green margins. Dead nettles have white, pink or yellow flowers, although these blooms are really an afterthought to the luminescent foliage. Just be on the prowl for snails and slugs, since they can quickly decimate a dead nettle planting.
Variegated, small leaf, perennial vinca (Vinca minor ‘Variegata’) is a slow grower but worth the wait in small planters and in containers, where it will spill over the sides in due course.
Variegated lily turf (Liriope spicata ‘Silver Dragon’) is a clumping ground cover with green and white striped lanceolate leaves. Like all liriopes, it grows in a paucity of light. ‘Silver Dragon’ is a dwarf cultivar, staying below 1 foot tall.
Tip of the week
If you want pastel daisies in blue, green, pink and yellow, grow white Shasta daisies and spray them with diluted food coloring. They make excellent bouquets and should last up to a week in vase arrangements.

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