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Focus On A Focal Point
The Magic of Specimen Plants
By Paul James
The simplest way to make your garden stand out is to add a specimen, a plant (more often than not a tree or large shrub) that takes center stage and acts as a focal point that never fades into the background. Think of it as living art. Specimens are selected for a variety of reasons, whether it’s spring flowers, fall color, interesting bark, unusual shape, or even their unique structure in winter (perhaps even all of the above).
Regardless, a single specimen can make a powerful statement in an otherwise ho-hum garden design. Here are some of my favorites.
The word specimen comes from the Latin, meaning “to look at.”
With jaw-dropping spring flowers, decent to good fall foliage, and beautiful bark, cherry trees make striking specimens. They do best in full sun, but a little afternoon shade won’t affect their flowering. Just make sure the soil drains well. Whether you choose the traditional upright form or a dramatic weeper, you -- and your neighbors, friends, and guests -- will love the look.
So, where to begin? Well, perhaps the most popular conifer specimen is the weeping Atlas cedar, and it certainly makes a bold statement. But the truth is, every conifer, whether upright or weeping, globe-shaped or pyramidal, or even wildly contorted, can serve as a specimen in any setting.
While the vast majority of new ornamental plants are the result of hybridization by humans, nearly all new conifers started life as mutations, often referred to as “witches brooms.”
You can’t go wrong using a Japanese maple as a specimen. And given the enormous selection of sizes, colors, and forms -- both upright and weeping -- there’s one for just about any mostly shady spot in your garden that cries out for a focal point. And nearly all of them boast beautiful fall color, as well as great structure long after their leaves have fallen.
I love this tree, whether it’s the upright form or the dramatic weeping form. The masses of early spring colors in white or pink are a knockout, and bees, especially the humble bumblebees, adore them. They’ll even flower with a half day of shade. And while some sources claim they’ll reach a height of 40 feet, in my experience 20 feet in as many years is more realistic.
Although spring is their thing, when they produce what are arguably the most beautiful flowers of the season, their fall colors ain’t too shabby either. And dogwoods aren’t all that fussy provided you keep them out of the afternoon sun so their leaves don’t fry. Choose from white or pink flowers. Either way, you’ll wind up with a specimen worth barking about.
A smoke bush in full bloom is a sight to behold, and its airy, plume-like flowers are as beautiful as they are unusual. Available with purple, lime-green, or nearly black leaves, this underused accent grows best in full sun, but is quite tolerant of rocky or clay soils so long as they drain well. Grows to roughly 10- to 15-feet tall and wide at a fairly rapid rate.
Another large shrub or small tree, I strongly recommend Vitex (aka chaste tree) for any and every sunny garden as a specimen or otherwise. They are as tough as any plant out there, and they love our hot, sunny summers. Fragrant flowers are available in blue, lavender, pink, or white, and pollinators absolutely adore them.
Weepers…For Crying Out Loud!
Not so long ago, weeping plants were hard to come by. But no more. And as specimen plants, they’re hard to beat. So consider weeping cherries, conifers of all kinds (cedar, pine, spruce), Japanese maples and snowbells, redbuds, dogwoods, willows, Yaupon hollies, and more. And keep in mind that they don’t take up that much space, which makes them perfect for small gardens.
Another category that has come a long way in recent years is plants with yellow to golden foliage, but not just in the fall. That’s especially true of redbuds and various conifers (again, think cedar, pine, and spruce, plus arborvitae, juniper, and cypress) many of which hold their color year ‘round. And in a garden dominated by green, gold is golden. .
Pom poms, spirals, balls. Carefully coiffed topiary forms of various plants aren’t for everyone, but you can’t deny their impact in the garden. They do require routine pruning to maintain their desired shape, but the time spent doing it -- which doesn’t amount to much, really -- is worth every minute.
Fall Harvest Celebration
Saturday, September 23
Join us for a delightful Fall Fest on September 23rd! Discover local vendors, savor French Crepes, and enjoy refreshing delights. A day of autumnal bliss awaits! Save the date and embrace the seasonal spirit at our garden center!
Saturday, September 23
10 to 11 a.m.
Between the tree debris that smothered fescue lawns and summer’s miserably hot temps and lack of rain, chances are you need to rescue your fescue. Join Paul James to learn how to do just that in this, his first live and in-store seminar of the season. Class is free, but registration is required and limited to 100 guests.
Hispanic Heritage Month Festival
Saturday, September 30
Join us on September 30th as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month! Immerse yourself in the rich culture with local Hispanic vendors, mouthwatering food from 918 Maples, live music by Eleganza Musical, and fun-filled piñatas for the kids. It's a day of vibrant colors, delicious flavors, and joyful rhythms. Don't miss out
Saturday, October 7
10 to 11 a.m.
“Bulbs give you more bang for your buck than any other plant on the planet.” So says Paul James, who’s planted over 4,000 bulbs in his lifetime (so far) and can’t wait to share his favorite selections and planting tips and tricks. Class is free, but registration is required and limited to 100 guests.
I’m Talking Trees
Saturday, October 21
10 to 11 a.m.
Many of us are still mourning the devastating loss of trees back in June. But one sure way to deal with the loss is to plant more trees. Join Paul James to learn what he considers the best trees for this area, including trees for properties large and small, and those that provide the best fall color. Class is free, but registration is required and limited to 100 guests.
Japanese Snowbell 50% Off
Experience serenity with Japanese Snowbell! Delicate blooms, enchanting fragrance. Did you know its flowers bring luck?
Easy care: part shade, regular water, and zen moments. Elevate your garden vibes!
Cedar Atlas 30% Off Get a touch of exotic allure with Cedar Atlas trees! Now 30% off! Unleash their aromatic charm, fascinating growth patterns, and easy-care nature.
Don’t forget that now’s the time to plant your fall veggie garden. Think greens -- lettuce, spinach, arugula and more -- plus beets, carrots, radishes, and other root crops, and finally, enjoy brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.