A carpet of white, tubular flowers covers the ground at the base of a huge hemlock tree — a difficult place for any plant to survive, yet thrive.
Symphytum grandiflorum, often called comfrey or large-flowered comfrey, is happy where most plants would struggle, and it’s a beauty too.
Martha Oliver is standing over the plants admiring the flowers. She’s been a passionate gardener most of her life. Her husband Charles is a renowned plant breeder, the couple started The Primrose Path in 1986 as a way to offer his hybrid varieties of heuchera and other plants to gardeners. Many of the creations are now sold around the world.
She’s teamed up with two other professional gardeners to open Plants We Like on her property in Scottdale, Pa. Her long-time gardening friends and fellow plant lovers, Ann Talarek, horticulturist at Fallingwater and Mary Kaufman spent last summer in the landscape preparing for their spring opening this season.
“We would get together and dig up these plants, pot them up and complain about the world and the pandemic, "Oliver recollects. "We had a good time doing that,” she added with a chuckle.
The three are focusing on a specific type of gardening.
“We decided that we would have a nursery that would feature plants for dry shade,” Oliver explained.
The beds are filled with pretty blue, white and purple flowers of wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata).
“It’s just gorgeous right now," she says, adding that the foliage is almost evergreen. “This is going to be a hard plant to find,” she says. “The seed is viable for about three weeks. You won’t be able to buy a package of seeds and plant this.”
Epimediums are another one of her favorites. Tiny white, yellow or deep pink flowers are held over heart-shaped leaves.
“Epimediums are so adaptable to any kind of conditions and so beautiful,” says Oliver.
It’s difficult to think of a tougher place to grow plants than under a huge tree.
“Gardening can be very frustrating for people who continually plant astilbes under Norway maples. They can’t understand why these plants shrivel up and die,” Oliver says. "Astilbes are beautiful shade lovers but require a moist environment. I’d like to save gardeners the frustration of planting the wrong plants in the wrong place."
Oliver’s family loved plants, but credits long walks in the woods with her grandfather for her deep affection for gardening.
“He knew all of the plants — in fact, he was an iris breeder,” she remembers fondly. "A chemist by trade, plants were his great passion."
“It’s just one of those things,” she says about being under the spell of plants. “You just have a love for something. I want to give every single plant the opportunity to fulfill its genetic potential. Each one will do a lot for you. They just appeal to me.”
A native pachysandra (P. procumbens) rambles through a bed putting on quite a show.
“It’s just beautiful and has a much more attractive leaf than the Japanese ones,” she says. Often referred to as Allegheny spurge, it has spotted, variegated foliage and fragrant white flowers.
There are three different plants growing throughout the display gardens, all with the common name of Solomon’s seal, but each has a different genus.
“There’s a lot of confusion about those plants, she says, but all of them are good for dry shade as they have very thick rhizomes. They are really good at keeping themselves in good shape.”
Early spring blooming bloodroot, wood ferns, ginger, carex, sedges, primrose, white violets, heart leaf asters and many other plants fill the beds along with Charles’ hybrid heuchera, tiarellas and phlox. Many people are familiar with the hellebore referred to as the Lenten Rose (H. orientalis) as a spring bloomer, but Heleborus foetidus will actually bloom in January. A native columbine has bright red flowers which face downward.
“Between the three of us there aren’t many plants we don’t like,” Oliver says with a laugh.
The display gardens are rich with color and texture. The pure white flowers of Sedum ternatum, hug the ground and light up an area. It’s one of the few cultivars from the genus to enjoy shade. In a few weeks though, these planting areas will look completely different.
“When you look at a garden, you’re just seeing it at that moment," she says, "but there may be other moments when the garden would be equally beautiful.”
As she looks over the colorful display of plants, Oliver explains the goal she and her partners have for this place.
“What we are trying to do is give people a good gardening experience," she says. “Because it’s so wonderful to have a garden.”
Plants We Like is open the second weekend of every month through October or by appointment. The nursery will also be open Saturday May 22, 2021. A Facebook page also has up to date information about what’s available for sale. Call 724-984-4411 for more details.
Doug Oster writes a weekly column for The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter. He also the host of The Organic Gardener Radio Show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio 1020AM.
To see more garden stories, photos and videos go to dougoster.com.
Doug’s 18th annual Plant Swap and Garden Hullaballoo will take place Sunday May 23, 2021 at Soergels Garden Center in Wexford from 11 a.m. until 12 noon.
Be sure plants are labelled and please don’t bring invasives.
He’ll also be giving away the famous Pittsburgh heirloom tomato,
the ‘Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top’ tomato. All the details are here.