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Plant-testing program finds 9 yellow and gold groundcovers to try

By Kathy Van Mullekom
(Newport News, Va.) Daily Press

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Nine shrubs and groundcovers with various shades of yellow and gold foliage – all meant to brighten the garden – are featured in this year’s Beautiful Gardens lineup.

Since 2009, the Virginia-based plant introduction program has tested and promoted new and under-used ornamental species for cold hardiness zones that range from Zones 4-8, which includes all of North Carolina. Linda Pinkham, a professional gardener in Smithfield, Va., helps select nominations for the program.

If you think yellow plants look weak and unhealthy in a garden, Pinkham thinks differently, based on years of professional experience.

“Yellow is the happiest color, the one that advances the most toward the eye, the one that can be a unifying addition to a mix of plants,” she says.

Les Parks, curator of herbaceous plants at Norfolk (Va.) Botanical Garden, is partial to bright, bold foliage.

Here are this year’s selections:

Mother Lode juniper, or Juniperus horizontalis Mother Lode (Zones 4-7): Creeping, flat evergreen has brilliant gold foliage that goes bronze in winter. Deer-resistant, it spreads 6 to 8 feet but stays 4 to 6 inches tall; it needs full sun and tolerates drought.

Little Honey oakleaf hydrangea, or Hydrangea quercifolia Little Honey (Zones 5-9): “It’s a good plant for shady spots, even if it never blooms,” says Parks. “It stays small (4 feet tall and wide), has attractive white flowers.” Plant in part shade, well-drained soil.

Drops of Gold Japanese holly, or Ilex crenata Drops of Gold (Zones 6-8): “It almost shouts at you in the garden, it’s so bright,” says Pinkham. “Visitors to our garden love it.” The plant grows 3-4 feet tall and wide; best in full sun.

Mellow Yellow spirea, or Spiraea thunbergii Ogon (Zones 4-8): “Beginning in February, it produces dainty, baby’s breath-like flowers, which usually last until mid-March,” Parks says. “The real draw for me is the golden-to-yellow green foliage on arching branches, which adds a fine texture to the garden. In the fall, the plant tends to lose its green tints and goes more golden.” The deer-resistant plant grows 4-5 feet tall and wide.

Golden Japanese spikenard, or Aralia cordata Sun King (Zones 4-8): The evergreen quickly forms a plant 4-5 feet tall and wide. Contrasting reddish-brown stems support its bright yellow, tropical-looking foliage; in late summer, interesting racemes of tiny white flowers attract honeybees, and are followed by black berries. It likes part shade, and is deer resistant.

All Gold forest grass, or Hakonochloa macra All Gold (Zones 5-9): Deer-resistant grass spreads to form 18-inch high and 24-inch wide clumps that glow chartreuse in shade and brighter gold in sun.

Brigadoon St. John’s wort, or Hypericum calycinum Brigadoon (Zones 5-7): “This gold leaf St. John’s wort is grown primarily for the foliage,” says Parks. “In shadier sites, it’s more chartreuse green and with more sun it’s yellower. More ground cover than shrub, it stays mostly evergreen.

Golden monkey grass, or Liriope muscari Pee Dee Ingot (Zones 6-10): “It’s best grown in some shade to thrive, because it will scald in afternoon sun,” says Parks. “It does add a nice texture and bright color to shadier areas, and is more interesting than green liriope, and it a great addition to containers, as well.”

Taiwan stonecrop, or Sedum nokoense (Zones 6-8): This creeping succulent is covered with bright golden yellow flowers over an extended period in summer; in winter, its foliage takes on burgundy tints. “It needs perfect drainage,” says Pinkham.

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