Category Archives: plants

Carex: The Wondercover

Carex woodii blooming

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to create a new garden bed toward the front of the property. It was a little too far away from the spigot so watering was going to be an issue and quite possibly deer. I wanted native shrubs but my saplings were going to take time to mature, thus leaving bare space for a few years. Having a new bed as a blank canvas is great but you have a lot of “blank” until the saplings mature.

I thought I would cover the soil with groundcovers and had heard great things about the genus Carex. I visited the local nursery and selected several Carex “Evergold” plants. In fact, this well-known local garden center only had the brightly variegated cultivars of Carex. But I liked the fact that its graceful arching leaves added color to the garden and stayed evergreen in the winter. True to form, the plants performed well despite the lack of watering. Deer have not bothered them (although they did enjoy the oakleaf hydrangea). In fact nothing has bothered the plants – they are work horses in my Virginia garden.

So when I saw the new Mt. Cuba Center Research Report on Carex for the mid-Atlantic region at a nursery trade show this past week, I picked up a copy. The 24-page publication is great. There are many detailed photos illustrating the botanical structure of the plant, photos of the top performers, and charts. The report can be downloaded from Mt. Cuba Center.

Top performer: Carex woodii

In 2017, Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden staff planted 70 different types of Carex, 65 species and five cultivars (no, not my ‘Evergold’). Carex are grass-like perennials that are found in diverse habitats from wetlands to coastal sand dunes. A member of the Cyperaceae plant family, Carex is a sedge. Its stems are triangular with three edges and a solid interior. Usually their flowers are grass-like and insignificant but there are a few with larger, more pronounced flowers. The plants can be clumping or spreading. They are evergreen, semi evergreen, or deciduous in the winter. Most gardeners use them as groundcovers or as a “spiller” in a large container. They also can be used to stabilize soil, prevent erosion, and serve as a turf alternative.

Carex plants under shade at Trial Garden

For four years, the Trial Garden staff evaluated the plants for their horticultural qualities, vigor, and adaptability. They were planted in the fall of 2017 and given supplemental water for the first year to get established. From then on, they did not get supplemental water, they were not fertilized, and they only received a late winter cutback. Each plant was assessed in both full sun and shade and in average soil. The plants were rated on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being very poor and 5 being excellent. Top performers are in the 4.2 range or higher, but the report does caution that those plants with lower scores are not necessarily inferior. They may be useful or good performers in other conditions (more wet or more dry soils).

Top performers are listed below. The report provides a full paragraph and one to two photos for each.

  • C. woodii (Wood’s sedge): 4.7 shade rating, 4.4 sun rating
  • C. cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge): 4.7 shade rating, 4.3 sun rating
  • C. bromoides (common brome sedge): 4.6 shade rating, 4.3 sun rating
  • C. haydenii (Hayden’s sedge) 4.5 shade rating, 4.5 sun rating
  • C. stricta (upright sedge) 4.2 shade rating, 4.5 sun rating
  • C. emoryi (Emory’s sedge) 4.1 shade rating, 4.4 sun rating
  • C. sprengelii (long-beaked sedge) 4.4 shade rating, 4.0 sun rating
  • C. pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge) 4.3 shade rating, and 4.2 sun rating
  • C. pensylvanica ‘Straw Hat’ (Straw Hat Pennsylvania sedge) 4.4 shade rating, 4.1 sun rating
  • C. muskingumensis ‘Little Midge’ (Little Midge Muskingum sedge) 4.3 shade rating, 5.2 sun rating
  • C. albicans (white-tinge sedge) 4.3 shade rating, 4.1 sun rating
  • C. jamesii (James’s sedge) 4.3 shade rating, 3.9 sun rating
  • C. muskingumensis ‘Oehme’ (Oehme Muskingum sedge) 4.1 shade rating, 4.4 sun rating
  • C. crinita (fringed sedge) 4.0 shade rating, 4.2 sun rating
  • C. leavenworthii (Leavenworth’s sedge) 4.2 shade rating, 3.7 sun rating
  • C. plantaginea (plantain-leaf edge) 4.2 shade rating and failed to thrive in full sun and did not complete trial for sun rating

Because Carex plants are wind pollinated, there is no benefit to pollinators, but the plants are important as host plants and for habitat. Small mammals and birds eat the seeds and caterpillars of butterflies and moths consume the leaves. Toads, frogs, and turtles like to take up residence in the plants.

Looking down on Carex muskingumensis ‘Little Midge’ which has unusual foliage

The report also assessed Carex as a lawn alternative. In 2022, they did a year long mowing trial to identify which ones would be tolerant of regular mowing, grown both in sun and shade. Most were tolerant but those with medium to coarse textured foliage were not as aesthetically pleasing as mowed turf grass. Fine textured foliage looked better after mowing. The trial did not assess foot traffic which would occur in a home landscape. The top five top performers for this trial are:

  • C. woodii (Wood’s Sedge): 4.9 shade, and 4.9 sun
  • C. eburnea (bristle-leaf sedge) 4.6 shade, and 3.6 sun
  • C. socialis (low woodland sedge) 2.4 shade, and 4.6 sun
  • C. pensylvanica (Pennsylvania sedge) 4.3 shade, and 4.4 sun
  • C. jamesii (James’s sedge) 4.0 shade, and 4.4 sun

Carex crinita has pretty flowers

As I mentioned before, my ‘Evergold’ is a brightly colored cultivar that I found in a local garden center. None of these native species mentioned in the report were at the center, nor have I seen them at any other local garden center. In fact, there are many native species but you may not find them at your nursery. So if this report has you salivating for these plants, you may want to try these nurseries below. Full disclosure: these were not listed in the report and do not imply endorsement by Mt. Cuba Center.

Prairie Moon Nursery
Digging Dog Nursery
Izel Native Plants
Plant Delights Nursery

Also, if you are intrigued and want to learn more about carex plants, Sam Hoadley, who manages the Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden and was responsible for this trial, will present Carex for Every Garden on February 1, 6 to 7:30 pm, virtually for a nominal fee. Register here.

Mt. Cuba Center is a destination garden, a public garden in Delaware that highlights the beauty and value of native plants to inspire conservation. I highly recommend visiting them and checking out their website for educational events and past reports on other plants.

All photos are courtesy of Mt. Cuba Center.

New Plants and Gardening Products for 2023

Hydrangea Pop Star

This week I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show. Known as MANTS, this trade show is always held in January at the Baltimore Convention Center. There were more than 900 exhibitors, and there is nothing for the public to purchase, it is all wholesale. I learn about new plants and products that will be on the market for gardeners. Although it was open last year during the pandemic, this year it felt like pre-covid, like we were back in business. The event was well attended – there were crowds of attendees and exhibitors plus many local garden communicators.

Here are few new plants and products that I discovered at MANTS. You will see them at local garden centers this year, or you may be able to order them online directly from the company. Continue reading

A Gardener’s Christmas Poem

This is my gardener’s version of The Night Before Christmas. Merry Christmas everyone and thank you to those who subscribed to my gardening newsletter, asked me to talk to their organization and write for their newsletter or magazine, and collaborated with me on giveaways. It has been a wonderful year!

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the yard
The branches were bare
And the ground frozen hard;

The roses were dormant
And mulched all around
To protect them from damage
If frost heaves the ground;

The perennials were nestled
All snug in their beds,
While visions of fertilizer
Danced in their heads;

The newly planted shrubs
Had been soaked by a hose
To settle their roots
For a long winter’s doze;

And out on the lawn
The new fallen snow
Protected the roots
Of the grasses below;

When, what to my wondering
Eyes should appear,
But a Prius full of gifts
Of gardening gear;

St. Nick was the driver
A jolly old elf,
And he winked as he said,
“I’m a gardener myself.

I’ve brought new seeds
And light systems, too,
Give them a try
And see how they do.

To eliminate weeding,
I brought bags of mulch
To attract the pollinators,
I have flowers for best results.

To add to your joy,
I’ve plenty of herbs
And ornamental grasses
For your hell strip curb.

For seed planting days,
I’ve a trowel and dibble.
And a roll of wire mesh,
If the rabbits should nibble.

I have the latest books
Plus some gadgets you’ll love;
Plant stakes and frames,
And waterproof gloves.

Here are sharp shears
And a new compost pit
And, for pH detecting,
A soil testing kit.

With these colorful flagstones,
Lay a new garden path.
For the view from your window,
A bird feeder and bath.

And last but not least,
Some well-rotted manure.
A green garden year-round,
These gifts will ensure.

Then, jolly St. Nick
Having emptied his load,
Started his Prius
And took on the road.

And I heard him exclaim
Through the motor’s quiet hum,
“Merry Christmas to all,
And to all a green thumb!”

Written by Peggy Riccio,

Lemon Cypress Dressed for the Holidays

As Christmas approaches, lemon cypress plants emerge, draped in holiday costumes. You have seen these small, yellow evergreens for sale at garden centers, food markets, and gift shops. Greenstreet Gardens is selling a gnome carrying a basket with a lemon cypress. The gift shop at Longwood Gardens has draped them in mini lights. A few years ago, Trader Joe’s sold Grump trees inspired by Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The trees were wrapped to bend and droop with a large ornament. Admittedly, these are cute and would make great gifts but then what? How do you take care of the live plant? Continue reading

Growing Luffas for the Sponges

A long time ago, 2017 to be exact, a fellow seed saver sent me luffa seeds (Luffa aegyptiaca). Although I had been interested in growing luffa for a long time, for some reason I just never got to it. Then it occurred to me that if I don’t sow these seeds, they may no longer be viable.  This year, in April, I sowed the seeds indoors under lights, much like starting tomatoes. Despite being 5 years old, the seeds germinated quickly. I transferred the seedlings into larger containers and moved them outside in May. After they hardened off, I planted them in the ground in my garden in several places.  There are some plants by a low, wooden fence, several are draped over a metal A frame, and one is climbing up a trellis. Luffas are vines with grape-like leaves that need vertical support. Continue reading

Abelia: A Workhorse of a Shrub

Abelia is an old-fashioned shrub hat is generally maintenance free.  As I drive to work, I see 4 f00t tall hedges of them on the median strip in Rockville, Maryland. They are workhorses, able to live on a median strip despite heat, cars, and exhaust fumes. Continue reading

No Drainage Holes? Grow Rice


Close up of Black Madras foliage

What do you grow when you have a large container with no drainage holes? Rice (Oryza sativa). This annual grain can grow in containers with no drainage, full of rainwater. Rice is actually a beautiful plant for the garden and easy to grow from seed. ‘Carolina Gold’ and ‘Charleston Gold’ are used for grain production but there is nothing that says they cannot be grown in the garden for their beauty.  They have tall, arching green foliage but their seed heads shine like gold in the fall. ‘Black Madras’ is edible but usually is reserved for its ornamental, black-purple foliage.

rice seed heads

Black Madras seed heads in October

I have grown ‘Black Madras’ by seed, I sowed the seeds directly into large containers with no drainage holes. These containers were not pretty but I could not grow anything else in them without the roots rotting.

I lightly covered the seeds with potting mix and watered. They germinated quickly and the plants did well all summer long. My plants were in sun but they could have tolerated some shade, especially afternoon shade in the summer.

By July, the foliage was about 2 feet tall and a beautiful dark purple. I also sowed seed in a smaller but prettier, blue ceramic container with no drainage holes. I thought the color contrast would work well. The plants were healthy but the container was proportionately too short for the height of the rice. I soon realized that because the container was smaller, the potting mix dried faster in the heat. It is best to have a large container partly because of rice’s height and partly to prevent the mix from drying quickly. Rice cannot survive in dry soil.


Black Madras in short, blue container

Rice is a fun plant to grow in the summer. It is an annual that needs a long summer to produce the seed heads. In the fall, you can leave the seed heads for the birds or you can cut them and use them in floral arrangements and wreaths.

This plant is ideal for a place that has standing water, or a water, bog, or rain garden. You may even see rice for sale as a pond plant.

You probably will not see these for sale at your local nursery.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells ‘Carolina Gold’ and ‘Charleston Gold’ seeds and John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds sells ‘Black Madras’ seeds. It is likely the seed packet will have more than you need for one summer. Don’t plant all of them, save some for next year. The seeds are viable for several years.

Try growing rice next year. Not only is it an easy ornamental annual, it will certainly pique your friends’ interest as they visit your garden.


Black Madras in large container

Gaura, Whirling Butterflies, or Wand Flowers

Close up of gaura in my garden, note there are four petals, not five

Recently, we have had little rain here in Northern Virginia. I am forced to water with my hose or watering can, which I don’t particularly enjoy. This weather certainly separates the men from the boys. Some plants have just sizzled away.

One manly plant not fazed by dryness and heat is gaura. Technically its name is not gaura anymore as Gaura lindheimeri was reclassified as Oenothera lindheimeri. They also are called whirling butterflies or wand flowers. Continue reading

A DC Gem: Lotus Flowers and Water Lilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Before the pandemic, I visited the annual water lily and lotus festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The free, family event was all day long in July.  I arrived early to park nearby but there was a shuttle that ferried people from the metro station and other parking lots. The music had already started. There was a stage with a band, plenty of picnic tables, and paper lotus-shaped lanterns strung from trees. People from several local organizations were setting up tables to either inform the public of their organization, offer crafts for kids, sell or make the paper lanterns, try lotus tea, and other activities. Many families brought coolers to eat lunch. Later I spied several food trucks parked on the street. There was a small gift shop, plenty of bathrooms, and very informative rangers. There also were volunteer from the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens distributing brochures. Continue reading

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Enjoy Your Shamrock Plants

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Although the shamrock plant looks like a three-leaf clover it is actually a species of Oxalis. These are commonly sold as St. Patrick’s Day gift plants but they make great houseplants and garden plants. Continue reading