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Wed, May 22

That blue flowering shrub is Russian sage

It happens every year. Customers come flocking into the garden center with cut flowers, digital photos, asking the same question, "What is that blue-gray shrub that is blooming with blue flowers all over the top?" The answer is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia.

Russian sage is one of those plants that grows so well here that you would never know it was discovered in Russian, but then again that's where tumbleweed originally came from. If you haven't noticed it blooming around town you'll see it everywhere after reading this week's column.

It's small deciduous shrub that grows to 4 feet, if it's in a happy location, with a classic Arizona blue-gray color to the foliage. It flowers all summer with rich blue sprays covering the entire outer surface of this perennial. It takes any soil we have in the tri-city area and I would consider it to be drought hardy, or at least a low water user. Brutal sun and wind seems to encourage stronger growth of this plant.

This shrub needs little to no attention during the growing season and does exceptionally well on a drip system. This is the perfect plant for mass plantings, or use them individually in borders. A good companion plant to use is the bright yellow of Potentilla cinquiefoil, and the red flowers of autumn sage, Salvia greggii. These shrubs are the same in size and water use, but the yellow or red flowers look striking against the blue of the Russian sage.

It's not prone to insects. Now that I sit here thinking about it, the only real work this plant needs is a good pruning back to about 1 foot from the ground in the winter before new growth starts. Encourage more blooms in summer by cutting off the spent, dried flowers. Within weeks this plant will send up new flower sprays from where the last cut was made.

Now is the season when family and friends drop by the house for parties, weddings and other fun gatherings. If your yard needs a quick splash of color before your next big event, consider adding a quick color bowl or container filled with instant color. Most garden centers will have container gardens already planted and ready to go home with you for instant color.

If you are going to pick your container or repot your own container garden, here are the nursery professional secrets that will ensure instant beauty and assured success. First, ignore the recommended plant spacing provided on the plant tags or signs. The goal is to have your pottery packed with plants when complete. If much potting soil is showing between the plants, others will think you didn't have enough plants to finish the project, or the plants are stunted and not doing very well.

The soil used in a container is critical. A good quality potting soil will have a base of peat moss and have either white perlite or pumice added for proper drainage. Usually a slow released plant food is added in the soil mix to promote more vigorous root growth. You can reuse the potting soil in your containers for about two years. After that, I add this soil to my vegetable garden or flower beds and start afresh with new soil. Never use soil from the yard to fill your pots.

This is the number one secret to designer container gardens . . . use large plants. I like to start off with gallon-sized plants, and then use 4- inch plants as filler. I'm talking about three to five larger plants in a medium-sided container. It's very difficult to fill a container and have the height and feel you're looking for by using six-pack flowers. Root balls should be planted side-by-side for a full container, packed with color. If in doubt, add another plant to the container garden.

Watering will be every day for small containers in full sun. Larger containers with a little protection from the sun and wind will need watering every two to three days, depending on the plants used. I found out 10 years ago or more that adding polymers to your potting soil will greatly decrease the water frequency of plants in containers or in the yard.

Polymers have been used in the agriculture business for decades, but you have seen them in other products as well.

One is the handkerchief that wraps around your neck, and swells up better than a sponge when you submerge it in water to keep you cool in the heat of the day. I'm sure you'll see them on folks at the parade downtown. They simply used an agriculture polymer and sewed them into a handkerchief. When placed in water these polymers will swell up with water and feel like Jell-O.

Add several tablespoons of this same polymer to the soil of a container and it will hold water around the roots of the plants much longer. You could double the length of time between waterings. For water hog types of plants, such as begonias and impatience, you find they are just happier.

My favorite type of polymer is called "Soil Moist Plus." I like it because they have added a fertilizer that will release over the length of the whole growing season. It works great on houseplants that need transplanting as well. If this isn't enough detail for you, or you are the hands-on type of gardener, I would highly recommend our first garden class of the summer gardening series on July 10 entitled, "Easy Container Gardening." Our resident designers will be making dozens of container gardens ahead of time for wonderful ideas, and putting several together during the garden class.

Classes take place at Watters Garden Center every Saturday from 10 to 11:30 am. You should come early because these classes can be standing room only.

Enjoy all the Independence day holiday festivities. Until next week, I'll see you at the garden center.

Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.

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