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Ever wonder how new perennials will perform in your North Shore garden? The trial garden for Plants Nouveau is in the neighborhood.

Angela Palmer knows what a trial garden looks like, and that’s not what she wanted to surround her own North Shore home. When she moved to West Newbury in October 2011, Plants Nouveau was already up and running. Plants Nouveau is Palmer’s plant introduction business originally based in Baltimore. They don’t sell plants, but they do help breeders bring their products to the public arena. To perform that function, Angela Palmer needs to trial the plants where she can keep a constant finger on the pulse of their performance. What better place than around her own house? But regimental straight rows were not what she had in mind for her three-fourths-acre of river bottom soil. Trained as a landscape designer, she wanted a true garden framing her home.

Her North Shore arrival got off to a dramatic and dicey start. Angela learned immediately how fickle New England weather can be. The October 2011 day that she moved in coincided with a particularly dramatic and calamitous weather event that would go down in history as one of the region’s weirdest and most destructive flukes. “Literally, the moment the movers finished unloading our furniture and closed up the van, it started snowing,” Angela recalls. Because the trees were still fully clothed in foliage, they came crashing down under the weight of the snow that accumulated. “All the large trees on the property were lost,” she remembers, “the silver maples, red maples, and ash came down, crushing a Hydrangea paniculata and walnut. We were left with a completely blank slate.”

Although the stripped scene was devastating at first, it allowed Angela free rein to create a fresh design. She had planned for shade; now she had sun. However, her major challenge was the soil underneath. Surrounded by an ephemeral swamp bristling with skunk cabbage, royal fern, spirea, and quantities of jewelweed, she knew that drainage would be an issue. But her degree in landscape design proved invaluable for creating a setting. Rather than fight the soil underfoot, she went with the flow, planting moisture-loving trees and shrubs like Cornus mas, fothergilla, winterberry, stewartia, and clethra. Her emphasis was on stewarding as many natives as possible with an accent on fast-growing plants that would fill in rapidly to form a backdrop for her trial perennials. As a unifying factor, she wove in a serpentine European beech hedge.

For the perennials, she found that drainage-loving helenium failed to thrive. What worked instead were moisture-loving bee balm, coneflowers, mountain mints, garden phlox, and ornamental grasses. The result was a strong July garden that needed strengthening to extend the hurrah. That’s where the trial plants became particularly valuable. Given a “cold Zone 6A” in the Merrimack River Valley, her property has the dubious distinction of being “the last place where the snow melts in the neighborhood.” She needed workhorses.

Angela Palmer

For early-season splendor, she turned to a new lungwort, Pulmonaria ‘Lisa Marie’ with a spread that expands 3 feet wide, considerably larger than the old-faithful stalwarts on the market. “I’ve never been excited about lungwort before,” she admits “but this introduction doesn’t skip a beat. And the watermelon-red flowers are so big that bumblebees get lost in them. Plus, it’s mildew resistant.” She also plugged in Stokesia ‘Mels Blue,’ with massive 4-inch periwinkle blossoms on long stems appropriate for cutting, and its more compact sibling Stokesia ‘Mini Mels’ that reads like an early season aster covered in blue blossoms.

To fill in with shrubs, she turned to Leucothoe axillaris ‘ReJoyce’ for its long, graceful leaves that blush wine-red late in the season. Another late-season performer is the oak leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowcicle’ with long, cone-like racemes of double flowers. Unlike most oak leaf hydrangeas, ‘Snowcicle’ forms a more densely branching plant, lending itself to container growing.

Late in the season, attention turns to houseplants, and Angela profiles many plants that can make the leap from porch display to inside the windowsill when temperatures plummet. Her personal favorite is the rex/rhizomatous hybrid Begonia ‘Sterling Moon.’ This fancy-leaved performer is copacetic with life on the porch during the growing season but equally happy indoors where it remains mildew-resistant. Similarly, she hosts newly introduced Alocasia Masquerade ‘Mayan Mask’ and Colocasia ‘Pharaohs Mask’ that do double duty outside in summer and indoors as houseplants through the winter. Both boast “look-at-me” heart-shaped leaves. In addition, she cannot resist collecting agaves and cacti. “They’re my passion,” she admits, “I’m truly a plant person.”

Because she is a true gardener at heart, Angela’s home garden goes far beyond strictly business. By the road, she created a gravel garden to grow plants that prefer a well-drained habitat, filling it with purple and white performers such as catmint, lavender, allium, and agastache. Planted in the matrix pattern that has taken Europe by storm, it looks nothing like your typical trial garden. That’s where the Nepeta ‘Summer Magic’ performs nonstop throughout the New England summer, “no deadheading needed.” How does she know? Because she’s testing it in her North Shore garden.  

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