Garden Trials

All gardeners experiment with plants, sometimes foolishly, sometimes cleverly, and other times out of necessity. It’s not as though we’re competing with the botanic gardens, running trials of 25 Campanulas or Phlox over a 5-year period to see which is most successful in our local conditions. We just have a need to see what works for us. Maybe we see a plant we like in someone else’s garden and want to try it in our own. Or maybe we see a plant in a catalogue, or on the internet, and it’s our very favorite color. Or we simply can’t help ourselves from collecting one more rose bush.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Caleb’ (‘Vanilla Spice’)

This year, I’m experimenting with two replacement plants, one of which is the beautiful Clethra alnifolia ‘Caleb’ (‘Vanilla Spice’), commonly known as Summersweet, shown in the photo. It occupies a particularly difficult spot next to my front door in a northern and western exposure–in other words, no direct sunlight and brutal winter winds. The soil is excellent, since the location is a raised bed, although it doesn’t always receive the full benefits of a rain storm. In short, for the past 6 years, this particular site has proven itself a  plant graveyard.

So why is ‘Vanilla Spice’ a garden trial? Well, first, the plant itself is brand new to the market this year.  I really had to search to find an internet supplier who would ship the same size plant as I might have found in a local nursery, even assuming that a local retailer had decided to carry it. I called ten different local nurseries who were supposed to carry the Proven Winners® line and not a single one had ordered any of the plants. Second, this is the first time I am trying a shrub in this location. The perennials I’ve planted there, even those hardy to Zone 4, simply didn’t acclimate well. Meanwhile, the shrubs that I’ve planted in the same exposed conditions have fared very well.

I needed to find a shrub that would grow to the height I wanted (about 5 or 6 feet) but that still wouldn’t grow too wide. I also needed a shrub that would tolerate shade and be cold hardy. Finally, since the shrub was going to be near the front door, it had to be a plant with great foliage, whether or not it had flowers. After considerable research, Clethra seemed like an ideal candidate, except that the species plant was simply too large at a possible height of 10 feet. ‘Vanilla Spice’, however, is supposed to grow to a manageable 6 feet and is hardy to Zone 4. We’ll see; but so far I’ve been delighted. My original 13″ (33 cm) high plant has already put on 9″ (23 cm) of new growth since mid-May, the leaves are sensational (they’re supposed to turn yellow in the fall), and the flower fragrance is heavenly.

Will the site continue to cause problems? Will the plant reach its promised dimensions? Will my garden trial succeed? I’ll keep you posted.

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