February Gardening Tips
Deborah Foster, Horticulture Director
It is always fun for a gardener to come across a plant they have never seen before. Adding a new splash of color, texture or bloom to the garden can lift spirits and sooth the soul. A little over a year ago I came across a plant I wasn't familiar with and decided to give it a try. I planted five of them in October of 2015 and I have been pleasantly surprised with their performance. The plant I am referring to is a cultivar of bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus) called 'Raspberry Dressing'.
Bloody dock has an attractive rosette of green foliage with maroon colored veins. It can be grown as a leafy green vegetable or as an ornamental. The young leaves have a tangy flavor similar to spinach but the older leaves can become tough and bitter. The 'Raspberry Dressing' cultivar gets its name from its raspberry vinaigrette flavor. The rosettes grow 6-12 inches tall and 10-12 inches wide. It is cold hardy in zones 5 through 8 and tolerates most any soil type. It does best in sun or part shade and prefers a moist location. The dock I planted looked great with very little care or watering for 11 months until we entered the hottest, driest part of the summer. During the drought, it went dormant for about 2 months but quickly put up new leaves as soon as the rain returned in December.
I first planted it in a bed with pansies and while the deer enjoyed the pansies, they never touched the bloody dock. The dock looked great all winter long and continued on into the spring and early summer. In the spring I took out the pansies and planted white angelonia which contrasted nicely with the vibrant green and red of the bloody dock.
There are many other edible docks in the Rumex genus, some native and some not. Other species of this genus are generally regarded as much better culinary plants. Rumex acetosa meaning garden sorrel and Rumex scutatus meaning French sorrel are more often grown in herb or vegetable gardens for their leaves which are typically added to salads, soups, omelettes and sauces. However, some people may experience mild stomach upset after ingesting the leaves.
Other species of Rumex are perhaps more accurately described as being invasive weeds.
Curly dock (Rumex crispus) is a non-native agricultural weed that is poisonous to cattle, poultry, sheep and horses but safe for humans. Curly dock is easy to recognize by its rusty brown flower stalks and fruit. These plants can grow 1-3 feet tall with wavy solid green leaves. Curly dock grows in a wide variety of habitats, including waste areas, roadsides, fields, shorelines and forest edges. The first time I saw Rumex it was growing along the side of the road on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was the attractive reddish brown color of the flowers and fruit that caught my eye as it provided a nice pop of color against the sand dunes.
While curly dock can be quite invasive, you can plant bloody dock with no worries because this wonderful ornamental will stay put and be low maintenance. If it does bolt in the summer, just cut the plant back and wait for regrowth in the fall. If you never let it flower, the clump will stay bushy and compact. If you want to try some 'Raspberry Dressing' dock in your own garden, this cultivar will be available at the Lockerly Arboretum Plant Sale on April 6th - 8th.
Bloody dock is a great way to bring winter interest into your garden.
Another great ornamental plant that provides red color in winter is the red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Baileyi').The Bailey red-twig dogwood is a fast growing, deciduous shrub with outstanding red stems in w
inter. Fragrant, flat topped clusters of tiny, white flowers appear in May to June, followed by white fruit in the summer that are particularly attractive to birds. Fall color is a showy reddish-purple. It's best to prune the top third off in early spring, as the best red color is found on new growth. Alternatively, they may be cut back to 8 inches every 2-3 years. If left unpruned, it will grow 6-10 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide. The Bailey red-twig dogwood will not sucker and spread like other varieties of 'twiggy' dogwoods. It prefers a moist well drained location but also tolerates clay soils. It's not usually a favorite item on the deer menu. While it is cold hardy in zones 3-8, the heat of summer in zone 8 can make it more susceptible to pest and diseases. Despite the possibility of disease, I think it is worth a try because deer resistant plants that offer red color in winter are hard to find.