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Creepy Gardens

Tips for creating a spooky garden.

October is the time for changes in leaf color and plantings of mums and pansies. Yet it's also the time for spooky critters and chilly nights. This year put your entryway and landscape in the mood for Halloween with festively named plants, creepy flowers and in-the-spirit accents. So throw out the horror movies, grab a bowl of popcorn, curl up on your garden bench and enjoy the fun.

Creepy creatures

Add a spine-chilling element to the October landscape with a carefully placed gargoyle or similar piece of garden art (figure A). Tuck them in a niche or around a corner to heighten visitors' surprise.

Creepy plants

The oddly intriguing plant parts of carnivorous plants lure unsuspecting insects. Try pitcher plant (Sarracenia, USDA Zones 6 to 8) and Venus flytrap [Dionaea muscipula, USDA Zones (6)7 to 9]. Note: Pitcher plant blooms are great for use in creepy dried floral arrangements indoors.

Plants that have scary-sounding names and unusual-looking growth habits can also delight unsuspecting garden visitors. Take bat plant (Tacca chantrieri, USDA Zones 10 to 11, houseplant) (figure B) for example: It has ornate, dark purple flowers that resemble frightening bats. (Note: Bat plant may not be in bloom in October.)

On the flipside, bat-face cuphea (Cuphea llavea 'Bat Face,' USDA Zones 9b to 10, typically used as an annual) (figure C) has tiny, red and purple blooms that look like comical flying bats.
Here are a few more to try this season:

  • wolfsbane or monkshood (Aconitum, USDA Zones 3 to 7)
  • sedum 'Dragon's Blood' (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
  • pot mum 'Dragon Time' and 'Vamp Time' series (annual)
  • snapdragon

    Black plants

    Nothing adds suspense or danger quite like black plants. Although these plants don't have true black foliage and flowers (they're actually deep purple or dark brown), use them to add a touch of the macabre to your yard. Plant them in an unusual container like a hollowed pumpkin or faux coffin or combine with orange- or yellow-colored plants to create an electrifying effect.

  • viola 'Bowles Black' and 'Black Delight' (annual)
  • black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', USDA Zone 6 to 9) (figure D)
  • Heuchera 'Obsidian' (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • Sambucus nigra 'Eva' and 'Gerda' (USDA Zones 4 to 7)
  • Ajuga 'Catlin's Giant' (USDA Zones 3 to 8)
  • black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra, USDA Zones 7 to 10)
  • bugbane (Cimicifuga 'Black Negligee,' also called Actaea, USDA Zones 5 to 9)
  • black aeonium (Aeonium 'Schwarzkopf')

    The paranormal

    Invite spooks and specters into your garden beds with these aptly named plants.

  • ghost fern (Athyrium x 'Ghost,' USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • pumpkin 'Baby Boo' (annual)
  • Gaillardia 'Goblin' (USDA Zones 3 to 10) (figure E)
  • ghost hills heath (Erica darleyensis 'Ghost Hills,' USDA Zones 7 to 8)
  • deadnettle (Lamium maculatum, USDA Zones 3 to 8)

    Witches' garden and black magic

    According to folklore, it is said that witches used plants like yarrow (Achillea), foxglove (Digitalis) and hellebore (Helleborus) in creating their magical concoctions for spells and hexes. But be sure to keep some wartweed (Chelidonium) handy in case the witches need it.

    Tell stories of voodoo, black magic and witches' spells with Abutilon x hybridum 'Voodoo' (USDA Zones 7b to 10, houseplant), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana, USDA Zones 3 to 8) and viola 'Black Magic' (annual).

    Keep out unwanted visitors

    If the gargoyles won't scare away any unwanted visitors, try using plants that bear thorns or are otherwise unpleasant to come into contact with. Cacti, agaves (figure F), roses and barberries are all thorny options that no one wants to mess with, while carrion plant (Stapelia) and corpse flower (also called voodoo lily, Amorphophallus) are exotic plants whose flowers emit the stench of rotting flesh in hopes of attracting pollinating flies. (Note: carrion plant and corpse flower may be difficult to force into blooming in October and, for this reason, may be more suitable to grow at other times of the year.)

    Problems with unwanted vampires? Plant some garlic (Allium sativum) around a birdbath that you can fill with holy water (regular hose water would also do). Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) or society garlic (Tulbaghia) could also work but aren't as good as the real thing. Make sure to avoid using plants — like Japanese bloodgrass, bleeding heart, bloodroot and love-lies-bleeding — that could attract thirsty vampires.

    Scary movie

    Bring your passion for horror or thriller movies outdoors with pansy 'Halloween II' (annual) or Agave gentryi 'Jaws' (USDA Zones 7b to 10). Get creative by making tombstones for beloved deceased pets. Place the tombstones in one area of the yard to create your own pet cemetery. Plant catnip (Nepeta) or dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) in memoriam.

    Accentuating the season

    Commemorate the dieback of plants due to frost. For plants with large leaves such as banana or canna, tie up the dead foliage in a bunch to resemble haystacks. The plant "corpses" can be used to hide creepy sculptures.

    Living plants that look like they're dead can also add an interesting element to the creepy garden. Corokia cotoneaster (USDA Zones 9 to 10) has tangled silver branches and tiny, silver-green leaves that make the plant look like it has succumbed but indeed has not. The auburn-brown-colored foliage of weeping brown sedge (Carex flagellifera 'Toffee Twist', USDA Zones 6 to 9) also has the same effect.

    Looking for plants that resemble human body parts? Take a deeper look at the flowers of eyeball plant (Spilanthes, annual), fruit pods of dead man's fingers (Decaisnea fargesii, USDA Zones 6 to 9) or the brain-like blooms of crested celosia (figure G).

    Consider using weeping or contorted trees and shrubs. Options include:

  • contorted filbert, Harry Lauder's walking stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta,' USDA Zones 4 to 8)
  • laceleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Viridis,' 'Waterfall' or 'Red Dragon')
  • weeping katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Pendula,' USDA Zones 4 to 8)
  • weeping redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Traveller' and 'Lavender Twist')
  • weeping European beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Pendula,' USDA Zones 4 to 7)
  • weeping white pine (Pinus strobus 'Pendula', USDA Zones 3 to 9)
  • weeping Higan cherry (Prunus subhirtella var. pendula, USDA Zones 5 to 8)

    Trick or treat

    Not everything outdoors has to be creepy. Go with a more fun-loving perspective in your Halloween celebration. Try pansy 'Trick or Treat Mixture Improved' (annual), Gladiolus dalenii 'Halloweenie' (USDA Zones 7 to 9) and candy corn cuphea (Cuphea micropetala, USDA Zones 8 to 10) (figure H).

    Year-round creepy garden

    Want a "creepy" garden all year long? Try these other options that look their best at other times of the year:

  • spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum, houseplant) (Are tarantulas deadly?)
  • Crocosmia 'Lucifer' (USDA Zones 5 to 9)
  • oriental/trumpet Lilium 'Yelloween' (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • begonia 'Little Miss Mummy' (houseplant)
  • ornamental pepper 'Medusa' and 'Black Pearl' (annual)
  • devil's backbone (Pedilanthus tithymaloides, USDA Zones 9b to 11, houseplant)
  • Kniphofia 'Cobra' (USDA Zones 6 to 10)
  • green dragon (Arisaema dracontium, USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • hardy geranium 'Tiny Monster' (USDA Zones 4 to 8)
  • daylily 'Bela Lugosi' (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • coleus 'Electric Pumpkin,' 'Fright Night' and 'Murder Suspect' (annual/houseplant)
  • Alchemilla mollis 'Thriller' (USDA Zones 4 to 7)
  • Pulmonaria 'Dark Vader' (USDA Zones 4 to 8)
  • Echinacea purpurea 'Fatal Attraction' (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
  • Echinacea 'Doppelganger' (also called 'Doubledecker,' USDA Zones 3 to 8)
  • Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost' (also called 'Miss Willmott's Ghost,' USDA Zones 4 to 7)
  • Hippeastrum 'Voodoo' (USDA Zones 7b to 10)
  • voodoo bulb (Sauromatum venosum, also Typhonium venosum, USDA Zones 6 to 10)
  • Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic' (USDA Zones 7 to 10)

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