Whether its shoes, cars or restaurants, sometimes “reliable and familiar” trump “risky and exotic”. The same goes for plants. New and unusual plants are exciting and challenging, but easy-to-grow and long-lasting trees, shrubs and perennials give gardens a firm foundation and give the gardener some horticultural confidence.
The latest new plant introduction isn’t always the easiest to grow. Frequently, the lackluster performance of the latest plant rage is the fault of the plant, not the fault of the gardener. Give yourself a break. Grow something that works!
Turn to some of these “Top Ten Plants” and feel good about gardening. Their value lies in their reliability.
Few plants have as much going for them as Pieris japonica, the Lily of the Valley shrub. In springtime, the Pieris is covered with clusters of flowers dripping like little cream-colored chandeliers. Pieris flowers bloom along with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. As the Pieris flower clusters fade, they are replaced by shocking bright red new growth. Summertime advances and the red new growth changes to shiny green. Next spring’s flower buds form in autumn and put on yet another show. The Pieris japonica, with its shiny, bright green leaves and showy flower bud clusters, remains beautiful and fresh looking all winter. Along comes spring and it all begins again. The Pieris thrives in sun or shade, moist or dry soil and reaches about 8 feet tall and wide. It’s very easy to grow and problem free. Look for named varieties of this wonderful plant if you need something a bit smaller.
Roses are notorious for being high maintenance. If spending hours on end pruning, spraying and deadheading isn’t your idea of fun but you still want a rose, try growing Rosa rugosa. The sweetly scented pink blooms cover a 6-foot shrub all summer long. Give the Rugosa plenty of room. It does produce suckers. It grows in full sun without much water and does not need to be sprayed. It will not get the dreaded black spot and powdery mildew that plagues hybrid tea roses. Rugosa roses are very low maintenance. If you don’t like pink, you can find varieties in white, red and yellow. All Rugosas are easy to grow.
Laceleaf Japanese maples take the prize for ease and elegance in Pacific Northwest landscapes. Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ is one of the easiest to find and grow. It grows very slowly to 8 feet. Crimson Queen leaves are maroon and the deeply cut leaves, give it an extra lacy look. It grows in full sun or a little shade and is free of any disease or insect problems. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better…autumn comes along and the maroon leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. Winter comes, the leaves fall and an outstanding branch structure remains. All of these maples are grafted. The prices may vary widely but there is one way to know if you are getting your money’s worth. It’s all in the graft. Grab the trunk, close your eyes and lightly run your hand up and down the trunk. You shouldn’t be able to tell where the graft has been made. If you feel the graft “bump”, don’t waste your money. Move on to another tree.
Maidenhair ferns may look delicate but they are tough, easy plants to grow. They like shade but can take more sun than most people think. Growing them in full sun works if they have plenty of water. They grow anywhere, from shady woodlands to crevices in rock walls. Western Maidenhair fern, Adiantum aleuticum, has black stems that set off the graceful five-finger fronds. They can grow to 30” wide and tall and creep along by underground stems. Adiantum means “unwetted” because the foliage sheds water. The lacy texture of the Maidenhair fern adds some romance to any Northwest garden.
Blueberry bushes are four season landscape wonders. In early spring they’re covered with white flowers that turn to sweet high-octane fruit in summer. After fruit is harvested autumn leaves turn a brilliant red, rivaling any ornamental shrub. Leaves fall and the red color of the stems provides interest all winter. Grow two different high bush varieties and you not only have knockout shrubs for the garden, you also have a supply of one of nature’s power fruits. Blueberry ‘Earliblue’ and’ Spartan’ pair well as cross pollinators and grow into lush shrubs in the 6-foot range. If you can grow a rhododendron, you can grow a blueberry. Mix blueberry bushes in a shrub border or grow them in containers in full sun.
Once you see Abelia ‘Edward Gaucher’ you’ll wonder why it isn’t in every garden. This semi-evergreen shrub grows to 6 feet and needs plenty of room so its graceful arching stems and fountain like appearance can be appreciated. The glossy leaves begin each spring with a red tint and mature to dark, shiny green. The inch long pink tubular flowers bloom continuously from summer to autumn with a few surprise blooms in winter. Abelias grow in full sun or part shade. Once established Abelias thrive in dry soil. They are good specimen plants and also make attractive hedges if sheared in spring. Blooming Abelias attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
All daylilies are easy to grow. They grow in sun or part shade and can take any soil from poor to very fertile. Their foliage brings something to the garden that is often lacking. Their vertical lines help break up the usual rounded mounds of shrubs and perennials. Hemerocallis ‘Catherine Woodbury’ is the most reliable and prolific daylily. It has strength, grace and a heady sweet fragrance. Its ruffled flowers are clear, soft lavender with a yellow throat. It blooms May-July just about anywhere and is pest and deer resistant. Catherine Woodbury flowers are good cut flowers and it thrives in both perennial borders and containers.
All gardens have space for a climbing vine. They grow straight up and need very little ground space. The vine of choice for most gardeners is the clematis. There are hundreds of clematis from which to choose but Clematis ‘The President’ is one of the most reliable. It is easy to find, easy to grow and gives back like few other clematis varieties. C. ‘The President’ has enormous intensely colored flowers that cover the vine in May-June and then again in September-October. The flowers are 6-8 inches wide and have spectacular reddish purple anthers that set off the violet blue flowers. C.‘The President’ is a strong grower in either sun or part shade. It blooms like crazy and the flowers are good for cutting.
Shying away from institutional landscape plants like Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’, is a big mistake. There is a reason why plants like cotoneasters are used in schoolyards, doctor’s offices and apartment complexes. They’re easy to get, tough to kill and look good year round. C. dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’ begins with beautiful small shiny green foliage and pink colored flowers in springtime and stays fresh and green all summer. It turns a gorgeous rusty red in fall followed by a profusion of red berries in winter. It is semi-evergreen in winter but the fall color and the winter fishbone stem pattern makes up for it. It grows about 2 feet tall with a 6 foot spread. C. dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’ is a fast growing tall groundcover that grows in sun or partial shade in well-drained soil. Prune it whenever you feel like it.
Ornamental grasses have been predicted as “all the rage” for several years. Fortunately or unfortunately, they haven’t exactly “caught on”. Landscapers and collectors have long praised them for their variety in leaf color, seed head form and climate tolerance. Home gardeners are now learning that a few ornamental grasses here and there in the landscape lend an interesting texture to gardens filled with needled and broadleaved evergreens. The Japanese forest grass, Hakenochloa ‘Aurea’ is a showy ornamental grass for any garden situation. It looks like a chartreuse mound of funky hair. It likes to grow in the shade. It’s bright yellow green color glows in a darker corner of the garden. It only requires a little moisture and a prominent spot to show it off.
Mix or match any of these “Top Ten” and you’ll have an excellent selection of easy to grow, reliable garden plants that make any gardener look like an expert.
Reprinted with permission “425” Magazine