It’s easy to spot the prima dona plants, after the fact… once you’ve become their slave in your garden.
Deciding which plants are easy growing and which are a headache is very garden specific. The books may say yarrow (Achillea) is a great beginner plant and Delphinium is a diva, but that all depends on the conditions in your garden and the weather that season. As I am working on my minimalist garden, rather than focusing only on a list of plants, I am also working off a list of conditions.
I’m rating each plant on a series of criteria. Of course, there will still be favorites that I allow to sneak by. What would gardening be if we didn’t have regrets to talk about down the road. What would life be, for that matter.
However since I am familiar with the plants I am currently growing, theory has it that I can be objective about their strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what they’ll be evaluated on:
1. Does It Suit My Garden’s Growing Conditions?
It’s hard to be brutally honest here. We’ve all convinced ourselves that we’ll find a partially shaded spot and make sure that the Celandine Poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) stay moist, but as they slowly dry out and die out, we have to confess we did not stay on top of it.
I have sandy soil and the bulk of my garden is in full sun. The rest is dry shade. If a plant tag says “Needs well draining soil”, I’m golden. If it says “Needs regular moisture”, I’m out of luck.
I also have a very low soil pH – somewhere in the 4.5 to 5.0 range. Azaleas and blueberries are very happy. There are several other plants that I love and try growing repeatedly, but they struggle every year. Clematis start off with a splash, then go downhill after their first year. It’s time I learned a lesson and quit fighting.
2. What Does the Plant Bring To the Table?
❦ How long can I expect it to last? Even perennials can be short lived. They only have to make it to year 3, to be called perennial. I want plants like peonies, roses, and bleeding heart, that carry on for decades.
❦ How long does it bloom? I’ve mentioned my fondness for poppies before, but they are gone in a week’s time. A beautiful week, but a quick one.
❦ Does it look good even without flowers? There’s no excuse for plants that have to be hidden from view, when out of bloom. They don’t have to have colorful leaves, but they should still be lush and healthy looking. There’s no shortage of choices these days. If I must have one hit wonders, perhaps a container is a better idea. Better yet, a vase.
3. How Much and What Kind of Maintenance is Required?
Now we’re down to the crux of the matter – what will the plant demand of me?
❦ Pruning: once a year or incessant deadheading? Will it need to be sheared mid-season, to keep its looks? This is where flowering shrubs take the upper hand. One good prune and we’re done for the season.
With perennials, choosing is a balancing act. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ looks better in August if I give it a haircut in July. But I forgive it because it will start blooming again within days. I love ‘Happy Returns’ daylily, but it is an older selection and does not deadhead itself. Astilbes, on the other end of the spectrum, look good all season and never need pruning or deadheading.
❦ Dividing: Most perennials will need division at some point in their lives, with the exception of things like peonies and butterfly bush, that hate being disturbed. Some need almost constant dividing, like a few daylilies I’ve since parted with and some overly enthusiastic grasses, while others, such as catmint, can bide their time for up to 10 years, before showing signs of strain. I admire that in a plant.
❦ Staking: I hate stakes almost as much as I hate staking. I guess that rules out dahlias, as pretty as they are in the fall. You have to stake at planting time and then tie them up every time they grow a few inches. How do these plants ever survive on their own? Hopefully my garden will be full enough that the plants can support each other.
4. Is It Problem Prone?
When a plant has an insect named after it, like Euonymous Scale, you know it’s going to be a bit demanding. Summers here are guaranteed to be humid, so powdery mildew, black spot, and assorted leaf spotting diseases are part of the package. We also have four-lined plant bugs in May, that feed on anything in the mint family, like Caryopteris, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), and Hyssop, and then Japanese beetles shredding the roses, in June. My days of walking around with a jar filled with soapy water are over.
It’s pretty much guaranteed that gray mold will find my peonies and they will look awful at some point toward fall. But they are one of those exceptions I mentioned earlier. Botrytis is just something I work around. I cut them down, toss them out, and wait for next year.
5. Does It Play Well with Others?
Knowing what I now know, it’s hard to believe I accepted some of the pass along plants I did. I’m still pulling Purple Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). It was given to me by someone far more knowledgeable than I was. It’s not even that attractive. What was he thinking?
And my Dutchman’s Pipe Vine (Aristolochia durior) is popping up a good 20 ft. from where I planted it – and removed it 8 years ago. Another recommendation from my “wise” friend.
Needless to say, no thugs will remain in my garden. I can handle a little spreading, like Columbines seeding themselves wherever they find some bare soil, but plants with rhizomes will have to make a really strong case for themselves, or out they go.
Have I missed anything?