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No Green Thumb Required

Anyone can grow these foolproof plants

Burkwood Viburnum. Photo: Yew Dell Botanical Gardens
Daylily. Photo: Yew Dell Botanical Gardens
Swamp Milkweed. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Swamp hibiscus. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
SPIGELIA. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Purple coneflower. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Purple coneflower. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Columbine. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Columbine. Photo: Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve
Hydrangea. Photo: Bernheim Aroboretum and Research Forest
Daylily. Photo: Bernheim Aroboretum and Research Forest
Daylily. Photo: Bernheim Aroboretum and Research Forest

Ask gardeners what are the easiest plants to grow, and you’ll get a garden’s worth of ideas—everything from daylilies and trumpet honeysuckle to shade-crazy coral bells and purple coneflowers, beloved by bees and other pollinators for their nectar.

All have different colors, sizes, textures and sun requirements, but they share one thing in common: They are the experts’ sure-fire, go-to garden growers, plants that anyone can successfully plant and cultivate. And that’s good news for those of us not blessed with a green thumb. 

Paul Cappiello, executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood, calls daylilies the “fancy forms of the old ditch lily and absolutely bomb-proof in constitution.” They come in a variety of colors, including whites, yellows, pinks, oranges, reds and purples, and in single-flower forms, doubles and multicolor selections.

“Just give them lots of sun and stand back,” he advises dubious gardeners. “One of our current favorites is a variety named ‘Autumn Minaret,’ a 6-foot tall, yellow flowering selection that makes a fantastic addition to any sunny garden.”

For Tavia Cathcart Brown, executive director of Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Goshen, the trumpet honeysuckle is her all-time favorite climbing vine as well as being a magnet for hummingbirds.

“It grows back on the previous year’s stalks, so no cutting is necessary,” notes Cathcart Brown. “You’ll be rewarded with a wonderful flush of flowers in spring and periodic flowers all summer long.”

The purple coneflower also makes Cathcart Brown’s list for its summertime beauty that attracts goldfinches, butterflies and native bees.

“Don’t deadhead in the fall,” she warns, “because finches will return to collect the seeds.”

The horticultural team at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, served by Salt River Electric, favors the panicled hydrangea for its beautiful blooms and plantain lilies (hosta) and coral bells for shaded areas.

Effortless (or nearly)

For those who want a pleasing payoff without a lot of effort, Cappiello suggests easy-growing tropical succulents—with rose-shaped echeveria, kalanchoe, aloe and agave among his pet picks. The plants come in a wide range of textures, shapes and colors, and are amenable to both full sun and partial shade.

“The most notable feature of this group is their ability to go long periods of time without water,” he says. “This means you can go on vacation for two or three weeks and, even if the neighbor kid forgets to do the watering, your pots will still look great when you get home. Just plant them in a well-drained potting mix and enjoy.”

Stephen Fister, owner of Bi-Water Farm & Greenhouse in Georgetown, has specific criteria for his picks for easy-to-grow plants: “They must be plants that require no or very little maintenance. If it is a blooming plant, then it must have a long bloom period.”

Fister’s faves to achieve a high-performance mix of shrubs, annuals and perennials in the home garden? Hydrangea, Russian sage, rudbeckia and/or echinacea varieties, ‘Dragon Wing’ begonias and ‘SunPatiens,’ a type of impatiens that thrives in full sun.

Home grown

For gardeners who want to showcase plants native to Kentucky, Cathcart Brown has a few choices in addition to purple coneflower and trumpet honeysuckle. These include swamp milkweed, a rosy-flowering plant that grows in most conditions in the garden, even dry areas, while attracting butterflies. This is especially true for monarchs because milkweed is a host plant where they lay their eggs.

Others are the large and tropical-looking swamp hibiscus that adapts to full sun and even dry soil; eastern columbine, known to be easy to grow from seed in most garden locations, even if neglected; and American beautyberry (also known as French mulberry), a native shrub with large clusters of purple berries.

“This plant has delicate pink, almost violet flowers in early summer, which in fall turn into eye-catching purple berries beloved by gardeners and birds alike,” Cathcart Brown says.

Ready to grow? Plant a few of the experts’ foolproof picks for a garden that will flourish.

Here are three additional easy-to-grow plants recommended by Paul Cappiello, executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Crestwood:

Fragrant viburnums: Shrubs may reign as the darlings of garden centers, and among them, the fragrant viburnum is tough to beat. Great for sun or part shade, these shrubs mature at 5 feet to 9 feet tall and produce attractive, deep green summer foliage that turns a wine color in fall. In spring, white to pink blooms offer not only a fabulous display but a fragrance that can fill an entire neighborhood. Favorites include ‘Korean Spice’ (Carlesii), ‘Mohawk’ and ‘Juddii.’

Coleus: Not your grandmother’s coleus anymore, this group has exploded in recent years with an amazing range of forms and colors. Gone are the wimpy, leafy things that could be grown only in the shade. Today’s new coleus are bold growers, can take sun or shade, and work well in the ground and in containers. Choose ‘Terra Cotta,’ ‘Red Head,’ ‘Kong’ or ‘Electric Lime.’

Garden Mums: These perennial plants come back year after year, producing a delightful, deep green mound of foliage in summer, followed by a mass of blooms in fall. They are great pollinator plants, bloom when little else is showing color—and they won’t fade at the sight of a little rain shower. ‘Hillside Sheffield Pink’ and ‘Single Korean Apricot’ are among current favorites.

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