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Top 10 Tough Plants for southern gardens

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Experimenting with new plants is a must in the gardening world, but so is anchoring the site with perennials so tough you couldn’t kill them with a backhoe. Here are 10 true toughies to get you started, which probably include some you haven’t tried but should.

This top 10 list is made up of mostly perennials, but you’ll find a couple of must-have annuals. You don’t have to sacrifice beauty or seasonal colors either. Plan your garden to use these as perpetual accents from spring through fall.

1. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) This one touches all the gardening bases: showy, native, durable, full sun, drought-tolerant, and soil-tolerant. It’s great in purple-pink masses as well as being reverent, thrifty, brave, and easily divided.

2. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) There are actually many cultivars of black-eyed Susans, with ‘Goldsturm’ being the one most popular, if not indestructible. Black-eyed Susan is a perennial that takes heat, humidity, dry soil, and endless amounts of compliments about its versatility. It comes in colors from yellow to orange, and butterflies love it, too.

3. Amsonia ‘Hubrictii’ This is a fabulous, little-used, three-season perennial with blue flowers in the spring, and light, airy foliage in the summer that turns golden yellow in the fall. It will grow in beautiful 4-foot bunches. It requires full sun and low maintenance.

4. Epimedium This low-growing, ground-covering wonder is too often condemned to dry shade because it will do well there. But this perennial will also take some morning sunshine and those growing directly beneath our downspout look fabulous—with good drainage being key. It blooms in early spring in yellows, reds, and pinks. Try ‘Lilafee,’ an exquisite, violet-flowering dwarf cultivar.

5. Zinnia By now, it seems as if there are 1.5 million cultivars of annual zinnias, most of which produce great bursts of colorful flowers in full sun and grow from 18 inches to 5 feet tall. It is said that zinnias—with some truth—are late-summer mildew magnets, yet worth all that while in full bloom; ours were sensational for months last year. The toughest of the tough are the zinnia angustifolia, which take full sun, drought, and dry soil worthy of camels.

6. The “H” Plants: Hellebores (Helleborus), Heuchera, Helianthus, Helenium Taken in seasonal order, there’s just something about the letter “H” that produces tough plants. Leafy hellebores—a perennial that likes part to full shade—offer very early spring colors, a welcome sight.

Heuchera—there are dozens of cultivars for this perennial—are an absolute must with their exquisite flowers and enduring foliage of a dozen colors in shade to part sun. Helianthus, or sunflowers, now come in many useful sizes and colors and look great in the mid-to-late-summer garden.

Helenium is a bright, late summer blooming perennial that needs moist soils; we planted our happy plants below a downspout.

7. Turtlehead (Chelone) The aptly named ‘Turtlehead”—and its flowers do resemble its namesake—comes in pink, whites, and pale red, and does very well in mid-to-late summer in moist areas in sun to part shade. This perennial forms big but noninvasive clumps and it’s always fun to hold up a flower and ask a guest: “Hey, what does this look like?”

8. Bellflower (Campanula) Another perennial that seems to produce a new cultivar a week, the bellflower always rings true with gardeners who need blue in the garden. It likes full sun to part shade, and will often form large clumps that will need dividing. It’s great in rock gardens, woodlands, or as a frothy-blue treat in a container.

9. Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum superbum)It’s impossible to keep Shasta daisies off any list of tough plants going back to Luther Burbank, who created the first ‘Superbum” hybrid back in the 1890s. This perennial makes great cut flowers, loves full sun, and adds some history to the garden.

10. Sedum A plant that adores hot, dry areas and containers, they can now be found in stunning colors, various sizes, and incredible diversity. To sedum is to believe in them.

Gardening mistakes
Although sad-looking-to-dead plants are often Mother Nature’s way of telling us our garden practices aren’t exactly working, the situation is rarely hopeless.

Your problems are often solved with minimal planning, good plant selection, developing good gardening habits, and avoiding this mid-summer syndrome: “I quit—it’s too hot out there.”

So here are 10 common-sense gardening tips that will help your plants remain happy and healthy all year, or at least looking better than the neighbor’s.

1. Take personal responsibility for learning when to prune. For flowers it’s generally very easy; if the bud is brown or headed in that direction, lop it off to encourage new blooms. Shrubs are more difficult because some bloom on new growth and some on the previous year’s growth. It’s absolutely your responsibility to learn what to prune when. It’s all online or in books. Why invest hundreds of dollars in plants and nothing in survival skills?

2. Seek a higher truth than plant labels. One of the more maddening things about purchasing plants in big-box stores is the very general to misleading planting information on the plant labels. Many labels don’t even list a plant hardiness zone; box stores don’t mind selling plants that won’t survive in Kentucky. Plan ahead. Consider your needs—sunshine, soil, and plant exposure—and do your homework before buying.

3. Learn when and how to water. Keep it simple. As a general rule your garden will need a deep watering every three to five days—as in 1 to 3 inches depending on April or August conditions. If you’re too busy, buy one of those sprinklers with an automatic timer; they work fairly well. Ignore watering at your peril; how would you like to go a week without water?

4. Don’t use cheap tools. This is another area where saving a few bucks will only contribute to your garden’s mortality rate. Cheap pruners will not provide the clean, neat cuts required to keep your plants healthy and you’ll be replacing the pruners every year anyway. Cut costs on watering hoses and you’ll spend hours uncurling them; the garden is a poor place to work out anger-management skills.

5. Plan ahead on your color and layout schemes. Mid-June, with the neighbor peeking over your fence to covertly eye your handiwork, is a poor time to discover you’ve planted the screaming red roses and passionately purple pansies a little too close together. Garden planning is fun. It gets us through January and February. Grab some colored pencils. Do your research. Create even a minimal layout and design. Get in touch with your inner Monet.

6. Try something new. Never design your garden without trying a new plant, concept, or design. We garden to stay alive, to get away from that tedious outside world, to find happiness in our own space. There are hundreds of new plants every year. At least one has your name on it, maybe five or 10. Go for it!

7. Do NOT buy perennial plants already in full bloom. Most perennials will only bloom over a period of four to six weeks. If you buy a plant already in full bloom, you’ve already lost about half of that. Pick the most healthy, fully budded plant with the fewest open blooms. The garden is the perfect place for delayed gratification.

8. Don’t start too big. This is especially important for new gardeners. Start small, find success, enjoy what you’ve got, and learn as you grow. Supplement your soil—always a good practice. Create a compost pile; it allows you to feel environmentally superior. Carefully study the sun and shade patterns in your yard before planting. Mulch where possible. Find success and build on it.

9. Use more containers. We all have places under trees, on the porch, or in rocky, worthless soil where nothing will grow. That’s why God invented containers—and yard sales. Have fun finding or buying them. Mix your sizes and colors. Add art, color, and class to your landscape.

10. Think “Welcome Home” plants. Our long Hidden Hill driveway ( is lined with “Welcome Home” plants—witch hazel, tulips, peonies, hydrangeas, zinnias, asters, and arum that welcome us home literally every day of the year—January through December.

Try these gardening tips and you’ll feel better. Your yard will feel better. The neighbor will begin taking notes.

Top 10 Gardening Web sites

As with everything else in the world, garden blogs have cultivated a lot of interest on a wide variety of subjects. Here is a quick sample of Top 10 blogs and sites—in no particular order—that will keep you even further tied to experts both locally and nationally, compiled with the help of Louisville Garden Guru Allen Bush. Once you get online you’ll quickly find dozens more—and most of them welcome your contributions and opinions.
Bob Hill from March 2015 Issue

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