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Out of the Ordinary: New Choices for Your Garden
by Kylee Baumle - posted 12/18/13

Variety is the spice of life. Why not step outside your comfort zone and grow something unusual in your garden? Here are some extraordinary suggestions.We gardeners have our favorite plants and we grow them as staples in our gardens. We can’t imagine not growing them. For me, these include peonies, roses, daffodils and hostas. But we also are drawn to the unusual and the less commonly available plants.

We gardeners have our favorite plants and we grow them as staples in our gardens. We can’t imagine not growing them. For me, these include peonies, roses, daffodils and hostas. But we also are drawn to the unusual and the less commonly available plants.

“Unique” can mean different things to different people, of course. For example, people living here in Ohio are not likely to think of agaves as commonplace. Yet, in the Southwest they grow wild along the roadsides. I personally love them because we rarely see them here and strategically placed in a garden, they can lend a beautiful architectural aspect.

Easy Bulbs for Your Northern Garden

Tropical bulbs can add some aesthetic interest to a garden as well. Luckily, several varieties are easily found and are not expensive. Many of us are familiar with amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), commonly grown in a pot in the winter here, but there’s a wide assortment of tropical bulbs we can grow in the ground or in containers during the summer months:

Peruvian daffodils (Hymenocallis spp.) are one of my personal favorites. They like the same conditions as many bulbs – not too wet, full to part sun, and since they grow on fairly tall stems, they’ll benefit from being grown in a location with some protection from wind.

Aztec lilies (Sprekelia spp.) are not true lilies, but their deep red blooms and flower form somewhat resemble that of a lily.

Coral drops (Bessera elegans) are miniature flowers that pack a big punch of detail when you get up close and personal with their blooms. The flowers do hang down, so it takes some effort to have a look at the inside of them, but when grown in a clump of a dozen or so bulbs, their delicate beauty adds subtle interest to the garden.

Amazon lily (Eucharis spp.) is another non-lily, and because it prefers shade, it makes a lovely houseplant. When it rewards you with its gorgeous white-and-green blooms, you’ll wonder why you didn’t grow it sooner. It has large, shiny, dark green leaves, so even if it never bloomed, it would still be worth growing.

Peruvian daffodil: With its frilly white blooms, the Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis spp.) lends an air of elegance to the garden.

The Aztec lily (Sprekelia spp.) isn’t a true lily, but its deep red blooms, atop 18 to-24-inch stems are reminiscent of them.
Coral drops (Bessera elegans) are dainty bloomers with an interesting pattern to their petals. The  stamens are a deep shade of violet.

Remember that these are tropical bulbs and they must be dug in the fall and stored over the winter. If planted in a container, just bring them in, container and all. It’s possible for some tropical bulbs to continue as houseplants through the winter until they can go outside again in spring. Others will go dormant and should be kept in a cool, dry location.

Perennial Garden Options

For those who prefer perennials, there are a number of less common varieties that can find a place in your garden. Sometimes they’re just fun to grow because they function as a conversation piece. 

Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), for instance, always elicits a comment and a smile when a visitor notices it in my own garden. It can be short-lived as a perennial, although I had it for four summers in my own garden. Last year’s drought proved to be too much for it, in spite of it being an alpine plant that dislikes too much water.

• The long-lasting blooms of the Princess lily (Alstroemeria spp.) are popular in grocery store bouquets, but you can grow your own year round in Zone 5 or 6 gardens, if you provide a protective covering of mulch in the winter. ‘Mauve Majesty’, ‘Tangerine Tango’ and ‘Sweet Laura’ are varieties to look for.

• An easy to grow perennial that also happens to be on the endangered list is Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii ‘Solar Cascade’). Found naturally in only a couple of locations in southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky, the goldenrod was once thought to be extinct. Efforts to bolster its population have now been extended to home gardens, so not only do you have the opportunity to grow a beautiful, arching goldenrod, you can help preserve this native plant.

Well known to most of us because of the musical, “The Sound of Music,” edelweiss (Leontopodium spp.) is an easy perennial in most Ohio gardens. 

Though most princess lilies (Alstroemeria spp.) are tender in our northern climates, in recent years, hardy versions have become available.
Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii ‘Solar Cascade’) is slowly making a comeback from near extinction. When the cotton boll splits and you can see the white cotton peeking through, it’s ready for harvest.

Long-Season Growers

But It’s Not Hardy…

Tip: Remember that almost any plant that isn’t winter hardy in our northern growing zones can be grown in the ground in the summer. Treat it as you would an annual, knowing that you may have the added bonus of being able to continue growing it as a houseplant through the winter. 

Sources for Bulbs, Plants and Seeds

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs:
Plant Delights Nursery:
Logee’s Greenhouses:
Southern Exposure Seed Company:

Some of the things we maybe would like to grow in our gardens, we mistakenly think can’t be grown here in the North due to their need for a long growing season. But there are several interesting plants that do just fine if you get them planted early enough.

Cotton (Gossypium spp.) is a gorgeous plant that has equally pretty blooms that eventually form attractive bolls. By the time fall comes around, those bolls will burst open and you’ll see the familiar puff of cotton. There are several varieties to be grown and ‘Red Foliated White’ has deep bronze-green foliage that is especially eye-catching.

Another plant that requires a fairly long growing season is the Peanut (Arachis hypogaea). This one is fun for kids, although it will take a bit of patience on their part because it will take every bit of our northern growing season to produce the underground pods. Peanuts are a legume and have the characteristic pea blossoms, in a glorious shade of golden yellow. An added benefit of growing peanuts is their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, enriching it for the next crop you grow in that location.

When the cotton boll splits and you can see the white cotton peeking through, it’s ready for harvest.

Peanuts grow underground as a result of “pegging” by the plants after blooming, whereby the fruiting part of the plant digs into the soil below.

Just Grow It

If you are feeling a little bit of trepidation about trying something new or unfamiliar, think of it this way. For just a small amount of money, you can add to both the beauty of your garden and your knowledge of growing plants. I think you’ll find that the rewards are worth the risk and you’ll gain some confidence in stepping outside your comfort zone, while discovering an astounding array of plants you never dreamed would grow in your garden.

From Ohio Gardener Volume III Issue V. Photos by Kylee Baumle.


Kylee Baumle lives and gardens in rural Northwest Ohio and is the co-author of Indoor Plant Décor: The Design Stylebook for Houseplants (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013).