Irvin Etienne is the horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where he has worked nearly 25 years. He is the recipient of Gold and Silver awards in Electronic Media Writing from the GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators.

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Tough Beauty
by Irvin Etienne       #Ornamentals   #Shrubs

The summertime bloom of Phlox paniculata ‘Thai Pink Jade’ is true soft pink with a slightly darker eye. It is very mildew resistant.

Tough plants. My first thought was tough plants are great for beginning gardeners. I think of tough plants as easy plants and a beginner needs some easy plants. It gives them that much-needed success allowing them to grow confident in their gardening skills. Then I thought, “Tough plants are great for all gardeners!” I’ve been in the garden for a lot of years and a lot of hours. I love a tough plant I can sort of just throw in the ground and walk away. It looks good without fuss, so I have time to spend fretting over my delicate plants and playing with my chickens.

What puts a plant in my “tough” category? Well, it should be adaptable about soil conditions. If the soil has a bit too much clay or is a bit dry the plant still makes it. I am not talking about pure clay or sand here, just soil approaching “normal.” A little lack of rain should not kill it in a week. It should come back strong whether we have a very harsh USDA Zone 5 winter or a Zone 7 winter. It should handle some Zone 8 summer conditions too. And I want it to be pretty most of the growing season.

Always remember the adage “right plant, right place.” You can push moisture and sun needs, but within limits. Respect certain basic requirements even with tough plants. Also, tough plants still need a little extra attention until established.

Phlox paniculata ‘Glamour Girl’ stays around 2 feet tall, a little shorter than traditional phlox cultivars. It is a heavy bloomer and very mildew resistant. • A bumblebee digs into the purple flowers of Salvia ‘Amistad’, a hybrid of Salvia guaranitica. • Tiger Eyes sumac has beautiful foliage and fruit.

Garden phlox (P. paniculata) is an old standby. This native has been used in the garden for generations. On average, bloom time is early July through early September providing a long season of color. Garden phlox prefer full sun, but they will tolerate some shade. Garden phlox is available in nearly every color except yellow and true blue. Powdery mildew has always been an issue, but plants are being selected and bred for resistance. Even a mildew-resistant plant can get the disease some years, so don’t throw away a plant for having one bad year.

Some plants have unfortunate common names, like Siberian bugloss. That is why Brunnera macrophylla is often called false forget-me-not. It is related to forget-me-nots, so it makes sense, but I’ll go with brunnera. This early spring bloomer is wonderful in shade. Normal flower color is blue, but you can find whites, and I’m sure hidden somewhere is a pink-flowered form. The major variation though is in the foliage. Great silver forms of brunnera exist that are about as tough as the normal green varieties. Bonus points – the silver forms produce silver seedlings.

The flowers of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ develop good pink color as they age most years. This photo was a spectacular year for color.

Salvia guaranitica was not supposed to be hardy, but after nearly two decades of coming back, I think it is safe to call it a USDA Zone 5 plant. Known as anise sage, this salvia is a bee and hummingbird magnet. You will be amazed at the numbers visiting your garden. Since anise sage blooms from early summer to hard frost bees and hummingbirds will be visiting a long, long time. Plant in full sun and consider mulching the first winter.

Ferns are certainly a mainstay in the shade garden. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum) is one of the best. It comes with varying degrees of silver and burgundy depending on the cultivar. It will be happy with morning sun, survive deep dry-ish shade once established, and tolerate everything in between.

Top: Silver foliage helps brighten shady areas of the garden. Brunnera macrophylla ‘Silver Heart’ is one of the best plants for the job.

Far Left: Hosta ‘Dancing Queen’ is bright golden chartreuse and has great leaf texture too.

Left: When you want to draw bees and hummingbirds to your garden, it is hard to beat salvias. In my garden, Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ feeds the insects and birds all summer.

Carex platyphylla, known as silver or blue satin sedge, is native to most of the eastern United States. It has gorgeous satiny silver-blue foliage, and I would grow it for that alone. It is also super tough, self-sowing into the roots at the base of a red maple, for example. It seeds just enough to give you a few extra plants, so it is not aggressive. Silver sedge is an ideal shade companion for ferns and hostas.

I debated on discussing Hosta spp. and daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.). I feel they get lots of coverage already; but how does one discuss tough plants for the Midwest without considering them? With the hostas, consider the cultivars with good (often fragrant) blooms in addition to foliage. Color on those flowers ranges from purest white to purple. With the daylilies, check out the very tall cultivars for something a bit different. I plant large tropicals in my garden, so I need a 5-foot-tall daylily bloom or I might not see it.

Clockwise: Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’ is my favorite of all the available oakleaf hydrangeas. Any oakleaf is good, so don’t feel compelled to use a gold leaf one if you don’t like like that foliage color. • Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ makes a big shrub even when pruned regularly. • Plants that give year-round interest are always needed in the garden. Tiger Eyes sumac is one of those. Here its orange fall color shows one more season of beauty.

Hydrangea paniculata is one of my go-to plants. Need a plant that blooms reliably every year? Blooms for months? Grows in sun or shade? Can be pruned to its best size? Isn’t fussy about soil? Hydrangea paniculata is it. Best bloom and growth is in full sun, but it still throws flowers in the shade. Hydrangea paniculata can get big, but smaller cultivars are available.

Two tough plants share the garden space along a street sidewalk. Tiger Eyes sumac and Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ look great together.

I love chartreuse- and gold-foliaged plants. One of my favorites Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). This plant is beautiful all year long. From the first moment in spring when the bright gold new leaves emerge, though the summer of chartreuse foliage and red-berried fruits, to the fall color of bright oranges, right into the winter with the incredible architecture of the branches, it never stops giving. Only one drawback – it can spread a bit.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is another four-season plant. Great foliage and flowers combined with good winter interest from the peeling bark and dried flowers makes it an ideal garden plant. Best performance is in shade or morning sun. Oakleaf hydrangeas produce their flower buds in summer for bloom the following year. If you must prune, then do it right after blooming so you do not cut off next year’s flowers. Dwarf cultivars are available.

Look at these tough plants as elements in the garden or as a major portion of the garden. They may be there to give you confidence or give you time. They will for sure give you years of tough beauty.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Irvin Etienne.


Posted: 04/30/18   RSS | Print


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