Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Ten

At a recent holiday party a fellow reveler inquired as to my favorite plant. I'm often asked this question when I mention that I'm a landscape designer and have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. In truth I don't have a "favorite" plant. There are, however, certain cultivars that I consider indispensable. After giving the matter some thought, I've narrowed my selection to ten garden plants that I wouldn't be without and have listed them below. Although most flourish in full sun, a few are shade plants and all are hardy in zone 5. Of course, as with any Top Ten list, many terrific plants didn't make the cut. Perhaps, like the ubiquitous award shows that clutter the television listings this time of year, I will have to make my list of INDISPENSABLE GARDEN PLANTS an annual endeavor (no pun intended).

1) Nepeta Walkers Low
Nepetas are a wonderful group of garden plants and the variety, Walkers Low, blooms for most of the summer with the heaviest display during peony season. It makes a wonderful informal edging plant or front of the sunny border perennial. It seems to have no pest issues and isn't bothered by snails, rabbits or deer. I regularly use it as a substitute for lavender where that often fussy plant fails to thrive.

2) Alchemilla Mollis (Ladies Mantle)
This tried and true perennial flowers in full sun and all but the deepest shade. Its masses of foamy chartreuse flowers compliment almost any color, but look particularly lovely with pastels. Its leaves are a pleasing shade of green and their scalloped edges catch the early morning dew. I cut off the dead flower stems in late July, a time consuming task, but well worth the effort, as it encourages a flush of new foliage and new flowers.

3) Buddleia Pink Delight
Buddleias comprise a terrific group of predominantly summer flowering shrubs with blooms that come in a range of colors including purple, blue, white, yellow and even bi-colors. In my garden the bushes bloom from mid-July until frost although the panicles of flowers decrease in size as the season progresses. The plants can become rangy and benefit from a hard pruning in late spring. Following last winter's heavy snowfall many of my older bushes were badly damaged and required severe pruning. But even after being cut almost to the ground, they rebounded quickly and bloomed heavily over the summer.

4) Stachys Helen Von Stein
This sun-loving, low, spreading perennial is wonderful planted en masse or as a broad edging. The leaves are much larger than the straight species and it is more tolerant of humidity, though occasionally it is necessary to pluck off foliage that has turned to mush during the dog days of late summer. The furry, silver foliage is a wonderful foil for more colorful plants and begs to be touched. For that reason I often plant it along the top of sitting walls, where visitors can easily run their fingers through the velvety foliage.

5) Pennisetum Maudry
There are many terrific grasses available today and this is one of my favorites. Like all of its relatives it thrives in hot sun and tolerates drought. At 2-3' tall it creates a substantial presence in the landscape and isn't bothered by pests. The seed heads, which appear in early autumn are larger than the species and are a lovely burgundy color.

6) Anthyrium Niponicum Pictum (Painted Fern)
This is a fabulous foliage plant for full to part shade. Despite its delicate appearance it is actually quite tough and even self-seeds a bit (or whatever it is that ferns due to procreate). As with all ferns it isn't bothered by deer or rabbits although I have had a few issues with snails. As the fronds are late to unfurl, it is wonderful underplanted with spring bulbs.

7) Fairy Rose
Most people associate roses with fussy shrubs that are plagued by insect pests and a host of diseases. While there are many new shrub roses available today that refute those assumptions, this old time cultivar is still one of my favorites. The flowers, which are produced in waves from late spring until frost, are a delightful pale pink and the bush is a nice manageable size. A little pruning early in the season is all that's required to keep the plants tidy. Try pairing it with Alchemilla, Stachys and Nepeta for a terrific combination.

8) Kerria Japonica Pleniflora
In my estimation this overlooked shrub deserves more attention. The double yellow flowers are delightful in the spring and continue sporadically throughout the summer. Although it loses its leaves in the fall, the stems remain green throughout the winter and are lovely in the snow. It seems to thrive in full sun or part shade and spreads by underground suckers that will eventually create a dense almost impenetrable thicket. At five to six feet in height it's a wonderful addition to the shrub border or woodland garden.

9) Hydrangea Annabelle
I first came across this hydrangea while living in Vermont where, unlike many hydrangea varieties, this old fashioned cultivar flowered with great abandon. Perfect for woodland gardens or the shady side of a house, it produces large flower heads that turn from green to white and back to green again. I love it as a cut flower and the older green blossoms dry well. Incrediball, an improved variety, recently appeared on the market and I am giving that a try as well. This past fall I planted thirty beneath the crabapple trees that line my driveway.

10) Geranium Rozanne
While new plants arrive on the market every year, few live up to their hype. This perennial geranium is an exception and since it appeared five or so years ago, it has quickly become indispensable in my design work. In sun or shade it is covered with flowers from late spring until frost. I use it as a ground cover, as an edging, in pots, in rock gardens and in the front the perennial border. It is wonderful planted at the base of leggier plants and will even twine itself up their stems. Unfortunately deer seem to like munching on its leaves, but that appears to be its only downside. My only fear is that soon it will be used in mall parking lots and other municipal plantings making it as common as the severely overexposed Stella D'oro Daylily.

So there you have it. Ten plants that I highly recommend. I hope you try at least a few of them in your garden this spring.

Happy New Year!


  1. I will need to revisit this list come spring. What beautiful plants. I esp. like the fairy roses and the geraniums. Unfortunately, hydrangeas have never flourished in any of my Central PA gardens. Lack of salt air, is my conclusion. :)

    This is gorgeous, as always. Happy New Year!

  2. I use several of these liberally in my Seattle yard--Helen Von Stein, Walker's Low, Lady's Mantle. I need to get some Annabelle Hydrangeas.