Published in the Toronto Star – May 27, 2017
Plants that are inexpensive but provide great mileage.
The months of May and June create quite a flurry of activity in the garden and at garden retailers. There is a temptation to just buy everything that looks good right now. Well, hold on for a moment.
There are many plants that will provide great value for the investment. Some produce lots of bloom reliably the first year, continue to grow in size with the passage of time, are reliably winter hardy, have very few insect or disease problems and after a few years you can dig them up, divide them and plant the divisions around your yard (or give them away).
Here are my top 5 favourites:
1. Daylilies [Hemerocallis]. Unbeatable for reliable blooms in a sunny location. I planted about 50 daylilies around my new garden 11 years ago and all of them have outperformed, each year growing in heft and flower count. I do separate them every 4 to 5 years, to help restore their vigour. Look for any variety that suits your colour palette. And if you want reliable, summer long colour pick up the Stella series, which are known to bloom for the longest possible stretch, usually about 6 to 8 weeks. They grow to about 60 cm, though there are many daylilies that grow much higher. In my experience, there is nothing that harms daylilies: insects, disease or deep freezing temperatures. Even the lily beetles don’t bother them. They are members of the asparagus family, perhaps that is why.
- Monarda. Bee Balm. Oswego Tea. This is a native plant that is so multi-useful it is almost super-human (super-plant?). It blooms for up to 8 weeks, attracts hummingbirds and native and honey bees. You can cut it and bring the flowers indoors and if that isn’t enough, you can make fine tasting tea with it. Earl Grey knew this, which is why you find it listed in the ingredients in his original blend. Medicinal, winter hardy and the only insects that I have found on my many specimens are some aphids. The finches love the aphids so I am not fussed about them. Growing to about 80 cm high, the original Bee Balm is a winner but there are many introductions that have been developed by the ‘hand of man’ that are outstanding garden performers. Look for the Balmy series including Lilac, Purple and Rose. Also Grand Parade is a winner. Loves the sun, tolerates up to half a day of shade.
- Shasta Daisy. [Leucanthemum x superbum] Most of the Shasta daisies listed in the Sheridan Nurseries catalogue this year (there are 8) bloom from June to September. Think about that. Lots of annual flowers don’t bloom that long: nasturtiums, lobelia and calendula have much shorter bloom cycles. And Shasta Daisy is a reliable perennial. You cannot keep it down. The variety Becky was the perennial plant of the year in 2003. This is like an academy award for a plant, they don’t get any better. When I am ‘pushing up daisies’ my remains will be serving a great service to humankind. Don’t knock the daisies.
One note: don’t make the mistake that I did and pronounce the Latin name super-bum. I did that for years before some kind soul corrected me, “Mark, it is superb-um”. Oh.
- Geraniums. You are now saying, “the annual or perennial geraniums?” and my answer is “take your pick”. They are both excellent garden performers.
- Annual geranium [pelargonium]. There are no plants on the market that produce such reliable colour as geraniums do. Preferring ‘cool’ sun on the east or south-east side of the house during summer, they are forgiving virtually everywhere. They look better when you remove the spent flower, though some of the new varieties are almost ‘self-cleaning’. You will maximize the blossoms with an application of fertilizer, especially when grown in containers. I use ‘Once and Done’ fertilizers that provide a mild fertilizer charge every time you water. What makes annual geraniums most remarkable is that you can let them go dry for quite a while and they will forgive you.
Buying tip: buy the expensive geraniums, generally priced over $2 per 4 inch pot. There are many plants sold in the $1 – $1.30 range that are cheap to grow, produce a nice flush of colour in the grower’s greenhouse this time of year and completely poop out in a few short weeks. They are a rip off. Look for ‘zonal’ geraniums that are grown from cuttings. More expensive, yes. But in this case, you really do get what you pay for.
- Perennial geraniums or Cranesbill: a ground hugging perennial plant that will bloom from May until September. Look for the variety Rozanne, the perennial plant of the year in 2008 for good reason. There are many varieties to choose from that range in colour from magenta, blue, violet and pink. Most grow about 30 to 40 cm high and spread much further. All are reliable winter hardy plants to zone 4.
My short list of second choices includes veronica, rudbeckia, hosta, peonies, all of the hardy ornamental grasses and perennial sage.