In this stressful time, I look forward to every sunny morning I can walk into the garden and watch my plants waking up from their winter sleep. It is spring in the South, and each day brings a new surprise. So much changes in the hours between sunset and dawn that a quick walk across the backyard to my shed is almost impossible, as something is bound to catch my eye. I’m thankful for these distractions, because they help me pass the time, and they keep me feeling optimistic about the weeks and months ahead.
It will do us all some good to be able to shop at our favorite garden center soon, so today I’m thinking about plants that I would recommend to a friend new to gardening. Here are a few of my favorite easy-to-grow plants:
JAPANESE ANEMONE (Anemone japonica)
This is one of those plants that spreads politely, without getting out of hand, and it is perfect for a garden that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. While it will grow in full sun in some areas of the country, in my zone seven garden it seems to prefer a bit of shade during the hottest part of the day. It blooms from late summer into fall, and each year I look forward to masses of elegant white blooms on tall stems. There are pink varieties, doubles and singles, and all of them are worth growing, if you have the room. ‘Pamina’, a rich almost plum-tinged pink, is one of my newest favorites. If you live in an area with clay soil, it’s a good idea to amend your soil with a bit of compost before you plant, and be sure to water when there is no rainfall.
ARKANSAS BLUE STAR (Amsonia hubrichtii)
I first saw this plant in a large-scale meadow planting in Pennsylvania, and I was smitten. It performs well in the South, given sun, well-drained soil and moderate water. It has the movement of a grass, with the added bonus of delicate light blue flowers in summer, and yellow foliage in fall. It is beautiful planted in a mass, along with cottage-garden style plants, such as coneflower. As with the anemones, this plant will grow best in loam or in clay soil that has been amended with compost.
FALSE INDIGO (Baptisia australis)
This native plant is an excellent choice for anyone new to gardening, as it is simply bulletproof. I have cut it to the ground in late summer and watched it rebound with gusto. It will take up some garden real estate, so plan accordingly. It will quickly grow to around three feet high and wide, with blue flower spikes in spring adding another foot or two. False Indigo is very drought tolerant, grows happily in clay soil, and requires little care, making it ideal for busy flower lovers.
CRINUM LILY (Crinum spp.)
The crinum lily is a treasure, thriving in our clay soil and summer heat. In winter, however, these types of plants can look somewhat pitiful in their dormant state. So you may be wondering why I’ve included them in my list. In my mind, the crinum lily is a quintessential southern garden plant (think Gone With the Wind). While you won’t likely see them for sale in your garden center, they can be ordered from a specialty bulb vendor, such as Terra Ceia Farms, for spring planting. Crinum lilies may not bloom the first season, but they are worth the wait. By season two, they quickly grow to two or three feet in height, and send up gorgeous bloom scapes all summer, with no effort on your part, other than weekly watering when there is no rainfall. In my opinion, this southern belle looks best when she has her own space in the garden without companion plants underfoot, so provide her with her own border where she can put on a show in summer, and rest in winter offstage, so to speak, under a blanket of pine straw.
MEXICAN PETUNIA (Ruellia brittoniana)
I was introduced to this plant at my first landscaping job many years ago. Our grower produced four inch pots of Mexican petunia for us, which we used as a summer annual to give height to flower beds. For the home gardener, the perennial Mexican petunia is useful because it is drought tolerant, has vibrant blue flowers from late spring into fall, and it is self-cleaning, meaning that spent blooms fall off the plant as new ones emerge. It will form a good-sized clump in just a few years that can be divided and used elsewhere in the garden, or shared with friends. Give this plant sun, well-drained soil, and water when nature doesn’t provide rainfall. Mexican petunia will grow to around two feet high each summer, and it looks good paired with shasta daisies, coneflowers, black-eyed susan, butterfly weed, or annual lantana.