A Top 5 List for Midwestern Gardens

Richard Hawke is the Plant Evaluation Manager for the Chicago Botanic Garden, so it’s fair to say he knows a lot about plants. Recently I was interested to see a post he wrote for CBG’s blog entitled “What Are the Best Plants for Your Midwestern Garden?”

more nepeta may 19 2013
‘Kit Kat’ Catmint with yellow violas and celandine poppies.

I really admire the discipline it takes to limit any list of plants to just a few. For me, an essential part of gardening is the endless fretting, the interminable sweet agony of deciding which plant is the perfect choice for any given spot. Friends who ask me for plant suggestions rarely ask a second time because I tend to offer an overwhelming number of options. “Oh for God’s sake,” I’ve been told, “just give me the name of ONE PLANT!”

Anyway, here is Mr. Hawke’s top five list of plants for Midwestern gardens, with annotations from yours truly:

2 Butterfly again
Painted Lady butterfly on Catmint.

Best For Sun: ‘Joanna Reed’ Catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’) and Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina).

My thoughts: I agree that Catmint is an excellent perennial, though I have never seen ‘Joanna Reed’ for sale. There are several varieties in our garden: ‘Kit Kat’, ‘Walker’s Low’, and ‘Six Hills Giant’. On the other hand, I’m not fond of Lamb’s Ears. I mean, what’s so great about fuzzy leaves?

Butterflyweed
Butterflyweed. Gorgeous and easy, needs only sun and well-drained soil.

Best Native Plant: Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

My thoughts: Hear, hear! Everyone in the Midwest with a sunny, well-drained spot should be growing Butterflyweed. Monarch Butterflies need Milkweeds, people! And how about those brilliant orange flowers? In fact, why not mandate that homeowners grow at least one member of the genus Asclepias, provided that it is adapted to their garden? Mandatory Milkweeds – it’s worth considering.

Best Annual: Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’.

DSC_0525 mexican sunflower
Mexican Sunflower

My thoughts: Tender Salvias are very nice in pots, but I think I prefer ‘Mystic Spires Blue’. ‘Black and Blue’ has not performed great for me, though it is loved by hummingbirds. Now my favorite annual, of course, is Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). A butterfly magnet, and more brilliant orange flowers! (OK, so I like orange flowers.) Requires a lot of space, though.

2014-05-03 16.58.11 Brunnera false forget me not
False Forget-Me-Not

Best Easy Care Plant: Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans’.

My thoughts: I have an instinctive dislike of Hostas which I’ve been trying to overcome. They are just so commonly grown in Chicago, though I know that’s not a good reason to reject a plant. As an alternative among plants for shade, I would suggest False Forget-Me-Not (Brunnera macrophylla) , a very tough customer that requires virtually no care at all.

We all know, of course, that there can be no objective list of the most beautiful or appealing plants, (though Richard Hawke’s job is to test plants for more verifiable traits such as disease resistance). It’s fun to argue about, though.

What do you make of Mr. Hawke’s list?

24 Comments on “A Top 5 List for Midwestern Gardens

  1. A list is great for those who aren’t gardeners but just happen to have a garden and who knows, if they are successful with these sure-fire plants who’s to say they won’t end up becoming very keen, then they can choose other plants.

    • I think that’s how it often goes. A list is useful for people who are intimidated by all the choices they have in the garden and are afraid of picking the wrong thing.

  2. How could anyone hate hostas?????? LOL. There are my second favorite after daylilies. Catmint tried to take over the garden, yard is too wet for butterfly weed, much to my dismay. I’ve been planting more salvia since deer do not eat them – yet. I’m even letting the lamb’s ears pop-up since they don’t like them either.

    • I bet your yard is not too wet for rose milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). It *loves* wet soil (although it tolerates drought too). And it seems very attractive to monarchs (as a larval host) and all sorts of pollinators when in bloom!

      • I do grow a fair amount of A. incarnata. It does pretty well, though it tends to grow a little too tall and floppy.

    • I don’t hate Hostas, they just don’t appeal to me. Catmint will self-sow, but the seedlings are not hard to remove.

  3. I don’t think I could ever create such a short list, but I do like all of Mr. Hawke’s and your choices. Love, love ‘Black and Blue’ salvia, but I’d have to add ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia and lantana for great long-lasting colorful annuals. I would also add sedum to the list–there aren’t too many plants more maintenance-free than sedums. And, of course, I’d have to add coneflowers in there somewhere!

  4. Interesting post. I think every one of those plants will also work well in my Northeast garden! I’m also not a big fan of hostas, which is just as well, because the bunnies in my backyard are! The great thing about the fuzzy leaves of Lamb’s Ear is that nothing eats them! Their flowers hold no appeal to me, so I just chop them down, but I do like to see the leaves in a mass planting, especially near other colorful foliage. I love, love, love Brunnera–so pretty, and again, nothing eats it! (That’s pretty much the most important criteria for me, if you haven’t noticed!) I put in an Asclepias last summer, and am pleased to see it’s finally sent up new shoots this spring. Also, and this is YOUR fault!, I started some Tithonia from seed early this spring, and, unlike last year’s attempt, it is coming along quite well. Remains to be seen whether any of my visitors will eat it. I think I tried ‘Black and Blue’ salvia one year, but I have more luck with ‘Evolution’, which is easier to find around here. I have ‘Walker’s Low’ Catmint–it’s very reliable, in spite of our big fat cat who loves to roll around in it!

  5. I have followed CBG and Hawke’s plant trials for years. But, like you, I can’t limit myself to five plants. Five species, maybe. I’ve pulled out all my catmint as I find it invasive. Love Brunnera but must have Hostas (and Hellebores) for large, dramatic foliage.

  6. Because I don’t live in the Midwest, some of these selections won’t live here, but I can see the wisdom in Mr. Hawke’s list. For gardeners, especially new gardeners, a list like this can be important.

    As to your recommendations, I love Butterfly Weed and my six from seed (although still tiny) are faring well. I love the False Forget-Me-Nots. They’re so pretty, but they won’t grow here. I checked.

    Hostas? Ehhh, not so much with the exception of the Krossa Regal Hosta, which appeals to me for some weird reason.

  7. I heartily agree with Mr. Hawke and catmint. Use it as a border plant and it is wonderful Six Hills Giant was the variety available when I first used it, so it gets divided and moved to fill in gaps.
    Here in Kentucky, we had such a mild winter that Salvia Black and Blue survived, even thrived!
    At the herb garden my club maintains, Asclepius incarnata and tuberosa are going like gang busters. In my garden, I have to restart each year and pray for success.
    Tithonia! It’s catching on here.
    False forget me not — wonderful. I have several hostas, but don’t know all the names, besides drinking gourd, praying hands, halcyon, and sum& substance.
    Glad to hear I stack up well with Mr. Hawke and CBG!

  8. I would totally struggle to make such a short list too. I just love the colour of the butterfly weed and mexican sunflower, simply stunning, utterly vibrant.xxx

  9. The lamb’s ears make sense, but I’m not overly fond of them either.
    In a busy garden with lots of color grays and whites give the eyes a place to rest and get away from all the color for a moment, so it’s a good idea to use them here and there, especially in a large garden.

  10. If I could grow only one plant, it would be zinnias – easy, colorful, long bloom time, hummingbird and butterfly magnet. Caterpillars destroyed my butterfly weed last year – we’ll see if it recovers. Catmint is good if it doesn’t get out of control. I have hostas, they look great, take little care, but I’m a little tired of them. Yes to Mexican sunflowers.

  11. I like YOUR choices, Jason. Mandatory milkweeds – yay! I also love Brunneras – my latest is ‘Alexander Great’ – gorgeous leaves that the deer don’t eat and pretty blue flowers in May – what’s not to like?

  12. Tried growing Tithonia one year, but got zero germination (in my haphazard outdoor sowing method).

    I’ll likely try again someday now that I’m getting more into indoor seed starting.

    I’m with you in not being a fan of lamb’s ear. Unlike many others, I don’t mind the flowers (which were a big hit with bumblebees in my garden), but it reseeded excessively on bare soil and those thick, fuzzy leaves never seem to decompose from year to year, so it just becomes a bigger and bigger messy clump with decaying leaves underneath fresh ones.

    Oh and it smells awful when you try to prune it.

    So yeah, going to disagree with Mr. Hawke on that one.

    Trying to get some butterflyweed started here. I do have three other species of Asclepias in the garden (A. incarnata, A. viridis and A. syriaca) and I’m happy with them all to one degree or another. I didn’t even have to plant that A. syriaca. It just showed up.

  13. I do have catmints, and can attest that they are easy keepers and can be cloned from rooting cuttings in water. Bees love them. I would love to try butterfly weed, although our winters may be too wet.

  14. I finally had success with Asclepias tuberosa last year, and I was very happy when it came back this year. I love Hosta elegans, but unfortunately my huge population of voles loves them too. My own list of top 5 plants would take a year of decision making, and I would probably change it again at the last minute!

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