Easy-to-Grow Flowers for the Beginning Gardener
I live in a rural area where many people are avid gardeners, and where most people own their own homes and often have large yards—and sometimes large acreages. But I’ve noticed that the huge offerings in the garden catalogs and garden centers can be a source of confusion—and sometimes dismay—for the beginning gardener.
I’d like to offer some suggestions for widely adapted, easy care, and nearly foolproof perennial flowers that are also gloriously beautiful.
New homeowners—especially if they’ve lived in apartments for most of their adult lives—are inexperienced and uninformed when it comes to flowering plants, and may be unaware of their sun/shade, moisture, and soil pH requirements, as well as their hardiness.
Many homeowners lead busy lives and have little time for tending the flowerbeds. Often they lack the time and knowledge for the careful preparation of the soil needed for more delicate plants. Older gardeners may lack the energy to take care of high-maintenance flowerbeds.
Luckily, there are many beautiful flowering plants that are extraordinarily hardy, require little or no care, and are almost indifferent as to soil conditions. Some even require little watering, even when the weather is very dry.
With flowers—or any other plants—some soil preparation is necessary. Few plants will thrive unless you at least clear away the grass enough to give them some space. Even the toughest flowers should have a reasonable amount of space free of competition from grass and weeds. That space is most easily kept weed-free by mulching—which has the added benefit of looking nice.
Next, look at sun/shade requirements for purchased plants. This is usually on the tag, or indicated in the garden-catalog description.
Another important step is to have a look at a climate-zone map, shown at right.
Temperatures shown for each climate zone are average minimum winter temperatures. Most plants in nurseries are tagged to show the minimum temperature they will tolerate, and if a plant’s tag does not indicate its hardiness, you should assume that it is not winter hardy. Garden catalogs, too, usually indicate the winter hardiness of plants offered for sale. Plants sold as annuals cannot be expected to overwinter.
SHOWY AND FOOLPROOF FLOWERS
The perennials I’ve suggested here can function as the backbone of your floral plantings. Once these “sure thing” plantings are in the ground, showy, long-blooming annuals—or perennials—can be planted around and among them to keep bloom going all summer. I have included some suggestions for companion flowers that look good inter-planted with these foolproof flowers, with an emphasis on those that are easy to grow and care for—although the possibilities are almost endless.
Bearded Iris (Iris germanica—full sun, USDA climate zones 3-9): Irises come in every color of the rainbow and their large flowers make a dazzling show in spring. They are hardy almost anywhere in the continental United States. Planting requires little in the way of soil preparation. The roots should be planted at the shallowest depth—normally they are left partially exposed, except in hot climates, in which case they are thinly covered with soil—so little digging is required.
Another of the good qualities of iris is that they gradually spread to take over a large area. If you plant a single iris, it will multiply into a patch that is three feet in diameter in a few years. This is something the gardener should bear in mind: Make your initial planting of iris in a spot that you won’t mind them taking over. They are good in parts of the yard that are a bit too steep to be easily mowed, for example. They are happy planted in hot, dry spots along driveways, where they will multiply to create a beautiful and carefree border.
Irises also do well planted in areas that may too hot and dry, or where the soil is too poor, for other flowering plants to thrive, such as the unshaded south or west side of a house.
Irises require full sun to flower well. They will also sometimes stop flowering if they become too crowded. This problem is easily solved by sprinkling the iris bed with any all-purpose plant food intended for flowers. Give the bed a dose of fertilizer in spring before the blooming season begins—and it’s also good to divide them every few years, when they become overcrowded.
When selecting irises to plant in your yard, you’ll want to be careful to choose those that are showiest, with the colors you like best. One of my own mistakes in planting irises was over-thriftiness. I collected irises from vacant lots and later found I had a staggering abundance flowers that were comparatively unexciting. While such plants are better than none at all, you are likely to wind up replacing them later. I like the most vibrant colors in irises best: brilliant reds, blues, and yellows. Since iris bloom in spring, when color is especially welcome, brilliant colors seem to give the most enjoyment.
Suggested companions: For some inexplicable reason, you don’t normally think of irises as flowers that are generally planted “with” something. Both flowers and foliage have a standalone quality: They upstage everything else when they’re in bloom, and the eye ignores them when they’re not. But a bed of iris in full bloom could be made more spectacular if paired up with spring-blooming pansies or violas, and tall, large-flowered zinnias could brighten the bed after the iris have finished blooming. Rudbeckia and purple coneflower would be good choices for perennials to pair up with irises, since these would be happy in similar situations—full sun and well drained soil. Gladiolus bulbs could also be tucked in around the irises, for mid- to late-summer bloom.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.—full sun, USDA climate zones 3-9): Daylilies may be even more foolproof and indestructible than irises and are likewise hardy almost everywhere in the continental United States. They also provide a longer season of bloom. In fact, there are several re-blooming varieties and, since different varieties bloom at different times, selecting several kinds will ensure that at least one of them is blooming at any given time.
Daylilies, like irises, are available in almost any color you can think of. Like irises, they also spread, but fairly slowly, so that’s it’s not too difficult to head off invasiveness.
You may have seen “wild” daylilies covering large areas of untended fields and roadsides, but daylilies are not native to North America. The roadside “tawny daylily” was among the flowers introduced into the gardens of the early settlers. Their presence often marks the location of a long-abandoned farmhouse or homestead, where the one of our pioneer foremothers planted these flowers to brighten her yard.
While you could collect tawny daylilies (sometimes called “ditch lilies) from the roadsides, I would advise against this. While (I suppose) they are better than no flowers at all, when it comes to beauty they are rather drab compared to the large and more vibrant and varied colors of the cultivated varieties.
Because daylilies multiply, planting a single daylily will result in a nice clump in three or four years, and a large patch in ten years—during which time these flowers will require almost no care at all. The most you’ll have to do is pull the rare weed that is sturdy enough to try to crowd in among them. I sprinkle them (and all other flowers) with ordinary fertilizer intended for flowers in the spring, to encourage them to bloom and multiply.
The best known of the re-blooming daylilies is the brilliant yellow Stella D’Oro. Others that have a fine reputation for repeat bloom are Stella’s Ruffled Fingers (apricot pink), Pardon Me (red), and Happy Returns (yellow), but there are many repeat-blooming daylilies to choose from.
Daylilies are excellent for planting on steep slopes that are hard to mow, and they also provide erosion control in such spaces. They are lovely along sidewalks, paths, and driveways.
Suggested companions: To my eye, zinnias look better near daylilies that almost anything else.
Hostas (shade—part to full shade, USDA climate zones 2-10): Hostas are a shade-loving plant good for planting on the north side of the house or other shaded areas, though many varieties do well in sunny spots, as long as they are protected from late afternoon sun, especially with extra watering—and some varieties are more tolerant of sun than others.
While hostas do flower—and some kinds produce fairly showy flowers—they are mainly grown for their showy foliage. There are many varieties with large or variegated leaves.
Hostas multiply over time to produce large clumps, and they are among the toughest and most indestructible of plants.
To give you and example: My own hostas were a gift from a neighbor, and they were dug in the fall from the garden of a friend of his, who was moving to an apartment. When my neighbor brought them over to my house, I was busy with other projects, so I dumped the plants into two eight-gallon plastic buckets. Then I left them outdoors all winter, where they were exposed to rain, snow, and temperatures down to nearly zero.
My neighbor came around in spring and remarked, “Maybe it’s about time to get those hostas planted.
“Do you think they’re still alive?” I inquired.
“Sure,” my neighbor replied confidently.
We planted two small beds from the plants in the buckets—along the north side of the house where little soil preparation was required, since not even grass would grow there. In a few weeks, literally all the hostas had leafed out and were thriving. In late summer, they sent up their tall-stemmed, pale flowers.
Suggested companions: Hosta beds lend themselves well to fancying up with other shade-loving plants. Sweet woodruff and lady’s mantle enjoy the same rather shady conditions as hostas. Shade-loving varieties of impatiens provide colorful flowers to brighten hosta plantings. Periwinkle is another plant that enjoys the same shadier conditions in which hostas thrive.
If you begin with these foolproof and easy-care flowering perennials, you can be sure that your earliest efforts as a beginning gardener will be immensely rewarding!
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