Tough Plants for Changing Times

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Tough Plants for Changing Times

Did you notice how wacky the weather has been the last couple of seasons? In the south-central part of the U.S., gardening has become an extreme sport due to skyrocketing summer temperatures.

Everyone lamented the summer of 2012, but when a cool front signaled fall, seasoned gardeners breathed a sign of relief and grabbed their garden gear. They saw empty spaces as opportunities replacing trees, shrubs and perennials killed by insects, disease and drought.

In these changing times, we need durable and beautiful plants. The last five seasons in my garden were all about adjusting to a new reality. I love English cottage style, but I only grow shrub roses that are easy to maintain. I’ve also removed diseased roses replacing them with plants better suited to my climate.

Variegated tapioca

Tropicals may be our best friends for summer color. Many, like Solenostemon scutellarioides (coleus) and Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’ (variegated tapioca) have bright flashy leaves. When summer heats up, and plants quit flowering, colorful foliage rules the day. Some of my favorite coleus are ColorBlaze® Dipt in Wine, Big Red Judy® and ‘Pink Chaos,’ but there are varieties in nearly every color combination. Go for those that can be grown in the sun and plant them in sun or shade. The coloration will be different, but still lovely. Also, who can resist the multitudinous offerings of Ipomoea batatas (sweet potato vine)? They are fantastic bed fillers and container spillers in sun or shade.

Coleus, milkweed and roses

Many tropicals bloom too. Purple Señorita Rosalita® and white Señorita Blanca™ cleomes bloom nonstop. Planted together or against a darker plant, they are scrumptious.  Consider traditional favorites like celosias. For years, I didn’t like celosias because I thought they were too old fashioned. Then, I fell in love with the dark foliage of ‘Intenz,’ and I realized my prejudice was unwarranted. Lantana is another tough plant. No need to stick to traditional ‘New Gold.’ Instead, branch out and pick Bandana Red®, or one with variegated leaves like ‘Samantha.’

For perennials that can take the heat, stick with the tried-and-true. Grow black-eyed Susans, but don’t limit yourself to one variety. I’m trying R. hirta ‘Cherokee Sunset’ and ‘Indian Summer.’ I’m not sure they will return come spring, but they still captivated me. Another great new perennial in my garden is Salvia longispicata x farinacea ‘Mystic Spires Blue.’ I first saw it in a mass planting at White River Gardens next to the Indianapolis Zoo, and I knew it was something special. Another clan of salvias, S. greggii, bloom abundantly in my garden. I like them all, but ‘Pink Preference’ is my preferred choice. Found in Texas, it blooms all summer long and is deer resistant. Another good plant for sunny spots is Cestrum ‘Orange Peel.’

Pink Preference

In the shade garden, try elephant ears instead of hostas. Fun varieties of Colocasia esculenta, like 'Coffee Cups' with its upturned leaves, look better than a burned up old hosta any day. Before you hosta fans grab the pitchforks, I do grow a few. I’ve had good luck with those that have thicker leaves like ‘Guacamole’ and ‘Sum and Substance.’

coffe cups

Grow Mahonia bealei (leatherleaf mahonia) along with M. eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ in filtered sunlight for best results.  Ajuga and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (golden creeping Jenny) are great plants to trail along the edge of shady beds.

I love perennials and consider them an important part of the garden’s backbone, but annuals offer a color flash while perennials are recharging for another bloom cycle. Some of my favorite annuals are:
Evolvulus glomeratus ‘Blue Daze’ for a touch of elusive blue.
Euphorbia graminea Diamond Frost®, better than baby’s breath, but afternoon shade improves performance.
•Zinnias, especially the smaller, disease resistant types, like the Profusion series, ‘Double Zahara Fire’ and ‘Double Zahara Cherry.’
•Bonfire® begonia, heat resistant and beautiful. New Choc Red and Choc Pink have dark foliage.
•Periwinkles, classic performers, but, to prevent disease, don’t plant them too early in the season.

natives at the OSU Botanic Garden

Native plants are another bonus. If you stagger plant types, you can have flowers in three seasons as shown above at Oklahoma State University’s Botanic Garden. Add grasses to crown the garden in fall.

Changeable weather patterns will alter the way we garden, but many plants will also thrive. Tough times may not last, but tough plants do. Remember that the next time you want to throw in the trowel.