Perennials Archives

Tough, Drought-Tolerant Plants for Curbside Gardens

Who SAYS the strip of land between your sidewalk and the street has to be covered with turfgrass? Okay, in some places the government actually says that but most of us have the freedom to plant something a little more interesting – and less resource-intensive, too. Here you see the curb garden or “hell strip” in front of my house (actually my former house, where I actually had a curb).  I made sure the water-meter guy still has access, and also that this little garden doesn’t block the view of drivers. (Safety first!)

I goofed in not knowing (or inquiring about) permission I should have gotten first from my city before planting anything here, so I’m just lucky I was allowed to keep this garden. Which garden my neighbors, I might add, never seem to tire of admiring, and thanking me for. Public gardening sure has its rewards.

Now about the choice of plants.  Curb gardens need tough ones because sites don’t get much tougher than this one. They have to be able to handle the usual stresses of heat and drought PLUS cars, snow plows and salt trucks, kids on bikes, and the regular diggings and droppings of all the dogs on the street. I wasn’t about to spend money here, just to see everything destroyed. So everything here was a cast-off or division from other parts of my garden.

And it’s important to note that this spot can be garden-like, crammed full of plants of different heights, only because there’s no parking on my side of the street. I’ve seen some great curb gardens that DO allow for access to parked cars and I’ll be posting about them soon, right here.

The Plant List
I planted a Yoshino cherry tree, a beautyberry shrub, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, common garden phlox,  lots of daylily cultivars in assorted colors, and creeping sedums as groundcover.

After five years in the ground, the result was:  Absolutely no damage from any of the feared sources, and a pretty garden that’s almost no work. These plants are drought-tolerant, and pretty good at crowding out the weeds. So, a bit of watering, a bit of weeding. Then in late winter I do clean-up – remove dead perennial flowers, hack the grasses back to the ground, and prune the beautybush.

Buffalo, NY
Next stop, a curb garden in Buffalo, New York, the city with the largest garden tour in America. (Every July over 300 gardens are open to the public over two days, all free.   They call it a Garden Walk.)


Portland, Oregon
And from the West Coast, below you see a high-impact garden packed in between the street and the unseen sidewalk.



Inspired yet? One New York Times writer was inspired to do something creative in his Minneapolis hell strip, and recounts the transition here.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Time for Succulents!

The National Capital Cactus and Succulent Society participated in our recent Garden Party, and gave us a chance to reconsider these plants that seem to be better suited to a hotter, dryer climate than ours. But now the Mid-Atlantic is feeling more like Arizona every year, these super-drought-tolerant plants that love heat and sun are worth a second look.

Bob Stewart, shown right with the tweezers he recommends for weeding around the thorniest of cacti, has a few recommendations for growing succulents.  One is to give them plenty of sun and excellent drainage, especially with plants that are only marginally hardy here.  The other tip for those adventures in marginal hardiness is to start with large plants – they’re worth it.

Bob also recommends this book – Hardy Succulents by Gwen Moore Kelaidis with photos by Saxon Holt.   I’ve read it myself and found the text inspiring and the photos drool-worthy, and note that it’s helped many of us try more of these plants.  The author has grown the plants she writes about in New York, Wisconsin and Colorado, so I believe her when she says they’ll survive the half-hearted winters of Maryland.

Sedums – Got ’em, Love ’em
Sedums are so easy to grow they’ve the most commonly used succulent in our area, especially the taller ‘Autumn Joy’ and its cousins ‘Matrona’ and ‘Neon’.  Yep, got ‘em, and recommend them all the time as among the most sustainable perennials in the world for almost any situation.  I even have a big collection in pots on my deck, and they take total neglect quite happily.  But here’s what I just learned from Kelaidis – there are sedums that prefer shade.  Gotta check into that.

Photo by Saxon Holt

Ice Plants – Want ’em
This book also explained for me why I don’t often see see ice plants grown here in the Mid-Atlantic – they balk at clay and need a rock garden-type medium to grow in, like sand and gravel.  And I found this interesting – that although they come from tropical South Africa, ice plants have retained their residual hardiness from back in the era before the continents drifted apart, when Africa was farther north.

True desert plants  are harder to fit design-wise in Eastern gardens, to my eyes.  Same goes for yuccas, which are grown around here.  So if like a challenge, go for it, and this book will help you in expanding your options.

Thumb’s Up for the Book

This book can be a great help to gardeners in the Age of Climate Change.  The practical advice even includes which plants are affordable in which situations and design ideas that take cost into consideration (thank you!).  It’s clear that the author actually grows these plants herself, including 200+ varieties of what she lovingly calls “semps”. (The nickname alone makes me want some Sempervivums.)

Oh, and the photographer tells me that many of the photos in the book were taken in Maryland.

Posted by Susan Harris.

The 2012 Daylily Flower Show

Behnkes was pleased to host the National Capital Area Daylily Club’s Annual Daylily Flower Show again this year – we naturally love hanging out with plant people.

The various classes of competition included the sizes (miniature, small and large), doubles, unusual forms, spiders, designs with daylilies, and “off-scape.”  That last one refers to flowers with no stems, which means the competitors don’t have to worry about unsightly spent blooms or other grooming issues involved with whole stems.  Below are three classes of daylily flowers displayed off-scape for judging.

The State of Daylily Clubs and Shows
Nationally, membership in the American Hemerocallis Society is now about 7,500, down from over 12,000 just a few years ago.  The local National Capital Daylily Club has similarly seen a drop in membership, from over 300 to its current roster of 138 members.  The number of entrants in their annual shows has also declined over the last decade or two.

So, why is that?  It may be that gardeners are more interested in growing vegetables, or among ornamental plants they’re growing a large variety of plants rather than collecting just one.

Loyal Fans of Daylilies

Daylilies perform well in the toughest spots

On the Popularity of Daylilies
The plants themselves are as popular as ever, especially the heavily  marketed ‘Stella d’Oro’ and ‘Happy Returns.’  We hear less about any of the other 70,000 varieties because, as one member explained, they’re only marketed if they’re patented, and that’s a very expensive process to undertake.  But that doesn’t keep breeders from producing hundreds more every single year – a testament to how easy daylilies are to hybridize.

For today’s gardeners looking for low-maintenance, drought-tolerant, pest-free perennials that require little yet give back a lot, daylilies are a great choice.  Though nonnative, only the common orange “ditch lily” has ever exhibited invasive properties; the other 70,000+ varieties are worry-free.

Artists at Work

The design competition displays so much inventiveness and sense of fun, we can’t resist showing off an assortment for your enjoyment.

Posted by Susan Harris.


Larry’s Favorite Native Ferns

Click here to read this story now on our website (we moved it so it’s more easily found by readers over the years.)

Christmas Fern, (L) in Hurley Garden; (R) at Mt. Cuba, DE


With a brand new-to-me garden to fill up,  I need plant ideas, especially shade-loving perennials, so where better to look than the garden of our perennials specialist Larry Hurley?  So I paid a visit to his Bethesda garden this past weekend and saw lots to love, and learned a thing or two.

Around a large tree in the front yard, sweeps of epimediums and hostas sure look better than mulch, and more interesting than the common groundcovers for shade (I’m looking at you, ivy and pachysandra).

Above, Larry can’t keep his hands off those Epimediums.  On the right in this photo is a big favorite of mine – Euphorbia amygdaloides or Wood Spurge.  It’s evergreen!

In all its glory is the stunning native vine Lonicera sempervirens ‘Cedar Lane’.

Above, another gorgeous native plant – Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’.  It does well in both moist and dry shade.

Above, two of Larry’s many varieties of Heuchera, both paired to great effect with Hakonechloa (also known as Japanese forest grass).  Larry prefers the Heuchera villosas because they’re so long-lived.

Above, newly emerging Hosta ‘Sagea’ and a bronze-colored Heuchera with ‘Evergold’ Carex.  It’s one of the evergreen Carexes, and can take sun or shade.

Here’s a groundcover I’ve never seen before – Wood Anemone or Anemone nemorosa.  Gotta get some!

Also evident in the photo above is Larry’s practice of leaving fallen leaves in place in his perennial borders.  I questioned this practice, having read warnings about dead leaves smothering perennials, but was assured that the perennials are safe and that the leaves decompose by mid-summer or so.  Larry says that smothering may be a problem with maple leaves because they become so tightly compacted, but the leaves of his oaks and tulip poplars are no problem.   Good to know!

Love the large pots on Larry’s deck, and the informal fieldstone paths.  That’s Japanese Painted Fern in the foreground.

Notice more interesting artsy elements – the metal cranes on the left and the large pot on the right.   And how about the stunning bark on the Stewartia in the foreground? A diehard do-it-yourselfer, Larry built the pond himself.

Thanks to Larry for the tour, but I haven’t finished with him yet.  Coming soon – his favorite native ferns and Echinaceas.

Lornicera photo by Larry Hurley.  All others by the author – Susan Harris.

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