The Toughest Plants I Know–and Grow

The road to Moore & Moore's bulk lot became a river during the flood.

Two thousand ten was not a kind year for gardeners in Middle Tennessee. For whatever reason, Mother Nature decided to unleash a Reign of Terror on us, starting on January 1, and continuing through the end of the year. 

January blew in with an arctic blast. The first  thirteen days of the month tied a sixty-eight-year-old record for the coldest start of any year ever recorded in Nashville. The top foot of my three-feet-deep pond froze solidly enough to skate on. And the marginally cold-hardy plants I’d put in a very protected area, which is typically about Zone 8b? Dead. Good-bye, gardenias. Ta ta, Tradescantia pallida (Purple Heart). Sayonara, Sweet Box (Sarcococca ruscifolia). 

Next came the May flood, which has been called a thousand-year event. Many people lost everything. Gardens were an afterthought to homes, furniture, and irreplaceable mementos, but when the houses had been gutted and the possessions hauled away, gardeners began to realize that their lovely landscapes, which had sat in toxic, fuel-polluted water for days, had not made it. 

I was incredibly fortunate not to have had any flood damage to my home, but I did lose quite a few of my xerics. They literally drowned, even though they were planted high in fairly well-drained soil. Rattlesnake Aloe (Agave virginica ‘Spot), Artemisia arborescens ’Powis Castle,’ and too many creeping sedums to list just rotted away.  

Little did we know that the twelve-plus inches of rain that innundated us on the first two days of May would be our last significant rainfall for months. Nor did we expect the next ninety straight days to bring temps of ninety-plus degrees. In spite of diligent watering, many marginally heat-hardy plants could not handle the onslaught. The ground was so hot that adding water literally steamed some roots to death. In my garden, Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata),  ’Purple Gem’ Rhododendron, and Astilbe burst into flames and bid me adieu. 

Hosta x. 'Guacamole'

Meanwhile, underneath it all–the frozen ground, the foot of water, and the inferno–an army of voles was silently devouring the roots of many trees, shrubs, and perennials, killing them one after another. My huge, lovely ‘Guacamole’ hostas shrank from five feet wide to about ten inches. Some hostas disappeared entirely. Tulips, transported via underground tunnels, started coming up in my shady fern bed, where I know I did not plant them. Many bulbs never came up at all, most likely having been digested months earlier by those voracious voles. By the time I figured out what was going on, it was far too late for many of my beloved plants. The ruthless killing machines had left my once lush, mature garden with big blank swaths of soil. 

To make a long story short (I know–too late) and get to the point of this blog, listed below are the plants that withstood everything Mother Nature threw at them and not only survived, but thrived. They are the toughest plants I know–and grow–and will use to fill in all the holes. 

‘Grey Owl,’ ‘Blue Point,’ and ‘Nana’ all came through with flying colors. The other varieties we carry at the garden center, such as ‘Daub’s Frosted,’ ‘Blue Star,’ and ‘Icee Blue,’ fared equally well. 

No, not the hybrid teas that require constant coddling, but the Knock Out, Oso Easy, and Carpet varieties that are highly disease-resistant and bloom for months. Give them plenty of sun and food, and they’ll repay you in spades. I’m looking forward to trying the new Drift cultivars that we’ll have in this spring. 

Yes, they needed lots of water, but they didn’t seem to mind the steam baths one bit. They flowered their heads off, and their leaves remained spot-free till well into fall. 

Elephant Ears
Again, they needed plenty of supplemental water, but the hotter and more humid it got, the bigger they grew. 

I adore salvia, so I plant lots of it–both annual and perennial. All of it bloomed for months, and none of it needed additional water. And there doesn’t seem to be a pest or varmint that enjoys the taste of it, but the butterflies and hummingbirds flock to it. Some of my favorites include ‘Pineapple’ (Salvia elegans), Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha), ‘Wild Thing’ (Salvia greggii), and ‘Black and Blue’ (Salvia guaranitica). 

Whether it was a tree, a shrub, a bulb, or a perennial, the natives did not miss a beat last year. Daffodils, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Bottlebrush Buckeyes, and Cedars all performed exceptionally well. 

Ornamental Grasses
They’re tough, they provide year-round interest, add movement to the garden, and are virtually pest- and maintenance-free. What’s not to love? I’ve experienced excellent results from several species of Carex, Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis), ‘Blue Dune’ Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius), and Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), particularly ‘Northwind.’ 

Yes, it’s disappointing–not to mention expensive–to have lost so many mature plants, but I love gardening too much to give up. Rather than focus on the negative, I’ve decided to practice what I preach to our customers. This is not a disaster. It’s a gardening opportunity.

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  1. Posted February 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Great Blog!! Very helpful info especially with our” wild weather” !! I’ll check back often! Thank You!

    • admin
      Posted February 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Glad you enjoyed it, Diane. I’m working on a post about dealing with voles. Many Middle Tennesseans, including myself, have lost a lot of plants during the past year or so. I’ve tried everything on and off the market with varying degrees of success. In the blog, I’ll write about what worked for me–and what didn’t–and list some of the plants that voles apparently find unappetizing.

      Thanks for reading!