10 Must-Have Plants



A mass of the purple coneflower

By Debra Knapke

So many choices confront the beginning gardener or the new homeowner, and so many plants seem to be must-haves: must-have trees, shrubs, edibles, perennials and annuals. If I were creating my first landscape and had to limit myself to 10 plants, here are the ones I would choose.

My criteria:

  • is native to the Midwest or is a non-native that is adapted to our weather and soil
  • plays well with others; in other words, not invasive
  • offers multi-seasonal interest

Serviceberry (Amelanchier species and cultivars) – A native single or multi-trunked tree that offers four season interest and edible berries in June.

Red oak or white oak (Quercus rubra and Q. alba) – You are planting this tree for your children, but few trees surpass the majesty of an oak. The red oak grows faster than the white, but white oaks have better fall color; your choice.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) – A native shrub for sunny to part shade locations. Look for the cultivars ‘Diabolo’ (4-8’ tall and wide) and ‘Little Devil’ (3’ tall and wide) which have maroon leaves and white to pink flowers in June. Its exfoliating bark feature is a winter season bonus.

Daffodils (Narcissus species and hybrids) – One of the plant signals that it is indeed spring. You can have daffodils in bloom from mid-March to mid-May if you choose your cultivars wisely.

Perennial sage (Saliva nemorosa) – An attractive perennial that supports our native pollinators. As long as you remove spent flower spikes and water it during dry times, it will bloom from May until frost. And, it is not usually eaten by deer.

Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox) – A groundcover for hot, dry location that can double as lawn where there is very light foot traffic.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – One of our native daisies, from the prairie, that provides food to a variety of insects, butterflies, moths and birds. This summer bloomer is at home in sunny to part-sun gardens.

Butterflyweed/ milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, A. syriaca and others) – This is your chance to help a species in peril: all of the butterflyweeds/milkweeds are essential food sources for monarch butterfly caterpillars and the adults. Butterflyweed does best in a sunny, well-drained garden that is close to a bench so you can watch for this beautiful insect.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – A native shrub for the shade that offers early flowers, edible fruit and gold leaves in the fall, and a lovely silhouette in the winter.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) – A tough tree that offers one of the best golden fall color shows. Make sure you plant a male clone unless you want the fruit, but be forewarned: the fruit is extremely fragrant when ripe, and not in a good way!


Tips for transforming winter death tolls into garden treasures

2011-09-14_12-31-03_773By Michael Leach

What’s the best approach for handling dead roses and other winter-killed flora? Mourn. Research. Shop.

Don’t spend much time tsk-tsking about plant replacement costs. Do you seriously count the expense of fast-food or pizza on those can’t-stand-to-cook nights? Plants last years, fast food mere minutes. Why begrudge similar outlays to replace the missing teeth in your landscape’s smile?

In some back yards there may be serious “dental” expenses considering the horrid winter KO’d Knock Out roses and other tough plants. Those of us who grow plants happier in warmer climes must make a decision. Is it worth years of waiting for them to return to pre-ice age sizes after being frozen to the ground?

Herein lies one of the basics of success with a plant: how cold a winter can it survive? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hardiness zone map of the country uses colorful bands to show the lowest winter temperatures likely for every region.

A Zone 5 plant, for instance, should be able to weather -20 degrees, a Zone 6 plant can handle -10 degrees. Most of Ohio is Zone 6. No fool-proof guarantee but one important factor for success.

There are others to consider, so forget flower colors and cute names for a moment. Each plant needs certain environmental factors to thrive. These include sunlight, soil and moisture. Put a fern, which relishes a shady spot with moist, loamy soil, in a gravely, sunny place and you’ll find crispy fronds the first scorching July afternoon.

Here are more points to consider when evaluating a potential plant for your yard:


  • How big will it grow. A plant that naturally spreads several feet is a poor choice for bordering a walk or driveway, unless you love pruning — frequently.
  • Will it produce messy fruit that could mar the deck, sidewalk or driveway?
  • How prone is it to breaking from too much snow or ice?
  • Will it attract pesky bugs?
  • How resistant is it to common diseases?
  • What’s the best way to plant and care for it?


In this Internet-connected age, ignorance is no excuse for buying the wrong plant. One of my go-to spots is the Plant Finder at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website.


When it comes to low-maintenance with lots of color, the new shrub roses, such as Knock Out, Easy Elegance and Drift Roses, are hard to beat. What’s not to like about flowers from spring into fall with little work? (Check out our comments at Columbus Monthly  and Heartland-Gardening). Just plant them properly and make sure they get off to a good start this year.


Roses aren’t the only flowering plants for season-long color. Consider shrubs with burgundy, chartreuse and variegated leaves. No dead-heading needed. Many perennials offer the same bonus foliage features.


So enough whining about winter. Start making your landscape — and you — smile again.


Gardening the Rain

boggs in rainBy Teresa Woodard

Just when you’re ready to dive into a day filled with spring gardening chores, the black clouds roll in threatening to curtail your plans. But before you sing, “Rain, Rain, Go Away”, slip on your rain boots and reshuffle your chore list to take advantage of the softened earth and cooler weather.

Here are five “dos” and five “don’ts” for gardening in the rain (that is, a gentle soaker rain not a take-cover thunderstorm rain).


  • Edge beds. The ground is much softer for cutting a clean edge with an edging tool.
  • Pull weeds. Weeds, especially those with long tap roots, are much easier to pull after a good soaking.
  • Fertilize plants. Sprinkle a dry fertilizer around trees, plants and lawns, and a nice, soft rain will help wash it into the soil and make it available to plants. Of course, avoid fertilizing in heavy rains that could wash it away. Also, try spreading a weed preventer before a good soaking rain.
  • Turn the compost pile. Grab a pitch fork to turn over layers in a compost pile. The rain water and oxygen will aid in breaking down the compost.
  • Go shopping.  Head to you local garden center to stock up on plants and supplies to be ready for gardening projects when the weather breaks.Cannal leaf in the rain


  • Till soil. When the ground is wet, avoid working in the soil to prevent compacting it and squeezing out valuable spaces for air, water storage and root growth.
  • Plant. Wait until the soil has dried out before planting annuals, vegetables, perennials, shrubs or trees. The plants’ roots will thank you for not squeezing them into wet, compacted soil.
  • Trim large trees. Rainy weather can make tools and ladders slippery and potentially hazardous.
  • Use heavy equipment. While it may be tempting to finish up a deck or patio project in the rain, rethink driving heavy equipment across a lawn or patio bed to avoid compacting the soil.
  • Spray chemical treatments. Rain will dilute the potency of chemical treatments for pest and disease control, so save the task for a rain-free day


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