Beyond the hype: plants that exceed expectations

These plants are winners. They toughed out the winter and performed well in summer, too.

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    Tiger Eye Rudbeckia hirta is cold hardy, self-seeding, and produces gorgeous cut flowers.
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    It took three years for Pink Shira mophead hydrangea to mature in a Zone 4b garden, but the spectacular flowers were worth the wait.
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Every spring, the UPS truck stops daily with plant samples from various propagators for me to trial in my northern Illinois, USDA Zone 4b, garden.

These are not benign gifts. I receive them free, because companies want me to write and lecture about them. However, it takes an outstanding plant to thrive here and for me to recommend. Very few make the cut.

My climate is tough. I live out in the country away from urban heat sinks. Here, winter temperatures regularly dip below zero, even during the day. Deep snow packs often melt in January, and more heavy snow falls after the bare ground thaws a bit. Spring comes late, and freezes are not unknown on Memorial Day.
I don’t consider an annual a winner until it performs successfully two years in a row and don’t judge perennials or roses until their third season.

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Some in 2009 exceeded my expectations and dazzled visitors to my garden:

‘Tiger Eye’ Rudbeckia hirta and ‘Snow Princess’ Lobularia were annual knockouts. Each proved cold-hardy (especially ‘Tiger Eye’), required no maintenance other than watering occasionally, and flowered nonstop.

The golden rudbeckia [see Photo No. 1 above] bloomed constantly from late May, when I set it out, until Halloween, despite freezing nights. It's a colorful, drought-tolerant landscape plant and its cut flowers stay fresh in vases for up to two weeks. Although an annual, ‘Tiger Eye’ drops seeds, and many sprouted the next spring.

Snow Princess’ is the most vigorous large-flowering alyssum I’ve ever seen. And fragrant! Hummingbirds and butterflies flocked to the basket of ‘Snow Princess’ hanging in front of my kitchen window, much to my delight. One tiny plant filled the basket and flowered continuously. Plants put in the ground did the same, creating three-foot-diameter blankets.

A third annual astounded me. ‘Sunpatiens’, the full-sun impatiens, grew into 30-inch mounds quickly and bloomed all season. [See photo at left.] Flowers were deep, intense hues and smothered the plants. They did well in half shade, too. Check out Jimmy Turner’s report on how this heat and sun lover performed at the Dallas Arboretum in Texas.

Previously, ‘Sunpatiens’ were available only at the country’s largest home improvement chain, but in 2010, they will be in a wide range of garden centers.

‘Pink Shira’ hydrangea [see Phonto No. 2 above] exploded with huge blooms in May and flowered until the third killing freeze of October. Buds started chartreuse; unfurled to hot pink edged with the green, and fully bloomed in electric mauve. Plants had the three stages of blooms on them all at once.

The mophead hydrangea was planted in May 2007 and did nothing except establish a root system and set buds for a few small 2008 flowers. Don’t prune mopheads after early August or flower buds will be destroyed. It wasn’t until the third season that this hydrangea hit its stride, covered with impressive flowers all season. My patience was well rewarded.

Roses struggle in my climate, and hybrid tea roses are impossible. Shrub types and heirlooms on their own roots survive. But, I love the perfect tea rose shape on a long stem. It's perfect to cut for bouquets. Strangely, Cherry Parfait, a grandiflora rose, and 2003 AARS winner, which is hardy to only Zone 6, has thrived here.

The white, edged with deep pink, rose – which produces blossoms on foot-long stem – has reliably bloomed since I planted it in 2003. In spite of the three record-breaking winters for low temperatures and snowfall, ‘Cherry Parfait’ thrives. It may be that in planting rosebushes two feet from the house I’ve created a microclimate that provides more heat, butt they come back every spring despite being the favorite food of neighborhood deer that munch them to a nub.

If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen Howard figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden. She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian. A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide, and for Diggin' It..

Editor’s note: To read more by Doreen Howard, click here. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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