Some plants are like the popular kids in high school, says garden designer Andrew Keys in his new book, Why Grow THAT When You Can Grow This: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants. Somehow they seem more glamorous or cool than everyone else, even though they may have issues of their own. In the case of popular plants, they may be pretty but they sometimes require too much care or chemicals.
Keys’ point is that, as lovely as these plants are, there are alternatives to plant divas, and he suggests 255 plants that are not only good-looking but also tolerate heat and cold, wet or dry sites, attract beneficial insects and offer long-standing beauty in the garden. Keys explains how he chose these plants, but the heart of the book is the plant lists, which cover trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, grasses and groundcovers. His garden divas include well-known challenge plants such as birch, Japanese maples, wisteria, bearded irises and a few out-and-out invaders, such as bishop’s weed.
It’s worth noting that this work is written for a national audience and, as such includes many plants simply outside of our cold-climate zones. Many of his alternatives, however, are intriguing and very possible in USDA Zone 3 or 4 gardens. Consider, for example, birch, which struggles mightily in gardens in the South and is plagued by birch borer even in more hospitable sites. Keys recommends alternatives such as London plane (Platunus x acerifolia), a large USDA Zone 4 hardy tree with splotchy bark; seven son flower (Hetacodium miconioides), another zone 4 tree with white bark, spring flowers and fruit; and New Mexico privet (Forestiera pubescens var. neomexicana). I’ve never heard of New Mexico privet, but have heard horticulturists lament that more northern gardeners do not plant seven son flower. Rather than lavender, which often struggles in Minnesota, Keys recommends stands such as hyssop or ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint.
What Keys does with this book is encourage to gardeners to think about what they really want. What features that a plant offers are you after? A bloom color? Texture from bark? Height? Spring flowers? Figuring out what your garden needs and desires are in terms of characteristics — rather than a blind, “yes, yes, I want that one” — would be a step toward more practical and more satisfying gardening. To help us develop that kind of thinking, this is a good book for home or public libraries.
Which plants are you ready to replace? And do you know with what yet?