Dreams of tried-and-true plants thaw the imagination

 

I’ll admit I’ve been saving the opportunity to write this column for a week like this. As we bundle up to endure what will hopefully be the coldest week of the year and repeatedly remark about how the snow is “good insulation” for our gardens, I wanted to think warm thoughts of the garden to come.

That means adding some new plants, although more and more I find myself paying more attention to notable, rather than new, varieties.

I find recommendations for plants that have stood the test of time being grown by knowledgeable plantspeople to be a better guide for what I should consider than just sticking to the latest introductions.

I’ve never been a big fan of Rudbeckia, aka black-eyed susan. Its main attraction is that it packs a punch of color in late summer and early fall when gardens are typically lacking in it, but there is something about the gold-yellow color of the flowers that just doesn’t appeal to me. But this year I’ll be bringing it back into my garden because Richard Hawke, the longtime plant evaluation manager at Chicago Botanic Garden, recently extolled the virtues of Rudbeckia fulgida ‘American Gold Rush.’

Bred by Brent Horvath just across the border in Hebron, Ill., it has 2-foot-tall stems that are not prone to flopping and create a domed mass of flowers. More importantly, it’s far less likely to have fungus issues prevalent in other Rudbeckias.

Hawke, who suggested that he has an opinion about black-eyed Susans that is similar to mine, described the flower color as a less-harsh yellow. But what caught my attention was that he doesn’t just think ‘American Gold Rush’ is a great Rudbeckia, he thinks it’s a great plant. In fact, he said, it might be the best perennial he’s ever grown. When a guy who has spent decades growing thousands of plants bestows a designation like that, you stop overthinking it and you just grow the darn plant.

Another plant that’s being talked about quite a bit right now is one I already grow. Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta, a name that looks like the keyboard glitched, is the Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year, which is pretty close to Oscar territory for plants. Its oddball botanical name indicates that this plant a naturally occurring variation to a species, but what you need to know is that this tough, deer-resistant perennial blooms in summer, producing 18-inch-tall stems covered in tiny blueish-white bell-shaped flowers.

It invites so many pollinators that the plant seems to actually buzz. Because of its ethereal appearance, it works well with many other plants, including Allium ‘Millenium,’ ornamental grasses and tall garden phlox.

The most spectacular combination I saw was shown by Wisconsin garden designer Roy Diblik, who partnered it with bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). I immediately added the latter to my must-have list.

If I squint at my garden from behind my wool cap and wound-up scarf, I can almost see the combination come to life. Sometimes you just need a little imagination at this time of year.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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