It’s finally time to get outside and exercise those green thumbs. Stephanie N. Grimoldby discovers some of the best new plants and reliable old favorites that will brighten up your garden this year.
Gardening is easy for some. Not so much for others.
Luckily, some plants are simple to care for, a quality both green thumbs and those bordering on botanophobia can appreciate.
Local experts have contributed to the following list of easy-to-grow plants. Nearly all can be planted in the earliest throes of spring – even before Mother’s Day, the popular Midwest timing mechanism that hovers around the region’s frost date of May 15.
But first, here are a few things to remember as the beautiful plants inside your local greenhouse call your name.
Read the cards hanging directly above or below plant pots which explain each plant’s requirement for sun, water and planting space. “Definitely look for these signs,” says Cindy Bloom, greenhouse manager and production manager at Platt Hill Nursery in Carpentersville. “They’ll say, ‘Likes to be dry, likes to be moist, likes to have half-day sun.’” Don’t ignore this valuable information. Choose plants well-suited to places you’ll put them.
And don’t be afraid to ask questions. “Wherever you shop, find a staff member and ask, ‘Am I going to have success with these? Do these have special needs?’” suggests Paula Yeager, perennial manager at Platt Hill. “A new gardener may see something pretty and think, ‘Oh, I just put it in the ground and water it.’ Ask questions about all the plants you’re picking out and understand their needs before buying.”
Most of all, just get out there and plant, says Matt Zerby, president and CEO of Wasco Nursery in St. Charles. “There’s a campaign out there called ‘Plant Something.’ It’s like the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign,” he says. “It encourages people to buy and plant trees, shrubs and flowers. I love the message. Gardening is not rocket science. A lot of people get freaked out by it. Just experiment. Have fun with it. Get involved and get some plants in the ground. Plants are surprisingly forgiving.”
Annuals may be the most rewarding plants a new gardener can work with because they bloom all season long and provide instant color. But don’t try to cheat that Midwest frost date. “They cannot take a frost,” says Bloom. “You can set them outside during daytime in shady or semi-sunny areas, but bring them in at night, until danger of frost has passed.”
Bloom counts the following among her favorite, easy-care annuals that can be planted as soon as the frost date is past. The best part? None requires deadheading – the cutting off of spent flower heads – to keep it blooming.
Snapdragons: “These are nice, tall, spiky, blooming plants,” says Bloom. “They’re good to use at the back of a border for some height.” The height of snapdragons varies from 8 to 12 inches or more, depending on the variety. Blooms come in yellows, pinks, whites, maroons and a bi-color orange and yellow variety.
Wax Begonia: If you’re looking for annuals at a good price, you can’t go wrong with wax begonias, Bloom says. The medium-height plant, which grows 8 to 12 inches tall, is happiest in bright shade or dappled sunlight, but can tolerate both sun and shade. While the small flowers are limited in color to pinks, whites and reds, some varieties feature attractive bronze- or mahogany-colored foliage. Others have glossy bright green leaves.
Petunias: A fancier annual to add to a garden is a petunia, but Bloom isn’t talking about her mother’s varieties, which required a good deal of deadheading. Instead, she favors three easy-care kinds that are great for beginning gardeners: Wave petunias, which spread across the ground; Calibrachoa, a mini-petunia that works well in containers; and Supertunias, a trailing variety that looks great in hanging baskets. These come in a very wide range of colors and some are even bi-colored. “I can’t think of a color petunias don’t come in,” Bloom says.
Annual Salvia: Very few annuals come in a true blue color. In fact, in horticulture, when you say blue, it usually means purple, Bloom says. But this tall, spiky plant comes in two blue shades: Victoria Salvia is a blue-blue, and Black and Blue Salvia’s name speaks for itself. Bloom cautions that the latter can grow pretty tall. Annual salvia also comes in reds, whites and pinks. They’re great border plants and contribute both height and color to plant combinations in containers.
Coleus: This easy plant will flower, but you don’t buy it for the tiny flower head, Bloom says. Instead, gardeners choose Coleus for the unique patterns and colors in its showy foliage. It can play a starring role in a container or garden bed, or it can trail from a basket in a supporting role. Read the labels, because some varieties grow 3 or 4 feet tall and need ample space.
Geranium: One of Bloom’s favorite flowers, this sun lover is a gardener’s go-to because the flower head is so large. “It has a big impact because it has a big snowball head on it,” Bloom says. “You get a lot of bloom for just a little investment.”
Available in pinks, reds, whites, lavenders and salmons, geraniums normally come in 4-inch containers instead of flats. Why does that matter? A flat of flowers contain seed-produced plants, which grow upright. Flowers that come in 4-inch or 6-inch containers are not seed-produced – they’re usually cut from a mother plant and are considered a specialty plant – and may spread out instead of only growing upright.
Seed geraniums don’t produce as much flower power as potted geraniums, so make sure you understand what you’re purchasing, Bloom says.
Perennial plants, or those that return each spring, can be planted before the Midwest’s frost date, some as early as the third week in April. Because their root systems stay underground season after season, they don’t succumb to cold temperatures very easily.
Perennials are easy to plant, but because there are only a few varieties that bloom all season, it takes skill and patience to create a balanced perennial garden that always has a blooming focal point.
“Perennials are small when you start out, so a new gardener may say ‘eww,’” Yeager says, laughing. “By the third growing season, perennials are usually full-sized and rooted in. The first year, there’s little gratification. By the third year, your garden will look like what it’s supposed to be.”
You’ll pay more upfront for perennials than annuals, but you won’t have to purchase new plants each year. Some perennials will die out in six to seven years and others return for decades.
For those looking to step up their gardening game, experimenting with perennials and annuals together might be a good next step.
“Part of becoming an experienced gardener is success,” Yeager says. “To me, that’s where annuals are invaluable. It takes time to grow perennials. Mixing annuals into your garden gives you season-long success of color until you have enough perennials to fill your garden. You can tuck annuals in with perennials or have them in pots with your perennial beds. That’s what I do, because they’re almost weed-free in pots, and I don’t like to weed.”
See our related story, at left, about Yaeger’s list of favorite perennials.
It’s no secret that the emerald ash borer beetle has been killing local ash trees.
So, when people visit Wasco Nursery looking for replacements, Zerby has a few suggestions.
“I would probably put in a tree called Swamp White Oak,” he says. “It’s a native tree to Illinois. It can grow in a wide variety of locations. It can take moisture, heavy clay, subdivision soil, good, rich soil like woodlands – it’s very versatile.”
The Swamp White Oak is also drought tolerant and can grow as much as 2 feet a year.
A second suggestion is the dependable Kentucky Coffee tree, also native to the Midwest.
“It gets its name because, during the Civil War, when they were rationing things, some people used the tree’s beans as a coffee substitute,” Zerby says.
So, what’s going to be the next problem tree? “No one has a crystal ball, but the Kentucky Coffee tree does extremely well here,” Zerby says. “It’s resistant to pollution, resistant to disease and insects. Plus, it’s kind of fun that the early Americans used it. It gives your property a little bit of uniqueness.”
An added bonus is that either tree can be planted any time in April or May, he adds.
“If you’re not buying these trees from Tennessee or California [as big-box stores tend to sell], but are buying them locally, these trees are outside all winter long, so you can plant them even in early or mid-April and they’ll adapt,” Zerby says. “Greenhouse-grown plants, grown in heat and protected from the cold, those would have a shock to their system if brought out too early.”
A hot topic in gardening right now is taking care of nature’s pollinators – bees, butterflies and the like, Zerby says. Certain shrubs are excellent for pollinators and can be planted in April or May to attract winged creatures all season long.
One of the shrubs that grows well in our area is Morton Virginia Sweetspire – Scarlet Beauty. “It was introduced by Morton Arboretum, and it’s great for butterflies,” Zerby says.
From June to July, the shrub produces lovely, long, white flowers, and in the fall, the green foliage changes to gorgeous orange-reds and lasts well after frost. It only grows about 3 to 4 feet high and wide, so it can fit in just about any garden. It tolerates full sun to mostly shade.
For those with soggy soil or low spots where water pools, the Button Bush is a great option. It grows white, nearly golf ball-sized flowers that are reminiscent of a dandelion after it gets to the puff ball stage, Zerby says.
“It’s a real distinctive pin cushion-type flower, and it’s really pretty,” he says. “The bees and butterflies love it.”
Although many people cherish the rose as their favorite flower, some shy away from planting roses because of their reputation for high maintenance. But that’s slowly changing.
“A lot of people my grandparents’ age love to plant roses, but older roses require a ton of work,” Zerby says. “Nowadays, there are some new roses that are just as pretty, but don’t require so much work. You don’t have to have a green thumb; you don’t have to cover them in winter with a rose cone or anything like that.”
He’s a fan of the Sunrise Sunset Rose and the Coral Cove Rose, both of which come from a program called Easy Elegance Roses, developed and tested in the Twin Cities.
“They’re good and hardy for our Chicago winters,” Zerby says. “Each one comes with a two-year guarantee from the breeder. We’ve been selling and growing them for years. I don’t do anything with them at home. I don’t water them, I don’t fertilize them, I don’t spray them.”
A newer edible program called BrazelBerries has come up with varieties of berry plants that are designed for easy care.
“It’s the culmination of many years of breeding to make it easier for us to grow these plants in a smaller yard,” Zerby says. “You don’t have to have a 10-acre yard to grow these.”
Old-fashioned raspberries had thorns and needed room to spread out in thickets.
The Raspberry Shortcake, however, is a thornless, dwarf raspberry that grows full-sized fruit but is small enough to grow in a pot.
Similarly, Blue Berry Glaze and Jelly Bean blueberries from the BrazelBerries program are small blueberry bushes that are easy to grow.
Both can be potted, but they also do great in the ground, even when planted in early spring.
“A lot of the berry plants, like raspberries and especially blueberries, are beautiful landscape plants,” Zerby says. “Blueberries have white flowers, blue fruit, and turn red and orange in the fall.”
Perhaps the best part of these edible plants is their robust nature.
“Blueberries and raspberries need a dormant season,” Zerby says. “They can be left outside in a pot all winter with a little preparation, and they’ll wake up as the weather starts to go. They can be purchased and planted or purchased and potted in April, and don’t require a lot of attention. They’re outdoor plants.”
Those looking for larger fruit-bearing plants are happy to learn that most fruit trees can be planted in spring, says Sean Ducey, manager at Whispering Hills Nursery in Cary.
Just be careful of where and how you purchase your trees.
“If planting early in the season, like April or May, always purchase the fruit trees dormant so they’re not fully awake,” he says. “A lot of times, you can find other stores that sell them with flower buds on them. If we have cold weather, those flower buds will freeze off, and you won’t have any fruit for that first season.”
Some vegetables can tolerate cooler soil, so early spring veggies are a good option for those looking to harvest edible plants.
Just make sure to check the back of packages. Some will clearly say, “Plant after danger of frost.”
“Planting a tomato in the beginning of April is an iffy time,” says Ducey. “If we have some frost, the plant can be damaged. Mother’s Day is a good time to plant tomatoes. But you can go ahead and plant lettuce and mustard greens because they can handle a bit of frost.”
Bloom agrees. “With lettuces, you’re taking the seed and spreading it on the ground and putting some soil over it,” she says. “It’s very easy to grow. Lettuce can germinate in cold soil.”
Carrots and radishes are also very easy to tend and are early spring growers, she says.
But be mindful with beans.
“Beans have to have a certain ground temperature,” she notes.
Container Vegetables & Herbs
Container gardening – perfect for those living in places with limited yard space – has exploded the past 10 years, and vegetables and herbs are easy plants to start with, Bloom says.
“You can plant just about anything in pots, but be a little careful about root veggies like carrots because their roots can get pretty deep,” she says.
Containers can give gardeners a head start on vegetables that need warmer soil, such as tomatoes. Once the fear of frost is gone, tomatoes can be transplanted into the ground and continue to grow.
Or, you can plant vegetables and herbs that stay potted all year, like cherry tomatoes or dill – just don’t shove five plants in a small container and expect them to grow properly, Ducey says.
Often overlooked as a container plant is the chili, whether a serrano, jalapeño, habanero or even a ghost chili, Ducey says. They don’t require a lot of fertilization and are fairly drought tolerant.
“You put those out on a plate, and you dare someone to eat them, and it’s always kind of fun,” he says, laughing. “I have tons of containers on my patio, and I’m always daring people to try new things.”
One general tip for container plants is to be conscious of drainage, Ducey says. Some people pay for good soil and plants, but don’t prepare proper drainage holes, so the plants end up rotting.
You don’t have to buy anything specific to use for drainage, he says. A large, course stone that wicks away water would work well. Even rocks found in the backyard would suffice.
“Some gardeners actually take the containers that they purchased their plants in and flip them upside down and put them in the container,” he says. “You’re just creating more air space in the container.”
Smaller plants aren’t the only ones that can be planted in containers. Many new fruit trees on the market can adapt to container planting, Ducey says.
Colonnade apple trees, for example, are narrow trees that only grow about a foot wide.
“You can put them in a container and you can enjoy apples without having an orchard,” Ducey says. “They’re really nice structural pieces, too.”
Other newer varieties are emerging that can be potted, but be careful about what you try to fit into a small space, he says. Honeycrisp apple trees, for one, still need to be planted in the ground so their root systems can spread out.
Top 10 Perennials to Plant This Spring
Paula Yeager, perennial manager at Platt Hill Nursery in Carpentersville, says these plants can be planted successfully in any local garden in early spring.
This mound-shaped plant blooms from June until hard frost with small, violet blue, white-throated flowers. The plant grows to about 12 inches tall and 3 feet in diameter, and foliage turns red in autumn. Rozanne enjoys full to part sun; morning sun is best, so planting on the east side of a home is optimal. The plant is deer and rabbit resistant; no deadheading is required.
“In my opinion, every garden should have a geranium,” says Yeager of her personal favorite flower. “In the 11 years that I’ve worked at Platt Hill, if I had a dollar for every one of these I’ve sold, I’d be in retirement.”
Variety: Blue Star
Commonly known as Japanese Aster, Blue Star produces pretty, aster-like flowers from June to September. The plant is shaped like a small bush and grows 12 to 18 inches high. It resists most bugs and disease fairly well. Kalimeris needs full- to part-sun and tolerates drought well.
Measuring 4 to 5 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter, Phantoms are large plants, though they’re small for Eupatoriums. Featuring dark burgundy stems, the purplish-pink flower clusters are also enormous, measuring 10 to 12 inches across. They attract pollinators and bloom from July to October. They’re also rabbit resistant and drought tolerant once established, but they always look better when watered. They enjoy full- to part-sun.
As an ornamental onion, Millenniums are naturally deer and rabbit resistant. In fact, once they’re rooted in, they’re extremely strong – not even insects bother them. These plants need six or more hours of direct sunlight a day to produce their purple flower, which looks like a ball perched on top of a 15- to 20-inch stem. They bloom in mid-summer, during July and August.
This “cushion spurge” looks like a pillow on the ground, and because it blooms from May to June, it may be one of the earliest colors a garden will produce. The sulfur yellow flowers are beautiful, yet the plant is still very hardy and unattractive to deer and rabbits. Polychromas prefer full-sun locations. One negative: all Euphorbias produce a white sap, which can irritate the skin.
Variety: Jack Frost
A gardener won’t lose this plant to a cold winter. Jack Frost is a hardy, shade to part-shade perennial with tiny blue flowers and big, heart-shaped green leaves with a silver overlay. It blooms in April and May and can withstand harsh Midwestern spring weather. An added bonus: Jack Frost is deer and rabbit resistant.
Variety: Ivory Prince
A semi-evergreen plant, the Ivory Prince blooms in March and April, which means it can even bloom in snow. Its blue-green foliage is mound forming, and its white flowers morph into shades of pink. An extremely long-lasting perennial, it’s also deer resistant. It prefers part- to full-shade.
Angelina is a ground cover. The yellow-chartreuse foliage grows only about 3 to 5 inches tall, and spreads out as it blooms in June and July. In the fall, it turns red and orange. Technically, this plant is considered evergreen, but many Angelinas won’t make it through winter because they’re too exposed to the elements. In some yards with tall trees, they’ll continue to show color. They require full to partial sun and are rabbit resistant.
Variety: Waterperry Blue
Also called Creeping Speedwell, this full-sun ground cover is not rabbit or deer resistant, but is tough and ideally suited to rock gardens or flagstone paths. Tiny half-inch, sky blue flowers bloom 6 inches tall from May to June, and rebloom in September. When not in bloom, the plant still produces 4 inches of ground cover with green and purple-bronze foliage. Butterflies enjoy drinking the nectar of its flowers.
This dwarf variety works its magic by blooming all summer long. The 2-inch, semi-double yellow flowers grow 6 to 8 inches tall on green foliage and would look cute tucked in front of a border because they stay so small. Presto likes full sun and is deer resistant.