A friend in the trade told me recently of a new marketing report that said women shopping on impulse spend the most money in nurseries and garden centers. I’m guilty of that myself, as savvy vendors put the most floriferous and colorful items near the front entry or the checkout. Especially now, when it is soooo hot and we gardeners want to get the most yield for the least effort, we tend to select something in bloom that will show up well immediately when planted into the dead zones of our summer borders. This need for immediate gratification can lead to some big mistakes.

Do your Homework First

    When I moved to St. Louis a decade ago, it was my good fortune to inherit Julie Hess as our gardener. Her keen interest in horticulture complemented my own, and this column is one of the products of our partnership. A beautiful, diverse and whimsical garden is another. Now, as we head toward retirement, I’m on my own unless I use good judgment and pick up the phone or e-mail my gardening colleagues.

    Our country garden includes mostly native plants or deer-proof selections in a fend-for-yourself situation. When something goes into the ground, it has about a fifty-fifty chance of making it through the first year, but long-term success is likely after the one year mark. The plants have come primarily from the Shaw Nature Reserve plant sales, where all offerings are pre-selected for suitability in our local conditions. The Reserve staff and volunteers are ready with great advice to help you make sound choices, or you can enroll in their classes and learn for yourself.

    The garden in town is filled with established trees, shrubs and perennials, with little open square footage. This means I must select with care the few things that may be added. Even with decades of experience, I can make mistakes. There was an end cap in the garden center in June with lovely pink bee balms, heavy with buds, at a very nice price. The impulse buyer in me put them into my cart, and they were planted in the edge of my perennial border. Dead of powdery mildew within two weeks—I should have known better. Julie laughed and said that ‘Jacob Cline’ was probably the only mildew resistant Monarda she has had any luck with, and that it usually fizzles out by the end of July. But around the corner, in my neighbor’s garden, is a mass of lovely native bee-balm, sited in full morning sun where it dries out quickly and doesn’t mildew much at all. So ask for more than one opinion and do some web surfing on your own.

    Building a garden is not fast or cheap. It is a labor of love and a great satisfaction when done well. Take time to select the best plants for your own garden conditions. Before going to the nursery, read up on new varieties and make your shopping list. Ask your neighbors. Check the Kemper Center Home Gardening website. Just because something is new or different does not mean it is well-adapted to our weather and soils, and just because it is for sale here doesn’t make it grow. Case in point is the Fatshedera I saw in a friend’s urban garden. It may winter once or twice, but is not yet in my book as a hardy plant here. I’m trying some of my old favorite Southern plants, Aucuba and Nandina, with some success, but not recommending them to others until we have seen a few more winters.

Chelsea Flower Show

    The best place to window shop for new and novel garden varieties is the Chelsea Flower Show, the annual parade of plants put on by the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) in England. I have seen cultivars there years before they appear on the U.S. market.

    However, a plant that looks wonderful at Chelsea may not perform well for us. My favorites from this year’s show, all plants that should grow well for us, may be truly new or just new to me. The show included striking new lilies like the Halloween orange and black Asiatic ‘Lilly Allen’ and the huge, fragrant yellow, white and pink spangled ‘Starburst’ Oriental. Where do I sign up? Gaura lindheimeri ‘Ruby Ruby’ (now re-classed botanically as Oenothera) is a deep rose selection of butterfly gaura that won second place for Chelsea Plant of the Year 2010. As all cultivars of gaura do well for us, this one should be great.

Up-and-Coming Cultivars

    Julie has made a list of new varieties that look promising for St. Louis gardens. She asked Missouri Botanical Garden staff horticulturists June Hutson, Jennifer Kleeschulte and Renee Nelson for their recommendations, too. Three hummingbird magnet Pennisetums that are performing well at the Garden include Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ in reds and hot pinks, planted in the Victorian pincushion gardens; P. ‘Princess Caroline’ in deep burgundy, cascading out the urns on the columns by the Cleveland Avenue Gate House; and P. ‘Jade Princess’ in bright chartreuse with mahogany seed heads, in a bed southeast of the Herb Garden behind Tower Grove House. The pincushion garden also holds Alternanthera ‘Brazilian Red Hots’ in yellow, green, bronze and burgundy, and Euphorbia ‘Tasmanian Tiger,’ a green and white summer groundcover plant.

    By the center pool of the Swift Family Garden is Celosia ‘Glow Pink,’ a very dwarf cultivar which is holding color very well. Nearby is Canna ‘Ermine,’ a creamy-white canna that bloomed prolifically all last summer and was excellent planted with the tufting texture of papyrus and chartreuse sweet potato vines.

    Some great selections from the Kemper Center trial gardens include: Angelonia ‘Angelmist Spreading Purple Improved,’ a heavy bloomer and uniform bedder; Petunia ‘Black Velvet,’ with flowers as close to black as it gets, also a heavy bloomer with occasional little reversion streaks of yellow; and Nicotiana ‘Perfume Deep Purple’, a very fragrant, uniform heavy bloomer. In the same area find Rudbeckia ‘Denver Daisy,’ a beautiful three- to four-inch gold daisy with a mahogany eye, planted with Coleus ‘Colorblaze Darkstar’ for a vibrant midsummer punch.

    Three Gomphrenas that are worth looking at are: G. ‘Gnome Pink’, one of June’s favorites; G. ‘Las Vegas Series,’ selected for its uniformity; and G. ‘Fireworks’, treasured for its non-uniform and wild, undulating growth habit. The entire Dahlia ‘Mystic Series’ includes many winners, too. Bright blooms, dark foliage, and apparently not popular with our local rabbit population, these tuberous plants may be treated as annuals and replaced yearly or lifted, dried and stored overwinter for replanting next spring.

Permanent Perennials

    So, shopping list in hand, I headed to a nursery looking only for ‘Henry Eilers’ Rudbeckia. Not yet in bloom, the stock was in a back lot across the street. To get to it, I had to pass by the seductive Penstemon ‘Dark Towers,’ with its lovely mahogany foliage and pink flowers. Topping three feet, it is taller than the long popular ‘Husker’s Red’ and tempting for my sunny driveway bed. Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer,’ a fabulous sneezeweed selection, is another bodacious border plant with heavy flowering in shades of red, orange and yellow, and regarded as a proven performer here. And the new ornamental sweet potatoes, Ipomoea ‘Emerald Lace’ and ‘Midnight Lace’ were just begging to go home to my terrace containers. A darling little variegated ajuga called ‘Sparkler’ teased m, as did all of the wonderful new cone flower varieties (stay tuned for our next column). But I resisted, taking home only the ‘Henry Eilers’ and a small Vitex, a bit of creeping thyme to fill in between some stepping stones, and some fresh catnip for the new kittens, and some…and some…and some more. So learn which varieties do well, make a list of what you really want, and watch out for those sneaky plants in full bloom that just hop into your shopping cart!

Mark your calendar now!

    The plant list for the Shaw Nature Reserve Fall Native Plant Sale will be available around Labor Day and the sale will be on Friday, Sept. 10, from 4 to 8 pm. The Reserve is located in Gray Summit, Mo. For more information, call (636) 451-3512 or visit shawnature.org