Seasoned gardeners have the patience and pragmatism to cultivate slow-growing plants, but new gardeners need instant gratification. Waiting for three years for the asparagus to bear, 10 years for a rhododendron to be noticed or a century for a gingko to attain stately stature is fine for the veteran gardener, but the new gardener needs bragging rights as encouragement to keep going and growing. The dynamic, robust and rowdy plants that Julie and I have selected here are high-speed plants that hit the ground running.

Big, Mammoth, Giant or Huge

Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is one of our most spectacular annuals, presenting a color spectrum of leaves, flowers and seedpods. With enough heat and water, these plants can reach between 15 and 20 feet in one growing season. They will successfully re-seed if they have space.

There are many dwarf okras on the market now, but the old-fashioned annual ‘Clemson Spineless’ towers 6 to 8 feet. ‘Burgundy,’ with deep red pods and veins, is just a bit smaller, with dark coloring that gives it more visual mass. Many okra relatives in the hibiscus family have show-stopping flowers. The related perennial hibiscus ‘Pink Swirl’ is a compact plant that has enormous blooms with shades of blush, rose and crimson sweeping onto the edges of white petals. Happy in full sun in damp places, a mass of these will stop you in your tracks from 100 yards away. All of these plants command space in the landscape, but they are best started indoors as they cannot be set out until the soil is warm.

Bold Color Statements

For a lush, elegant massive planting, try some cannas, tender plants that grow quickly when fat rhizomes are planted. Cannas come in many sizes, with dwarf cannas for pot planting being fashionable now. Canna ‘Striata’ is a mid-size cultivar with green and yellow streaked leaves. A Missouri Plant of Merit, it is grown for its striking foliage. For a really major impact plant, choose a giant canna like ‘Yellow King Humbert’ with six 6-foot bronze brushed plants and huge bright yellow flowers flecked with little dots of red.

If you are looking for the newest trendy plants, try Canna ‘Phasion,’ a sport of ‘Wyoming.’ Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery, calls it the latest in ‘Shock Gardening’ with 7-foot-tall stems, purple leaves striped with red and yellow, and “gaudy, shocking orange flowers—the Howard Stern of the plant world, guaranteed to get your friends talking.”

Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Presto’ is a new perennial selection that flowers well in the first year. A well-shaped dwarf globe smothered in double flowers of a rich golden yellow, it blooms all summer. Cosmos bippinatus ‘Rubenza’ was chosen as Flower of the Year in 2010 also won the Fleuroselect Novelty Award. Not fussy, it reaches 3 feet and is covered in deep red blooms that change to a softer rose red as they age.

My grandmother’s garden always had giant, towering hollyhocks in the back of the border. This short-lived perennial can make an elegant statement in both form and color. Julie loves ‘Country Romance Mix’ with old-fashioned single flowers and a 5-foot spire. Try ‘Fiesta Time,’ a little more compact than some, but quick to bloom from seed with cherry pink fringed flowers the first year.


Cosmos, cleome, the Amaranthus called ‘Love-Lies-Bleeding,’ nasturtiums and marigolds are all great, quick-growing border plants that make brilliant color statements, but nothing reaches the glory of the sunflower. ‘Choco Sun’ is a dwarf, but fast-flowering cultivar (90 days) for pots and tubs, but for our majestic purposes, grow the stunners like ‘American Giants Hybrid,’ a really tall selection that may top out at 14 feet. Plant next to your balcony if you want to see the flowers. The Burpee catalog has a wealth of giant sunflowers including ‘Kong Hybrid,’ a very fast-growing monster with sturdy stems and lush leaves. Use this one to create a living maze for your kids and grandkids. It will make a massive wall of leaves topped off with dinner plate-sized yellow flowers by mid-summer.

Begonia x hybrida ‘Gryphon’ is a new begonia from Ball Seed; it looks like a fancy-leaved Rex begonia, but comes true from seed! Easy care, low water needs and beautiful silvery palmate foliage make this a must-have. It is a plant that grows to the size of its environment—give it a 6-inch pot and you have a nice houseplant; give it a 12-inch container on the shady side of the patio and you have a spectacular specimen foliage plant.

Very Fast Vegetables and Herbs

Jack and the Bean Stalk is the traditional children’s story about quick-sprouting beans that reached to the heavens. Many beans and peas are fast to produce and may be grown in several plantings during the course of one season. Beyond the ordinary are two of my favorites, fava and hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus). The latter gets its name from the lovely purple color in both the flowers and the pods. The color disappears on cooking, but the flavor is still there. The pretty lavender flowers are great in salads. For fava beans try ‘Express,’ a fast-maturing variety that can be harvested by the end of June. The 8-inch pods come on quickly, ready in late June, and can be shucked and used much like lima beans.

You have all had treats flavored with peppermint and spearmint, orange mint or even chocolate mint, but in every home garden there should be captive mint. Mint can grow a mile a minute and run roughshod all over your tiny garden treasures. Keep it from getting unruly by growing it in a big container such as an upturned clay drainage tile or large pot, or follow Julie’s lead and put it in a hanging basket near the kitchen door.

For decades I have shunned radishes, the most instant of all garden vegetables. Thirty days give or take from seed to table, radishes rush across the finish line and into the kitchen. Since my doctoral research required me to be in close quarters with minced radish parts for several years, I’ve lost any possible appreciation for them as food. Recently, in Sichuan (the giant radish capital of China) my taste buds were awakened by new styles of preparation. Now I am looking for recipes for Chinese sweet and sour radish slaw and dried-pickled sweet and spicy preserved radishes, both excellent uses of this little garden racer.

If you have never tried to grow turnips, you must try the versatile variety ‘Oasis F1 Hybrid.’ It can be harvested at any size and has a surprisingly sweet, juicy flavor similar to a melon. This variety is virus resistant, matures in 50 days and can be replanted for additional summer and fall harvests.

But the Green King and Queen of the Instant Garden are lettuce and basil. Cute little ‘Tom Thumb’ is the smallest lettuce, with a compact, solid butter-head form with deliciously delicate leaves, just right for tiny gardens or single meals. Space 6 inches apart in a cold frame for the earliest possible arrival. Bodacious basil appears only after the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past, but I push the season by growing my starts for a while on the window sill inside; when warm enough, I can plant them outside. Julie likes ‘Large Leaf Italian,’ ‘Sweet Mammoth,’ ‘Greek Columnar’ and ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ (a variegated columnar type) for Ladue gardens. Once in the ground, basil will take off and some of the extra production makes its way into the freezer as pesto. And don’t forget ‘Mammoth’ dill!

The Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights,’ one of my favorite plants, is already an All-America Winner and has now been selected as a Missouri Plant of Merit for 2011. Call it rainbow chard, since it brings a broad spectrum of color in one seed packet. Easy to grow in a border or vegetable garden, this beauty has stems in shades of green, white, yellow, rose, crimson and purple. Harvest young for salads or later for cooking. This fast-maturing double delight grows so quickly that you may have two crops per year.

Native Plants

Some of our larger native plants are fabulous in garden settings if you have enough space. Two species of Silphium, cup plant (S. perfoliatum) and prairie dock (S. terebinthinaceum), can stretch to the Missouri sky. Visit Shaw Nature Reserve in August or September to see this genus in its glory. Both species have slightly waxed foliage on upright spears topped with masses of yellow daisy-like flowers.

A wild form of Vernonia altissima (perennial ironweed), ‘Jonesboro Giant,’ is an upright clone that remains vertical under normal weather conditions. Forming a clump of 10- to 12-foot tall stems, it is topped with large clusters of dark purple flowers in late summer. The giant Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum), a personal favorite perennial from summer Sunday country drives, is colossal in size and a butterfly magnet.

The meadow rues are usually lovely little soft gray-green perennials that add gentleness to the landscape. Think of the muted colors and edges of impressionist paintings. The Korean collection of Thalictrum rochebrunianum (giant meadow rue) runs to 5 feet of sturdy dark stems with soft sea green foliage. Deer resistance is a plus.

Fabulous Foliage

There is no foliage plant more ‘bold’ than the elephant ears and their relatives. Alocasia macrorrhizos, the perennial giant upright elephant ear, stands at attention with huge upswept emerald green leaves and thick lime-green veins. Even in St. Louis where the corms (underground stems) must be lifted for winter, these fleshy plants can gain a dramatic place on the garden’s stage. Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic,’ has purple-black leaves 2 feet across in 5-foot clumps. C. ‘Kona Coffee’ and the larger ‘Diamond Head’ have large, glossy brown, coffee-colored leaves and look great with contrasting colors like lime green. None of these, except for our native Jack in the Pulpit, are winter hardy for us, but they are well worth the drama to lift and store.

Ligularia japonica (perennial Japanese ligularia) has wonderful large, glossy green sculpted leaves. Resembling a lace-leaved geranium on steroids, the plant is deer resistant. Its massive clumps are crowned with man-sized spikes of bright orange aster-like flowers, adding a tropical look to our Missouri gardens.