Episode 90 – Easy To Grow Plants

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Everyone wants plants that are easy to grow…we certainly can’t remember any time when someone has asked us for a plant that was difficult to grow. But ultimately, whether a plant is easy to grow depends less on the plant and more on where you plant it and what your expectations are for it. After all, pretty much every plant is easy-care if you plant it in the right spot, with the right soil, water, sunlight, temperature, etc. It’s knowing what those right conditions in your yard and picking plants that match them that make it easy. And let’s face it: most plants in the average North American garden center are going to be easy to grow. They don’t want to trick you and sell you something you won’t be successful with! But, that said, you also need to have reasonable expectations for what a plant will do in your yard, based on that plant’s individual features and on the way plants grow in the first place. You can’t, for example, expect a plant to reach a certain height and just stop growing. That’s not quite how it works, and Rick wrote this week’s Lim-A-Rick with that in mind:

I don’t want a plant that looks cheesy

or is so sick it makes me queasy

I want to set it and forget it

Don’t want to have to sweat it

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

Join us on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above to hear our whole conversation on easy to grow plants.

The truth is that any plant is easy to grow if you have the right conditions and the right expectations. But therein lies the rub – what are the right conditions, and what can/should you reasonably expect a plant to do in your yard? When someone asks me what’s the easiest shrub they can grow, I know they want a plant that is going to look great in a wide variety of conditions (conditions they may not know exist, things like soil pH), are forgiving if they are or are not pruned, pruning timing is not super crucial, can take the heat and the cold, and are not susceptible to pests and diseases. My go-to plant for someone who asks for an easy care, low maintenance shrub, then, is a panicle hydrangea. Not only are they super durable and forgiving, pretty much the only way you’re going to kill a panicle hydrangea is overwatering/poor drainage. Most importantly, I recommend panicle hydrangeas because they are one of the best and easiest bang-for-your-buck plants. For how tolerant they are and how little work they require, they put on an incredible show every year, and they’ll give you at least four good months of flowers; if you like the way they look in winter and leave them unpruned, you can stretch this to eight months.

We have fourteen different panicle hydrangeas in the Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs line, and they are all equally easy to grow. Choosing just one to focus on for Plants on Trial isn’t easy – growing panicle hydrangeas is much easier, in fact. But in keeping with today’s theme, I’m going to feature Little Quick Fire hydrangea. And the reason for that is actually right there in the name – it’s little! And that makes it even easier to use in your landscape. For many, many years, panicle hydrangeas were pretty huge plants, easily reaching 8’ tall in 5-8 years and 15’ or more if growing conditions were good. That’s simply not practical for all people, so the introduction of more dwarf varieties has made this easy to grow plant even easier to, well, grow.

Little Quick Fire hydrangea is a dwarf version of the original Quick Fire hydrangea, one of the oldest and most popular varieties that we offer. They share two excellent qualities: one, they are the earliest-blooming of all panicle hydrangeas, and are typically in bloom by 4th of July here in Michigan. This makes it an especially great choice if you live in a cold climate, where in cool summers, later blooming varieties like Limelight and Pinky Winky may not even start flowering until late August.

The second quality they share is lace cap flowers that turn a great red color as they age. Lace cap flowers aren’t as full as mopheads, but they have a more delicate, natural look to my eye, and even better, they sustain pollinators. The color that each panicle hydrangea ages to can vary a lot, from pink to red to burgundy to all of the above, but Little Quick Fire and Quick Fire both turn a deep red, and because they start blooming earlier than others, you get to enjoy that color longer than others, too.

Of course, the way these two plants differ is that Quick Fire reaches 6-8’ tall and wide, and Little Quick Fire reaches just 3-5’ tall and wide. That means you can readily enjoy it just about anywhere in your garden, from a flower garden or perennial bed to your front yard landscaping or in containers.

Let’s get to the growing part: Little Quick Fire hydrangea is, like most panicle hydrangeas, hardy down to USDA zone 3 and heat tolerant through USDA zone 8, possibly some areas of USDA zone 9 if it doesn’t get too hot and humid (i.e., California and the Pacific Northwest). They can take full sun in the cooler range of their hardiness zones as well as part shade; in the warmer areas, they should be planted in part shade and the shade should be during the hottest part of the day, mid to late afternoon. As I mentioned before, good drainage is crucial to success, but that’s really the only soil concern with panicle hydrangeas. It is a myth that they need acidic soil – they are actually pretty tolerant of soil pH and can take anything from acidic soil to slightly alkaline soil. The flower color of panicle hydrangeas is not affected by soil pH. They do benefit from a good 2-3” layer of shredded bark mulch, but honestly, if you are looking for easy gardening, then mulch should already be a part of your life because it reduces the need to water and keeps down weeds, the two biggest garden chores. They don’t need any special fertilizer, in fact, they don’t need fertilizer at all typically, though it doesn’t hurt if they get one. Once a year in early spring would be more than sufficient.

Finally, let’s talk pruning. One of the things that makes panicle hydrangeas so easy to grow is that they flower on new wood. This means that they create their flower buds for that summer only after they have started leafing out in spring, so they can be pruned anywhere from late fall, once they’ve gone dormant, through early spring, when new growth begins. To prune, simply cut back the stems by roughly one-third their total height and remove any thin, spindly side branches at that same time. Pruning this way encourages lots of sturdy new growth so you get lots of flowers and strong stems to hold them up. However, it is fine if you never prune a panicle hydrangea, so it’s very forgiving in that way.

If you’d like to add Little Quick Fire panicle hydrangea – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Listener Collin in central Florida, USDA zone 9b, wrote with this celebration of his garden:

I would love to share my pics of my first banana harvest of my beautiful banana tree! One harvest gave me 120 bananas and I have a fresh new bunch coming along next. You could say it’s going bananas! With annuals being planted all over the country this time of year, I wanted to share pics of my supertunia vista bubblegums that I planted back on December 26th, 2023! Yes, they are winter annuals here in FL and they flourish. They still look great so here’s to more bananas and blooms over the summer.

A front yard in Florida showcases Supertunia Vista Bubblegum flowers in the front yard. A banana plant in a backyard laden with a huge bunch of bananas. A very large bunch of green bananas harvested from a home garden.

Rose slugs are interesting yet destructive pests of roses – they don’t bother anything else. And they aren’t slugs, they only kind of resemble them. They’re actually sawflies, which also aren’t flies, but relatives of bees and wasps – and yes, this is all very confusing! But what you need to know about rose sawflies is that they eat rose foliage. When they first hatch, they are very tiny and their jaws cannot cut all the way through the leaf, so they leave a very characteristic window-like mark. That makes identifying rose sawfly as the culprit easy, but finding the little critters on your plant is not so straightforward. They are essentially translucent, so they turn the exact same color as the leaf tissue they are eating, making them virtually impossible to see. While hand-picking/smashing them is the easiest non-toxic method, you do have to examine the undersides of the leaves very carefully to find them. But I’ve always found that once you train your eye to identify them, it does get easier.

Another crucial step in non-toxic management is cultivating the ground around the roses in July, August, and September, maybe even into October. Once the slug-like larvae have reached maturity, they drop to the soil and pupate (basically the equivalent of making a cocoon or chrysalis). They will spend the next several months down there as pupae until the following spring when the roses begin to leaf out – at this point, they emerge as adults, mate, and lay eggs on the emerging rose foliage to repeat the cycle. As such, if you clear away mulch and cultivate the soil, you can expose the pupae so they will dry out or be eaten by a bird or other insect-eater.

Rose sawflies can also be managed in the larval, or slug, stage with a horticultural soap or oil, though you will need to use an applicator that’s effective upside down, as that is where you will need to apply the soap or oil in order to actually have an effect on the slug. There are no known natural enemies of rose slugs that could be used for control, at least that I’ve found in my research.

The woody growth that you’re seeing is totally normal for this plant. It is, like the lavender you mention, a sub-shrub, which basically just means that it forms a woody base but the rest of its growth is herbaceous. 

Looking at these photos, the thing that immediately stands out to me is the landscape fabric beneath the mulch. That can hold a lot of moisture in the soil and around the roots of plants, two conditions that Russian sage definitely does not like. So I believe that’s the culprit for this plant not looking its best (though I don’t think it’s doing that badly). My suggestion would be to remove the mulch, cut back the landscape fabric for a good 18″ around the plant, and then replace the mulch. It will be much happier that way!
Two Russian sage plants with silvery foliage grow in a garden bed. The base of Russian sage plants naturally becomes dense and woody as it matures. A Russian sage plant grows in a garden surrounded by landscape fabric, which is not recommended since it contributes to weak, floppy growth.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

We’re thrilled to welcome Brie the Plant Lady back to the show! We thought that her expertise on easy to grow plants, and especially on easy to grow plants for the South, would be a welcome addition to this episode, and she really delivered. Join us on your favorite podcast platform or at the YouTube link above to hear our whole conversation, including her picks for easy to grow vegetables, herbs, trees, and other plants for hot climates. 

Pink rose of Sharon flowers bloom on a plant with variegated foliage.

Episode 92 – Weeding by Example

Ah, weeds – maybe the #1 thing that discourages people from gardening. But weeds are interesting and become a lot easier to manage when you apply some basic IPM principles. Featured shrub: Sugar Tip rose of Sharon.

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