Won’t get fooled again


Flower drawing courtesy of Shutterstock
Flower drawing courtesy of Shutterstock

Increasingly, entire sectors of the plant world have become invisible to me. They cluster in colorful masses on garden center tables, but I walk by without a glance. When I first started gardening, I thought I was limited only by hardiness zones, and believed every “part sun” claim on every plant label. I eagerly purchased books titled “Best 100” this and “Top 50” that. It took about eight years for me to learn that, for my garden, it was really more like “Maybe 10” and “Best out of 15.”

Here are few highly regarded perennials that may be working wonders for others, but fall under the dead-to-me category as far as my garden is concerned. You all have lists like this—just of different plants. But what bothers me about the ones on my list is that they are among the most touted plants in the nursery universe—so my failure with them seems freakish as well as discouraging.

This has been recommended again and again for my largely part-shade/shade garden. There are many hybrids in all kinds of cool colors—lime green, dappled plum, peach, and ruby, among others. Not one of them has ever shown up the next spring, and many disappeared in the same season I planted them. What is it with me and this plant?

Echinacea hybrids
Truth be told, I don’t have the drainage and full sun conditions for even the old stand-by purpurea to do all that well, but any other color either strangely reverts to a muddy pink the next season, or simply fails completely. They lean this way and that and their foliage is never appealing. Bleh. I won’t get into the new fluffy-headed ones that want to be zinnias; it’s a matter of taste (not mine).

Mildew-proof phlox or mildew-proof monarda
There is no such thing. Other than that, I have no issue with these plants. I do pretty well with phlox, except for the mildew.

Most geraniums in shade
This is always promised, but never delivered. I love these plants, but—except for the macrorrhyzum, which is reliable for me—they seem to want much sunnier conditions than promised. In part-shade and with any competition whatsoever, they falter and wimp out.

Thank god there are tried-and-true plants that live up to their reputation: hellebores, hakonechloa, hosta, hemerocallis, and hydrangea—where would my garden be without them? I don’t read labels anymore. I just look at what is still alive and thriving in my garden and gardens like mine.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Elizabeth, I totally agree with you. Heucheras are way over-hyped for what they actually deliver. I went off of coneflower years ago; I got heartily sick of grubbing out seedlings all over creation. The phlox/mildew issue makes me sort of dislike them, but I inherited a great many of them and they’re so intertwined at the roots that it would take a Bobcat to extract them, so I just close my eyes.

    As to geraniums, I assume you’re talking cranesbill. My biggest issue with them is that the way they flop, they get consumed by everything around them, and seemingly disappear. Could that be your difficulty?

    • Yes, Susan, I do mean the perennial geranium. I started out very excited about these, but I think they need lots of room–or something–they do tend to disappear. This is another plant where there are dozens of varieties–just more opportunities for disappointment. The much-hyped Rozanne is a complete flop for me.

    • Try the Heuchera macorrhizae (sometimes called villosa) hybrids like ‘Autumn Bride’. Incredible performers–nothing like those overbred color ones. I have them in deep shade and full sun in the mid-Atlantic and they do great. Also used them as far north as Massachuesetts.

      Geranium macrorrhizum is the only one I use these days. Great, long-lasting groundcover, though you’re right, it likes at least half day of sun up north. ‘Bevan’s Variety’ is my favorite color.

  2. The plant that keeps breaking my little gardener’s heart is sweet potato vine “Black Heart.” I see it spilling with great gusto out of window boxes and planters in catalogs and magazines, but mine just sits there, five bug-eaten leaves on one long rangy stem. Same with the lime and the bi-color versions. Guess I’ll stick to boring old ivy.

  3. WOW

    I agree with you……………….way too much hype on new plant varieties that prove well in test gardens and greenhouses but not in the real world.

    the TROLL

  4. Those damn fancy-pantsy heucheras. Never last in my yard. Plain old coral bells are munched on by an unseen/unknown insect. The true geraniums run amock. What has broke my heart (and wallet)? Tree peaonies.

  5. “Entire sectors of the plant world have become invisible to me.” Well put, Elizabeth. I have the same feeling but never put it into those eloquent words. Ditto your findings on Echinacea and Heuchera. I do okay out here on the prairie with Monarda, particularly Jacob Cline, and sometimes ‘David’ phlox doesn’t mildew. I myself rush right past the Azaleas and Rhodo’s too…they’re offered every year around here but tend to be annuals due to the soil pH.

    • We’ve had pretty decent luck with azaleas provided that they’re in a protected location, like up against a fence. Also, they like an acid soil, so ours now share space with an evergreen ground cover. Same with rhododendrons.

  6. I love Heuchera ‘Montrose Ruby’. It started the Heuchera craze. It’s a cross between ‘Palace Purple’ and Heuchera americana Dale’s Strain’ and was found by Nancy Goodwin at her Montrose garden in Hillsborough, NC. It’s not a pretty showboat but it’s reliable and grows year after year. I divide them every 5 or 6 years.

    These two Phloxes – ‘Robert Poore’ and ‘Speed Limit 45 -‘ have been mildew-proof for 18 years. That doesn’t mean they won’t be covered in in fuzz next week.

  7. Heuchera has always seemed happiest in sunny places in my yard.
    They can survive in part shade, but grow so slowly it’s disgraceful.

  8. Heuchera villosa var. macrorhiza, the hairy alum root, has been reclassified as Heuchera villosa var. villosa. Ok, got that? It’s a wonderful Heuchera, native from Mississippi to New York but there aren’t many garden centers who could wow anyone with all that taxonomic info and hope to come-up with a sale at the cash register. A clever nurserywoman came-up with an alternative name: ‘Autumn Bride’ It was nothing new under the sun, but the marketing name stuck. It remains popular for its beautiful, white August blooms — in Kentucky. The original plants came from northern Alabama and it is easily seed propagated. It’s a good summer bride.

      • Elizabeth, I’ve killed a lot of plants but have seldom been burned. I take full responsibility for every catalog and marketing come-on that’s leads to a dead end. I’ve killed a whole lot more plants from bonehead ignorance: wrong plant; wrong place and wrong climate. I like to grow new plants, especially new species I’ve never grown. It’s a risky way to garden. But more to your point. I won’t ever be burned again with foolish attempts at growing the luscious Himalayan blue poppy. I take that back. I may try one more time.

        • You know, Alan, I was going to let this go, but it got me thinking. Why should we accept that when plants that have shade-tolerant on the label clearly do not work in shade, it’s our fault for being dumb and believing them?

          Maybe label claims should be subjected to more scrutiny. Why should growers be allowed to put any kind of ridiculous claim they want on these? As an experienced gardener I am much more cynical about this stuff, but there are so many beginners who are wasting a lot of money. In fact, I just saw in a public planting an obviously suffering ligularia. The label on it had said full sun and so the volunteers doing this planting assumed it was ok for their full sun park setting.

          • My next door neighbor grows Ligularia dentata ‘Britt-Marie Crawford’ in full sun. I don’t know how she does it.

  9. What keeps surprising me is that so few garden centers push some of the perennials that are iron-clad for me. Like meadow rues, which thrive and spread in my clay soil and semi-shade, and give good height usually without staking. Or my way-fave groundcover, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. Weed-smothering mats of shiny deep green leaves, sapphire blue flowers late summer to frost, and the leaves turn mahogany red in cold fall weather. Maybe it’s the absence of a pretty common name? Who wants something called plumbago or leadwort? (I do.)

  10. I have given up on Echinaceas because they seem so vulnerable to aster yellows. Most of the Heucheras in stock at nurseries just look weird, so I’m with you there. As to Phlox and Monarda, I grow them and hope for the best in terms of mildew. Geraniums in shade? I’ve done ok with G. maculatum, ‘Johnson’s Blue’ and ‘Biokovo’.

  11. I have great luck with heucheras. The only trick is that I never, ever water them. Rot is the great killer in this climate, at least…

  12. I hear you about the marketing machines around certain varieties. And I concur with the earlier poster who emphasized location, location, location. I have about a dozen varieties of Heuchera, all doing swimmingly. But, it took me several years to get their location right. I plant them about an inch high, always in soil with good drainage, part sun, and they go crazy, even self seed all over the place. The ones that do well for me are “Caramel”, “Snow Angel” (love this one), “Palace Purple”, “Citronella”, “Lime Ricky”, “Lime Marmelade”, “Pinot Noir”, “Sashay”, “Tiramisu”, and several more. The most ‘fragile’ is Citronella, so I nurse them along for the first year or two and then throw them to the wolves. I often use the light ones in pots with other annuals, they look like lettuce and have such a great texture amongst the flowers, then plant them in the fall. They need light soil and good drainage.

    I have several geranium that do well, and many that didn’t: Can’t kill my two “Johnson’s Blue” plants, they get massive and covered with brilliant blue flowers; when they get straggly, I literally mow ’em down to 1/3rd their size and they regrow and I’ll get fall flowers. “Elke” also does well for me, and .

    You can have most of the Echinaceas. I have a few plants in areas with great soil and great drainage, that do well, but any planted in anything less than perfect soil don’t come back, or come back so anemic….bleech.

    My bee balms bloom like crazy but suffer leaf drop and are naked and ugly from the knees down.

    Any coreopsis does well, and I’ve even gotten the threadleaf varieties to come back reliably in my solid fenced (microclimate) zone 6a east coast gardens.

  13. Rejoice! – If all the hyped plants did well everywhere, our gardens would be even more samey than they are now. (I’m talking uk, you understand)

    The under declared pleasure is of those plants which love you. Those are the plants which make our gardens special if we use them generously and gratefully. The great joy of ‘more of the same’ is rarely spoken of – but, perhaps? – call it your ‘signature plant’ and build your schemes round it (whatever it is). It’s great to be loved and heals the pain of those rejections.

  14. I used to have similar troubles with heucheras years ago when Palace Purple was all I knew. Now they are doing well in my shade garden. Hardy geraniums love it here (foothills of Catskills). If you haven’t tried the short ones like Biokovo or the shy ones like Espresso, you might try just one more time. Espresso reseeds some for me and is always lovely, but needs bright shade. Biokovo is a nice low groundcover. Rozanne is temperamental for me; robust and gorgeous in one spot, and dies out by July in another location 3 feet away.

    I don’t have any trouble with mildew on my phlox and monardas, but have had it bad a couple different years on several physocarpus varieties. When it happens, I cut the offending shrub to the ground, and the new growth is generally clean for at least a year or two.

    My new craze is geums. I got a couple of the Alabama Slammer plants last fall, and Totally Tangerine this year. They are wonderful in bloom in early summer, and make a nice low mound of clean foliage the rest of the summer.

  15. My big failure of the last couple of seasons has been Knock Out roses.
    I see huge ones everywhere but all 4 of mine are smaller than when they were planted 2 yrs ago.

  16. I’m totally in agreement about the Heuchera… just one or two have managed to survive after I moved them to my “experimental” bed in frustration. But I agree with others on the Cranebills… I have quite a few — Pearl Boland is one that I don’t think I could kill off if I tried. Last year I acquired “Little Monster” which is thriving. Rozanne did great last year, and looks good this year but is taking on a weird form – not nicely mounded but tall and rangy. I have a few that seem to be scented and only flower in spring – may get rid of those since they are very leafy and take up a lot of unflowered space all summer. Perhaps they would do well in your yard?

    I would recommend trying Spiderwort planted amont Astilbe… both do great in part shade, and the Astilbe supports the Spiderwort so it doesn’t flop — the Astilbe flowers peekup between the Spiderwort leaves, and during the day when Spiderwort flowers open, it’s quite beautiful. Many thanks to Liz Lipsitz for that marvelous suggestion!

  17. We have a wild Phlox paniculata that grows along the Harpeth River here in the Nashville suburbs. I call it “Phlox Harpeth River, and it never mildews. It blooms in late summers.

    I think breeders, in their pursuit of novel colors ,breed away vigor. Coneflowers are a good example.

  18. This is so interesting. I’ve seen successful plantings of all the things you mention, but then, everything grows in California. The complaint out here used to be that all the gardening magazines were focused on what grows on the humid East Coast and in rainy England, not taking into account our rainless summers.

    I came to horticulture by way of herbalism and native plants. I have a planting of about 20 Echinacea purpurea that’s spectacular. I grew them from 6-packs and had them in 5-gallon pots for a while (others are still in pots). They’re 3-4 ft. high and bloom all summer. I use the leaves, so even if they were not as gorgeous, I would still plant them.

    On forums dedicated to native plants, a recurring conversation is about how to keep certain plants alive and thriving. “You have to kill a plant 3 times to know it” is how one experienced grower puts it. Some people who like native plants will try and try again if it’s something they want to grow. On the one hand, they rationalize that it’s a native, so it has to grow here. On the other hand, California is a big state, and gardeners who want to plant only local natives that are perfectly suited to their microclimates are rare.

  19. I am glad I saw your post today, Elizabeth. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because Heuchera’s don’t grow well for me, and when they do, the deer eat them so I am constantly moving them around. the Echinacea I grow because of the butterflies that hover over them all summer. No problem here – Upstate NY, zone 6 – at all. I also love Geraniums but they need sun to do well and space in which to grow; yes they’re untidy now – July 2 – have to be whacked back but the flowers are lovely. I have Claridge Druce and it’s seeded itself all over the place: when it looks good it’s great; does require maintenance. I’m going to try the smaller ones and see if they like it here.

    Can I ask your opinion of Shasta daisies? I see them growing in full bloom on people’s front yard but worry they won’t do well here. I love the wild daisies that grow everywhere but want bigger flowers and stronger stems.

    It’s a relief to see some of us have problems with ‘popular’ plants. It seems to take a long time, like 15 yrs to find out what works in one’s garden!

    • Shasta daisies are a mainstay in my zone 4 (north od Denver) garden. Nothing else is as reliable than these beauties. My favorite’s are “Becky” (36′ tall), and “Alaska” (24″). This is my first year for the yellow variety called “Buttercream”.

  20. I plant Heucheras in my urns, then I transplant them into my gardens. I have a couple that have done fantastic, and the others die. I think drainage is the key.

    I can’t grow morning glories, how pathetic is that. I have a few “problem” areas, heavy clay, drainage issues, black walnut trees, large cedar hedge, norway maples, so when things die I try try again. It could be from any number of the problems. I do keep replacing the delphiniums, that’s just the way it is.

  21. Life holds no guarantees. It’s what makes it interesting. If you want a garden that requires no maintenance, and plants proven from Florida to Alaska, by all means go for the Stella d’Oros and the Spirea. My “tried and true” plants (peonies, phlox, Monarda, Hydrangea) provide structure throughout the garden, but I’d give up on gardening if I were afraid of failure. Yes, I was a new gardener once, and was burned a few times with labels that tiptoed around the truth. The term “perennial” is relative unless it indicates a zone. And the amount of sun a plant receives isn’t the only contributor to failure.

    Maybe growers or label-makers should provide a disclaimer that states: “these recommendations are just that and should not be taken as gospel.”

  22. Our brutal winter took out a number of perennials in my yard. I was most surprised about the Miscanthus though. Plants that I have divided and moved about the yard really suffered dieback if not totally dead. I did lose heuchera as well it was spotty though. I agree with all these new cultivars of plants coming out and not being tested. My platycodons never fail as well as my my cultivars of goldenrod and many native plants.. Black eyed Susan too. I have too many plants and gardens too mollycoddle any specific plant. My shrub roses are spectacular this year despite the winter they went through.

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