March 12, 2010

Beginning gardeners needn't worry about botanical names

— Plant professionals are making gardening too complicated, according to Allan Armitage, a professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia and one of the nation's most successful garden writers.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Young homeowners have a yard, and they want it to look good, but they consider gardening to be work.

''What we,'' he said, referring to plant retailers and landscapers, ''have to do is make 'yardeners' become gardeners. We want to turn the beginning gardener to the enthusiastic gardener, faster.''

First, he said, garden centers should use the common name for plants.

Armitage's daughter Heather has four children ages 4 and younger. Typical of a young homeowner, she doesn't have time for gardening. She may want a cardinal flower, but she doesn't need to know that its botanical Latin name is lobelia cardinalis.

Growers and retailers need to know that, in case different flowers are called cardinal flower in different parts of the country, but they shouldn't force that on their customers.

Armitage said that when he goes to the grocery store, he has a hard time buying toilet paper because there are so many options that he doesn't know which one is right for him. Heather faces the same problem when she goes to the garden center.

''We have to make Heather successful,'' Armitage said. ''Someone has to make the decision for Heather and sell her the right plant.''

And the right plant will not be the same for every garden center. Garden center owners should know what grows best in their area. That way, when they tell Heather the customer what to buy and it works, she will come back and ask advice for again.

The plant Armitage used as an example are heucheras. The common name of heuchera is coral bells, going back to the time when they were grown for the small bell-shaped flowers they produced. Heucheras are now grown mostly for their colorful foliage, ranging from almost black to light chartreuse.

Heather went to a garden center to buy heucheras, and came home without making a purchase because she couldn't make up her mind.

''Sell only the best five heucheras,'' Armitage told the plant professionals. ''And it is up to you to find out'' what they are.

He did say that with heucheras, you can ''throw a dart,'' because most of them are good. But he thinks ''Citronelle'' is the best of the chartreuse heucheras, ''Caramel'' is good as a caramel-colored one, ''Blackberry Jam'' and ''Obsidian'' are the best of the blacks, ''Crimson Curl'' is the best of the fancy leaf forms, and ''Georgia Peach'' works well for him (then again, he does live in Georgia).

If you want to go retro and grow them for the flowers, he recommends ''Pink Lipstick'' and ''Rave On.''

Armitage is not a horticulturist who believes in planting only natives, but he does say a lot of the best perennials on the market are natives, hybrids and cultivars of natives, which he calls ''nativars.''

Now we get to the good part. Here are some of Armitage's favorite plants, starting with natives and nativars:

Rudbeckias are commonly called black-eyed Susans, and one of his favorites is ''Early Bird Gold,'' which is a day-neutral variety. Most rudbeckias are long-day plants, which means that they bloom in mid- to late summer when the days are longest. ''Early Bird Gold,'' as a day-neutral plant, will bloom earlier. He also likes ''Henry Eilers,'' which grow to 5 to 6 feet tall.

Echinacea, like heuchera, Armitage said, is a plant where the breeders have gone wild and produced too many varieties. The best, he believes, is still ''Kim's Knee High,'' although there are other varieties that he likes.

For phlox paniculata, the most important characteristic is mildew resistance, and the species plant rather than the cultivars is among the best.

One plant Armitage likes a lot -- and there is a bias, because it comes from his University of Georgia trial gardens -- is vernonia ''Iron Butterfly.'' The older variety of ironweed is a very tall plant, but this is a compact plant with purple blossoms in late summer and fall.

For penstemon, he likes the cultivar ''Red Riding Hood'' as well as the species Penstemon smallii.

Coreopsis is a good plant, Armitage said, and he likes ''Sweet Dreams,'' ''Autumn Blush,'' ''Sunfire'' and ''Jethro Tull,'' but he warns that all coreopsis have to be deadheaded a lot, so they're high maintenance.

Baptisia has the common name false indigo, and it was the first subsidized plant in America, according to Armitage. England could not get enough indigo from India to use as dyes, so it paid American colonists to grow baptisia as a substitute.

Baptisia is a wonderful plant in the garden, but will never become really popular. ''It's so unfair, but in the nursery it looks like a stick in a pot,'' Armitage said. The varieties he mentioned were ''Purple Smoke,'' ''Carolina Moonlight,'' ''Solar Flare'' and the ''Prairie'' series.

''Joe Pye'' weed, or eupatorium, is another great plant that is very large. The smaller versions, ''Little Joe'' and ''Gateway,'' often are easier to use in the home garden.

Other natives Armitage likes are salvia ''Purple Knockout,'' Spigelia marilandica ''White Feathers'' and Gaillardia ''Fanfare'' and the ''Sunburst'' and ''Commotion'' series of gaillardia, which are drought tolerant.

For non-natives, Armitage like Helleborus ''Ivory Prince''; Ajuga ''Black Scallop,'' ''Coffee Chip'' and ''Toffee Chip''; sedums ''Black Jack,'' ''Mr. Goodbud'' and ''Angelina''; salvias ''Mystic Spires,'' ''Hot Lips'' and ''Evaline''; Eryngium ''Big Blue'' and ''Tiny Jackpot''; Dicentra (bleeding heart) ''Candy Hearts'' and ''Burning Hearts''; Veronica ''Purpleicous'' and ''First Love''; and Achillea ''Pomegranate'' and ''Belinda.''

Armitage also likes ferns and grasses because they are easy and low maintenance. The toughest and easiest fern is maidenhair fern, he said.

For grasses, he likes Miscanthus but says it has to be bred for sterility, because it is escaping to the wild in the South. Chasmanthium ''River Mist'' is aggressive but not invasive.

But Armitage thinks Panicums, a native grass, will become more popular and replace some of the others. He especially likes ''Heavy Metal'' and ''Dallas Blues.''

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)