In the garden, a flexible approach to plant selection is often best in the long run.
Each day brings little personal preference between Pepsi or Coke, paper or plastic, and toilet paper roll directions, even if the outcome is fairly similar.
Ditto with plants. Although St. Augustine and Centipede turfgrasses have different leaf shapes and shades of green than Bermuda and Zoysia, they are all essentially low-maintenance flat green carpets. True, everyone has their own needs for the best growth, but most people choose them primarily based on looks, with no regard for the best mowing heights.
But we can also go with a Mow-what-grows floral lawn mix of various grasses, short ground covers, white clover, and other low-growing wildflowers. After mowing, it performs about the same landscape function as a sterile industrial lawn, but with less maintenance and a lot more bees and butterflies.
A big problem for me is our persistent pursuit of beautiful native dogwood trees. Thousands are planted in Mississippi each year, although an estimated two out of three don’t make it to their third year in the ground, according to Southern Living editors. But once we get our minds on wanting one, we’ll play over and over again until one makes it.
Despite their stunning beauty, ease of planting in sun or shade and any type of soil, and how they will brighten up any garden with one, native fringe trees (Chionanthus, often referred to as “Grancy Graybeard”) are almost impossible to plant you’ll find for sale at local garden centers.
Why don’t we see more? Quite simply: consumers determine the market. More and more people are asking for dogwoods in garden centers, so that’s what wholesale growers are ordering. If more gardeners asked for fringing trees, more soles would be planted and seen and then more would be charged. And more would survive than dodgy dogwoods.
I am trying very hard here not to analyze the difference between substitute and replacement; I fully understand that there are no plants that are dogwoods or crape myrtles or roses for that matter. But if these unique beauties just aren’t doing well, there are acceptable, easier-to-grow alternatives.
I’m not talking about growing okra instead of rhubarb. But showy, perennial daffodils and hardy amaryllis are far more dependable than one-shot tulips; rosemary thrives where lavender melts; Japanese maples and summer-blooming Vitex will be eye-catchers long after weeping myrtles have failed from the dreadful new scale insect sweeping the state.
With that in mind, I’ve long advocated reliable old-fashioned flowering shrubs over the flashier mainstays. Azaleas and mophead hydrangeas are party show-offs, but I can spot them on any neighborhood stroll; I tend to appreciate less common but interesting and doubly perennial shrubs including Vanhoutte spiraea, Yellow Rose of Texas (Kerria), Double Flowering Almond, Florida Jasmine, Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus), Yesterday-today-and-tomorrow (Brunfelsia), Winter Honeysuckle , Grape Holly (Mahonia), Fragrant Sweet Olive, Viburnum Viburnum, Native Azalea, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Flowering Quince, Prickly Pear and Rose of Sharon.
Are they as colorful as azaleas? nope But they are certainly more interesting and durable.
To me, one of the best alternative shrub choices is the tall, cascading dogwood called Philadelphus, which descends from both English dogwood and mock orange. This ancient shrub outgrows, survives and blooms flat on true dogwood, with more, larger flowers. In sun or shade.
Here’s a suggestion for garden centers looking to increase garden diversity: Give them a free rooted Philadelphus cutting for every three dogwoods someone buys. See which grows the best, gets the most compliments and sparks interest in more plants. My money is on the latter.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi-based author, columnist, and host of “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email Gardening Questions [email protected].