Overused Plants?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter (do you follow me?), I stumbled across the Garden Designers’ Roundtable, a really cool blog to which designers from around the country contribute. Their latest group of posts is all about super cool, underutilized plants for the landscape. It got me thinking about OVER-used plants, and how I feel about them.


I plant a LOT of Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm,’ sometimes referred to as Black-Eyed Susan. It has a lot going for it: vigorous self-seeder, inexpensive ($9.99 for a 1 gallon pot at Stadler), hardy, mid to late summer bloom time, and you really have to work to screw it up. I use it on residential jobs, I’ve used it at banks, I’ve used it at the winery. Driving around, it’s pretty clear that a lot of people are using it as well. Does that mean we should avoid it? Hardly. Its positive attributes make it a winner, and Rudbeckia still has a place in the garden. Just use it judiciously, artfully, and make sure that it’s sharing the stage.


MJ hates liriope, which I think is a shame. Ubiquitous? Heck yeah. But man, it is a useful little plant! Now, not every bed needs to be lined with a border of liriope, and you do need to occasionally cut it back and divide it so it doesn’t look like a tribble gone wild. I like to use liriope where I want to create a line to “push” the eye around a curve or down a path. Just like boxwood, liriope connote order and formality- but both can also be used to free a space.Some varieties also make for a great groundcover, but know that it will spread throughout that bed whether you want it to or not.

crape myrtle

Yay, we live in a climate where we can grow crape myrtles! And boy, do we. This is one that I really struggle with, because what about the crape myrtle is awesome? It’s a summer blooming tree, it has a gorgeous multi-stemmed growth habit, has well-behaved dwarf varieties, the bark looks really cool on varieties like ‘Natchez,’ and it’s also pretty tough. The down side is that they are everywhere. Every subdivision, every strip mall, every office park, they all seem to have dozens of crape myrtles. Often I’ll agonize over plant selection because a crape myrtle just seems right for the space, but too expected. So I specify something else, and when I present to the client they say “Your plan is beautiful, but I just have one change- we really really want a crape myrtle!” I don’t have a ready answer for this one, because crape myrtles actually are pretty awesome, even if they’re as unusual as belly buttons.

I’ll admit that I don’t use Knockout roses a lot, but they are everywhere you look. For good reason, too: you get the incredibly long bloom time, the resistance to bugs and disease, and a plant that you could run over with the mower and it’ll bounce back a little angry but otherwise okay. Why yes, I anthropomorphize a bit. Why do you ask? Anyhow, I love Knockout roses for commercial sites because even the goofiest mow and blow outfit would have to work to screw these up. They’re also good for giving a pop of color on that often-neglected, full sun side yard where the house is one big blank expanse of vinyl siding.

Plant trends are cyclical. That’s one of the neat things about my job: I get to travel around to all different homes built and landscaped at different periods. Old farmhouse? Yep, there are the lilacs and spiraea. Brand new subdivision home? Inkberry and azaleas. Subdivision home from the early ’90s? Oh crap, they actually like the Alberta spruces trimmed into spirals? At the end of the day you need to select the plants that are going to work for your site, your budget, and the maintenance you’re willing and able to take on. Sometimes the first answer IS the right one.


    July 28, 2010 REPLY

    Loved your post today, which I did, indeed, find on Twitter! Oddball plants are fun, and the best way to personalize your garden, but the tried and true should be the foundation for an enduring landscape.

    What’s next? Plants we love to hate (can you say juniper)?!

    Thanks for the shout out to the Garden Designers’ Roundtable (I’m the lonely Mountain Time Zone rep)!

      July 28, 2010 REPLY

      Jocelyn, glad you enjoyed it! Don’t get me wrong, I love to experiment with the new hort hotness, but sometimes you just want something that you know well, and know will work. Plants we love to hate would be a good one. For me, it would be dwarf Alberta spruce, especially spiral- shaped ones.

      The GD Round Table was a great find for me. It’s not just a good resource, but it steered me to some other really enjoyable blogs. Love what you all have done with the place!

    November 14, 2011 REPLY

    Dave, I just found this post while kicking around your archives! I am in the Roundtable and posted on the topic, but actually, I LOVE the tried-and-true! I actually wrote a rant about this last year:

    And I have had the same exact experience, of agonizing over finding a new plant when a tried-and-true would be perfect, and then having the client come back wanting that tried-and-true variety! So, great post. Totally echoed my experience as a designer.

      November 15, 2011 REPLY

      Genevieve – thanks for the comment! I’ve been reading your blog for a while so it was cool seeing a name I know pop up in the comments. New and sexy plants are great, but like you said in the post you linked to, heartbreak can lie down that road.

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