A Bad Rap: Garden Plants That Are Misunderstood

Perovskia 'Blue Spires' Perovskia 'Blue Spires'


Having spent my career gardening in challenging climate and growing conditions here in Santa Fe, at the intersection of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains and the Colorado Plateau. I have planted, ripped out and killed thousands of different kinds of plants in my quest for gardening success. But my expertise and understanding of what different plants can and can't do, has become extensive. Based on my experiences, I now understand that it's easy to make assumptions about what we expect them to do for us without really knowing their true nature.

Many years ago, when I first saw some of the first plantings of beautiful Russian Sage (Perovskia) in summer bloom, I was smitten and made the assumption that it could be used where ever I needed a big blue, ever-blooming shrub. I decided that it would be a perfect fit in the corner, right next to my favorite chair on the front portal. But two growing season later, I cursed it because it has suckered and spread, running over my favorite clump of Pineleaf Beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius).

I now know that if I'm going to plant Russian Sage, I don't want to place it where it needs to stay compact and confined to a small space. Plant it where it has room to be itself. I also learned that its spread can be controlled by annually digging the suckers out in late spring. I'm also sure to only buy 'Blue Spires' because I know it won't reseed, suckers only mildly and has a great deep blue flower. I have observed other Russian Sage plants that sucker so vigorously that no amount of late spring maintenance will keep it in bounds. So there are garden-friendly selections of Perovskia and there are garden thugs.

The lesson of this blog is that we don't want to lump all the varieties of an ornamental plant into one basket, assuming that the characteristics of one "bad boy" variety are true for them all. And often the cheap, commonly available generic plant is the weedy one, because it is easy-to-propagate. (An unfortunate occurrence in the nursery industry as a whole.)

Below is a short list of perennial genera that have good and bad plants. Avoid the "bad boys" and seek out the garden stars.*

Nepeta faassenii Nepeta faassenii Select Blue

Nepeta (Catmint):

  • Buy- 'Select Blue', 'Walker's Low', 'Six Hills Giant'
  • Avoid - Nepeta racemosa, N. grandiflora, any seed grown Catmint

Achillea (Yarrow):

  • Buy - Achillea ageratifolia, 'Moonshine', 'Cornation Gold', 'Terra Cotta', 'Red Velvet'
  • Avoid - Achillea filipendulina 'Parker's Gold' (seed grown), A. millifolium 'Colorado Mix' (seed grown), any seed grown Yarrow

Perovskia (Russian Sage):

  • Buy - 'Blue Spires' , 'Lacy Blue'
  • Avoid - Many un-named varieties (especially if grown from seed)

Salvia (Garden Sage):

  • Buy - Salvia nemerosa 'May Night', 'Marcus', 'Blue Hill', 'Caradonna'
  • Avoid - 'East Friesland' (vicious re-seeder that crosses and reseeds with other Salvia too)

Stachys (Lamb's Ear):

  • Buy - 'Helen von Stein' (sterile)
  • Avoid - Stachys byzantina (seed grown)

⃰ Remember that plants will sometimes behave very differently in different parts of the country. One gardener's weed is another gardener's star. But in general, the recommended perennials below are the best of each genus.

Text and Photos By David Salman

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