Roots and Shoots: MVPs in the Landscape

By Pamela Doan

Some plants thrive, others take over and we spend all our time trying to control them. Some plants are gorgeous one season and stubbornly refuse to bloom the next year for an inexplicable reason. Some plants are straightforward in their needs and others require a precise blend of conditions that we try to meet, but somehow fail, even when we think we succeeded. Some plants were a good idea in the catalog or nursery, but disappoint with their performance.

We all have the plants we love, though, for whatever reason. When I started asking Master Gardeners about their Most Valuable Plants, the answers were as completely varied as the basis for their choice. Turns out, your MVP is personal.

Bees enjoy the flowers of joe-pye weed.

Bees enjoy the flowers of joe-pye weed.

At my house, my husband and I don’t even agree on the MVPs in our yard. This year, I choose joe-pye weed or Eutrochium purpureum. It’s a native perennial in our area, part of theAsteraceae family. I put it in last summer near our patio because I’d read it was a favorite of bees and it turned out to be a bee heaven.

It started blooming in July and stayed in bloom until September. The purple flowers form at the top of a long stalk that can be 2 to 6 feet tall and they’re large and dome-shaped. Bees were literally crawling all over the flowers, so passive that I could touch them. Drunk bee flower is more like it. Although it’s listed as “deer-resistant,” my plant was half-eaten by Bambi last year. It happened early in the season, though, and still bounced back to bloom, fortunately.

It isn’t a fussy plant and came back twice as big this year. I can divide it and plant more of it in the yard or share it with other gardeners who like to be up close and personal with bees. It was satisfying to see it create a habitat that hadn’t existed previously.

My husband chose forsythia as his MVP, although I pointed out that forsythia doesn’t support anything. He appreciates that it blooms early and makes a great low maintenance hedge.

Master Gardener Zshawn Smith Sullivan, who maintains an amazing yard in Garrison, said that evergreens, all of them, were her MVPs. She commented: “They are the bones of the garden and have four-season interest.” She appreciates that evergreens, “come in all shapes, sizes, and varying shades of green.” Evergreens also provide shelter for many birds in all seasons.

Dianne Olsen, an educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County, chose lavender as her Most Valuable Plant. “It doesn’t get pests or fungal diseases,” she said. “It’s deer-proof and doesn’t need water, fertilizer or care. It grows in the crappiest of soils on my rock walls and I get lavender bunches in the spring.” There are three types of lavender that are native here. Hyssop is one that bees, butterflies and hummingbirds will appreciate. Olsen testified to the hardiness of lavender, too. “Sometimes I lose some in the winter, but if I remember to prune it back hard in late November, it blooms like crazy the following year. It looks beautiful and smells great!”

Another Master Gardener, Jean Perlstein Riccobon, chose her dappled willow as her MVP. “With its pinkish new growth and long flowing branches, it’s a peaceful focal point. In the winter its red branches look beautiful against the snowy backdrop. And, so far, critters and bugs have let it be,” she explained. This is a deciduous shrub that is fast growing and can reach 15 to 20 feet in height. Although it’s typical for Asian gardens, it’s cold hardy and can grow well here.

Finally, a vote came in for coneflowers. Sarah Reilly said: “Coneflowers and catmint need no care and are resistant to pests and deer. I scatter these throughout the garden, especially bordering my veggie beds, to attract the bees. They both spread and/or produce babies, allowing the garden to grow every year.” Coneflower is the common name for both native varieties of Rudbeckia and Echinacea varieties. Both plants are long blooming and provide great color. Catmint is a flowering herb related to catnip.

Share your story about the Most Valuable Plant in your landscape in the Comments or email to [email protected]. If we get enough responses, I’ll run a follow-up column.

Photo by P. Doan

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