Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants is Andrew Keys’ new book, and when I read the title, I was intrigued. Andrew is a friend, a smart one, and I figured anything he wrote would be good. I’m pleased to say, it’s better than good. It’s excellent. After interviewing Andrew for this post, I realize how much time and thought he put into his work. In the interest of full disclosure, Timber Press sent me Andrew’s book for review. Andrew is a lifelong gardener, and he blogs at Garden Smackdown. He also does a “little” podcast for Fine Gardening magazine called Garden Confidential plus a bunch of other stuff.
Instead of boring you with more of my chatter, here’s our email discussion of some of the plants Andrew suggests you can grow here, and one I wish didn’t.
1. I’m excited about your suggestion of redbuds. What made you endorse Cercis canadensis? Did you know var. texensis ‘Oklahoma’ is our state tree? I think it’s amusing that the ‘Oklahoma’ redbud variation also has Texas in the name. As usual, the two states are fighting over something. Several variations of redbud grow wild throughout our state and much of the south so I can heartily endorse them. I also think they’re a very underrated tree. What do you think?
Redbud is such an easy tree to love, isn’t it? It’s one of those that’s so beloved by anyone who plants it, so familiar, so easy to grow, and so readily available to buy–yet, as you said, it manages to fly under the radar enough that it’s still unique. And it’s a native? And there are great cultivars for almost every climate with multi-season interest? It was a no-brainer for the book! Would that all of these “extraordinary alternatives” were so easy to choose.
2. Speaking of natives, do you know many you endorsed in the book? What do you think about bringing natives back to the garden, or did they ever leave? What do native plants have to offer in a cultivated landscape? How do you feel about selections versus hybrids? I’m also curious about your thoughts on plant tissue culture. I have mixed emotions about the process myself.
The plants I first fell in love with were plants that grew wild in the woods where I played as a kid, so yeah, I’m big on native plants. Over 100 of the alternatives I give in the book are native to some part of North America, native cultivars or hybrids. I think gardeners’ renewed awareness of natives and the fact that a plant’s native status may factor into decision-making is a great thing. The question of how plants in the trade are cultured, and cultivars vs. straight species, is a tough one. Here’s what I think: there are so many ways plants interact with their native environments on that most basic of levels, the microbial level, that we may not even understand yet, and to the benefit of the surrounding ecosystem. That may make some people more nervous about clones and cultivars; I tend to err on the side of hoping microbes won’t know the difference. But it’s a personal choice.
3. I was pleased to see a large section on vines–I love them–some as alternatives to that invasive horror of the South, Japanese honeysuckle. Why did you decide to include so many vines, and which is your personal favorite? I love American wisteria myself. I have two different types on two arbors.
Vines! By their very nature, vines tend to be rambunctious plants, and there are enough vines that can be problematic (people complain that they’re overly agressive, or even invasive species) that I knew I had to include them. I love American wisteria too, but my favorite vine (and one you might be interested to try, because it’s known for drought tolerance) is ‘Kintzley’s Ghost’ honeysuckle. It blooms pale yellow in spring, and each flower is surrounded by silvery blue bracts that look like eucalyptus, and those last through most of the growing season.
4. Okay, I’m sorry to bring it up–you suggested one of my most
hated disliked trees, the eastern redcedar. Juniperus virginiana, is invasive throughout Oklahoma eating up miles of rangeland and is also a fire hazard. Can you talk a bit about how a plant can be great in one area of the U.S. and a brutal thug in another?
I wondered if you’d notice! This is an occupational hazard of writing a book for a national audience. It’s true: there will always be plants that are pussycats in one climate and maneaters in another. It’s important to know that this book (and most books) is just a jumping-off point. In the introductory chapters, I urge readers to learn about their garden in a geographic context, and I tell them to seek out that nursery person who WANTS to talk about plants, because that person can give more location-specific advice than I ever could. That includes knowing whether a plant I’ve recommended isn’t good for your particular site because, say, you live in a place where this plant wants to take over. (Side note: one of my favorite podcasts I did was about cedar in Texas, Juniperus ashei in this case, but a similar situation.)
5. I saw some plants in your book that are new to me like Dierama pulcherimmum, fairy wand. Although I use Gaura lindheimeri, wand flower, a great deal, I’d never heard of the former. Can you talk a little bit about this particular perennial in place of bleeding heart?
Fairy wand is one of those plants I wish *I* could grow. Like bleeding heart, it makes these long wands with flowers that drip down them like giant, fat drops of jewel-toned taffy, but this plant likes warmer, drier zones where bleeding heart may never thrive. Its leaves are very grassy too, so it’s a good one for the grass lovers even when it’s not in bloom.
6. I know my readers are more interested than ever in the wildlife that inhabit their gardens from lizards, frogs and toads to birds, bees and other pollinators. Several of the plants you suggest in the book as alternatives are also great for pollinators. Can you list a couple and the pollinators that love them?
Sure thing! It’s another old standby, but I love Sedum ‘Matrona’. Mine bloomed around the time I had a party this fall, and it was such a bee magnet people asked if I kept bees myself. Bees and butterflies love Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, Eupatorium ‘Little Joe’, and of course all the Asclepias are great because their flowers are butterfly food and their leaves are food for monarch butterfly larvae. One that might come as a surprise is mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, whose flowers are like flat, silver buttons. Butterflies love this plant, and unlike a lot of other pollinator plants, it does well in part shade. (I’d even recommend shade over sun for it in your climate.)
So, you can see Andrew knows his stuff. His book has original ideas about planting and also relies on lesser known standbys like mountain mint. I grow P. virginianum, common mountain mint, and it does love our dappled shade. A great gift idea for new gardeners and those with the permanent stain of soil beneath their fingernails.