|Lantana camara 'Miss Huff' -- she's not from around these parts, but she sure is purty...
Well, here we are - early August, weeks of temperatures in the 90s (car thermometer registered 97 on the highway today), not much rain recently, brutal humidity and an obstinate gardener who insists on letting plants more or less fend for themselves.
Why no sprinkler? No endless hours spent hose in hand? No drip irrigation system feeding precious moisture like an IV to the roots?
Because I want to see which plants are tough enough to stand on their own and thrive amid this fiery crucible.
Because in a world of 7+ billion people where resource scarcity is real and likely to get worse, I want to garden with minimal inputs yielding maximum beauty and ecosystem benefits.
One of the dogmas in gardening these days is that native plants are almost always best adapted to the local climate, so one of the things I wanted to check while I walked around the garden was how the natives were faring compared to the exotics. Here's what I found:
|Teucrium chamaedrys, wall germander, native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, hanging tough as a groundcover. I think this one would actually prefer more sun.
|Ajuga genevensis, blue bugle, native to Europe, but acting right at home in Tennessee. This one would probably be happier in a little more shade, but I've got three patches around the garden that are all rocking away in various amounts of sun.
|Juniperus virginiana 'Burkii', eastern redcedar, just beautiful, couldn't care less about the heat and drought. The only thing that bothers it are the dastardly bagworms. Dang bagworms!!@#!
|Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Bird', rose of Sharon, not-native, seemingly unperturbed by the heat
|Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low', fragrant sumac, this native is sort of a puzzle. Some of the new growth seems fresh as can be...
|...while a good bit of the old growth looks curled and stressed. I've read that Rhus aromatica can struggle on heavy soil, which is what I've got. (Of course, I read that after I installed three of the shrubs...)
|Sorry for the flash, but this is one of our native mountain mints, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. You may not be able to tell from this photo, but the plant seems quite tough and moderately floriferous in its first year in the garden.
|Just looking up at the hazy early evening August sky...
|If you look closely in the middle of the photo, you should be able to spot white dots that look like they're hanging by threads. I believe those are green lacewing eggs, which is a good thing, because green lacewing larvae reportedly are voracious predators of aphids. And as you may be able to see, my Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) here is coated with bright yellow aphids, whose sticky, shiny excretions are in turn coating the plant (thus attracting both ants and flies). Hopefully some green lacewings can help bring things a bit closer to balance.
|Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans 'Sioux Blue', native
|Morella cerifera, syn. Myrica cerifera, southern wax myrtle, one of my favorite plants so far in 2015, I'd say it has quadrupled or quintupled in size since I planted in last autumn. I actually planted two of them, but only this one made it through our unusually harsh winter. These are widespread throughout the Southeast, but mainly in the Coastal Plain, although there are naturally occurring populations in northern Alabama just a couple hours drive south of where I am in Middle Tennessee.
|Not a native plant here, but Cosmos bipinnatus is still gorgeous and offers benefits to pollinators -- not to mention rabbits, who gnaw through 6-foot tall stems and then nibble the plant to pieces.
|Not a native and not always that pretty, but Viburnum 'Pragense' - the Prague viburnum - is slowly winning by respect as a tough survivor. As you can see, this one too is pushing new growth despite the punishing one-two punch of heat and humidity.
|On the other hand, some of the natives - like this annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) are not looking so hot. The only pretty pop of color in this picture is the Zinnia elegans, which is native to Mexico. (Note, annual sunflowers are actually far more widespread further west. Tennessee has only a waif population.)
|But here's a native vine that is thriving and shining in the heat - Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper - shown here scaling a brick wall along the front of the house.
|Right nearby you'll find another native - Symphyotrichum laeve 'Bluebird' - the smooth aster. This one is approximately six-feet tall in its first year in the garden and just getting ready to bloom!!
|...the flowers are still hanging on, although the stalks are now parallel to the ground. Not sure how they'll fare next time the lawn mowing and edging crew comes through.
|Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), pretty fresh, but not native to these parts (native to China and Japan)
|Our native redbud (Cercis canadensis) looking pretty fresh, all things considered
|(If you peak closely at the redbud, you can see next year's buds already formed...)
|It's easy to overlook this diminutive perennial, but this is Mitchella repens (partridgeberry), a native evergreen groundcover. From what I've read, it has a reputation as being a bit finicky. I tried planting a couple of plugs last autumn and only one seems to have established itself, but it looks like it's growing pretty nicely now and doesn't seem to mind the heat or drought as long as it has a good amount of shade. Apparently, it produces berries that are edible for people (and ruffed grouse), but I haven't seen any yet (either berries or grouse).
|This is a top-down look at Hibiscus coccineus (swamp hibiscus, Texas star). It was nibbled to the nubs by deer or rabbits earlier in the summer when it was planted in the far back of our property, where the deer are more inclined to roam. I transplanted it closer to the house (where it also receives morning shade) and it has responded by leafing out again and forming some buds. Excited to see the flowers soon! Its other common name is "swamp hibiscus", so I'm sure it would appreciate more water, but it seems perfectly capable of flourishing under drought conditions. I think I've only watered it a few times all summer, and that's just because I'm trying to get it established. Despite the fact that it's called Texas star, it's actually found more often in the wild growing in Florida and Louisiana.
|Love our native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Some of them have flopped due to heavy rains earlier in the summer, but these tough guys ('Heavy Metal' cultivar) are still standing strong and looking pretty.
|I can't say as much for Phlox paniculata 'David' (tall garden phlox). I'm torn on these plants. This is the first year that I saw pollinators -- beautiful swallowtail butterflies -- nectaring on the flowers. And yet...well, they're not looking good here in early August. I'm not seven sure if they're dying out or just dying back. Tall garden phlox is native to Tennessee, but we're sort of toward the southern end of its range. It seems more prevalent through the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
|As usual, the foliage on Baptisia australis (blue false indigo) still looks marvelous despite drought and heat. Although B. australis is native to Tennessee, it's much more common further west in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas and Texas. This year, for the first time, the plant has the added benefit of large, deep-purple seedpods that rattle when shook.
|There seems to be some confusion as to whether Amsonia 'Blue Ice' is a hybrid or a cultivar of the Southeast native A. tabernaemontana. Either way, I think it makes a marvelous, tough garden plant. It's supposed to prefer sun, but seems to be flourishing nonetheless in significant shade in my garden. I actually like it much better than A. hubrichtii, which hogs all the attention in the Amsonia genus.
|Perhaps my biggest frustration this year has been the poor performance of Echinacea purpurea. It's supposed to be this colossus (Princess Bride reference), but looks dreadful in late summer. I can't bear to get rid of it completely - it gives too many benefits to bees, butterflies and birds - but I feel like I need to diversify the garden a bit more and pare back on the giant clumps of purple coneflower.
|More carnage in the purple coneflower clumps. Sad, sad, sad...
|A rather pathetic looking clump of Eupatorium dubium 'Baby-Joe' (dwarf Joe-Pye weed). American Beauties claims that this plant will thrive in "dry to damp soils..." Perhaps it can tolerate dry soil conditions in the northern part of its range (it's native along the Atlantic coast all the way from South Carolina up to Maine), but here in Tennessee, I suspect it needs consistently damp/moist soils to be happy. Since I can't offer such conditions, I doubt it has a long, glorious future in my current garden.
I know this has been a marathon post, but I wanted to provide a somewhat exhaustive (exhausting?) survey to point out that just because a plant is native to a state or region, does not automatically mean that it will thrive in your garden. It may need more sun, more shade, more moisture or better drainage than you can (or want to) provide.
Conversely, it seems to me that many exotic plants are relatively well-behaved (i.e., not invasive or even aggressive) and capable of fending for themselves and adding all sorts of value to the garden - both aesthetic beauty for the gardener and nourishment or shelter for some of the other creatures that share the garden.
I greatly appreciate the value of native plants -- especially when it comes to their co-evolved relationships with native fauna such as Lepidoptera -- but I'm happy to welcome many exotics into my garden.
(On the other hand, while I am tolerant - even welcoming - of creeping or self-sowing natives, I'm much more likely to give an exotic plant the heave-ho if it shows suspiciously aggressive or prolific tendencies. This has to do with humility -- I'd rather err on the side of caution than risk unleashing another calamity on our local ecosystem.)
PS - Which plants will make it to the cool succor of autumn and which will fall by the wayside at the Garden of Aaron? You'll be "in the know" if you subscribe via email today and get automatic updates straight to your inbox!