The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Difficult divas – hard to grow plants

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Recently a frustrated gardener shared his desire for a list of durable plants. Since my brain often travels a circuitous path I first thought of all the plants most often killed by well-meaning gardeners. So please wait until next week for my list of "hard to kill" plants. This week it's my list of "easy to kill" plants.

Over the years I've heard the confessions of many gardeners as they relate their heroic efforts to keep a favorite plant alive. The truth is some plants are just tougher to grow in our climate. They are the difficult divas that require extra attention with proper soil, water, and sun. However the same plants may grow as weeds in other areas. Here butterfly bush is often winter killed, but when I was in Seattle Washington this summer horticulturists were lamenting about the same butterfly bush as a noxious weed.

If you too are guilty of involuntary plant slaughter, take some solace in knowing you are not alone. If you are a new gardener, you may want to wait to grow the difficult divas after a few years of experience with faithful friends. Or you can throw caution to the wind and try your best to please them. After all you don't know a plant til you grow it, or until you kill it at least three times.

Here is my partial list of central Illinois' difficult divas:

Azalea and rhododendron are native to some parts of the U.S. They grow luxuriantly in the woods of southern and eastern U.S. Rhododendrons grow so well in Ireland they are considered a noxious weed. Here in central Illinois, however, we struggle to find the right spot to make azaleas and rhododendrons happy. They can be grown successfully in Illinois if we pay attention to a few details: site selection; soil preparation; plant care; and cultivar selection. Since rhodies grow naturally in wooded areas in well-drained acidic soils with lots of organic matter, we should mimic these conditions for best plant growth. Soil conditions will be a common theme with all the difficult divas. Many of them also hate to get their hair mussed or to get too hot, so protection from wind and providing afternoon shade is critical.

Japanese maples, Acer palmatum, need moist, high organic matter soils that are also well-drained. They appreciate protection from wind. Bring the lady a drink because this diva hates to dry out. Many cultivars of Japanese maples are available and some are more cold-hardy than others. It's worth doing some homework before making a purchase.

Flowering dogwoods, Cornus florida, are perfectly happy as groupies with azaleas and rhododendrons. The same conditions will satisfy both. Be sure to purchase northern grown flowering dogwoods. The southern belles will suffer through our winters.

Perennials (well, at least they are supposed to be perennials)

Delphinium and lupines are difficult divas for the same reasons. Our winters are too cold and summers too hot and humid for these plants to be happy. In the northwestern and northeastern U.S. or in England these plants produce buxom beautiful blooms. Here we are lucky to get a few years of show. They desire cool, moist soils with afternoon shade.

To me Illinois gardening is extreme gardening because of our fluctuations in temperatures through the seasons. Some plants just can't take the heat. Difficult divas may be a challenge, but with success they offer quite a show.

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