Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
A big part of my job description with University of Illinois Extension is answering homeowner questions and giving advice about home gardens. One of the big plusses about advice from U of I Extension is that we are not trying to sell you anything-- we are just trying to give you the best research-based answer to your question.
Lots of people call with questions on landscape design. We always recommend coming up with a plan for your garden rather than haphazardly planting. I know this is the recommendation, but do I do this in my yard? The answer is well, sort of.
I do have a basic plan for my yard. For instance, we have an area of shrubs in the front, a butterfly garden along the patio, tall plants in the back, multiple seasons of interest, etc. I don't have a plan that says only a specific list of plants shall be planted in my yard. There is always room for improvement.
For example, I am renovating one bed near my front door that had some overly aggressive plants in it. I removed the hostas that were threatening a hostile takeover and found them new homes. Now the remaining plants have room to breathe.
Last year someone (not a gardener) asked my husband and me if we were "done with our landscaping". When we replied that it's really never done, they didn't understand. I guess that's the difference between gardeners and "non-gardeners".
I always seem to have plants jumping in my cart at garden centers begging to be planted in my yard. Do I always know where to put them? Yes, at least I think I do. The reality is my eyes tend to be bigger than my garden. This is where my efforts to have a plan falter. Sometimes you just have to find space for a cool plant that makes people ask "what is it?"
One "cool plant" that jumped into my cart this year is Ptilotus exaltatus 'Joey'. I saw a picture of it in an e-mail and fell in love. Conversations about this plant with the Master Gardeners and other Extension staff sounded like teenage girls talking about their latest crush.
The first time I saw Ptilotus 'Joey' it stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea what it was. The flowers resemble pink bottle brushes. When I finally found the plant in person, the flowers that looked spiny and prickly in the picture were actually very soft-- which fits one of the common names for this plant-- Lamb's Tail.
The flowers of Ptilotus 'Joey' may resemble a grass, but it's not a grass. Ptilotus is a large genus of 100 species, most native to dry areas of Australia. This genus was first described by botanist Robert Brown in 1810.
The German seed company Benary is credited with development of Ptilotus 'Joey'. Benary was founded in 1843 and today offers over 2,000 different annual and perennial seeds. This is an amazing feat considering the company was nearly wiped out by the Nazis in World War II and had to be completely rebuilt, including redeveloping most of the breeding stock.
Ptilotus 'Joey' is nominated for several industry awards. Awards or not, the proving ground for me is my own backyard. Ptilotus 'Joey' is marketed as being great for planting directly in the ground or in containers, and is supposed to have outstanding heat and drought tolerance.
For my completely non-scientific trial of Ptilotus 'Joey' in my yard, I purchased two plants-- one for the ground and one for a container. The one I planted in the ground is in absolute full sun, near some sedum and sage, easily one of the hottest spots in my yard. This should be a good test of heat and drought tolerance. The other one is in a container along with some ornamental sweet potato 'Tricolor' which is variegated in white and pink, coordinating nicely with Ptilotus 'Joey'.
So far both are doing equally well. I will enjoy observing how the plants grow this summer. Hopefully Ptilotus 'Joey' will become a returning star of my ever-evolving garden plan.