Gardeners who struggle with plants that just won't perform can save themselves a lot of time and bother by switching out the malingering ones with strong, reliable plants that suit the situation you have. Consider your soil, sun and shade conditions, and how much work you're willing to do before selecting your "Go To" plants....

Share story

MUCH OF our gardening life is spent scheming over how to squeeze a growing variety of treasures into ever-expanding beds and borders. While it’s great fun to hunt down the newest perennials and the coolest vines, plant fever often pushes our gardens beyond our ability to care for them.

Why are some people contented with their gardens, while the rest of us are wearing ourselves to the nubbins watering, weeding and chasing down still more plants?

The key to preserving both our backs and the earth’s resources is thoughtful editing and repetition. Start by paying careful attention to which plants are thriving and which are struggling. The next step is to ruthlessly rip out unhappy plants and replace them with a smaller palette of plants that have proven themselves adaptable and well-suited to your own garden. Such self-sufficient plants require far less work, water, fertilizer or other interventions.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Sound simple? Not really. Honest observation and analysis of what’s working and what isn’t can be difficult. It means being realistic about plants we covet that just don’t suit the conditions we have to offer. If your Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ is looking as ratty after the past two winters as mine is, it doesn’t matter that it’s a great plant. Not in my garden. It has to go. I need a tougher, hardier plant in that exposed spot.

It can feel heartless to compost plants that you wish were doing better, but it makes no sense to keep struggling with malingerers. Get rid of them. You’ll feel so much better about yourself as a gardener when you no longer look at bedraggled, slug-ridden plants. OK, my shredded hostas have to go, too!

Here’s a simple formula: Your own “Go-To” plants are the ones that look most at home planted right where they are. They do best in the soil, sun, wind and weather your garden offers, and the level of maintenance you’re up to providing.

Gardeners start turning their noses up about now, expecting “Go-To” plants to be the kind of dull and monotonous shrubs the state puts in around freeway ramps. Not true. First on my “Go-To” list is Oriental lilies. What’s more sensational than huge, silky flowers held high atop 8-foot-tall stalks and emanating perfume sweet enough to make you swoon?

Any designer who can win the People’s Choice Award at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show while running a business and raising two little boys must have a few “Go-To’s” at the tip of her spade. Designer Jessi Bloom names our native sword fern (Polystychum munitum) and the paddle-leafed perennial Bergenia cordifolia as plants to depend on. Both are evergreen and versatile, and the fern survives even in dry shade beneath tall conifers.

You can find horticulturist Jim Fox working the floor at Wells-Medina Nursery. His “Go-To” plants include any climbing hydrangea to cover walls or fences in shade or sun; ‘Elfin’ thyme for filling in cracks in paving; and the purple-flowering hardy geranium ‘Rozanne’ because it blooms long and covers so much ground. Like Bloom, Fox relies on bergenia and sword fern for year-round interest.

Richie Steffen, curator at the Miller Botanical Garden, uses black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) lavishly in the garden and in containers. “If you want any planting to look better, just pop in a black mondo grass or two and you’ll have instant sophistication,” Steffen says.

Not all “Go-To’s” are quite so glamorous. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) are high on my list because they grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. I’m planting the miniature variety ‘Silky Fleece’ wherever there’s a bit of bare soil. Then there’s Camellia sasanqua, with glossy evergreen leaves and showy flowers in fall and winter. Now that I think about it, this camellia may well be the perfect “Go To” shrub to replace that languishing Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet.’

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.