Easy to Grow Plants Can Be Beautiful, Too

Some of us may overlook simple, easy-to-do planting combinations because of that snobby gardener’s voice that tends to lurk in the back of our minds. “Plants that are easy to grow, or too familiar, could not possibly be garden-worthy, much less beautiful.”
We forget that beauty and simplicity are allies, not adversaries. And though familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, there is also a refined appreciation for plants that comes with time, allowing us to discover new virtues in species that we may have been acquainted with for years.
Consider white alyssum (Lobularia maritima). It grows as easily as grass in full to partial sun. It has a pleasant fragrance.
White alyssum is typically used as a border or edging plant in flowerbeds, surrounding taller orange or yellow marigolds, scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), or blue mealy cup sage (Salvia farinacea).
Alyssum is also planted in repeating patterns, where it alternates with mounding dark or light blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus) or both.
But I have also seen individual white alyssum plants growing as discrete mounds in planter beds; as stand-alone subjects, they are pleasing to the eye. They also combine well with everything from liatris to lavender.
For sunny areas, don’t overlook Valerian. The sunniest corner of a garden is the one that faces the southwest sun and, just the other day, I saw a planting combination that was thriving in that precise location. To bring an added measure of heat, there was an adjacent concrete walkway. Around the house, reflected heat from sidewalks, driveways, pool decks or block walls is an important factor to consider when making planting decisions.
This southwest-facing garden consisted of red and pink valerian (Valerianus officinalis), blue statice (Limonium perezii), and a yellow euphorbia. Valerian is one of the easiest plants to grow. Its megalomania, or craving to take over the yard, is a knock against it, but during its first two years of growth, you will be impressed with its ample flower clusters that last and last. Statice is a fitting purple blue companion to valerian, as are any of the yellow bracted, blue-green leafed euphorbias (Euphorbia characias, E.cyparissias, or E. rigens). These euphorbias are tough, cold-hardy plants that may disappear in winter but come back with a vengeance as the weather warms. They may also spread through self-sowing or by growth of their rhizomes, which are fleshy underground stems with bulblike qualities.
A major advantage of a valerian, statice and euphorbia planting is its drought tolerance; your concern with watering this combination of plants, once they mature, will disappear. In addition, valerian and statice flowers are known for their endurance in cut flower arrangements.
CORRECTION: The picture that accompanied last week’s column on the monkey flower was actually a Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri), as noted in an e-mail from John Stevens of Palmdale. In fact, the Mexican primrose is a beautiful pink flowering ground cover that does share monkey flower traits, requiring little water and naturalizing drier garden spots. It is also a suitable ground cover in the vicinity of the popular white or pink `Iceberg’ rose.
Although somewhat invasive, the Mexican primrose is nothing like its yellow cousin (Oenothera hookeri), which, available in some nurseries this time of year, spreads by seed throughout the garden.
I had also mentioned that California natives require well-drained soil, but was corrected by Carmen Wolf, program director for the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. Wolf e-mailed a list of natives that tolerate clay or slow-draining soil, including: columbine (Aquilegia Formosa), manzanita (Arctostaphylos `John Dourley,’ Sunset,’ `Harmony,’ `Louis Edmunds’), mounding coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis `Pigeon Point’), California lilac (Ceanothus `Julia Phelps,’ `Ray Hartman,’ `Snow Flurry’), wine-scented spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis),and breathtaking bush poppies (Dendromecon harfordii and D. rigida).
Other native plants for imperfectly drained sites may be found at www.theodorepayne.org and www.laspilitas.com.

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