In the world of professional horticulture, we are perennially teaching people to put the right plant in the right place. “I’m sorry, but that just isn’t going to be happy in our heavy clay soils,” is a phrase that plays like a broken record around here, and it can certainly be discouraging to folks who aspire to that fabled green thumb when it comes to finding plants that love making a home in your garden. The irony is that some things that do well for someone else may inexplicably snub me, and vice versa. For example, I am pea green with envy that Jim Kincannon has a lovely stand of native Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) in the IMA’s Rain Garden, which dipped a toe into my home garden soil and said, “Poo!” It’s hard to not take it personally, but instead of moping, I simply squared my shoulders and recruited Little Bluestem BLUE HEAVENTM (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘MinnBlueA’) to join Team Schneider. Success! If you ask me why one succeeded and the other didn’t, I won’t have an answer for you; they have almost identical cultural requirements for light, moisture and soil type, and both are Indiana natives.
When it comes to recommending “tried and true” plants, you can see why it can be difficult to give trustworthy advice. My advice? To be a successful gardener requires thick skin and a penchant for experimentation. Did I mention thick skin? This is not to excuse poor behavior; if you plant something in the perfect spot and then deprive it of a basic need (i.e. water), it won’t be the plant’s fault if it doesn’t do well. I suppose if the experiment is to see just how little work you can get away with, go for it, but I would suggest planning a giant increase in your plant budget to accommodate the yawning gaps that will dot your landscape. As a word to the wise, a plant labeled as “drought tolerant” does not necessarily mean it never needs water (remember the basics – all plants need some spectrum of light, moisture and nutrients). Establish plants first to give them the best chance to face adversity with a healthy root system. Then, if a plant decides not to commit, with a clear conscience you can honestly accept when it says, “I’m so sorry…it’s not you, it’s me.”
So it is with some hesitation that I share my list of favorite successful plants from my home garden. After all, you may have tried these already and found them to be utter failures, which would be such a shame, because in my garden at home they look GREAT! What I can give you are the parameters of my growing conditions: I started with acceptable clay soils and have added a fair amount of organic matter for the past three years (leaf compost and mulch). My home was built in the 1920s, so while my soils are not compacted from new construction, I still wanted to add the organics to allow for better water and oxygen penetration to the roots. Drainage is moderate in most areas with a few spots that stay more saturated from heavier clay content. I never use synthetic fertilizers on anything planted in-ground, and while I give plants consistent water the first year they are planted, I am a bit more lax on watering things that have been established unless we are under severe drought conditions like this past summer. The plants on my current recommended list are ones from my home garden that have survived at least two winters in my clay soils with little to no extra coddling during the growing season.