Some hard to plant places

By FELDER RUSHING GUEST COLUMNIST,

We gardeners manage to put plants in all sorts of challenging situations and expect them to perform well; four sites really stand out.

An obvious one is where we try to cheer up nearly windowless apartments and offices with potted tropical plants.

There are some that will tolerate the low light and coolish temperatures, but few that thrive in the low humidity we humans prefer.

Those with broad or slick leaves are the best choices for beginners: Sansevieria, rubber tree, dwarf Shefflera, Chinese evergreen, Dracaenas, and Philodendrons come to mind. And with some light and humidity modifications you can add begonias, African violets and others.

Taking it outside, horticulturists refer to parking lot dividers and the area between sidewalks and streets as “hell strips” where plants must deal with restricted root areas in terrible soil, little or no irrigation, blasts of winter cold and radiated summer heat from sizzling pavement, all day and night. Nandina-type conditions.

But the macabre term “pushing up daisies” has a sensitivity slant.

I get a surprising number of queries every year from people looking for dependable cemetery memorial plants.

The selection has to be especially meaningful and beautiful, plus grow hopefully for centuries with no care at all.

No water, no fertilizer, no pruning, and able to survive being mowed and having their trunks girdled repeatedly with string trimmers. 

For over 40 years now, where ever I go in my effort to find the very toughest beautiful plants in the world, I always make an effort to seek out old cemeteries.

Across our state, nation and five continents I have found beautiful, landscape-quality cemetery plants that are durable, low maintenance, and tolerant of utter neglect and the predictable damage from mowers or string trimmers. 

Plants that dead people can grow and living people can’t kill.

For Mississippi cemeteries I recommend, where permitted, trees such as oaks, cedar, magnolias, vitex and ginkgos (I no longer recommend crape myrtles because of the bark scale).

There’s a decent variety of graveyard-tough shrubs, from evergreen arborvitae and junipers to spring-flowering quince, spirea, forsythia, and weigela, on through summer-blooming abelia, hydrangeas, rose of Sharon (althaea), and gardenias.

And I can name over a dozen very durable, disease-resistant, ever-blooming shrub roses that volunteers have planted in state cemeteries, including historic Greenwood Cemetery just north of the state capitol in Jackson.

That even survive string trimmer damage.

In the fall and winter there are several outstanding heavy-berried hollies, nandina, and both Camellia japonica for winter and sasanqua for Autumn. 

Of course you’d expect me to have found a lot of interesting old-fashioned bulbs like repeat-flowering daffodils (including fragrant “paperwhites”), purple grape hyacinth, star flower (Ipheion), red amaryllis, summer-flowering crinums, orange tiger lilies, pink summer-flowering “naked ladies” and fall-blooming red “spider” lilies.

But the herbaceous perennials I have uncovered in the absolute no-maintenance situation between tombstones is interesting.

Start with iris, whose foliage alone makes it worth growing well beyond the allure of its exotic spring flowers.

Add orange daylilies, succulent sedums, and native purple liatris, purple coneflower, and perennial phlox.

For shadier areas throw in ferns, monkey grass, and hostas.

And by the way, all these will survive for decades not only in cemeteries, but also in regular landscapes with only a small amount of initial soil preparation and enough water to get them started.

Planting any combination of them and adding a “hard” feature (not a tombstone in the home garden!) can create a low-maintenance scene that is year-round appealing.

Memorial plants are for both lost loved ones and the living. It’s good to find those that work for both.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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