6 Flowering Perennials for Hot Dry Locations

Before we moved to our current home, I gardened on a sunny hilltop location with heavy, rocky clay soil. To say that the plants I planted there had to take the heat was an understatement. And yet, through some trial and error, I managed to grow a garden that required little care and supplemental watering only during dry spells.  I figured I’d take a moment to share some of the plants that worked for me in my zone 5 full sun garden.

Keep in mind that when I’m talking about drought tolerance I’m referring to established plants. Any perennial will take a year to really become established in its new setting, and during its first year it will require some extra attention, namely in the form of keeping the plant well watered (about an inch of water per week is a good rule of thumb, and more during hot dry spells.) After its first year, the perennial should be much more acclimated and ready to face some rugged conditions.

Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)

Echinacea purpurea

My theory is that anything I can find flourishing (and looking lovely) in a ditch somewhere is probably a pretty sturdy plant. Echinacea fills the bill. It grows with minimal care and watering.

That said, there are many echinacea cultivars, and some grow better than others. Echinaceas have become quite the popular plant with hybridizers, and some of their creations–from the double-flowering to the designer colored–will likely take you by surprise by departing quite a bit from the typical coneflower. I could probably write several articles on echinaceas alone, but for now I’ll just suggest a few cultivars that are worth checking out. My favorites (so far)  include: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Pink Double Delight,’ ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Coconut Lime’ and the wildflower species, Echinacea purpurea.

Echinacea grows in zones 4-8. It blooms in mid- to late-summer and lasts through early fall. Seed heads are attractive through the winter, and provide great food for birds, but you may want to cut some or most of them down to prevent excessive seeding if you don’t want your Echinaceas to spread.

Liatris spicata 'Kobold'

Liatris spicata (Blazing Star, Gay Feather)

Here’s another perennial whose wild look-alike (the invasive purple loostrife) you’ll see growing in marshy ditch banks. But unlike purple loostrife (which is on quite a few DNR invasive species hit lists), liatris behaves itself in the garden and handles dry soil.

Liatris is another perennial I love because of its carefree nature. It grew for me readily without being fussy or complicated. Not only that, but it’s absolute crack to bees and butterflies–if you need pollinators in your vegetable garden, plant some liatris nearby to attract them. I have watched all kinds of butterflies visit my liatris plantings, from monarchs to giant swallowtails.

Depending on its location, liatris blooms from mid- to  late-summer into mid-fall. It’s hardy from zones 3-10. It doesn’t spread excessively (in fact, it can be a bit slow in that department, so plant more if you want a nice patch.)

Hemerocallis (Daylily)

Hemerocallis 'Stella d' Oro'

Take a look around at city plantings or plantings around businesses and you’ll find Hemerocallis everywhere. That’s because daylilies are among the easiest plants to grow. They take harsh conditions without complaint and are pretty much guaranteed to show up and flower their little heads off for weeks. Each daylily bloom lasts for just one day, as the name suggests, but each plant produces multiple blooms. Some rebloom after the first flush of flowers.

I know a few gardeners who don’t like the daylily because they find the spent flowers unattractive. If you’re a fussy gardener who can’t stand the look of a dangling deadhead, this may not be the plant for you. But if you’re okay with a natural look you’ll find that there are  gazillions of daylily cultivars (this plant is another hybridizer favorite) in a rainbow of colors and bloom shapes and sizes to choose from.

Daylilies do well in zones 4-10 and take full sun to partial shade. (They won’t produce as many blooms in a shadier location, I’ve found.) Established plants do best if divided every 3-4 years or so. Yes, digging and dividing is a chore, but there’s one bonus–more plants!

Nepeta (Cat Mint)

Nepeta 'Kit Cat'

Nepeta is a great, hardy plant for challenging locations, but be warned–it’s a member of the mint family, and therefore it spreads readily. Most gardeners don’t find it a nuisance, but if you’re into a tidy, fastidiously kept garden (in which case this list may not be fore you, anyhow) this is a plant to avoid. But again, if you like the natural look of a garden left to its own devices, you can’t miss with nepeta.

There are a few different species and cultivars of nepeta, but the low-growing ‘Kit Cat’ looks like a winner. (I haven’t grown this myself.) ‘Walkers Low,’ despite the name, is a fairly large plant, reaching about 30″ tall with a broad spread. Read plant tags and keep the space you have in mind before planting nepeta.

Nepeta is another bee and butterfly favorite. It grows in zones 3-8 in full sun to partial shade. Its flowers and leaves are aromatic and yep, some cats find it irresistible.


Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Fanfare"

If you like a plant with a lot of pizazz, then gaillardia is an inspired choice. Some cultivars are so vividly colored that they’re a little bit difficult to figure out how to fit into some garden settings, but no one will ever complain that they don’t “pop.”

Not only is gaillardia eye-catching, but this is one perennial that can take the heat and endure drought–it was custom made for hot and dry locations. About the only down-side to gaillardia is that it can be somewhat short-lived in the coldest climates.

Gardeners seem to have mixed feelings about gaillardia (some love the look, some find it garish), but if you’re looking for a tough plant that won’t wilt in a hot dry spot, then this perennial should be on your list.

Grow gaillardias in zones 3-10 in well-drained soil. Gaillardias can self-sow if not deadheaded, and the seedlings often don’t resemble the parents, so nip off the seed heads if you want to prevent the plant’s spread or keep the strain in your garden true to its cultivar.

Malva (Mallow)

Malva sylvestris 'Mystic Merlin'

I started malva indoors from seed last year, kept it in the house way too long (which left it stunted), finally planted it in the garden (figuring it would just sort of fade away) and was stunned by the way it leaped up from the ground, grew, and bloomed like crazy all within the span of a few weeks.

Mallow is another type of perennial that grows wild and doesn’t require any special care. (Some find it “weedy” for this reason; I find it utilitarian.) It looks pretty growing toward the back of the garden, and it flowers prolifically from late-spring right on into fall, when it starts to slow down a bit. I find the foliage somewhat dull, so I plant malva behind plants that will hide their “feet” but not their flowers.

Plant malva in sun to partial shade in zones 4-8 and watch it take off. Grown in too much shade it may flop and require staking, but give it sunlight and it should be tall and stately.

The secret to a good garden, I’ve found, is to find what works and stick with it. I experimented with lots of plants and found some that were well suited for my location and others that failed to impress. The unimpressive ones, or plants that require excessive care and babying, are a waste of gardening energy in my opinion.

If you’ve got a hot, dry spot give these perennials a try. I’d love to hear about your results!


March 27, 2011 at 10:06 pm 5 comments

Why You Should Grow Hostas

If the banner here on Petiole Junction isn’t a clear indication, let me state this for the record–I’m a hostaholic. There is no cure…no 12 Step group. There are plenty of casual gardeners in the world who’ll say things like, “Oh, I have both kinds of hosta in my garden!” and those people haven’t yet awakened to the reality–there are thousands of hosta species, and of them there are hundreds that are absolutely worth growing in any shady garden.

I’ll try to give you a little visual peek at some of the great shapes, colors and textures hostas have to offer. The images I’m using are from Hallson Gardens, a well-known and respected grower whose tremendous selection of hostas serve as a gateway drug for budding hostaholics. Treat yourself to a visit to Hallson’s site, where you’ll find hostas organized by size, color and more. You’ll also learn lots about hostas visiting the Hallson forums.

If you think the plain green or green and white hostas you’ve seen planted along shady foundations are the only types of hostas there are, you’re in for a surprise. Many are, of course, green or green and white. But many are also golden, chartreuse, lime, and blue.

Hosta 'Blaze of Glory'

Hosta 'Abiqua Drinking Gourd'

Hosta 'Kiwi Gold Rush'

There are also hundreds of wonderful hostas that come in variegated forms in combinations of green, blue, gold, lime, cream, yellow, white and every subtle shade in between.

Hosta 'Blue Ivory' (author's photo)

Hosta 'Cathedral Windows'

Hosta 'Twilight' (author's photo)

Not only are there myriad leaf color combinations, but hostas come in many shapes and textures. Leaves can be round or heart-or lance-shaped.  They can be flat and smooth or shiny or corrugated or cupped or even wavy-edged. Some have colored petioles (leaf stems).

Hosta 'Red October' shows off flashy red petioles.

Hosta tokudama 'Aureonebulosa' has heavily corrugated leaves.

Hosta 'Maui Buttercups' has both corrugated and cupped leaves. (author's photo)

Hostas come in a variety of sizes as well. If you’re not a hosta lover (yet), you’re probably accustomed to the medium-sized hostas you see growing along shady foundations and under trees in older landscape plantings, but you may not have encountered the commanding garden presence of a giant hosta or smiled at the charm of the diminutive minis.

Hosta 'Sagae' is a very large hosta that makes an impact. (Author's photo.)

From left to right, small and miniature hostas 'Mighty Mouse,' 'Blue Mouse Ears' and 'Cat's Eyes.' (Author's photo.)

Hostas are simple to grow. Like any plant, they have ideal growing conditions and thrive if you give them exactly what they like, but they aren’t particularly fussy and many will even grow under fairly dire circumstances. I dug out a plain green species (hosta lancifolia) last year with the intent of sharing it with a friend. I was interrupted and ended up laying the hosta down on a clump of rocks and dirt–a very inhospitable location. I got distracted and somehow just never got back to that poor little hosta. It lay there with its roots exposed for weeks. Come July, it was not only still alive but blooming. Although I don’t recommend this kind of treatment, you’ve got to admire the tenacity of a plant like that.

One of the few things hostas don’t like is excessive heat, so a location with some shade is a must (although some hostas can tolerate a fair amount of sun.) And, although hostas are fairly tolerant of dry conditions, providing adequate moisture will aid growth, particularly in the first year after the hosta is planted. Very wet locations, however, don’t provide a great environment for hostas because excessive wet conditions can lead to rot.

My personal hosta collection is still small at about 40 cultivars (I know many hosta people who have several hundred varieties in their personal gardens and growers/hybridizers who have at least 1000 or more), but I have no doubt it will continue to grow (pun intended) as I run around collecting hostas like Pokemon–gotta have ’em all!

March 18, 2011 at 8:25 pm 2 comments

Signs of Spring

I woke this morning to the sound of a cardinal singing outside my window (which was cracked open a bit to let in the cool breeze.) The sun was shining, and a quick check of the weather app on my phone showed that it was in the mid 30s. The cardinal sang out his happy song and then suddenly I heard it, the sound that makes me smile and feel a little giddy as spring approaches…the chirp of a robin.

I threw on some clothes and picked up my camera and tripod. Here’s what greeted me.

The birds are singing, the dogs are shedding…spring can’t be far away!

March 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm Leave a comment

Potting Up Seedlings

I spent some time today potting up the impatiens that I’d sown in a flat. I thought I’d share my technique. Potting up isn’t rocket science, but I might be able to impart a few tips and tricks to help you transition your seedlings from crowded flats to larger single containers.

The first question I consider is whether my seedlings really need potting up. If they’re looking healthy and seem to have room in their existing flat, I’ll usually save myself the hassle and leave them until I can put them directly into the ground or their permanent containers. But if things are looking crowded, and you see signs that your seedlings are becoming stunted or root bound (roots coming out the bottom of the container’s drainage holes, or circling the inside of the container’s walls in a tight knot), and if planting time is still a ways off, you may want to give your seedlings a leg up by transferring them to larger containers for a while.

Such was the case with my impatiens, which were overflowing their flat. I wanted to put them up (and untangle their roots) before they got too root bound and distressed. When possible, it’s best to avoid replanting already stressed plants, because the replanting process is stressful enough. Moving is stressful to humans. It’s no fun for plants either. But when all is said and done, they appreciate a new home with more room.


Step 1

Get yourself a decent potting soil that isn’t too heavy and will promote good drainage. I try to avoid anything with added fertilizer, since I’ll be adding my own. I like Miracle Gro Organic Choice–despite not being fond of their fertilizing products, this potting soil has a lot of organic material to promote good drainage. Your mileage may vary.

Step 2

I pre-moisten my potting soil. No little seedling wants to be roughly ripped from it’s nice, moist home and planted in bone dry potting mix, then drenched with water. Putting your seedlings into nice moist soil is the way to go. Here, I’ve dumped some potting mix into a stainless steel bowl.

Here a look at the potting mix and my ghetto setup. Yes, I’m using a printer box as a table. As I’ve mentioned, I’m cheap.

Here I’m adding some water to the mix. I like to use hot water–it gives the seedlings a nice warm place to move to.

I’m going to stir this up with a large stainless steel kitchen fork. (Anything will do for mixing up the soil, but the fork works really well for me. It’s like a miniature garden fork.) The goal is to make the soil moist and crumbly but not wet and gummy. You do not want mud.

(Note that the camera perspective makes the bowl look small and my hand look big. The bowl is actually fairly large. I can fill several 4 inch pots before I need to mix up more potting soil. But…you could do this in a large plastic storage bin just as easily and it would probably be much more convenient. I had no such bin on hand, so…steel bowl.)


March 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm 4 comments

The Impatient Gardener

T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasted Land, declares April “the cruelest month” but I disagree; March is much much crueler, at least to a gardener. Early March throws upper Midwesterners a few promising days in the 40s, and sometimes even the 50s and 60s, and yet March can turn around and produce snow, sleet, freezing rain and bone-chilling temperatures.

Yesterday it snowed, a wet heavy slop that fell like slush from the sky and congealed on the ground and pavement. A day like yesterday can put an anxious gardener, one desperately clinging to the spring promise of blooms and greenery to come, into a stupor. Although the seasons can’t be rushed, I’m an incredibly impatient gardener, and I don’t know many who aren’t like me at this time of year, succumbing to an unbridled case of spring fever.

As if on cue, yesterday as the snow was falling my little flat of impatiens (too crowded, and planted way too early, impatien(t) gardener that I am) produced a hopeful bloom indoors under the bright fluorescent lights in my home office. And I’m reminded that, despite all appearances to the contrary, spring always comes eventually.

March 10, 2011 at 9:05 am Leave a comment

Growing Strong – Behind the Scenes at a Garden Nursery

Yesterday the sun was shining and the temperature was seasonable in the low 40s. I set out for Ebert’s Greenhouse Village, a large nursery in Ixonia, Wisconsin, to take their behind-the-scenes production tour, a special pre-season event. It’s strange to see one of your favorite springtime nursery haunts during the off-season. The places usually overflowing with annuals were bare and my favorite spot, the shade perennial area, was nothing more than a bunch of barren tables. But many of the greenhouses at Ebert’s were bustling with activity in anticipation of the start of the 2011 season in mid-April.

When I arrived, myself and the 25 or so other gardeners in attendance were treated to snacks, coffee, and cold drinks–a very nice reception for a free event. (I even won a door prize–an Ebert’s baseball cap.) We were introduced to some of the staff members, given a brief introduction to the operation and its history, and then we set off for the greenhouses and the production tour. Here’s a journey through the tour in photos. Click the image thumbnails for a description.


The owners and staff at Ebert’s Greenhouse Village are always second to none when it comes to knowledge, hospitality and friendliness. Their 2011 season begins Thursday, April 14th. I look forward to it every year.

March 9, 2011 at 9:48 am Leave a comment

How To Germinate Seeds Indoors

Starting seeds can chase away the winter blues. These coleus will look fabulous in the garden and containers in about 6 weeks or so.

Some folks kick off the gardening season when they venture outside on the first warm days of spring to begin cleaning up their yards–fluffing mulch; removing fallen sticks and leaves; cutting back the dead foliage on last year’s perennials to make way for new growth. I love getting outdoors in the spring as much as any gardener, eagerly poking around in the mulch looking for a sign of the first crocus or hellebore’s appearance, but I’m also impatient. That’s why, in mid-January when the snow is flying and the air is still frigid, I begin shopping for seed starting supplies, knowing that within a week or two I can have green things growing right here in my home office.

If you’ve shied away from trying to germinate seeds indoors, or if you’ve let previous failures keep you from trying again, buck up, little camper! Seed starting is easy once you learn a few simple tricks.


March 4, 2011 at 3:06 pm Leave a comment

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