A lot of people would like to garden but are scared off by what they see as a “black thumb”—the inability to keep plants alive. Of course, there is no such thing as a black thumb gardener. All you need to gain confidence in gardening are some easy-to-care-for plants that are practically impossible to kill, and that thumb will be looking pretty green in no time. Who better to get advice from than the author, Stacy Tornio? Her newest book, Plants You Can’t Kill: 101 Easy-to-Grow Species for Beginning Gardeners was created to convert black thumbs and make gardening a whole lot more enjoyable. Stacy is here today to share 10 of the 101 plants covered in the book.
10 Hardy Shrubs You Can’t Kill
By Stacy Tornio
1. Red Twig Dogwood
Dogwoods are some of the best trees and shrubs around (yes, they are considered both trees and shrubs, depending on the variety). There are seriously hundreds to choose from, and red twig dogwood is one of the best (look for the botanical name Cornus sericea). You can grow it as a small tree or as a shrub, pruning it as you see fit. The best thing about this shrub is that is has bright red stems, so it looks fantastic in winter when there’s not very much other color.
2. Crape Myrtle
Bees adore it, butterflies love it, and it’s a staple in the south. It’s crape myrtle (Lagerstromia). This shrub (which can grow so tall that some mistake it for a tree) is a true sign of spring with its beautiful pink flowers. It can tolerate less-than-perfect soil conditions, and it’s common to see rows of these growing in public gardens or bordering long driveways. Sorry northern gardeners, but it might be off limits to you. If you’re right on the edge of its hardiness zone, you can try offering it protection over the winter, and you just might get it to grow!
The harbinger of spring: this is how gardeners often refer to forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia). When it’s really early in spring and not much else is blooming, the gorgeous golden flowers emerge and brighten up an entire landscape. This shrub really is one of the first things to flower, and it sure does make an impact. You can find gobs of forsythia options out there, including dwarf varieties only reaching a few feet tall to border forsythia, which spreads and is used for borders, hedges, and screening. After the initial bloom, they mostly fade away and are forgotten, but they can still offer a solid swath of green for the rest of the growing season.
The world of hydrangeas is HUGE! You can find hundreds and hundreds to choose from, and the botanical names can get a bit confusing. To make things simple, let’s focus on one of the most popular, the bigleaf hydrangea (look for Hydrangea macrophylla). You can find two main groups, including those with globe-shaped flowers (called mopheads) and flattened flower heads (called lacecaps). Both are beautiful, and once you get them established, they grow for years! Don’t lose patience if you don’t get yours going right away. Sometimes you just need to find the right location in your garden.
The hardest thing to do is to figure out whether juniper is a tree or a shrub. The short answer is that it’s both! You’ve probably seen junipers growing before, most of which fall under the botanical name Juniperus chinensis. This evergreen is extremely versatile, and it’s very popular for people who want something to offer a little privacy in the backyard. All junipers are reliable and fairly maintenance-free, though, so you can plant them without worrying. Plus, nearly all produce blue little berries for the birds!
Yews are one of the longest-living evergreens, and they are a staple in many backyards. You’ve probably seen a yew, even if you didn’t know what it was. While the entire yew family is huge, let’s focus on Taxus x media. This is a hybrid group made up of English yews, which are great ornamentals, mixed with Japanese yews, which can survive harsh winters. All are good options for getting some year-round green added to your yard, but this group of hybrids is particularly known for being relatively disease-free and easy to care for.
Here’s another one—is it a tree? Is it a shrub? Ask two different gardeners and you’ll get two different answers. And they’d both be right. Think about what’s most important to you. Is it fall color? Is it offering food for birds? Is it spring flowers? All serviceberries do this, but some have higher marks than others. For a smaller serviceberry, look for the botanical name Amelanchier alnifolia. For a tree, look for botanical names Amelanchier arborea and Amelanchier canadensis. Once you figure out your #1 priority and you know your space needs, then set out to talk to someone at your local garden center to find a serviceberry that fits those needs.
8. Rose of Sharon
Don’t be fooled by the name on this one. It’s not actually in the rose family at all. Instead, it’s related to hibiscus, which generally have tropical-looking flowers. Look for the botanical name Hibiscus syriacus. Still, gardeners definitely grow it for its blooms, which last all summer. The blooms look a bit like hollyhock and the shrub is very forgiving overall. In fact, some gardeners love the challenge of training a rose of Sharon, pruning it to look like a miniature tree.
Spirea can come in many shapes and sizes. For instance, there’s a kind of spirea called bridal wreath (Spirea vanhouttei) that can get up to 10 feet tall and a whopping 20 feet wide! Because there are so many different types, this is one where it’s really important to read labels when you’re shopping at the garden center. Look at the size listed before you buy. All spireas make great hiding spots and nesting locations for birds, and they are known for producing beautiful spring and summer flowers, too.
Viburnums (botanical name is also Viburnum) can vary a lot in size and shape, but they do share a few key important traits. For instance, all viburnums have year-round appeal with flowers in spring, great foliage in summer, nice color in fall, and berries that last through winter. Birders and gardeners like viburnum equally because of the wide appeal it has with birds. If you only have space for a few shrubs in your backyard, definitely make room for a viburnum. There are seriously hundreds to choose from, so you’re bound to find one that works in your space. Plus, many on the market today are native cultivars—definitely a bonus!
Every garden needs those shrubs they can absolutely count on 100% and feel the success of easy gardening. Now, you can plan your next shrub purchase with the confidence of knowing you’re not going to fail. There are 91 more ideas in Plants You Can’t Kill that will make gardening a breeze.
Look for the book on Amazon or at your local bookstore for even more suggestions on plants you can’t kill. The book also includes recommendations for perennials, trees, annuals, grasses, houseplants, herbs, and veggies.
Reprinted with permission from Plants You Can’t Kill: 101 Easy-to-Grow Species for Beginning Gardeners by Stacy Tornio © 2017. Published by Skyhorse. Photography courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing.
About the Author
Stacy Tornio is an Oklahoma girl at heart, though she’s lived in Wisconsin for the last 15 years. As the former editor of Birds & Blooms magazine, Stacy will always consider herself a birder and gardener. She has more than 10 books to her name, including The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book (National Outdoor Book Award winner), The Secret Lives of Animals, Project Garden, and Bird Brainiacs. Also look for Stacy’s books through the Ranger Rick line of books coming out from The National Wildlife Federation.