Plants That Will Not Die (Even When You Want Them To)

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

In a test of wills, yucca has won, spikes down. After twelve years of chopping, hacking, uprooting, being submerged after torrential rainstorms and when this winter’s blizzards melted, then not being watered during the recent eight weeks of drought, the yucca looks better than ever!

Yucca is a plant that is engineered to last. Like a green, growing version of the Maytag washer, it laughs at weather conditions, soil conditions, insects, and abuse by humans and animals. Unlike weeds, it also adds strong, vertical, visual interest to the garden, and stays evergreen through the winter.

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It may not compare in aesthetics to the azalea or rose, but when everything else is brown and dying, that flash of deep green yucca provides is refreshing to theeyes and the soul.

This capacity to endure is shared by a number of plants, from groundcovers to trees. What this means for the landscape-challenged homeowner is that they don’t have to depend on silk flowers, knick-knacks and astroturf to have an attractive yard.

With some design help, a little soil preparation and minimal to no maintenance, these plants will be green and growing despite the care given to them.

Sun And Shade Groundcovers

Sun And Shade Groundcovers 1

Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium) is a groundcover that stays lush and healthy whether it grows in full sun, shade, or sprouts up through the rocks in the driveway. Bishop’s weed grows 8 to 12 inches tall, making it a fairly tall groundcover, and its fanlike leaves create miniature lime green umbrellas that successfully shade everything underneath, from rocks and violets to the occasional toad on an insect hunt.

There are two varieties of Aegopodium on the market. The most common is light green, but there is a variegated leaf available as well. The latter is more attractive, but the variegation is most pronounced when planted in partial to full shade.

Sun And Shade Groundcovers 2

This plant spreads any way it can; the normal propagation route is through underground stolons, but if by chance the plant is tilled or sliced with a weed eater, the individual pieces take root wherever they land. One small plant soon turns into hundreds. If a quick fill is the goal, Aegopodium is the solution.

Another ground hugging and colorful plant is the Houttunia (“hot tuna”) variety known as Chameleon. This four-inch marvel has glossy leaves of green, pink and gold. It thrives in deep shade and handles both moist and dry soils.

This is a great alternative to Baltic ivy, as it doesn’t get woody and can be kept in bounds with routine mowing or weed eating. The plant also spreads both underground and by sinking roots whenever a segment touches soil.

The Bomb-Resistant Perennial

The Bomb-Resistant Perennial

Yucca filamentosa could be classified as resistant to every environmental onslaught short of the atom bomb, but its hardiness in the face of the latter has thankfully not been tested. With deep green clumps of needle sharp spiked leaves and spikes bearing hoards of waxy, white flowers that look like thick wads of cotton candy, yucca is a spectacle during the month of June.

Yucca stays green during the worst winter months. Its spikes help demarcate walkways as the smooth surface of the leaves sloughs off snow. Bitter cold days that desiccate tender plants like roses and hydrangeas don’t impact yucca. This plant was built to grow in the deserts, and withstands arid condition and temperature extremes alike.

The entire plant easily stands three feet tall (flower spikes rise to over six feet), and possesses a diameter that is nearly as wide as it is tall. A full grown yucca can be imposing, a trait that should be taken in to account in landscape planning.

In a manner reminiscent of hens and chickens, one mother yucca plant will form a rosette consisting of several smaller “pups”. The pups will eventually form a root system of their own, grow to maturity, and begin to form a rosette. As large as the yucca plant becomes, the rosettes need to be separated periodically so they don’t overcrowd the space they are in.

Yucca also grows easily from seed. If the flower candles aren’t deadheaded immediately, the seed they produce will drop, lay dormant until winter’s freezing and thawing cycle breaks the hard shell, and the next spate of warmth brings forth a new batch of yucca plants.

These small plants are easy to identify and transplant; just be certain to take the entire root ball in order to avoid transplant shock. Seedlings generally are mature enough after three years to send up flower candles.

A Scrub-Loving Shrub

A Scrub-Loving Shrub

Think of the elderberry (Sambucus spp.), and the image of the little old ladies with their homemade wine in Arsenic and Old Lace comes to mind. True, elderberry wine is a summertime treat, but the elderberry plant is an excellent one for soil that is less than perfect.

Elderberries grow wild throughout northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. They favor the sparse, thin, sandy soil laden with rocks that comprises abandoned or seldom-used railroad beds.

Visit Coldwater, Michigan and take a ride on the Little River Railroad (a nicely restored steam engine that pulls several classic Pullman cars); the elderberry bushes lining the tracks sway in the cross breeze as the little engine gleefully chugs by. Even the occasional clumsy “pruning” the engine provides doesn’t seem to frustrate these hardy bushes.

Elderberries make great privacy hedges. They grow six feet tall, with an equal horizontal spread. They are deciduous, losing their deep green leaves each fall, but the branches are dense, which helps to preserve the sense of privacy even in winter. An added bonus is the fruit. Blue-black, juicy and born in easy to harvest clusters, elderberries are great food for birds and wildlife as well as making excellent jelly, jam and wine.

And Then, There Are Mulberries

And Then, There Are Mulberries

Mulberry trees (Morus spp) refuse to give up. Mow them, paint them with Roundup, cover the stumps with black plastic or landscape fabric, and they still find a way to emerge victorious. Their persistence is unparalleled in the world of trees, and if left alone, these hardy trees provide a wonderful canopy for shade and birds’ nests, as well as copious amounts of fruit in mid-June.

The fruit itself can make the mulberry a nuisance. Birds love it, but these small berries must have a laxative effect on every robin or oriole that gorges. Anyone who owns a white or silver colored car knows this. Growing a mulberry next to the driveway leads to dire (and dirty) consequences. However, the fruit is also edible, and makes a serviceable (but bland) wine or jelly.

However, the mulberry is an attractive tree, and can be used in the landscape. It grows nearly 30 feet tall and needs pruning or trimming only when it sends up suckers. Unlike the maple, the spreading roots stay deep underground, and aren’t known to girdle. Even though the mulberry was brought to this country to be food for silkworms, native pests rarely bother the tree.

Mulberry trees spread easily, either through cuttings or by seeds dropped by passing birds, so forests may sprout up within several square miles of a well-established tree. These are kept under control by mowing, or in the case of a larger sapling, by cutting the tree close to the ground, then painting the stump with undiluted Roundup mixed with a spreader-sticker. This concoction will quickly kill the roots and slow the mulberry invasion.

Many people consider the mulberry tree a weed, so seedlings are available only through a few mail order firms. Because they are native trees, they may also be purchased through the Department of Natural Resources or your state’s Agricultural Extension offices. Accommodating neighbors may also be a good source for seedlings, as long as you come with a spade and a bag of fill dirt in hand.

Brown thumb gardening doesn’t have to be tacky or unattractive; nature provides plants for all environments – even for humans who prefer watching television to outdoor activities. Using plants having an iron constitution in the landscape ensures some level of green, despite bad soil, weather, or human neglect.

These plants are also great for soil reclamation projects, and will quickly transform old industrial sites or abandoned properties into green spaces. And if the neighbors snub your choice of plants, gently remind them that a “weed” is merely a plant out of place.

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