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Top Landscape Plants

Paul James offers a list of plants that can serve as the backbone to your landscape.

With variables like maintenance and expense to consider, choosing the right landscape plants can be a daunting task. Master gardener Paul James offers a short list of plants that can form the backbone of a beautiful garden. All of these are readily available, reasonably priced, easy to grow and flourish throughout much of North America.

Figure A

Deciduous trees. James' first choice is the oak. These tough, adaptable, virtually pest- and disease-free trees provide great shade and are also beautiful. Many oaks produce great fall color (figure A). There are more than a dozen great species in this genus. No matter where you live, there's an oak that will work in your landscape--red oaks, white oaks, black oaks, live oaks and water oaks and more. And to a large extent, the same can be said about maples. In fact, only maples rival oaks in terms of their ruggedness and adaptability. The fall color they produce is often spectacular.

Conifers. Junipers, spruces, cypresses, cedars, pines, and for northern gardeners, hemlocks and firs — the choices among evergreens are many, so to some extent, you really can't go wrong with whatever you choose. James particularly recommends pines. "Honestly, pines are among the greatest of evergreens, and there's at least one and probably several that will grow great in your landscape," says James. Many evergreens grow at a pretty fast rate, and even those that don't grow quickly still look great throughout the year.

Figure C

Deciduous shrubs. Hydrangeas come in solid green or variegated forms, and the flowers they produce rival those of any plant (figure C). They also produce great fall color. Many are hardy to USDA Zone 4. "If I had to plant just one single shrub, it would almost certainly be a hydrangea," says James.

Figure F

"But right behind them would be any one of the fabulous viburnums, which are even hardier and in many cases even more spectacular." James is such a fan of viburnums that he has at least 20 of them in his own landscape. Viburnums produce beautiful flowers in the spring, great foliage throughout the summer months, dynamite fall color and berries prized by birds. They range in size from three to 30 feet. "And while I may be in the minority, I think sumacs are awesome, especially when they display their fall colors (figure F). Although they can spread a bit, they are by no means invasive."

Figure G

Perennials. Among the perennials, ornamental grasses are among James' favorites. They're virtually carefree plants, requiring next to nothing as far as maintenance and bothered by few if any pests and diseases, and as if that weren't enough, they're gorgeous (figure G). The number of choices available is extraordinary. They include those with leaves of either solid green, variegated or red foliage, as well as those that grow both large and small.

Figure I

With grasslike foliage, the daylilies are a quintessential no-brainers for any landscape (figure I). They're available in a staggering assortment of colors, and they're among the easiest plants to care for. "In fact, I would venture to say that if I could choose only one perennial flower for my landscape, it would be a daylily. But I can't imagine settling on just one," says James. "I'd insist on having them all."

Another group of plants that James can't imagine not having in his landscape are the hardy ferns. Now, admittedly, most ferns prefer shade to part shade, but there are actually a number of species that will tolerate a good bit of sun, even in the south. "What I like most about ferns is that they provide a soothing sensation to the garden, and they're a snap to grow and care."

Figure J

Coleus, an annual, is the king of its class (figure J). These stunning, sun-loving beauties are so easy to grow that it's hard to imagine a landscape without them. Whether you grow them in the ground or in containers they look incredible, and there is an endless variety of colors and textures available, as well.

"My list of landscape plants is far from complete," admits James. "For instance, I could have devoted an entire show to nothing but annuals, perennials, or maybe spring-flowering bulbs. But if you'll consider adding these plants to your landscape, you'll be well on your way to creating a place that you can be proud of. And after all, isn't that what gardening is all about?"

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