We’ve covered the bad. Now it’s time for the fun part: the plants we gardeners love. The selections vary from an entire genus to some very specific cultivars. 

We’ve asked the same passionate gardeners, and added a new one, about what to grow. All of these plants are available in the trade, although some may need to be ordered by mail.

Blake Evans is the son of Dwayne Evans, who is an extraordinary nurseryman and owner of Best Feeds Garden Centers, with locations in Ross and North Park. Blake is himself an exceptional plantsman and is carrying on the Evans name.

Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fires’ — These are beautiful evergreen shrubs with nice white lily of the valley-type flowers. New plant growth emerges bright red, providing great contrast in the landscape. They are deer-resistant and low-maintenance.  

Dwayne Evans, right, owner of Best Feeds Garden Center, and his son, Blake. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Heptacodium miconiodes or seven-son flower — This unusual tree that is great for small landscapes, growing 10 to 15 feet tall. It has nice white summer blooms that turn into red bracts after flowering. The tan bark is also attractive, resembling a crape myrtle tree.

Itea virginica ‘Fizzy Mizzy’ — A great native shrub with beautifully elongated white spring blooms, it tolerates most Pennsylvania soils and is very adaptable growing both in full sun and partial shade. Fall color is spectacular, a bright red similar to burning bush.

Karen Atkins, formerly of New Brighton, is a garden designer in Ohio. 

Rose ‘Zepherine Drouhin’ climbing rose — Featuring a bourbon scent, pink color, and red and green leaves, the THORNLESS bush blooms heavily in the spring, then lightly all summer long.  It thrives in full sun and partial shade and will happily share support with honeysuckle or clematis.  It is disease- and pest-free.

‘Pacific Giant’ delphinium — Grow this beauty right and you will get three blooms out of each plant, a whole season of flowers. It’s very tall and has that rarest of icy blue shades, really arresting.

‘Serotina’ lonicera (honeysuckle) — The purple and yellow flowered honeysuckle stops growing at 9 feet, so it can play nicely with others, says Atkins. It shares structures with roses and clematis without taking them over. It also boasts burgundy and green leaves. “They do not overstate the potency of the scent in all the catalogs, but it blooms prolifically all summer, stays covered in bees and hummingbirds, and contrasts so well with almost any other climber. You can’t go wrong using it in combination with anything,” she says. This one may need to be bought by mail order.

Bernadette Kazar of Heidelberg took a break from her splendid garden to pick a few favorites.

Cercis Canadensis ‘Hearts of Gold’ — This redbud cultivar sports pink flowers in the spring and huge heart-shaped leaves that are a lovely green and stand out against other foliage. “The bright green leaves hold their color into the hot summer,” says Kazar, and the leaves turn into a lovely golden color.

Daffodils — “What a beautiful welcome to spring,” says Kazar. “The garden is waking up and coming back to life. The happy yellow colors put a smile on your face and help gardeners get ready to put on their gloves and get back outside. The bonus is, deer will not eat them. They are best planted in mass, says Kazar, and they also multiply year after year.   The time to order is coming up in time for fall planting.  

Ornamental oregano ‘Kent Beauty’ — We love the different greens and the pretty pale pink on top. It’s a low crawling perennial that smells like oregano. Plus, the deer don’t like it.

Landscape designer Rich Liberto has many favorites. He tried to winnow it down to a select few.

Stewartia pseudocamellia — A nice medium-sized tree (24 to 30 feet), stewartia has white blooms resembling a camelia. The exfoliating bark adds winter interest to the landscape.

Sumac ‘Gro-Low’ — This is a good groundcover, spreading 6 feet but is only 2 feet tall. It is good for soil stabilization and attracts birds and butterflies. Fall color is smashing, a bright red with tones or orange and some yellow.

Thuja ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’ — Believe it or not, this is an arborvitae, but the deer are passing it by.   It’s a nice round evergreen reaching only 3 feet by 3 feet. It’s a good foundation or rock garden choice.

Black gum tree — The superb native tree (35 to 45 feet) mimics the shape and structure of a pin oak. It’s an excellent pollinator, and the fall color can be crimson, purple or orange! Black gum is also suitable for wet areas and was known as the ‘swamp tree’ by Native Americans.

Carex ‘Blue Zinger’ — A must for every landscape or garden, this native selection sedge has a truly deep blue foliage. ‘Blue Zinger’ is clump-forming, topping out at 18 inches with a spread to 2 feet. Adaptable to moist areas to dry sites once established. Very effective in groupings or masses.

A few of my favorites are:

Hydrangea paniculata — This is a type of hydrangea, not the purple/blue types so often seen around Mother’s Day, which can be cantankerous to grow, at best. Often called panicle hydrangea, there is a cultivar out there to meet any need, from very large to diminutive. My current favorites are ‘Limelight’ and ‘Little Lime.’ These varieties produce large creamy lime blooms late in the season that mellow to a lovely fuchsia shade. Other cultivars have pink blooms; sorry, there are no blue varieties. If you don’t want to fuss, these plants are as bulletproof as you can get, reliably blooming year after year. They bloom on new wood, meaning you can cut them down hard in the spring to keep them in line. That isn’t necessary if you opt for one of the smaller varieties such as ‘Little Lime’ or ‘Bobo.’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Beauty of Moscow,’ also found as ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ —  OK, these plants are ungainly, they only bloom once in the season and don’t offer much after that. But I would be bereft without a vase of lilacs in the early spring. I’ll gladly suffer the unsightly shrub for the rest of the season for the fragrant flowers early in the spring. ‘Beauty of Moscow’ is a white variety that is worth looking for. It has a lilac scent on steroids. It’s hard to explain what makes it more fragrant. Mine sits beside the old Syringa vulgaris and a ‘Ludwig Spaeth,’ a dark purple variety, and ‘Beauty’ outshines both of them.

My last pick is not a plant, but a fertilizer. Dynamite Flowers & Vegetables 13-13-13 is an absolute must if you like to plant containers or even hang a few baskets around the house. I have 20 to 30 containers in my garden every year. (There is no 12-step program for gardeners, but maybe there should be.) I dump this slow release fertilizer in when I’m making up the pot and forget about fertilizing the rest of the season. Don’t make up your own baskets; dump some in the ones you bring home from the nursery. 

I don’t know what’s in this, but I heard about it a decade ago from a woman who wrote several extraordinary books on containers. She swore by it, and she’s right. I have used all kinds of fertilizers, and I do not get the same results. I can’t find anyone around here that sells it. It used to be available at Home Depot. No matter, I mail-order it in bulk every spring. It is well worth the expense. Your containers will look as fresh in fall as the day you brought them home.  

Clockwise from left, heuchera, yew, hosta and Tradescantia zebrina. (Susan Banks/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Susan Banks was a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who was on strike from October 2022 until she retired at the end of 2023. Email her at klebergardens@gmail.com.

Susan Banks

Susan Banks was a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who was on strike from October 2022 until she retired at the end of 2023. Email her at klebergardens@gmail.com.