Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: The Book


 “Let’s face it: the garden is a popularity contest. High school is a metaphor for life, and gardening is no exception. Step into our gardens and we find the prom queen and the star quarterback, the cheerleader and the rebel who cut class. Popular plants rule today’s landscapes the same way popular kids rule the school. But just like kids, plants grow up, and 10 years or two growing seasons later, we wonder, “Why did my homecoming queen, that gorgeous hybrid tea rose I planted, grow into such a mess?” – Andrew Keys

If there’s one thing professional landscapers get sick of seeing, it’s those over-planted, fussy-natured plants that never perform well, yet for some inexplicable reason are planted in every other landscape we see. The exact varieties vary from region to region, but one thing remains the same: just because a plant is everywhere, doesn’t mean you should invite it into your garden.

That’s why I’m so in love with the idea behind this clever new book. Keys chooses a variety of overused and problem plants, describes their issues, and suggests a number of planting alternatives that you may not have thought of. He has a wicked sense of humor, so reading this is like hanging out with your catty best friend and having a good old gossip about each of the varieties.

You can get a feel for his style from the introduction:

“Let’s be honest. If we’ve picked up this book, we’ve probably:

  • Pampered the one-time prom king in a pot indoors, because he’d be a plantsicle outside in winter
  • Fed the aging drama queen’s chemical habit, lest she be overrun by bugs and slugs
  • Sneaked out at night to water the thirsty freeloader who wilted during a watering ban
  • Realized all the neighbors planted that easy-to-grow floozy in their flowerbeds too, even at the trailer park down the road
  • Noted, with alarm, an army of that plant’s offspring growing behind the football field.”

As a designer, I love having some unusual alternatives to turn to, and Keys’ suggestions take inspiration not only from the usual standby of flower color, but also foliage color, texture and form, and the function each plant performs in the landscape. There’s a photo of every plant described, as well as clear descriptions of the pros and cons of each variety, so it’s like having a trustworthy designer and friend in your camp as you navigate the myriad choices at the nursery. If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that plant suggestions in a general sense are so specific to a region that it can be hard to know which plant alternatives will work in your climate.

In my rainy coastal area, a number of these selections just won’t perform, even though they grow in the right USDA Zone. Yet since Keys is an East Coast designer, his suggestions are spot-on for that climate, and there are numerous options for cold-hardy specimens that would perform well across the country. If you’re tired of reading plant books and finding a bunch of sheltered Californian suggestions and nothing for the Midwest, South or East, then these unusual planting ideas will be a welcome change of pace for you. I also love that most of his suggestions are varieties which are easily available at nurseries. They’re just unusual enough to be fun, without requiring lengthy searches online for specialty nurseries from which to mail-order.

“It’s time to grow up. Let’s pretend the garden reunion is right around the corner. It’s time to ditch the prom queens of the garden and upgrade with all-star problem-solvers.” – Andrew Keys

46 responses to “Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: The Book”

  1. This is going to be the most bore, typical answer ever, but for me, it’s the rose. I guess I don’t count new Knock-out type varieties in this, but shrub roses, yes. I always fall for them, but because I absolutely will not spray them with a chemical or, frankly, do much more than water them and MAYBE throw a little organic fertilizer their way, they always disappoint.

  2. Barberry. Yes, purple is a great color in the landscape, but thorns are not. And in winter, very few bushes are as scraggly as barberry.

  3. I’ve banished, finally (with the invaluable help of my dog, whose strength was needed to help dig them out) the escallonia from my yard. It grew way too fast, always needed pruning, never looked good and was sticky. Close runner-up for most hated is juniper bushes — so boring, and I’m allergic to them. I’d love to have a copy of this book! The excerpts you’ve given us look great.

  4. I am so tired of the simpering rhododendron. Is it the PNW fix all plant? I live in the PNW, but in a high desert and they come into the box stores, people plant them, they die. On the wet side of the state they are nothing but a non creative response to “We need a shrub there” – eradicate or let someone take out a license to plant one. So tired of them!
    Oh? Was I ranting?

  5. I’d banish hybrid roses: they only look good when they are flowering which happens for about 3 days out of an entire year.

    • Are you deadheading them? Deadheading promotes further blooming. Perhaps you are talking about the newer generation of roses, and mine are the roses from the 60s, 70s and 80s (what I’d call the older generation). but I have had blooms all season – and they are still trying to bloom even.

  6. Trumpet vine. Once you want to get rid of it, you’re pulling it up for years and years in places you never thought possible.

  7. Mexican primrose. I purchased this at my local nursery as it’s cute pink lil’ flowers had me at “hello”. 3 months later it had taken over one half of my flower bed… and 3 years later I am still pulling it out!

  8. A plant that I have been willing to pamper is Siberian Iris, with extra water and aluminum sulfate to acidify the soil. I would like to compare and contrast “Why Grow That When You Can Grow This” with the BBG Handbook “Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants”. Fingers crossed!

  9. Colorful Heucheras that self-destruct in the Midwest. I guess these new hybrids do well somewhere, but here they start out strong the first year, are OK the second and by the third are just shrinking away.

    • Yep! Those darn Heucheras do the same thing here. I have found about five varieties that look good past year three. They’re expensive annuals.

  10. Morning glories. They are ridiculously invasive in Cleveland, everywhere, and taking over my raised bed even though I never planted any in the vicinity.

  11. Yellow potentilla. It the default choice for way too many people here in CO, along with spireas, and nobody can figure out how to prune it decently. At the very least, put some white flowering ones in for a change.

  12. Love it! A book after my own heart. I work in a fabulous nursery where we sell (mostly) climate-appropriate “non-invasive” plants. (I say “mostly” because we still slip in a few obnoxiously noxious plants, to my chagrin.)
    Around here (San Francisco), the rose really is the plant that should go. Powdery mildew is basically guaranteed, and you have to put way too much maintenance into them, even if going the organic way. They generally look like crap around here. And eugenia! What the heck? You’re absolutely guaranteed to have a psyllid-ridden, gnarled hedge, and yet people continue to plant it. Go figure. 🙂

    • I hate to say this – but especially if going the organic way! From experience, my roses do horrible unless I use chemicals on them.

  13. Other than banning those vast expanses of chemical-laden lawn people seem to be addicted to, I would ban yellow bamboo. It can be quite a problem in my area of Connecticut.

  14. I’d have to say liriope… I’ve seen it everywhere since I’ve moved to NC. most of them are not well tended and hardly ever bloom and they just end up looking like pathetic grass… sad really.

  15. Would LOVE to have the power to ban English Ivy. The previous owner of our house seemed to think it was the ideal solution to a crazy sloped Pittsburgh yard – I’m in my 3rd year hacking it out and replacing it with things way more interesting. While removing sections of it, I discovered the skeletons of several shrubs that had been murdered by this aggressive thug.

    • Here in the PNW, it’s even invasive. Pulling it out of a garden overrun by it is a great way to get tension out of one’s system! Did you know that when it curls around a tree, and sinks it’s roots/tentacles in, it eventually kills that tree?

  16. ENGLISH LAUREL. It wants to be a tree, not a hedge, and the birds carry the seeds everywhere. English holly and English ivy are also on the list because they are similarly invasive.

    Bruce needs to check out the species rhododendrons. I have ones I grow for the leaves. Flowers are just icing on the cake. They are amazing. You’d hardly know some are even rhododendrons. The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, WA. is a must see for gardeners when in the area.

  17. Here in the Piedmont part of NC, everyone and his brother have Bradford pears. An ice storm or two later, the poor trees are destroyed, their weak limbs having crashed down, leaving a lopsided, sorely wounded ornamental that’s just not that pretty anymore.

    They may ban me from the South for saying this, but I also can’t stand crepe myrtles. Messy, ugly flowers, and usually hacked to death by owners who clearly hate them too!

    Thanks for spreading the work about useful references!

  18. Banish viburnum! Every landscaped patch of earth around Seattle has viburnum. It performs well which has led to over-population. It’s the face-less crowd at the Friday night football game! (to extend the metaphor 🙂 )

  19. I got Kentucky bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass blues.
    If you know what’s invasive, then this isn’t news.
    I ain’t no lawn hater,
    But I love my flowers, too.

  20. Sagos. They are stiff and artificial looking, always covered in scales, and are deadly toxic to pets. I was happy for the hurricane that gave me the excuse to finish uprooting our Queen Sago.

  21. Butterfly bush is an invasive species that is still sold in many nurseries and garden stores. It reseeds prolifically, blocking out fragile dune vegetation on the beaches of the east coast. It has also taken over entire streambanks for miles along rivers and streams in the West.

  22. Lemon Balm was such a cute baby! If I can ever rogue it out, I’ll plant Diamond Heights Ceanothus in its place. Good idea, Andrew Keys. Gen – thanks for the review.

  23. Of all the the plants I’ve tried and wished that I hadn’t, Fen’s Ruby Euphorbia tops the list. It looked so cute in it’s 4″ pot and I’m fighting it all over one planting area. How does one get rid of it ? Nothing seems to do more than slow it down a little.

  24. Campanula glomerata–I am so sorry I ever planted it. So pretty when blooming and then it’s a mess, it’s everywhere, I’ll never get it all out.

  25. Ten years ago a neophyte Landscape Designer chose loropetalum for a low hedge throughout my landscape in zone 7a. At that time I knew nothing about plants, but was eager to learn. When I questioned the suitability of the plant due to its mature size, she replied, “just keep it trimmed.” The plant wants to be 8 feet tall unless I trim it monthly! (Trimming was my husband’s job, but he will trim only once in the spring and freaks out when i trim in October because he says the plants will die. Hasn’t happened yet.) I believe there are 87 of these throughout my front and back yards. I want to pull them out and plant something I can easily keep at 2.5-3 feet tall, but that probably won’t happen, either.

  26. I have butterfly bushes I’d like to see banished–regardless of what I do, they come back, overgrow and take over the entire area!

  27. ChinaBerry here in Texas. Someone brought them over and it’s invasive and aggressive. It’s found in 48% of the 300 counties in Texas. Nurseries who don’t know their plants, that shouldn’t be in business and think the tree is pretty, actually sell them! People pay money for them. The flowers of the Chinaberry tree bloom from March to May. There are five pinkish lavender to whitish petals. The stamens are usually connected in a dark-purple tube. There are five green sepals. These flowers are very fragrant. The fruit of a Chinaberry tree is a berrylike, round fleshy fruit. It continues through winter and contains a stone with one to six seeds inside. They are yellowish green turning to yellowish tan.This deciduous tree can reach a height of 50 feet and 2 feet wide. It is drought tolerant. This beautiful tree turns yellow in the fall and has yellow berries in the winter. The twigs are stout, glossy greenish brown with light dots. There are no terminal buds. They have numerous broad, v-shaped, raised leaves. The bark is dark chocolate and becomes increasingly cracked with age. The Chinaberry tree’s wood is soft and white. The main stem is lime green. Each individual set of leaves has tips, 1 to 3 inches long and 0.5 to 1.2 inches wide. The leaves are glossy dark green with a light green central vein above and the pale green central vein below. They turn golden yellow in fall. (http://library.thinkquest.org/03oct/00240/chinab.htm)

    In addition to managing for exotic, feral, and nuisance animal species, Travis County Natural Resources also manages non-native plant species in accordance with the BCP Land Management Plan (2007). Non-native plants can cause habitat degradation by out-competing and replacing native plants, which ultimately causes a decrease in the quality of food, cover, and breeding sites for wildlife (Cheater 1992, MacDonald 1985, Simberloff 1996). For example, non-native trees can compete with native oaks, impacting a major component of both golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo habitat. Therefore, in order to maintain the integrity of natural ecosystems on the BCP and prevent a negative impact on endangered species habitats, non-native plants found on the BCP are targeted for removal. (http://www.co.travis.tx.us/TNR/bccp/BCCP_Reports/2011_annual_report/Separate_Files/Appendix_L.pdf)

  28. I live in Seattle. There are lots of squirrels, and they may be to blame for planting these nuisance bulb flowers. I’m guessing they are a wild version of hyacinths, but don’t know the name of them. They only see to come in blue stalks and white stalks, and the stems are very thin, but they stand tall and straight. Every year, I have them in another place in my yards. When I want to plant something in the yard, I always have to see how many of their bulbs I can find and remove, but it rarely does too much good.

    If anyone would like to guess and give me their email, I’d gladly take a picture this spring and send it along.