1. Christmas Fern
Name: Polystichum acrostichoides
USDA hardiness zones: 3 to 8
Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist to dry well-drained soil
Once established, Christmas fern is quite possibly the toughest plant in the world. This evergreen serves as a reliable filler in the shade garden and a year-round staple in cut-flower arrangements. In spring, silvery fiddleheads unfurl into sturdy upright fronds that relax toward the ground as they mature. Growth radiates from a central rhizome, forming a 2-foot mound over time. Christmas fern tolerates poor, dry, and rocky soils, but will not survive in a spot that is too boggy or alkaline.
Name: Fothergilla major
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 6 to 8 feet tall; 5 to 9 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Fothergilla is a star in my garden from early spring until the last leaf drops in November. Fragrant white bottlebrush flowers appear in April and May, good leaf color remains all summer, and then a fantastic explosion of color is the fall finale. This is a very low-maintenance shrub, requiring only the removal of suckers as they appear. If you have a spot where a rhododendron would work, try substituting a fothergilla, and you will not be disappointed.
3. ‘Wild Thing’ Autumn Sage
Name: Salvia greggii ‘Wild Thing’
Zones: 6 to 9
Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
This plant truly is a workhorse, especially in those difficult areas that are hot and do not retain a lot of moisture. ‘Wild Thing’ will begin flowering by the end of June and continue showing off until mid-November. It is unflagging through summer heat. With great numbers of vivid hot pink flowers, this is probably the most noticed and commented-on plant in my garden. Butterflies and hummingbirds visit throughout the flowering season.
4. Anise Shrub
Name: Illicium parviflorum
Zones: 7 to 10
Size: 10 to 15 feet tall; 6 to 10 feet wide
Conditions: Partial shade; can tolerate more sun if the soil is moist
Anise shrub is another workhorse for me. Although officially listed as hardy to Zone 7, it has sailed through two back-to-back winters with –12°F temperatures in my garden with no damage at all. It isn’t a showy “look at me” plant, but serves as a good screen or filler. Its foliage gives a wonderful lush fullness to the summer garden and a much-needed green presence in winter. The fragrance of a crushed or bruised leaf is very refreshing, and the seed pods are fun. Anise shrub takes well to pruning, should you need to keep it smaller and more full-bodied.
Jeff Calton is the owner of Good Earth Landscapes in Kingsport, Tennessee.
Photos: millettephotomedia.com; Jennifer Benner; courtesy of Michaela Anderson; Michelle Gervais
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