Regional Picks: Plant This, Not That – Midwest

Fine Gardening - Issue 153
‘Heavy Metal’ Switchgrass 'karl foerster' feather reed grass

Overused: ‘Karl Foerster’

feather reed grass

(Calamagrostis × acutifolia

‘Karl Foerster’)

1.‘Heavy Metal’ Switchgrass

Name: Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 4 to 5 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Oh, Karl, you were my first (ornamental-grass) love. I’m not alone, apparently, because your flat green color and wheatlike flowers have appeared in traffic-island gardens across the Midwest. But I’ve grown up, seen the world, and found many grasses that you just can’t top. I’ve become particularly fond of ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrass. Its dreamy, metallic blue color; cloudlike pinkish flowers; and excellent clumping shape demand a place in the garden. Site it in full sun for the best growth and shape. It forms a dense clump that should be cut back in late winter or early spring.


Fastigiate European Hornbeam

Overused: Linden

(Tilia cordata)

2. Fastigiate European Hornbeam

Name: Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’

Zones: 4 to 8

Size: 30 to 40 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Most city and suburban gardeners need a small tree with a narrow spread, but too often, mature height and width are not considered until the tree is growing into their bedroom windows. Unlike the linden, fastigiate European hornbeam offers a narrow habit in youth. It will mature into a teardrop shape that’s not as wide and pyramidal as the linden, allowing it to be used in small yards and as a street tree. While the linden’s fall color is often disappointing, this hornbeam has a more reliable, strong yellow fall color. It also does not have the messy flowers of the linden tree.


Big Sky™ Sunrise Coneflower
Black-eyed susan

Overused: Black-eyed Susan

(Rudbeckia fulgida cvs.)

3. Big Sky™ Sunrise Coneflower

Name: Echinacea ‘Sunrise’

Zones: 4 to 9

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

While black-eyed Susan remains an old-fashioned favorite, this new coneflower offers softer, subtler flowers. Big Sky Sunrise is an elegant, more refined alternative to black-eyed Susan, with citron yellow petals and green centers. It is a hardy, reliable plant that does best in full sun. Big Sky Sunrise will bloom from June through August and seems to be quite the butterfly magnet. Also, with long, strong stems and cleaner foliage than black-eyed Susan, it makes a great cut flower.


Krista Reilly, a 10-year green-industry veteran, lives, gardens, and obsesses over plants in the city and suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

Photos, except where noted: Michelle Gervais

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