Just as no-wax floors, frost-free refrigerators and vinyl siding were developed to lessen the maintenance load of the homeowner, the world of ornamental plants has equivalent improvements that lessen the time required to care for a colorful, attractive home landscape.
Any successful "lazy gardener" - no, that's not an oxymoron - can tell stories of favorite star performers that are consistent with their relaxed lifestyle. To add some local scientific basis to this anecdotal information, the Chicago Botanic Garden has completed several studies of groups of plants through their Plant Evaluation Program under the direction of Richard Hawke. Plants are compared in the categories of cultural adaptability, winter hardiness, disease and pest resistance and winning ornamental traits.
The following plants are just a small selection of standouts for the home landscape as recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden and local landscape architects and garden designers.
Ornamental crabapples, derivatives of the native prairie crab, are to the Midwest what flowering dogwood and magnolia are to the South. Nothing is more beautiful than popcorn buds bursting into heavenly pastel bloom. Pity the homeowner who is slave to apple scab, a disease that defoliates crabapples during the time when their shade is most needed, or has to rake up moldy fruits in the fall with any remaining leaves. Crabapples can be both fun and valuable. But it's important to purchase a newer generation of tree that not only holds its leaves faithfully but brightens the winter garden with colorful and persistent fruit. Reddish-pink blooming "Prairie fire" and dwarf, white-blooming "Jewelberry," both of which carry reddish fruit through the winter, and white flowered and yellow-fruited "Bob White" are only three of the many improved varieties available.
Lilacs are as beloved as the flowering crabapple, and historically have suffered from powdery mildew in the Midwest's humid summer. Enter two lines of lilacs with lacy blooms and a recognized resistance to the defoliating mildew. Korean lilacs are dwarf, rounded shrubs maturing at 6 to 7 feet tall and wide. "Miss Kim" is the most commonly available variety, although "Palibin," with its spoon-shaped leaves, is seen often. The Canadian Lilacs bloom slightly later than regular lilacs and have a more vase-like to upright oval form. They do not form suckering clumps and tend to mature at a densely shrubby 8 to 12 foot height. Rosy-purple "James MacFarlane", stunning pink "Miss Canada," and rich purple "Royalty" are a sampling of this valuable group of lilacs.
As an alternative to the ubiquitous yew and juniper, broadleaf evergreens are often used in our Midwest landscapes - with little success. They can be damaged or killed by the drying prairie winds and scalding sun of harsh Midwestern winters. In trials at the Chicago Botanic Garden, two groups of broadleaf evergreens were studied: rhododendrons and boxwoods.
Rhododendrons, which are bright-flowering, spring knockouts in their native and preferred eastern woodlands, can have a profound impact in the Midwestern landscape as well. Trials showed that with some soil amendment, added sulfur to reduce high soil pH and moderate summer shading, the following rhododendrons rewarded the scientists not only with heavy bloom, but also with fall color ranging from green to burgundy and fairly heavy leaf retention in the winter. …