Planting for diversity from A to Z
David Robson
Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension.

When I look at my small postage stamp-sized yard, I constantly break my arm patting myself on the back over the diversity of the plant material.

By my last count, and not including all the spring bulbs that are now practically nameless, there are more than 250 different types of plants in my yard.

The initial goal was to have a plant corresponding to every letter of the alphabet. Realizing that the outcome could not occur easily going by common names, I ended up going the Latin route. So, instead of Queen Anne's lace, an introduced plant that could aptly be described as a weed, I concentrated on two different oaks, that happen to be in the Quercus genus.

Going the Latin route is so much easier, especially for the hard-to-find "X" and "Z" plants. Well, the "Z" is never hard - just plant zinnias every year. The "X" is a great little shrubby plant called Xanthorhiza, or yellow root. Coming up with common name Xs is almost impossible.

Once that goal was reached and reached and reached a couple more times, a new "game" had to be chosen.

And this is the point of the article: how to fit untraditional plants into the landscape?

Untraditional plants are essentially fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables for most yards, and certainly my rural upbringing, are relegated to patches behind garages or out in the back 40. Vegetables are grown in a tilled garden, no ifs, ands or buts about it. All fruit trees are congregated together, I suspect to help the bees find the trees though bees have a tendency to find blooming flowers well enough on their own.

Gardens and patches tend to look unattractive and act like a beacon to the eyes. That's fine when the plants are in their peak, but if you have a vegetable ­garden, look at it now. Ugly is the first word that probably comes to mind.

So, let's look at the fruits first.

Fruit trees tend to stand out. They also require a significant amount of care that most homeowners are realizing may not be worth it. My philosophy on apple trees is that there are enough apple orchards within an hour's drive, and enough farmers markets even closer, to make growing apples in the home yard a thing of the past. So, apples are out.

Cherries and peaches are on the opposite end. They tend to be the easiest, and you only need one for great fruiting. Both require some care, but not a great amount.

The small fruit are the easiest, with blueberries (Vaccinium for those looking for a "V") being the king of the fruit landscape. They have great flowers, great foliage, great fruit, great fall color, great winter stems of yellow and orange and few pest problems besides birds, which are a pest of just about any fruit plant. They can grow in full sun and partial shade. An acid soil is their only requirement.

Strawberries are usually grown in beds, but make a great sunny groundcover. The one recommendation is to choose a small-fruited type. Even if you only put in a few plants, you can still get a handful of great tasting fruit for a few weeks each year.

Grapes can finish off a landscape on an arbor, trellis or pergola. Again, variety selection is essential. Some of the seedless reds and whites probably attract fewer birds and are less messy. The plants do need yearly pruning, but are vigorous growers compared to great vines such as clematis and the ­superior climbing hydrangea.

On the downside, most of the brambles, including raspberries and blackberries, are still planted in patches behind the garage. They spread, flop on the ground, attract diseases and insects, and look unattractive during the winter months.

Next month: The best vegetables to add to the landscape.


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Illinois Country Living
P.O. Box 3787,
Springfield, IL 62708.

Telephone: (217) 782-6515