Ten Favorite Stars for Sunny Gardens

In my last post I wrote about an article in the current issue of Gardens Illustrated called ‘100 Plants Every Gardener Should Grow’. While I took issue with the title, it has inspired me to do a much more modest list of my own.

I want to stress up front that just because these plants are favorites of mine does not mean that they will perform satisfactorily (or even stay alive) in your garden. Cultural requirements are key, so look that stuff up before you buy. Otherwise, don’t come crying to me if you plant one of these puppies and it doesn’t work out.

Gardens have stars and supporting players, just like movies. Garden stars are plants that really stand out. Β For me, that means plants that are especially noticeable due to size or color – or both. Around these stars there must be supporting plants that provide background and context.

So here are ten favorite stars that stand out in our sunny front garden. (In writing this list I freely admit that I have so many more favorites, and those in greatest favor vary with the year, the season, and my mood.)

Tulipa linifolia and Tulipa turkestanica
Species tulips Tulipa linifolia and T. turkestanica in the Parkway Border.

Tulips. Can tulips really be considered stars when they are planted in enormous masses? OK, you got me, it’s a contradiction. The fact remains that tulips are the most exciting thing in our front garden for most of April and May. You just can’t beat that richness of color.

Tulips in Containers on the front steps.
Container ulips blooming on the front steps.

As I have written ad nauseum, I like to grow the smaller species tulips in beds and borders and larger hybrid tulips in containers.


Baptiisia australis, Blue Wild Indigo
Wild indigo


2014-06-07 10.24.36 bumble bee and baptisia
Close-up of Wild Indigo flowers.

Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis). Love the blue pea-like flowers and blue-green foliage. An easy plant in the right spot. Grows slowly but achieves substantial girth in time.


DSC_0625 clematis
Clematis jackmanii by our front door.

Clematis (Clematis jackmanii). If you’ve got a wall facing west or south, grow a vine on it. And few vines are more rousing than Clematis jackmanii when it cloaks itself in royal purple. This plant has inspired me to plant some other members of the genus last year – we’ll see if any of them displace C. jackmanii as First Clematis.


Anise Hyssop
Anise Hyssop with Joe Pye Weed standing in the rear.

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Blue flower spikes, edible foliage. Self-sows like the dickens.



Cup Plant


Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum
Cup Plant. Hello up there!

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). Such a friendly giant, but not for the faint of heart. Yellow daisy flowers on top of tall stems. Really, really tall. Also, vigilance must be deployed or you will have a Cup Plant plantation after a few years. On the other hand, it’s definitely a goldfinch favorite.


DSC_0752 butterflyweed

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Love, love, love the unique bright orange flowers. And, like other milkweeds, a host plant for Monarch Butterflies. Needs well-drained, sandy or loamy soil. If you have too much moisture, try Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).


DSC_0525 mexican sunflower
Mexican Sunflower

Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia). Β An annual with dazzling orange daisies on tall, stout plants. Likes heat and sun. Blooms like mad. Superb for attracting butterflies.


Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm
‘Raspberry Wine’ Bee Balm with straight species Wild Bergamot.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’). Luscious red flowers, also uniquely shaped. A favorite of hummingbirds. Spreads enthusiastically by rhizomes.


Brown Eyed Susan

Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Masses of small yellow-orange flowers with black centers. Taller than the more common R. hirta or R. fulgida. Self-sows energetically.


DSC_0478 Joe Pye weed

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’). A regal presence in late summer and fall. Wine-red stems with wide pink-purple flower heads.

What are the favorite stars in your garden?


69 Comments on “Ten Favorite Stars for Sunny Gardens”

  1. As you hinted at with your list, the favourite plant category changes with the seasons and also my mood; tulips and wisteria I always love, and like Pauline all of the Iris family that grow here after these stars I would probably move on to the foliage plants that provide the stage for the star players to perform on.

  2. Too many plants to select stars, because each perform at different times in different seasons for different reasons – stretching bloom time and insect use for the 3 growing seasons. My criteria is what do the insects like.

    Your neighbors must love you with all those self-seeding and running plants. I have 7 on your list (some in shorter varieties) and a few neighbors are furious having the seedlings show up in their gardens. They call them weeds and ask why the pretty flowers from my garden (like lilies) don’t end up on their properties. πŸ˜€ My one neighbor wants to RoundUp my Viburnum and mows over the Rudbeckia in my side garden. Many on your list are very aggressive and do spread the wealth, something I know you like.

  3. I was so in awe of your Clematis that I moved all of my plants further into the sun in an effort to see if they will even remotely look a quarter as beautiful as yours. I also have my Mexican Sunflower seeds that I am going to start this week. πŸ™‚ I love Lavender, and I have one plant that is gorgeous and several others that are barely alive. So, I’m going to take some cuttings and see if I can propagate the one healthy, beautiful one. Of course, after a week of working outside we are now going to get snow for several days.Ugh.

  4. Glad to see your comment about baptisia being slow to establish as I have been cautiously watching mine and wondering if it’s in the right spot. Love your clematis…that color! One of my current faves is astilbe for its plume and leave shape. I also planted a raspberry/white coreopsis that I’m enjoying.

  5. I do have some of the same plants as you, no doubt from your earlier recommendations.
    Here, in Central Kentucky, we are about three weeks ahead of usual with plants in bloom. I cannot name a favorite: tulips (purple and yellow), leucojem, hellebores, trillium, Virginia bluebells, bergenia, trillium, celandine poppies. Hard freeze in forecast, wintry weather for the next week, so all will be gone and we’ll look forward to the next flush!

  6. You and I have a lot of the same flowers but my agastache doesn’t self-sow at all and my cup plant is in a bit of shade – because that’s all that was available – so it’s much shorter than yours. It tops out at about 6 ft. I’ve started growing tithonia thanks to your blog!! πŸ™‚

  7. You have me yearning for summer now Jason. What a wonderful array of some of your favourites. I don’t think I’ve been quite so impressed with other C. jackmanii as I am with yours. It’s gorgeous! I must see if I can source some Tithonia plugs.

  8. Such a great list – I agree with the Tithona and tulips, these being the only two on your list that I’ve grown. Other faves here are lavender, snowdrops, lilac (short flowering season but oh so beautiful and smells divine), ammi, Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’ (which flowers non-stop for a couple of years before it gets too leggy and looks tatty)… I could go on but that’s enough for now. I’m now going to check out whether the Baptisia and Agastache will grow here.

  9. Rabbits are rampant..lost all tulips, carnations nothing I’ve tried, homemade or commercial has deterred. My clematis was pretty skimpy last year so I figured kill or cure. Cut it way back now ….I’ve seen lots of healthy sprouts at the trellis. Right now everything is under 2 in of snow.

  10. Those are some fine favorites and I share many of them. I would add Acanthus spinosus (or almost any Acanthus) to the list. My favorite right this minute is Narcissus ‘Thalia’. My potted tulips are a hit on the front steps. Thank you for that idea.

  11. That cup plant looks as if it intends to take over the world. It reminds me of the Jerusalem Artichoke that took over a community vegetable garden I was in years ago. Impossible to get rid of the thing. You have a splendid selection for attracting pollinators. I have a few of these and may give others a go. But no cup plant. Too much vigilance required for me.

  12. These are all very good choices and since we have similar climates many of them do well for us. I love Joe Weed and grew it in a previous garden but do not grow it here as all the ditches in the neighborhood are filled up with it.

  13. We have a cup plant invasion problem. Our house’s former owner planted it, and now it’s all over the alleys, other yards, etc. Every few years I go on a massacre, but it’s so hard to keep up! The plants laugh at vinegar. They poo-poo Round Up (yes, I admit to using it, but I was desperate), so aside from digging up the top foot of my entire flower bed area, I don’t know what else to do.
    I have to say, though, I love that the plants get to be 8 or 9 feet tall, and the dead stalks can be used to form a fence of sorts. That’s the plan this year, at least. I hope to train flowering vines up them.

  14. Nice picks! I grow Baptisia australis and I’m experimenting with a few other regionally native Baptisia species this spring (B. minor, B. alba and another whose name I forget at the moment).

    Also love the anise hyssop and several other Agastache species and hybrids. Agastache are awesome πŸ™‚

    I’m trying a few of the other flowers you recommend this year, including R. triloba.

    My soil is heavy clay so I don’t think Asclepias tuberosa would work for me, but I am growing A. incarnata. It did pretty well last year. No sign of it returning yet this year, but I’ve heard milkweeds are very late to emerge from dormancy…

  15. Definitely Tithonia. And all kinds of tulips too. And I should like to try Cup Plants. I think the favourites in my summer garden are the Perovskia and the Centranthus for the colour and drama as well as the bees and butterflies they attract. But I love the grasses like Miscanthus too. πŸ™‚

  16. I very much enjoyed your personal compilation, thank you, and I’m delighted to say that quite a few can be found in my garden too. My favourites are far too numerous to be mentioned ;). You have a beautiful garden and what I like most are the giants in among the smaller ones, such an impact and only goes to show that you can or should think big in a small garden.

  17. I can see why you have chosen the plants you have, Jason, and I’d definitely agree on the tulips and Baptisia. I’m not sure I would put Rudbeckia triloba on my list–from one little volunteer that mysteriously appeared in my garden to dozens of seedlings, it’s threatening to take over parts of my garden:) But I have to admit, come fall, I love seeing all these bright yellow blooms. I would have to put daylilies, hydrangeas, and of course, zinnias on my top ten list. It’s hard to pick just ten, though, isn’t it?

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