Do you lack a green thumb when it comes to gardening? Perhaps you think of yourself as being “all thumbs” instead. I have a relative who’s motto when it comes to plants is, “If I touch it, it will die.” I bet you have a friend or relative like that too; or perhaps you are that person–the one who has never had much success at gardening.
Well have I got good news for you: in this article I present to you 15 worry-free, rugged, low-to-no maintenance plants and flowers that anyone can cultivate. I call them “plant it and forget it” plants because you just stick them in the ground and they will grow.
When I first began gardening here as a hobby, I learned the hard way–through trial and error–what would thrive and what would die. Although I could have spent hours researching all of the proper soil conditions and procedures for growing each type of plant, I preferred to just do it. I wanted a casual hobby; I wanted to get my hands dirty and enjoy some earthy, physical activity.
I have lived and gardened in Florida for over twenty years, and I have learned by experience what works here and what doesn’t. Plants and flowers are sensitive to climate, soil conditions and the weather. What grows well in one region may not grow well in another. Nonetheless, these fifteen plants that I present are hardy and versatile enough to survive and thrive most anywhere. Before I get started, I need to clarify a few gardening terms…
Is it an annual or a perennial?
Plants are divided to into two broad classes: annuals and perennials. There are annuals that bloom; and annuals that do not bloom. There are perennials that bloom; and perennials that do not bloom. Annuals are plants that complete their entire life cycle in one year. Annuals must be replanted each year–usually in the spring. Perennials are plants that live three or more years without having to be replanted. These terms have nothing to do with whether a plant blooms continuously or not–they have to do with how long a plant lives.
Two lesser known terms that one may come across are biennial and tender perennial. A biennial, as its name suggests, is a flower that lasts for two years. It grows the first year without blooming, then blooms the second year, then dies. It completes its life cycle in two years. A tender perennial is a plant that cannot handle any cold weather–not even frost. If you plant it in a warmer climate, it will last several years as a perennial. If you plant it in a colder climate, it will act like an annual and die just as annuals do in the colder seasons.
There are also evergreens as opposed to non-evergreens. Evergreens (also called deciduous), maintain their green foliage all year long; non-evergreens do not.
In this article, I have purposely emphasized perennials and evergreens because I like color in my garden all year round. Since I live in the subtropical climate of south Florida, I have that luxury.
Is it a plant, flower, tree, shrub or vine?
Rather than splitting hairs over how to categorize different types of flora, I prefer to describe them by how they look and function. Most folks can tell whether it’s a plant, a flower, a shrub or vine by the look of it. If it blooms, then it’s a flower. If it has long, flexible stems that can be trained to climb a wall or trellis, then it’s a vine. There are shrubs that look like vines, plants that look like flowers and flowers that look like shrubs. Regardless of how they are technically classified by botanists, I have placed the plants in this article into the following categories based on how they look:
1. Flowering Shrubs
2. Non-Flowering Shrubs
4. Non-Flowering Plants
One last term I need to cover is cultivar. This term is used a lot in gardening literature and it simply means a particular variety of plant. Most plants have many different varieties or cultivars.
1. Flowering Shrubs
Lantana (aka Shrub Verbena) [Lantana camara]
Lantana is a tough evergreen perennial shrub that blooms throughout the entire year in warmer climates. Even if killed by the cold, it will grow back the next year. The combinations of colors that this shrub comes in are amazing. There is Lantana that produces only one color of flower, such as yellow or orange; and there is Lantana that produces all kinds of color combinations, such as pink & yellow, purple & white, even yellow, orange & red. Lantana’s tiny flowers blossom in groups of round clusters. This shrub not only grows upward, it also spreads outward–sometimes quite rapidly. If you plant Lantana, make sure you give it plenty of room, because it will definitely take up any space you give it.
Hibiscus (aka Chinese Hibiscus, Hawaiian Hibiscus) [Hibiscus Rosa-sinensis]
The many colors and varieties of this, the state flower of Hawaii, can be seen throughout the United States and especially the south. Hibiscus (pronounced hi-BIS-kuhs) love subtropical climates and as such they do well as perennials in parts of California and anywhere that temperatures do not become extremely cold.
The variety of this large shrub that I have had the most success with is the Hawaiian Hibiscus. For reasons unbeknownst to me, my neighbors and I have found that the ones with red blossoms seem to be the hardiest and require the least amount of care. Hibiscus also love egg shells and coffee grounds. If you have some laying around, don’t throw them out. Crush the egg shells and sprinkle them along with your used coffee grounds around the base of your hibiscus. You can water it in if you like, but you do not have to.
Mexican Heather (False Heather, Hawaiian Heather, Elfin Herb) [Cuphea hyssopifolia]
I think of Mexican Heather as an evergreen ground cover even though technically it is a “sub-shrub.” It grows low to the ground and spreads out. Mexican Heather looks similar to Scotch Heather and produces tiny purple flowers. Just about any plant with a word like “Mexican” in its name should alert you that it is heat-tolerant and drought-resistant.
Mexican Petunia [Ruellia brittoniana]
The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Mexican Petunias is “voracious.” These evergreen shrubs with tall, flimsy, vine-like stalks have attempted to take over more than one of my gardens. They will grow just about anywhere in any conditions. Mexican Petunias produce large, beautiful flowers that look similar to Hibiscus flowers. They come in a variety of colors. They blossom each morning. By sundown, they have dropped all their blossoms and are ready to bloom again the next day.
Oleander [Nerium oleander]
Oleander is yet another voracious, evergreen shrub. It comes in a variety of colors and will thrive in almost any climate or condition. Oleander can grow to be quite tall–it can reach 20 feet in height. Because of this, it is often used along fence lines and as a hedge. There are dwarf varieties of Oleander available that only reach about 4 feet in height. One caveat I should mention when it comes to Oleander is that its leaves are toxic to some animals, such as horses.
Plumbago (aka Skyflower, Leadwort) [Plumbago auriculata]
Plumbago (not to be confused with the back condition) is yet another evergreen flowering shrub that I am tempted to describe as ubiquitous here in Florida; for everywhere one turns, one sees the bluish-violet blossoms of the Plumbago springing up. And why is this? It is, of course, because Plumbago is such a low-maintenance shrub. Just stick it in the ground and it thrives.
Gardenia (Star Jasmine, Downy Jasmine) [Jasminum multiflorum]
I am told that the Gardenia is an evergreen, branching vine. Nonetheless, I refer to it as a flowering shrub because the particular variety of Gardenia that I am most familiar with (the Star Jasmine variety) is usually used as a shrub or a hedge here in Florida. Star Jasmine Gardenias can be identified by their tiny, white star-shaped flowers which bloom throughout the year. There are other varieties of Gardenia that produce larger, more fragrant blossoms–but if you opt to plant one of those varieties, be prepared to cultivate them as they require a lot more care than the Star Jasmine variety.
2. Non-Flowering Shrubs
Croton (aka Variegated Laurel) [Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum]
Croton (pronounced KROHT-n or KROH-tohn) is an evergreen shrub that makes for excellent ground cover or bordering–it takes up space quickly. Although it does produce very tiny, almost unnoticeable flowers, its large, shiny leaves mottled with a variety of colors are its main attraction. For this reason, I have placed Croton in the Non-Flowering Shrubs category. Landscapers here in Florida love to plant Croton in the common areas of housing developments, apartment communities, traffic islands and anyplace that will not be regularly maintained. Croton are, once again, one of those plants you can stick in the ground and not worry about. The broad, waxy leaves of the Croton can be mottled with any combination of purple, red, pink, yellow, or orange.
Hawaiian Ti (aka Good Luck Plant, Cordyline) [Cordyline fruticosa]
This evergreen shrub is still another favorite of landscapers throughout Florida. The Hawaiian Ti (pronounced TEA) thrives best in humid climates. As with the Croton, this shrub’s draw are its long, broad, strikingly colorful leaves cascading upward and outward of the top of its single trunk. The leaves are usually dark purple or burgundy streaked with brilliant highlights of fuschia. Some varieties produce fruit in the form of tiny, clustered red berries.
Penta (aka Star Flower, Star Cluster) [Pentas lanceolata]
The Penta is a versatile wonder as far as flowers go. It can withstand intense heat and do well in dry or sandy soil. Its flowers come in an assortment of colors and it is a fast grower. In anything but the coldest weather, it flowers repeatedly. Butterflies love this flower as do landscapers. It makes for an attractive border or can stand all by itself. It gets its name from its clusters of small, five-petaled, star-shaped flowers.
Begonia (aka Wax Begonia) [Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum]
Begonias (pronounced bih-GOHN-yuhs) are an “all-purpose” flower that work great as a border, in a pot, a hanging basket or in a plant bed. There are literally hundreds of cultivars of Begonia and not only do they come in a wide array of flower colors, they also come in many leaf colors. It is common here in Florida to see contrasting colors of Begonia planted in alternating rows.
Black-eyed Susan (aka Yellow Oxeye Daisy, Gloriosa Daisy) [Rudbeckia hirta]
Black-Eyed Susans are a favorite especially here in the southern United States. One can find them thriving around bases of mailboxes, in ornamental “wheelbarrow” plant holders, along fence lines and nearly anywhere else–including in the wild. Most folks already know what a Black-Eyed Susan looks like–they somewhat resemble small sun flowers or daisies with yellow petals surrounding a dark center. Black-Eyed Susans are so much a part of the landscape of the south that many folks wax nostalgic whenever they see them. Even though people think of Black-Eyed Susans as being yellow & black, their centers are actually a dark brown-purple in hue. Most flowers and plants that are referred to as dark or “black” are actually a very dark brown, bergundy or purple. Black-Eyed Susans are fun, cheery, vibrant in color and easy to care for–one of the most common, and yet one of the most cherished flowers of all time.
4. Non-Flowering Plants
Coleus (aka Painted Leaf, Solenostemon) [Coleus x hybridus]
With hundreds of different cultivars and color combinations to choose from, Coleus (pronounced KOH-lee-uhs) is widely used for everything from bordering to plant beds to stand-alone pots. Some varieties of Coleus have solid-colored leaves while others have variegated leaves of two or more colors. Technically, Coleus is a flowering plant–it does produce small, light purple flowers. These flowers, however, are not particularly attractive and many gardeners choose to pluck them off (“dead-head” them) when they bloom. That is why I have placed Coleus here in the non-flowering plants category–it is primarily known for its colorful leaves. As with Begonias, many folks like to alternate rows of two or more colors of Coleus to bring out their contrast. One caution is that Coleus with dark or “black” leaves should not be placed in full sun. Their dark colors absorb the sun’s heat rather than deflecting it, and they end up wilting.
Whirling Butterfly (aka Butterfly Gaura) [Gaura lindheimeri]
Although Whirling Butterflies are classified as flowering vines, their stems more closely resemble long, flimsy, reedlike stalks. Because they are vines, they do need support and they do need to be trained or they will flop over. My usual method is to tap a wooden dowel rod into the ground at their base, then gather and tie them to the rod loosely in several places. The flowers of the Whirling Butterflies are available in a variety of colors and my personal favorite are the ones with the vivid fuschia/magenta blossoms. The four-petaled flowers of this vine somewhat resemble a butterfly and when you see them swaying and bristling in the breeze, it is easy to see why they are called Whirling Butterflies.
Bougainvillea (aka Paper Flower) [Bougainvillea spp]
Yet another boldly colorful, flowering vine is the Bougainvillea (pronounced boh-guhn-VIL-yuh). Although the Bougainvillea is a vine, its sturdy, thorny, woody branches make it seem more like a climbing plant. It certainly does not need support although it can be (and often is) trained to grow up a trellis, an arbor, a fence or other such structure. What most people think of as the Bougainvillea’s blossoms are in truth called bracts–pigmented leaves that surround its inconspicuously tiny, yellowish-white tubelike flowers. When I think of the word “bract” I associate it with “bracket” which highlights in my mind that the Bougainvillea’s bracts do indeed surround or “bracket” its flowers. The Bougainvillea’s showy bracts can range in color anywhere from purple to red to light pink to fuschia–there are even cultivars available with bracts of white or yellow.
That sums up my list of fifteen hardy plants that I recommend based upon their stamina and ability to survive in any conditions with little or no maintenance. One last thing I highly recommend is that you take the time to mulch your plants. I like to use cedar mulch because I like the look and smell of it. Some folks around the country use things like pine needles instead of wood mulch (I noticed a lot of pine needle mulch in Georgia because pine trees are so plentiful there). Mulching will insulate the roots of your plants against extreme weather and help them retain moisture when it rains or when they are watered. It also suppresses weeds from growing. Some forms of mulch will even repel harmful insects from your plants.
I find gardening to be fulfilling and therapeutic. There’s just something about getting your hands full of the good earth and watching something beautiful grow. Happy gardening to you and yours. I wish you a garden of enjoyment and wonder throughout each day of the year.