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Old-fashioned plants are good choices in today’s gardens

  • Diane Lynch
  • There are many old-fashioned plants that have been garden staples for generations and continue to be good choices for our gardens today. Spiraea, hydrangeas, scented geraniums, weigela, abelia, crape myrtle and nandina might not be the first shrubs you’d think of if you were looking for plants to spruce up your landscape. But they share traits that include being low-maintenance, pest-resistant and water-thrifty.

    Even hydrangeas can get by with relatively little water. The ones planted in my garden get by on the same drip system as everything else, which puts out little water. Hydrangeas react to acidity in the soil and change flower color based on the pH of the soil, or the acid/alkaline balance. More acid soil, bluer flowers, more alkaline soil, pinker flowers. Unless wilted in the evening, your best guide to whether a plant needs more water is to see what it looks like in the morning, because many plants will recover overnight as temperatures drop.

    Abelia is a graceful vase-shaped shrub for a large empty spot. Its growth habit is best enjoyed in its natural form, not hedged or sheared. When it gets too leggy, prune a few canes down to about 6 inches and the bottom will fill in again. Abelia will put out profuse little white to pinkish flowers summer into fall, will tolerate shade as well as heat and keep on blooming, often most of the year.



    I’m fond of variegated plants for several reasons. They brighten dark corners of the garden and are more interesting when out of bloom. Because they don’t have the full complement of chlorophyll they tend to be slower growing and less aggressive. Weigela is a deciduous shrub that produces pink to red flowers galore in the spring, but the green-leafed versions are nothing special afterwards. However, the variegated weigela is quite pretty at the back of my narrow garden path. Heavy pruning just after bloom every other year will keep it whatever size you wish.

    Nandina domestica, or heavenly bamboo is the tall species version of one of the most versatile, graceful plants you can have in the garden. Its produces red berries for the birds. The best way to prune is to remove about a third of the canes near ground level to re-foliate the bottom of the plant.

    Scented geraniums are actually pelargoniums and come in so many scents and leaf forms that they can be hard to recognize until you notice the asymmetrical five-petal flower. One of the nicest things about most geraniums: limitless free plants via easy-to-root cuttings.



    Spiraea is a tough little shrub in two different forms: spring blooming bridal wreath with white cascading flowers, and summer- and fal-blooming with pink, red or white blooms at the ends of the branches. Hybridizers have developed many colorful varieties ranging from lemon yellow to deep bronze, which look good all year long. When I see spiraea I think of my grandmothers’ generation, though I don’t specifically remember these from their gardens.

    If you have a hot sunny spot in your garden for a small tree, consider lagerstroemia or crape myrtle, which will flower its little heart out all summer long and then produce a wonderful color show in the fall. The bark is soft and sinuous when it drops its leaves for winter. You can pollard it to keep it at the height you wish. Every fall, cut the branches off at the same spot and it will develop a big knot at the end of each branch like the London plane trees in Golden Gate Park.

    Try some new — old — plants in your garden and enjoy the variety and low upkeep.