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Jim Dronenberg on Pushing your Luck with Plants

From left: Romneya, Umbellularia and Arum dioscoridis, all zone-pushed.

Good Friend-of-Behnkes Jim Dronenberg did double duty at our recent Garden Party – representing Four Seasons Garden Club and giving a talk to customers, this time about how to grow plants that you’re not supposed to be able to.  Yes, he’s sneaky that way, breaking gardening rules and getting away with it, but he’s willing to share the secrets of his success.  Here they are:

1. Do your homework. Most plants have a limiting factor, and sometimes it’s about the lowest temperatures they can survive but sometimes it’s something else entirely.

2. As you’re doing your research, you’ll discover writers relating their own personal experience with the plant in question and that’s great; just be sure to make allowances to bridge the potential gap between their climate and yours.   Other writers you come across may be simply repeating old, outdated information containing the “You can’t grow this” advice you’re seeking to overcome.  Keep researching.

3.  Then work with the limiting factor you discover about the plant:

  • Some plants MUST have drainage.
  • Some plants, like California natives, can’t take summer wet.
  • Siting is important.  For example, broadleaf evergreens need to be out of winter sun and wind.
  • Things that need heat can be planted right up against your foundation, or against a south facing wall
  • Soil composition is important, so make sure have the soil & pH that the plant needs

More Tips for Rule-Breakers

  • Larger plants are hardier than smaller ones of the same kind—but if you fail you lose more $$.
  • Always plant “iffy” plants early in the season, to become more established before winter.
  • Winter wet kills more than winter cold.

So, success in ruler-breaking isn’t about luck at all.  It’s about well-informed sneakiness.  Plants Jim has successfully grown in his garden near Harper’s Ferry (not as warm as D.C., he notes) include:  Umbellularia (a/k/a Oregon Myrtle), Rosa banksiae,  show here with Jim), Arum dioscoridis, Arbutus unedo, Osmanthus types, Romneya (in the poppy family), Podocarpus, and he’s continually pushing the hardiness of crinums.  This year he’s trying for the first time Moraea and tree yuccas.

Here’s Jim in his favorite setting – any beautiful garden – making music.  Photo by Dan Weil.

Arum photo credit.   Umbrellularia photo credit.  Romneya photo credit.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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