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Garden Tips

Proven Winners
By: Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener

There is a brand name for a plant collection called "Proven Winners" in the garden center trade that is based on testing in unknown locations under unknown conditions.  The only true "proven winners" are those plants which perform well in your own garden conditions and micro-environments over a sustained period covering all seasons.  So don't be fooled by marketing titles, but become your own expert on which plants are proven winners for your specific use and garden conditions.  For example, in my yard, I have identified a variety of micro-environmental conditions which require very different plants and plant types. These growing conditions include drainage, amount of light, duration of light, soil depth and composition, and exposure to our severest seasonal climate conditions.  So my definition of a "proven winner" is based on a plants performance in my own garden under the conditions that exist there.  Therefore, a proven winner to me may not be the same for other gardeners. 

My criterion is ornamentals that are adaptable, durable, have high ornamental value, and low care requirements, I chose only plants that are known to be available at central Texas nursery sources. With that in mind, my 25 highest recommended "proven winners" for Austin gardens include the following:  These have proven themselves in my NW Austin garden over the past 5 years. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect plant.

  • Crepe Myrtles (Lagestoemia indica) - all sizes and cultivars:  Deciduous, summer bloom, fall color, attractive bark, drought and cold tolerant, requiring only minimal pruning when young.  Only rap is they succor at the base and from roots so those need to be trimmed occasionally. Look for varieties that are mildew resistant.  
  • Texas Mountain Laurel (Saphora secundifolia):  Evergreen, spring fragrant blooms, drought and cold tolerant, minimal pruning when young, can be maintained as large shrub or small tree. Only rap is they often get infested with a webworm in spring which chews new growth, but this is a temporary problem which doesn't hurt the plant.
  • Elaeagnus spp.(variegated cultivars only):  colorful evergreen foliage year round, drought and cold tolerant, variegated varieties need only minimal trimming. This plant has no known disease problems.
  • Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus): Dediduous, summer bloom, drought tolerant, cold tolerant, blooms reminiscent of tropical hibiscus and showy, easy to propagate.
  • Podocarpus spp: Also known as Japanese Yew, underutilized conifer, evergreen for year round color, minimal pruning, prefers partial shade, not tolerant of alkaline soils.
  • Pineapple Guava (Acca sellowiana):  Evergreen, small tree or large shrub, silvery foliage underside, showy unusual blooms in spring, edible fruit in fall, ornamental bark, minimal pruning.
  • Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis): Small deciduous tree with willow like foliage, loaded with exotic blooms in summer, drought and cold tolerant,  requires trimming for shape.
  • Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria):  Evergreen small tree or large shrub, comes in upright or weeping forms, beautiful red berries for winter bird food, not tolerant of alkaline soils. drought and cold tolerant.
  • Mexican Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gillesii):  Deciduous small tree, drought and cold tolerant, beautiful and exotic yellow and red blooms in spring and summer, re-blooms, fine textured foliage, prune for shape.
  • Double Red Knock Out Rose:  Evergreen, drought and cold tolerant, very disease resistant, maintains compact shape with minimal pruning, showy double red blooms, maroon tinted winter foliage color.
  • Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix):  The coldest hardy palm in the world, compact and durable.  Shiny green fan shaped leaves, tolerates sun or shade.
  • Meiwa Kumquat (Fortunella crassifolia 'Meiwa'):  A drought and cold tolerant citrus plant – small compact size which produces tasty fruit in abundance in fall in addition to fragrant citrus bloom.  A little protection from northern exposure will help this plant survive to 20 degrees.   
  • Hesperaloe (Hesperaloe parviflora):  Evergreen, yucca-like plant with thread-like filaments is attractive year round in addition to late spring spikes of bloom, very drought and cold tolerant. 
  • Santolina spp:  Also known as lavender cotton, the green form (S. virens) is more cold tolerant than the silver form (S. chamaecyparissus), but all forms are very drought tolerant, compact fine textured scented plant that blooms in spring.
  • Miscanthus sinensis 'gold bar':  Deciduous, dwarf form of Zebra grass to 2′ tall with brilliant banded variegation, prefers part shade and good soil.
  • Yucca spp (most species):  Evergreen, very drought, cold and soil tolerant, come in attractive variegated forms, and are carefree plants, agave weevil is only known pest.
  • Loropetalum chinensis:  Evergreen, purple cultivarse.g. 'plum delight' are most popular but can color fade in too much light,  spring and occasional fall fringe-like blooms, colorful year round foliage.
  • Texas Sage (Leucophyllum fruiticens):  Silverado, a dwarf compact cultivar is recommended, year round silver color, summer sporadic blooms, very drought and cold tolerant, minimal trimming
  • Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha 'Santa Barbara):  Perennial that blooms throughout the summer, compact silvery ornamental foliage to boot, very drought and cold tolerant. This cultivar is a dwarf form.
  • Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum):  a small spreading perennial, evergreen, blooms all summer, drought and cold tolerant.
  • Agave lopantha:  Very compact Agave, drought tolerant, pups prolifically so won't be lost if hit by hard freeze,  variegated cultivar "quadricolor' very colorful.
  • Threadleaf Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'filaformis'):  Evergreen, string like foliage, weeping habit, drought and cold tolerant, a real eye catcher with textural appeal, may be difficult to find but worth the search.
  • Abelia grandiflora (any variegated cultivar):  Evergreen, drought and cold tolerant, very colorful foliage for year round garden color, variegated varieties slower growing and easier to maintain.
  • Mexican Redbud (Cercis mexicana):  Deciduous, spring bloom, attractive small, crinkled round foliage, small tree that is drought and cold tolerant.
  • Nymphea x 'helvoia:  For your small water garden, this cold hardy water lily is a miniature that blooms yellow in perfusion all summer long.  

For more information about the plants above, query the internet using their botanical names.

My garden is a continuous trial garden where, if space is available, I will try new plants and plant varieties that my research indicates are suitable for our area. I have plants growing currently that have promise for getting my "proven winner" designation but need more time to prove themselves in the garden. They are definitely getting the ultimate heat and drought test this summer! The list above is certainly not complete and part of the fun of gardening is the trial and evaluation of different plants.  Often, a plant won't grow well in one area but thrive in another so knowing the correct location for it is a factor in whether is is a winner or not. Gardening is a continuous learning process just as a garden is always an ongoing project.  So share your successes with other gardeners. We are both teachers and students at the same time. I am always on the hunt for another proven winner. 

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©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council