Hartley Magazine

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Award-winning Plants—Richie Steffen Tells How to Find Them

Richie Steffen’s latest finds–Hydrangea Magical series. (Courtesy Richie Steffen).

It’s that time of year when gardeners go out on the great plant hunt. “There are so many choices out there, “says Richie Steffen. “Some are fine, but there’s a lot of poor-quality plants as well.” Richie should know. He’s the Executive Director of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, as well as the Chair of the Program, Great Plant Picks. He is constantly evaluating plant performance.

Great Plant Picks notes that western sword fern will tolerate dry conditions under dense shade.

So, how should home gardeners go about choosing what will work? “A great place to start if you don’t like risk is to stick to those plants that have been award winners in plant trials,” Richie says. For instance, the Royal Horticultural Society website features plants that have earned the RHS Award of Garden Merit. It also lists plants that no longer can hold this award, due to subsequent poor performance or because they are not available in the trade. “A lot of that information will apply well for North American gardeners,” Richie notes.

Native trillium is noted as a reliable bloomer by Great Plant Picks.

Closer to home, Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware plant trials rate plants they have studied from zero to five, including many natives and related cultivars. Or look for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Awards database. Other resources Richie mentions are the Denver Botanic Gardens Living Plant Collections, and The Chicago Botanic Garden website, where the plant evaluation articles also appear in Fine Gardening magazine.

Mt. Cuba called Helenium Mardi Gras’s flowers spectacular.

Of course, the Miller Garden’s Great Plant Picks has a large list of plants that have been subjected to intense scrutiny by a diverse group of professionals on the selection committee, including designers, landscape architects, city park planners, and nursery people. It’s useful even for those in other parts of the country; Search the website by hardiness Zone, so you won’t be disappointed lusting after beauties that could never survive where you are.

Also, look for successful plants close to home by talking with your fellow gardeners. “See what works, and what doesn’t,” Richie says. With that in mind, I couldn’t leave him without asking what’s on his personal plant radar. Unlike his solid advice, he’s a classic risk-taker, going after the newest offerings that may be unproven. He says, “I take one for the team.” Right now, it’s new compact hydrangeas, the Magical Series, which changes colors in phases. “And I look for new plants everywhere; I’m not above big box stores,” says Richie. “Sometimes brand marketers funnel plants there before the independent garden centers.”

Itoh peony ‘Bartzilla’ is a Gold Medal winner from Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

And last, I ask Richie what’s his favorite plant for indoors or in a greenhouse. He laughs. “Once a plant crosses my home’s threshold, it no longer exists—but even a bad houseplant person like me can grow sansevieria, the snake plant.” There’s a huge choice of varieties, and after many years, Richie discovered that one in his collection had bloomed. “It has a fragrant feathery white flower,” he says with all the plant hunter’s joy of discovery.