Six plants I can’t live without

What are the six plants you can’t live without? The Grumpy Gardener—aka Steve Bender, Southern Living‘s senior garden writer and blogger—posed this question to the writers of ten garden blogs across the U.S., including me, inviting us to join him in a “blogathon” about our favorite plants.

As I mentioned on Friday, I don’t believe in absolute lists. If I were to move tomorrow to the Pacific Northwest or the Arizona desert or the Florida panhandle, I have no doubt that my list of favorite plants would soon be completely different. Heck, it may be different tomorrow as I stay right here in Austin, Texas.

Nevertheless, it was a good mental and emotional exercise trying to pick my very favorite six plants. It felt like distilling my current plant obsessions down to their very essence. So without any more equivocation here are my six favorites, arranged from tallest to smallest.

Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica). That silver-blue color! That fresh-cedar fragrance! I fell in love with this pyramidal tree while touring Deborah Hornickel’s garden in October 2006, when I took this photo. This conifer grows happily in limestone soils and needs good drainage and sun. I’m trying a couple of ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypresses in my side yard and hope they’ll one day make a silvery vertical screen like this one.

Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum). The only image I have is this uninspiring look at a tiny one I recently purchased. Click here for a look at a full-size weeping bamboo. I’ve admired established clumps in several gardens around town and knew I had to have some. Its feathery texture and movement in the breeze is unbeatable. And it’s not a runner, so you don’t have to fear this bamboo.

Sharkskin agave (Agave ferdinand-regis x scabra). Does this shock you? Regular readers know of my obsession with agaves, in particular my love affair with the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ (A. ovatifolia), which I painstakingly moved to my new garden. But currently I’m crazy for the shark, not the whale—the sharkskin agave, that is. With handsome, smooth leaves that look just like sharkskin, contrasting black-tipped spines, and a strong, stiff-armed silhouette, this agave caught my attention during the Austin garden-bloggers’ tour of Peckerwood last November, when I took this photo. It’s on my must-have list.

Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa). This evergreen clumping grass from Arizona is a staple in my new garden, as it was in my old one, and I use it in almost every garden I design professionally. It’s such a beautiful, versatile plant with touchable, feathery texture, great color, drought hardiness, and deer resistance. It grows upright and almost hedge-like in full sun, looser and weepier in part-shade. It looks chartreuse in the morning and evening light, and in spring it’s even more feathery with tiny, cream-colored blooms. Responding to each breath of wind, it dips and waves in the breeze.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Have you ever seen a cheerier plant? For me, almost any coneflower would fit the bill, but this is the one I grow most often. It’s easy to start from seed, it’s a great attractor of butterflies in the summer and finches in the winter, and it looks smashing with spiky, evergreen plants like the softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia) pictured. What more can I say? I’m a conehead.

Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima). This little grass is a workhorse. You see it everywhere, and for good reason. It’s elegant; beautifully bright green in spring, tan in summer; very drought tolerant; irresistible to the touch and responsive to the wind. Of course there’s a downside—a tendency to invasiveness. But I’ve always found the volunteers easy to pluck out or transplant to a new spot. Mexican feathergrass also works beautifully in containers.

That’s my list. I can easily imagine a beautiful, sunny, central Texas garden made up entirely of these six plants. If it were mine, would I want other plants? Without a doubt. I found it very hard to leave salvias off my list, for instance, as they provide long-blooming color and attract butterflies and hummingbirds. But structure and texture won out over flowers and fragrance, much as I love them too. While only the coneflower provides significant seasonal change, a garden such as this would look great year-round, even with just six plants.

By now you’re probably thinking, “That’s crazy! I’d never pick those.” Or, “How could she leave ______ off her list?” If so, why not play along? If you could choose only six plants, what would you pick?

While you’re thinking it over, go see what the other garden bloggers chose as their favorites by clicking on the links below:

Defining Your Home Garden. Cameron in Chapel Hill, NC
Diggin’ It. Judy Lowe in Boston
Fairegarden. Frances in Tennessee
Fresh Dirt. Jim McCausland in western Washington is posting his choices on Monday, and Sharon Cohoon in southern California is posting hers on Tuesday.
Gardening With Confidence. Helen Yoest in Raleigh, NC
The Grumpy Gardener. Steve Bender in Alabama
Hoe and Shovel. Meems in Florida
Sweet Home and Garden Chicago. Carolyn Choi in Chicago

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

34 Responses

  1. Frances says:

    Good morning Pam. Certainly some surprises in your list. The Arizona Cypress is a fabulous tree. I brought one with me from Texas to TN even. There are now two growing as a screen for privacy and they grow so amazingly fast. Your choices are well thought out and would make a great planting in any Austin garden. How can anyone’s list not have Echinaceas? I am trying to see if any plants make everyone’s list, for that would be a true must have. We share two.

    I don’t think any plants made everyone’s list, did they? Which is kind of nice—regional differences keep things interesting. —Pam

  2. Jenny says:

    It was interesting to see your picks for favorites in the garden. One thing I have decided is that even wonderful plants can look wrong if they are in the wrong place. Someone in our neighborhood has planted that Arizona cypress, in fact a row of them, and they are so out of place in the hill country setting. How could any of us live without those Echinacea and the Mexican feather grass. It seeds everywhere put is easy to pull. Is that wine cup beneath, unusual color. Poor old Whale’s tongue—-

    That’s interesting about the Arizona cypress looking out of place in the Hill Country, Jenny. Considering its point of origin—a more arid climate than ours—I’d have thought it would look just fine there. Don’t worry about the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ though. He gets lots of adoration around here, and he doesn’t read my blog. ;-) —Pam

  3. That’s looks like a good list to me, and I can imagine a garden with just those plants in it. But your agave allegiance switch has me in shock!

    I should have played it the way Frances did, and claimed the whole agave family. I really do love so many of them that choosing just one is kind of random. —Pam

  4. Jamie says:


    I love the cypress tree on this post! It’s magnificent in color, I just wish we had more room to tuck one in somewhere around here ;0) And likewise, I love to see echinacea and feather grass in a garden. What garden would be complete without them?

    Not mine, that’s for sure. Those will be the picks from my list that most gardeners from other regions can relate to. —Pam

  5. Diana Kirby says:

    Very interesting. I knew there would be at least one agave on your list along with some grasses — it was just a matter of which ones. I’d have Coneflower on my list as well. What a fun exercise.

    As I mentioned to Carol, choosing just one agave was almost like drawing a name out of a hat. There are so many I love. Tomorrow it may be a different favorite. —Pam

  6. Joy says:

    Wow .. we are in such different zones the only plant in common for the favorites is the echinacea .. but I wish I could have more of yours girl!: )

    Hi, Joy. I bet we can grow many more of the same plants, but my choices for this list tended toward the arid-lovers. Narrowing my choices to six meant that I left off many, many garden favorites. —Pam

  7. Nicole says:

    I recently bought 2 ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypresses, totally love agaves, bamboos and feathery grasses, so you know what they say about great minds thinking alike lol.

    Well, well, well! We are certainly simpatico, Nicole. —Pam

  8. It’s interesting to see your choices! The cypress and bamboo were totally unexpected from what I thought you would list! I’ve tried the same cypress here, but it didn’t do well so we’re using a Deodar Cedar in its place. I have some fargesia clumping bamboo, and find yours so interesting and beautiful. Coneflowers just work for everyone, don’t they! I struggled between coneflowers and agastache on my list, but since the bunnies munch echinacea, I went with agastache.


    If bunnies appear in my new-baby garden, I’ll know just what to switch to. I enjoyed your list too, Cameron. —Pam

  9. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Great choices Pam. I was not surprised by any of them since I read your blog regularly. If I was able I could grow many of these too. I continually have agave envy due to your lovely specimens.

    I think about you, Lisa, whenever I post a cactus shot. ;-) —Pam

  10. Rose says:

    Pam, I just came over from Frances’ post, and what fun! It’s so interesting to see such different plants that the two of you have chosen. Living in the Midwest, I probably wouldn’t choose most of these–and I wasn’t even familiar with a few of them–but I would definitely agree with the echinacea. That’s my “signature plant,” one I couldn’t live without. But I can see how all of these would look so lovely in your Austin garden. I recently came back from another visit to my daughter in Arizona, and I’m becoming a big fan of agaves, too. Looking forward to meeting you at Spring Fling!

    Same here, Rose. It’ll be great to put faces to names and blogs. See you there. —Pam

  11. Hey Pam,

    Interesting choices. The photos are great, save the weeping bamboo in a pot – LOL! Lovely choice though. I found that I didn’t have perfect pics (or even decent pics) to go with my list of 6. This summer, I better quit looking and start clicking!

    The photo with the grass is enticing. Love how you have it in the bed. This is just not done often enough. I’m just getting into Agave. Tony Avent at Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh has a patio of several hundred (or so it seems) on his patio in pots. Very striking.

    Any Echinacea in Helen’s Haven are relegated to pots – out of the reach of the belligerent bunnies.

    Great post!

    Helen Yoest

    Thanks, Helen. It’s been fun to see what other gardeners in various regions choose as their favorites. I enjoyed reading yours as well. —Pam

  12. Gail says:

    As Gilligan said to the Captain…”You can’t make me, you can’t make me!” There is no way I could choose 6 plants. Six plants! Folks might think C&L would be better off with fewer;) but, way! I am just crazy about the Mexican Feather Grass in the container surrounded with wine cups! That says Digging to me, along with the Coneflowers and plants with fantastic architectural appeal! You are a good sport Pam…sticking to just six! gail

    Gail, it wasn’t easy! But I gave it the old college try. Tomorrow, though, my choices might be all different. ;-) —Pam

  13. Hi Pam,
    Great post as always. Your choices are closer to my zone than any other of the blogathoners but still that zone 8 can grow several different things than we can down here. I had a hard time not including the salvias as well. But like you, went with the more pragmatic choices that can be built upon from the six.

    Loved all your choices. The shark agave is as interesting as the whale’s tongue. It makes perfect sense for you and your garden!
    Meems @ Hoe and Shovel

    Thanks, Meems. I really enjoyed your post as well. You’re right that our zones are almost compatible, but your hot zone gets a lot more precip than mine. —Pam

  14. Wow, Pam! These are some impressive plants. If only I lived in Texas instead of currently being in Boston. I tried to get purple coneflower on my list, but couldn’t decide what to leave off to make room. I’ve been having fun with the new colors of coneflowers, but still love the pink. I remember my teenage sons asking, “If the flowers are pink, why is it called purple coneflower?” What would they make of orange purple coneflowers! :-) Hooray for botanical names!

    Your son asked a very logical question, Judy. It’s strange how some plants get their common names. But their quirkiness can be their most endearing quality, don’t you agree? Thanks for your post too. I enjoyed seeing your selections. —Pam

  15. Jean says:

    That must have been really difficult to nail down just six. But I can see why you chose the ones you did. All of your choices are so perfect for the Austin area and the style of gardening there. I have a few of them as well (bamboo muhly, mexican feather grass, coneflower) but have had a harder time fitting them into my “southern” garden. In fact, the nursery I’m working at now has bamboo muhly and not only can they not figure out how to place it for selling, they haven’t sold a one! But I digress. I really don’t know what six I would pick but I would most definitely have to include a salvia. For my own personal garden, I feel I must have interaction with the butterflies and hummingbirds and salvias seem to be the best for them here. What a fun post and thanks for the other links!

    Oh, how hard it was to leave off the salvias! I really can’t imagine gardening without them, but as you know, the list specified only six. I’m so surprised to hear that Louisiana gardeners are not attracted to the bamboo muhly…yet. But I bet they will be. —Pam

  16. Good list, Pam. Mexican feather grass has always been one of my favorites. Not only is it great in the ground, it’s also great in a container. I never have to water it. Love agaves, too, and that bamboo sounds really neat. I shall add it to my list-of-things-I-covet.

    That’s a very long list at my house, Grumpy, and I expect at yours as well. Regarding the feathergrass, I find that it does need supplemental water in Austin on occasion—our 19-month-long extreme drought being one of those occasions. I had several give up the ghost last summer, but then again they were planted in a western-exposed hell strip with no supplemental water. That’s a lot to ask of any plant when you don’t get rain for a long time. Those extreme cases aside, it’s a fantastic, easy-care, beautiful plant, and it’s great that gardeners all around the country can grow it. —Pam

  17. So in your version of the West-ern Side Garden-Story, the Sharks beat the Jets, Pam? (Just imagining water spouting from the Whale’s tongue Agave.)

    That Silvery cypress at Deborah Hornickle’s garden entranced me, too, but left Philo unmoved. How can I sneak one in? I hope they do well for you in the new garden!
    It’s fun to see your list and your signature Echinacea flower. Although the purple coneflower might have made my list twelve years ago, it hasn’t grown nearly as well for me in Austin as it did in the Chicago suburbs. But no salvia of any kind? That does surprise me.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Your West Side Story analogy cracked me up, Annie. But I’d say the Sharks have only won the skirmish today, not the war. Tomorrow it could well be the Squids—the squid agave, that is. I love them all.

    And yes, the omission of salvias was made with difficulty. Good thing I never have to make such a choice in real life. —Pam

  18. Nell Jean says:

    Only echinacea would be also one of my choices, but not because it attracts butterflies. In my garden, a few butterflies visit echinacea only until something tastier comes into bloom.

    Echinacea seems to be one of those universally popular garden plants. It’s nice to know you enjoy it too, Nell Jean. —Pam

  19. Germi says:

    GREAT list! Perfect plants for a hot garden…
    Sharkskin Agave, check! Otatea, check! Nassella, check – although I can’t stop calling it Stipa… I grow all these plants and I adore them all!
    wow, that cypress is a wonder.
    And I congratulate you on whittling it down to six … that was quite a challenge!

    Was it ever! Germi, I’d love to have a sharkskin agave, and I’m envious that you’ve already got one. But of course you do! I bet you’d vote for the octopus agave over the shark though, right? —Pam

  20. Jake says:

    I can feel your pain with moving that Agave. I moved a very cool Yucca with me from Kentucky to Florida last year and it has very sharp points on the leaves. I drew blood, glad you didn’t.


    It was touch-and-go though, Jake. Still, it’s worth the trouble to move a fine specimen, isn’t it? Thanks for visiting. —Pam

  21. Robin says:

    Pam, you really surprised me with the cypress and the Shark Agave! And now I totally MUST have the mexican weeping bamboo. I took your advice from before and have added bamboo muhly, but that huge picture of the weeping bamboo is incredible. It’s funny how many people love coneflowers, and it’s a flower I just can’t connect with. I still love the Hibiscus family (cheating, I know, cause there are so many variations), and I’m currently in love with Abutilons. Of course, part of that has to do with the fact that I currently love anything that blooms in lots of shade. If I were to move, I guarantee my favorites would change. But how could you leave out an ancient live oak tree?

    Because I knew my neighbor would choose it, and it’ll shade part of my garden too? ;-) What can I say, Robin? Six is a very difficult number to distill your favorites into.

    So you’re not a conehead, eh? Well, I can understand the abutilon fascination. I’m having fun with them too. FYI, I’ve seen the Mexican weeping bamboo recently at Barton Springs Nursery and the Great Outdoors. You’ll see a big one in Jill Nokes’s garden this weekend (unless she’s pulled it out since I last saw it). —Pam

  22. Good list, and interesting to see that for the most part, blooms were ignored in favor of foliage color and texture. Now I wonder, is that a sign that the times they are a changin’, or just that this list was put together by a professional?

    The way I see it, Susan, blooms come and go, but evergreen foliage is forever. And yet…I would be loathe to give up flowers in my garden. Good thing we’re not really limited to only six plants! —Pam

  23. linda says:

    Very nice choices Pam. I expected to see the whale’s tongue at the top of the list, and wasn’t surprised by your coneflower pick – such a sturdy, drought-tolerant, long-blooming, wonderful plant.

    That’s one that everybody can appreciate, isn’t it, no matter where they garden? Thanks for stopping by, Linda. —Pam

  24. Robin says:

    Interesting choices. I expected the echinacea and agave; the cypress is stunning for sure.

    Thanks for letting me know about the feed reader problems. I had limited internet connection while I was in Alabama for 16 days with my dad, (he had surgery for lung cancer). I think the problem is due to a program my husband installed to protect our computer, it is blocking all cookies for some reason. We tried to delete that function but I’m not sure we have corrected the problem yet. Hopefully soon.

    Robin, it’s good to hear from you. Yes, your feed is still not working for me, but from time to time I remember to pop over and see what’s going on. Best wishes to your dad for a speedy recovery. —Pam

  25. Les says:

    Not bad. With the right drainage I can grow everything on your list.

    Yes, drainage—and mild winter temperatures—are key to growing many plants on my list. Add a blistering summer, and you’re in business! —Pam

  26. Aiyana says:

    The interesting thing about Arizona Cypress is that we don’t see it much here. Same with Bamboo muhly. We do use Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ and Muhlenbergia rigens (Deer Grass) a lot.
    I know you like the larger Agave species, but have you ever seen Agave ocahui var. ocahui? I like the shape, and since it is solitary, there’s no constant offset removal.

    Hi, Aiyana. No, I’ve never seen that agave in the nurseries here, but it looks great. It has a yucca-like form, doesn’t it? Or maybe more like the Queen Victoria but without the white stripes. I’m surprised to hear that Phoenix gardeners don’t use Arizona cypress or the Arizona native bamboo muhly. But I expect Arizona has cooler, wetter regions where those plants grow well. I once took a road trip from southeastern Arizona up to the Grand Canyon and was fascinated by the varied terrain we encountered. —Pam

  27. Lori says:

    Mexican feathergrass and bamboo muhly would make my list too. And also catmint. And anacacho orchid tree. Not so sure if I can narrow down those last two choices! How long did it take you to settle on those six?

    I had a really hard time leaving both the Anacacho orchid tree and Texas mountain laurel off my list. I’ve been revising my list for about three weeks, Lori. It was a difficult exercise for a plant lover. I’ll have to try the catmint one day, since that’s one of your faves. —Pam

  28. Lori says:

    Also, I’ve never seen the Mexican weeping bamboo before. I wish I’d known it existed when I started landscaping my yard– it would look very different now! Ah, well, I guess this way I get to know a greater variety of trees and bushes.

    Are you joining us on Sunday, Lori? You’ll see a mature specimen at Jill’s house. And Philip had some in his East-Side-Patch garden too. When you see it you’ll want one. —Pam

  29. Jan says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t pick the Whale’s Tongue agave. I so associate that plant with you. After seeing it on your blog, I have lusted after that plant, but haven’t seen it around here nor do I thing it would do well with our high rainfall.

    Always Growing

    Jan, I knew that not naming the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave would surprise regular readers since I’ve extolled its structural beauty many a time. But I didn’t feel as if I were really leaving it off my list. Agaves are a key plant family for my garden, and any one of them might have been my choice on a particular day. It doesn’t mean I love the ‘Whale’s Tongue’ any less for favoring a different one on Monday. :-) —Pam

  30. Hi, Pam, This is not only a very well thought out post, it’s a very revealing post about you as a gardener. I’m seeing structure and design as primary. I must admit I’m rather stunned that only one flower made it to the fore, and so this is revealing something about myself to myself. I would have made a list of only flowers and the ones that provide so much structure and beauty to your garden would have been missing from my list, except for perhaps the bamboo. So interesting! Thank you. I will pay more attention to this hole in my repertoire and appreciation!

    Hi, Kathryn. As you know, I LOVE flowers too, and I couldn’t really be happy gardening without them. But I chose my six plants with the idea that if they were the only ones I could use, they would make a beautiful, year-round garden on their own. Thank heavens I don’t really have to give up flowers though. —Pam

  31. Love your bamboo. Yes, you have LOTS of texture in your choices! It’s so hard to limit your selections, aren’t we lucky we don’t have to make such hard choices in our gardens?

    Very lucky, Nola. I admire minimalism, but I’m not a minimalist at heart. —Pam

  32. Mamaholt says:

    Bouganvilla!!! I have had a bouganvillia in every single place I’ve ever lived. No matter how tiny/scary/dingy/lightless (I’ve lived in LA and London) the apartment, I always plant a bouganvilla somewhere. Takes me away to a deserted beach in Mexico every time!

    They are mood-lifters, aren’t they? That’s a beautiful choice, Mamaholt. —Pam

  33. I’ve finished my list. This was fun, but I can’t exclude all of the other beauties growing here. So many plants, so little time. :) ~~Dee

    I enjoyed your list too, Dee. You are so right about “so many plants, so little time.” I’d add to that, So little space and money! —Pam

  34. carolyngail says:

    Don’t know how I missed commenting on your six favorite plant selections. I must be a sometimer. Great choices, Pam and wonderful photos.

    Thanks for popping by, Carolyn. It was a fun exercise, wasn’t it? —Pam