Smart plant selection is the single most effective way to create a low-maintenance, high-enjoyment garden. Phipps offers an annual list of Top 10 Sustainable Plants, selected for their non-invasive habits, as well as for their resistance to disease and insects. Once established, these plants require minimal watering and fertilization. Many of these plants are on display in the Outdoor Garden at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Consult our lists, and ask for these plants at your local nursery.


Kentucky Coffeetree
(Gymnocladus dioicus)

Kentucky coffeetree, a bit of a misnomer as it is not in fact related to coffee, is native to the midwest where it is a common street tree. This is a no-fuss tree that can grow to be 80 feet tall. They prefer full sun and tolerate drought. Plants are either female or male, so to produce seed both sexes have to be within close proximity. The resulting seeds can be roasted and brewed into a coffee-like, caffeine free beverage. The female plants have showy, white, fragrant flowers.

Photo © Wikimedia User Tobias67

Chinkapin Oak
(Quercus muehlenbergii)

This tree is shorter than most oaks, growing to a maximum height of 80 feet, though most will stay shorter. They generally grow as wide as they are tall. It is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions as long as the soil is fairly well draining. It produces acorns, providing winter food for wildlife and has gorgeous yellow fall color, holding onto its leaves into winter like other oaks tend to do. 

Photo © Vojtěch Zavadil


(Cotinus coggygria ‘Young Lady’)

Smoketree has a uniquely beautiful bloom. It is covered in puffy panicles that look like cotton candy in early summer. This shrub remains compact, growing to just 5 feet tall with dark green foliage. Blooms are encouraged with light pruning, while heavy pruning will encourage vigorous growth of new shoots and large leaves but no flowers. They do well in a wide variety of conditions — including poor rocky soils — but require full sun to bloom.

(Weigela florida ‘Alexandra’)

This weigela requires full sun to produce lovely pink blooms beginning in late spring and often blooming a second time in late summer. The blooms attract hummingbirds. This low-growing (4 feet) and wide-spreading cultivar is tolerant of a wide range of conditions — including clay soils — and can easily be pruned into shape. Though full sun will result in the most blooms and the deepest purple color in the foliage, it is also tolerant of dappled shade.

Photo © F.D. Richards


Fern-Leaf Yarrow
(Achillea filipendulina)

This perennial has long-lasting bright yellow flowers in flat clusters from June to August on stiff stems reaching around 3 feet in height and spread. Its overall fluffy texture makes it interesting both in bloom and foliage. While the blooms aren’t fragrant, the leaves are exceptionally so, making them especially lovely cut dried plants. It is resistant to deer browsing and tolerates dry conditions. Plant this in your sunny spots.

(Amsonia hubrichtii)

This native, very low maintenance perennial has beautiful star shaped clusters of powdery blue flowers that attract butterflies. It stays below 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. It is resistant to deer browsing, prefers average well-drained soil and blooms between April and May. Though tolerant of part shade, it prefers full sun — a placement that results in bright yellow and orange fall color.

Photo © Peganum

Swamp Milkweed
(Asclepias incarnata)

With lovely, light pink flowers, this native perennial is a larval host for Monarch butterflies. Primarily found in wetlands and swamps in the wild, it is surprisingly tolerant of average draining soils as well. It is tall, reaching 5 feet and forms clumps with deep taproots. This is a great plant for sunny spots, especially interplanted with a wildflower mix.

Photo © Paul g. Wiegman

Japanese Painted Fern
(Athyrium nipponicum)

This beautiful, low-growing Asian fern comes in many varieties. The foliage of varieties of this species provide a feast of eye candy — from the dark red center with silver tips to shades of green, burgundy and pink. They hold their colorful fronds long into the fall. This is a clumping fern, growing only about 1 foot tall and spreading up to 2 feet. Plant these in your shady spots in nice, rich soil that doesn’t dry out.

Ostrich Fern
(Matteuccia struthiopteris)

This giant, native, clump-forming fern creates a beautiful backdrop for any garden, shooting up to 5 feet high. This fern does best in average-to-wet soil in part to full shade.  They have a very traditionally shaped fiddle head which is edible when cooked. They spread by rhizomes to form dense colonies in ideal conditions.

Photo © Andrey Korzun

Mountain Mint
(Pycnanthemum virginianum)

This beautiful, dark green, narrow-leafed, native mint has a taste similar to traditional culinary mints and all parts are edible. Reaching up to 3 feet tall, it is topped with densely-packed, small white flowers that offer nectar to a large diversity of pollinators. Plant it in full sun and in soil that stays moist.