25 Top Plant Picks from the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden®

These all-star perennials and shrubs are our favorites from over the years, and we heartily recommend them to you.

Caryopteris Sapphire Surf

Carson Downing

Every plant has to earn its place in the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden®. Pretty flowers count for a lot, but blooms that last a long time, flowers with ornamental seed heads, plants with great-looking foliage, those that thrive with little fuss, and pollinator-friendly plants are among the favorites of Test Garden manager Sandra Gerdes. She favors hardy, drought-tolerant plants, colorful foliage, and plants that deer and rabbits leave alone. Perennials and shrubs are the backbone of the Test Garden. On the garden's 25th anniversary, Gerdes picks the varieties that have truly stood out from the crowd over the years.

Sandra Gerdes has been the BHG Test Garden manager since it first opened 25 years ago.

BHG Test Garden Logo
01 of 25

‘Sugar Tip’ Rose of Sharon

hibiscus sugar tip

Carson Downing

Rose of Sharon can be a self-seeder that spreads aggressively through the garden. ‘Sugar Tip’ is a variety that does not: the ruffled pink flowers bloom through the summer, and attract pollinators, but don't produce seeds. Green leaves splashed with creamy white give the plant star status even when it’s not blooming. Heat- and drought-tolerant, this plant needs full sun for the best blooms. It grows to about 6 feet tall and wide, but can be pruned easily. This hardy hibiscus makes a great screening plant, according to Gerdes. Zones 5-9.

02 of 25

‘Shrimps on the Barbie’ Lungwort

Pulmonaria shrimps on the barbie

Carson Downing

One look at the sizzling pink flowers offset by the silver spotted foliage and you'll see that ‘Shrimps on the Barbie’ is a fitting name. This lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) blooms prolifically and attracts pollinators. "It mixes so well with hostas and looks good all summer long," Gerdes says. Clumps grow to about 10 inches tall and 2 feet wide. Lungworts prefer slightly moist soil. Zones 4-9.

03 of 25

Pasque Flower

Pulsatilla vulgaris

Carson Downing

Cheerful purple flowers appear amidst 12-inch clumps of ferny foliage in spring. “The little feathery mounds look so delicate, and then you have tons of flowers,” Gerdes says. She also loves Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) for its wispy seed heads, which are allowed to self-sow in the Test Garden’s meadow. If you cut the flower heads off as they fade, you’ll still have great-looking foliage all summer, Gerdes says. Grow in well-drained soil in full sun. Zones 4-8.

04 of 25

‘Ice n’ Roses Red' Hellebore

Ice N Roses Red Hellebore Perennial

Carson Downing

Hellebores are tough perennials that defy winter with cheerful blooms that withstand the season’s last frosts. ‘Ice n’ Roses Red' is prized for its unusually early, deep red blooms. The flowers face out and up, so you can enjoy them without getting down on your knees. Hellebores thrive in well-drained soil in shade or part shade. Plants grow 1-2 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

05 of 25

‘Cordial Canary’ Bugelweed

cordial canary bugleweed

Carson Downing

“Who wouldn't want an electric neon green groundcover?” Gerdes says of ‘Cordial Canary’ bugelweed, which is in the ‘Feathered Friends’ series of evergreen perennial bugelweeds (Ajuga reptans). The bright foliage forms a dense carpet; blue flower spikes up to 6 inches tall shoot up among the leaves in spring and summer. Plant in shade or part shade, such as along the edges of a shady flower bed, or where grass won't grow. Bugelweed is rabbit and deer resistant. Zones 4-9.

06 of 25

‘American Gold Rush’ Black-Eyed Susan

Rudbeckia American Gold Rush

Carson Downing

From mid summer into early fall, golden-yellow flowers rise on stems up to 3 feet tall above dark green, mounding, mildew-resistant foliage. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are a hard-working mainstay of native plant gardens. Goldfinches and other birds eagerly devour the seeds as flowers fade. These drought-tolerant plants thrive in sun or part shade. Deer don't prefer the coarse leaves. Zones 3-9.

07 of 25

‘Rocketman’ Russian Sage

Perovskia Rocketman

Carson Downing

Drought-tolerant plants are the future of gardening, Gerdes says. Once established, ‘Rocketman’ Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) doesn’t need supplemental water through hot summers—or any pampering—and its fragrant blooms on strong, upright stems attract hummingbirds and insect pollinators. ‘Rocketman’ is also deer resistant. It grows to about 3 feet tall in bright sunny spots and blooms from mid summer through frost. Zones 4-9.

08 of 25

'Sombrero Adobe Orange' Coneflower

Echinacea ‘Sombrero’ Adobe Orange coneflower

Carson Downing

Breeders have introduced dozens of coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) in recent years, but, Gerdes says, “the ‘Sombrero’ series, for me, has been the best performer.” Adobe Orange is her favorite for its intense color and abundant, three-inch blooms. Snip off the flowers as they fade, and plants will keep right on blooming through the summer. Gerdes suggests planting Adobe Orange next to catmint such as 'Cat's Pajamas' (another of her favorites), noting that the combination of orange and purple flowers really pops. Drought-tolerant plants grow to about 20 inches tall in well-drained soil in full sun. Zones 4-9.

09 of 25

‘Cat’s Pajamas’ Catmint

Nepeta Cat’s Pajamas

Carson Downing

A compact, long-blooming catmint (Nepeta spp.) perfect for the edge of a flower bed, where its feathery silver foliage will release fragrance whenever you brush up against it. ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ is a tidy plant that begins blooming in early summer and attracts many pollinators. Gerdes uses grass shears to cut off flowers as they fade, encouraging another flush of blooms. Plants grow about 1 foot tall and 20 inches wide. Grow them in full sun. Zones 3-8.

10 of 25

‘Maestro’ Sedum

Sedum Maestro

Carson Downing

Plants that contribute to the garden’s beauty through the year are especially valued in the Test Garden. 'Maestro' sedum fits the bill, Gerdes says. Its gorgeous blue-green leaves with a purple blush effortlessly hold their own in the garden through the summer, before plants send up magnificent flower heads on purple stems in fall. Butterflies cover the dark pink blooms on sturdy, 30-inch stems. In winter, the spent flower heads look "like little snow umbrellas out there," says Gerdes. Plant in full sun. Zones 3-8.

11 of 25

‘Gravetye Giant’ Summer Snowflake

Leucojum Gravetye Giant

Carson Downing

‘Gravetye Giant’ summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) is the rare bulb that flourishes where drainage is less than ideal. The graceful white flowers appear in mid spring on stems up to 24 inches tall. Deer and rabbits ignore them. The leaves die back after flowers fade, but summer snowflake comes back every spring, producing more and more blooms as the bulbs naturalize. The summer snowflakes in the Test Garden have come back for 25 years. Plant bulbs in fall in a sunny or partly shady spot. Zones 4-8.

12 of 25

'Blue Danube' Camassia

Camassia leichtlinii caerulea

Carson Downing

This North American native bulb tolerates moist soil and thrives in sun or part shade. 'Blue Danube' is a variety of Camassia leichtlinii that offers innumerable true-blue, star-shaped flowers in late spring on stems 24-30 inches tall. The blooms open from the bottom of the stem to the top, which makes the weeks-long show seem to last even longer. Plant bulbs in fall. Flowers and foliage die to the ground in summer, and come back in spring. Zones 5-9.

13 of 25

‘Summer Romance’ Betony

Stachys Summer Romance

Carson Downing

The bright pink blooms on 'Summer Romance' betony (Stachys spp.) last for weeks in the summer garden. After they fade, the seersucker-textured leaves of these robust plants hold their own in busy perennial flowerbeds. Flower clusters are up to 4 inches long, rising on stems about 3 feet tall. It’s best in full sun, or in a spot with light afternoon shade in hot climates. Butterflies and other pollinators are attracted to it, but deer are not. Zones 4-9.

14 of 25

‘Sterling Silver’ Brunnera

Brunnera Sterling Silver

Carson Downing

'Sterling Silver' brunnera "really helps welcome spring," says Gerdes, where its silvery foliage shines in the dappled light of the Test Garden's shade section. The showy leaves get up to 8 inches across (bigger than some hosta foliage) and plants spread to form clumps almost 2 feet wide. In early spring, a profusion of tiny blue flowers, each one only about one-fourth inch across, stand up well above the foliage and keep blooming for a month. Brunnera tolerates wet spots, and is deer and rabbit resistant. Zones 3-7.

15 of 25

‘David’ Phlox

Phlox David

Carson Downing

'David' phlox (Phlox paniculata) has become a garden classic since it was introduced in the 1980s. It's also a favorite in the Test Garden for its prolific, snow-white fragrant blooms on stems up to almost 4 feet tall—and for its powdery mildew resistance. ’David’ blooms in midsummer, and keeps right on blooming if you deadhead spent blooms. Plant phlox in well-drained soil in full sun for the best flower show. It spreads slowly, over time, and that’s a good thing, Gerdes says, because “white goes with everything.” Zones 4-9.

16 of 25

‘Carnival Watermelon’ Coral Bells

Heuchera ‘Carnival Watermelon’

Carson Downing

An explosion of colorful leaves make ‘Carnival Watermelon’ one of the showiest coral bell (Heuchera spp.) varieties. Hummingbirds visit the white flowers in early summer. After the flowers fade, snip off the stalks, and the vibrant leaves carry this plant through the summer and into fall. Gerdes recommends other coral bells in the ‘Carnival’ series, too. They don’t wilt in summer’s heat, and are deer resistant. Plant in shade or part sun. Zones 4-9.

17 of 25

‘Aureola’ Hakone Grass

Hakonechloa macra Aureola

Carson Downing

Grow this hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) near the edge of a bed, so you can appreciate its luxurious texture up close. “It’s a versatile, graceful, cascading plant,” Gerdes says, “plus it’s variegated. It’s a can’t-miss color that blends with green and blue hostas.” Plants grow to about 15 inches tall and spread 2 feet wide. With a little extra attention to watering, hakone grass also grows in sun. Zones 5-9.

18 of 25

‘Ultraviolet’ Phlox

Phlox Ultraviolet

Carson Downing

‘Ultraviolet’ resists mildew just as well as 'David', but this phlox variety has flashier flowers that stand up to 3 feet tall in flower beds. "I love jewel tones, and you can see these flowers from halfway across the garden," Gerdes says. She grows ‘Ultraviolet’ next to sedum ‘Maestro,’ for a color echo that pops. Bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies also notice when the first, fragrant flowers appear in mid summer. Deadheading blooms as they fade encourages fresh flushes of flowers. Grow in well-drained soil in full sun. Zones 3-8.

19 of 25

‘Diamonds are Forever’ Hosta

Hosta Diamonds are Forever

Carson Downing

Among the thousands of hosta varieties, ’Diamonds are Forever’ truly is a gem, with wide, irregular white variegation on green leaves. Its size, about 10 inches tall and 2 feet wide, makes it a great choice for the edge of a shade garden, Gerdes says. Zones 3-9.

20 of 25

‘Limelight’ Hydrangea

Hydrangea Limelight

Carson Downing

Summer’s heat doesn’t phase this tough, drought-tolerant hydrangea variety, which displays enormous panicles of flowers in mid summer. Go ahead and prune this panicle hydrangea hard in spring: flowers are produced on new growth, so spring pruning will not limit summer’s show. The blooms open green, turn white, and fade to rosy pink. Even in fall, the flower heads look terrific, Gerdes says. ’Limelight’ grows 6-8 feet tall and wide in full sun or part shade. Grow it as a specimen plant, as a screen, or as a hedge in well-drained soil. Zones 3-9. 

21 of 25

‘Fire Light’ Hydrangea

Hydrangea Fire Light

Carson Downing

‘Fire Light’ is another panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) that boasts big white panicle flowers in mid summer. Its blooms turn deep rosy red as they mature, and keep their blazing color through frost. Shrubs grow to about 8 feet tall and wide, “but you can prune it to be whatever you like,” Gerdes says. ‘Fire Light’ thrives in full sun or partly sunny gardens, and it’s hardy even in very cold climates. Zones 3-8.

22 of 25

‘Grand Cascade’ Butterfly Bush

Buddleia Grand Cascade

Carson Downing

Luxurious, honey-scented panicles of lavender flowers up to 14 inches long cover ‘Grand Cascade’ butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.) in late summer and fall. “It’s so fragrant, I can smell it from 15 feet away,” Gerdes says. Butterflies find it, too. ‘Grand Cascade’ is a die-back shrub in the Test Garden; in spring, Gerdes cuts stems to about 1 foot tall, and the shrub grows up to about 5 feet tall in the course of the summer. Plant it “where you want a ‘Wow!’ plant,” she suggests, as long as that's in full sun. Zones 5-9.

23 of 25

‘Curtain Call Deep Rose’ Anemone

Anemone Curtain Call Deep Rose

Carson Downing

Fall is peak bloom season for Japanese anemones (Anemone hupehensis). ‘Curtain Call Deep Rose' has 3-inch flowers with bright yellow centers on strong stems up to 18 inches tall. The flowers start to bloom in late August and continue for up to 9 weeks, Gerdes says. As they fade, the flowers develop decorative, wispy seed heads. Plants are deer and rabbit resistant. Grow in full sun or part shade. Zones 4-8. 

24 of 25

‘Sapphire Surf’ Bluebeard

Caryopteris Sapphire Surf

Carson Downing

Gardeners looking for colorful fall plants tend to lean toward a warm palette of orange and russet tones, but ‘Sapphire Surf’ bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) introduces a cool note of blue, with fragrant flowers that cover the stems for about a month in early fall. It’s deer resistant, drought tolerant, great for pollinators, and requires little care. “It’s a one-day-a-year maintenance plant,” Gerdes says. “We trim back in the spring, and then let it do its thing.” Zones 5-9.

25 of 25

‘Standing Ovation’ Little Bluestem

Schizachyrium Standing Ovation

Carson Downing

This little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) wins its place in the Test Garden for its smoky blue foliage with hints of green and pink all summer long. In fall, the colors deepen, and the plants seem to glow, particularly when they are back-lit by the setting sun. Upright  plants, “literally like an exclamation point,” Gerdes says, grow 4 feet tall and spread 12-18 inches wide in a sunny spot. Cut back in early spring, to just 3-4 inches, when new growth begins. Zones 3-8.

It was a challenge to narrow down our list of favorite plants to just 25. For even more ideas for your own garden, here are our honorable mentions to consider for bulbs, perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Each one stands out above similar varieties in one way or another.


  • Allium ‘Globemaster’
  • Chionodoxa ‘Pink Giant’
  • Lily ‘Black Beauty’
  • Muscari ‘Valeria Finnis’
  • Narcissus ‘Thalia’


  • Allium ‘Serendipity’
  • Aquilegia canadensis
  • Aruncus ‘Horatio’
  • Aster ‘Little Carlow’
  • Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
  • Clematis ‘Happy Jack Purple'
  • Coreopsis 'Big Bang Full Moon’
  • Dicentra ‘White Gold’
  • Eupatorium purpureum ‘Euphoria Ruby’
  • Hellebore ‘Merlin’
  • Hellebore ‘Romantic Getaway’
  • Heuchera ‘Lemon Love’
  • Heuchera 'Primo Peachberry Ice’
  • Hibiscus ‘Mars Madness’
  • Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’
  • Hosta ‘Wiggles and Squiggles’
  • Hosta ‘Olive Bailey Langdon’
  • Hosta ’Humpback Whale’
  • Iris ‘Cantina’
  • Iris ‘Clarence’
  • Lavender ‘SuperBlue’
  • Leucanthemum ‘Whoops-a-Daisy’
  • Perovskia ‘Blue Steel’
  • Rudbeckia ‘Henry Eilers’
  • Sedum ‘Lemonjade’
  • Stachys ‘Helene Von Stein’
  • Vernonia ‘Southern Cross’


  • Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’
  • Miscanthus ‘Bandwith’
  • Panicum ‘Northwind’


  • Calicarpa ‘Early Amethyst’
  • Chamaecyparis ‘Sungold’
  • Euonymus ‘Gold Splash’
  • Fothergilla ‘Legend of the Fall’
  • Hydrangea ‘Gatsby Star’
  • Hydrangea ‘Limelight Prime’
  • Hydrangea ‘Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha’
  • Hydrangea ‘Vanilla Strawberry’
  • Sorbaria ‘Matcha Ball’
  • Spirea ‘Double Play Doozie’


  • Acer ‘Bloodgood’
  • Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’
  • Magnolia ‘Galaxy’
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles