If you think that basic means boring, think again! Coneflowers (Echinacea spp. and hybrids) truly are a garden basic. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook them. In fact, there are some interesting options in coneflowers that may make you want to carve out a little extra space for them!
Why every garden should have coneflowers
Why grow coneflowers in the first place? That’s easy: They’re carefree plants that grow happily in almost any kind of soil. They’ll withstand nearly anything that Mother Nature can throw at them, including bitter cold winters and hot, dry summers. The perky blooms last a long time and make nice cut bouquets. Butterflies and bees flock to the flowers, and birds will come to your garden in fall and winter to eat the seedheads. That sounds like enough reasons for any gardener to take a second look at coneflowers!
Coneflowers are easy to grow
When it comes to the old-fashioned pink-purple or white coneflower, there isn’t an easier plant to grow. As long as you put the plant in the ground right side up, it should be fine! Coneflowers like plenty of sun and average, well-drained soil. Like any perennial, you’ll want to water new plants the first summer, to get them safely established. After that, you’re off the hook! The yellow, orange and red ones can be a little tougher to get to survive for several years. Take a look at our tips below to get the most out of your coneflowers.
How to grow your best coneflowers
Those gorgeous yellow, orange and red coneflowers certainly are standouts in the garden! But gardeners may be disappointed if they expect them to bloom year after year without a care in the world like the old-fashioned purple coneflowers.
Why aren’t they as vigorous? Well, the plant breeding that created those vibrant colors included a species that’s a little pickier about its growing conditions than purple coneflower, the one most of us grow. And that means the offspring are a little pickier, too. But for the most success, try these tips from Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova® Nurseries, Inc., a company that’s developed some of these bright new flowers.
1. Pick a good site
While the plain old purple coneflowers (and their white siblings) will grow almost anywhere, the yellow, orange and red ones need full sun and rich, moist, well-drained soil. Adding some compost to the bed before you plant will make them happier, too.
2. Buy the biggest plants you can find
This is no time to cut corners! Choose plants with multiple growing points, not just one cluster of leaves.
3. Don’t let coneflowers bloom the first year
Yes, that smarts, because you wanted that color right away! But the plant will establish healthier roots if it’s not putting energy into flowers the first year. Plants in quart- or gallon-size containers won’t need this if their root systems have had a chance to grow to fill the pot. But if you’re working with plants in small, 4- or 6-in.-wide pots, it’s best to either pinch the blooms off or cut the entire bloom stalk back, as in the photo at above.
4. Be sure to mulch in winter
If you garden where the ground repeatedly freezes and thaws during the winter, mulch over the plant with a 6-in. layer of chopped leaves to protect the crown.
What to do with coneflowers at the end of the season
At the end of the season, some gardeners like to leave the seedheads standing — they provide subtle winter interest, and birds, especially finches, eat the seeds. If you leave the seedheads standing, volunteer seedlings will come up. Either enjoy these free plants or just pull the seedlings to keep them in bounds. (Do note that seedlings of all varieties eventually revert to pink-purple.)
To prevent reseeding, cut them back in fall, but you may want to leave a few seedheads: Individual plants are not especially long-lived, but because they reseed so readily, you can maintain a clump of the purple ones for years just by letting a few new plants come up every year.
Sometimes you may see dark spotting on the leaves — this is usually a bacterial or fungal condition caused by humidity and moisture. It may cause plants to drop leaves and look a little rough, but it doesn’t hurt anything. Prevent it by giving plants good air circulation and not watering the foliage (if you need to water).
The only serious problem with coneflowers is that they’re susceptible to aster yellows, a disease that’s spread by insects. Lumpy, misshapen, green-tinged flowers, like the ones above, let you know a plant is infected. Once the plant has it, the only thing to do is pull it out so the virus can’t spread to other plants. Bury affected plants or throw them on the compost pile — the disease won’t survive after the plant is dead.
Coneflower varieties to try in your garden
In the past, the only colors for coneflowers were pink-purple or soft white. And these are definitely pretty — one glance shows you how gorgeous old-fashioned coneflowers can look in a flower border. But over the last several years, plant breeders have released some unusual varieties. Take a look at some varieties available in the gallery below.