Tough As Old Boots

This is a phrase that my dad used to say a lot, as in: “Don’t worry about me, I’m as tough as old boots.” And this descriptor popped into my head while walking through my fall garden this morning. I realized I have a few plants that should be placed in this new category. Plants that can grow, nay, actually THRIVE in the shockingly bad conditions that exist in my front rock garden in the upper Beach. Tough as Old Boots.

Sorry to be repetitive, but may I just remind the reader that the garden here is sand. Not gritty sand. Sand that is basically powder. It’s hard to even get wet in the first place, but once it does get wet, it doesn’t stay wet. It dries as quick as looking at it.

Remember also that my garden is at least 50% maple roots. I am not exaggerating. The fibrous shallow rooted Norway maples that the city plants literally comprise 50% of the ground in which I garden.

My sister and I have a love hate relationship with these maples. They give us a fantastic amount of shade, always making sure that the temperature on our street is at least 10 degrees cooler than 2 blocks north on the Danforth. That is definitely something to love. Plus the leaves make a pleasant rustling sound throughout the day, which I’m enjoying listening to right now as I write this.

But the Norway maple tree’s presence underground is what’s to hate. Their bleedin’ roots. Just digging a spade into the ground in order to plant a crocus is a herculean task because we are dealing with cutting through a foot of coarse, hard plant material here, not soil. We’ve got problems galore with these roots: hard to dig, hard to keep the garden watered and fed with nutrients. The bleedin’ roots suck it all up. (Bleedin’ Roots®)

So what happens to most of the things we plant is this: the life is slowly sucked from them by the vampire-like tree roots. The first year for a plant might be ok, but as the years go on, the plants get sadder and sadder and sometimes dwindle out altogether. It doesn’t matter how much compost, manure and organic fertilizer we pile on top. Most plants do not like this. “How do you expect me to work in these conditions??” they ask us. To which we can only throw up our hands and say, “I hear you.”

Which brings me to the indomitable ones: The Tough Guys. Not only do they suffer these conditions, but they actually almost thrive, growing, and blooming against all odds. And I take my hat off to them. Especially now, in 2007, during one of the worst droughts we have had in years. Oh, that’s another thing about the maples: when it rains, our massive leaf canopy prevents a good portion of the rainfall from even reaching the garden.

You Tough as Old Boots plants, I salute you!

And (besides our poster girl, brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) at the top of the page) here they are, in no particular order:

R_trilobaRudbeckia triloba

Happy, sturdy dark green stems with many little yellow daisy like flowers in sprays. How wonderful to see you blooming now in this dry September, and not only that, you’ve been blooming for weeks now. I planted 3 of you a couple of years ago. Now, you faithfully pop up in unexpected places and have no downside whatsoever. You are truly a Tough Customer. Boots is you.

‘Clara Curtis’ Chrysanthemum

Pink daisy, starlike blossoms, you are positively covered in bloom. And you are growing on a slope. With no water. And spreading to boot. Tough as Old Boots. You are.

Lavender (Lavandula) ‘Munstead’

I never would have believed it but lavender you make the cut here. You faithfully bloom every June, provide a fantastic show when you are literally covered in flowers. You have even spread into a nice big clump, and you have happily thrived in the truly awful conditions of my garden. Lavender, your name is Tough. Dare I say, like an Old Boot?

H_Annabelle‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea

Helen did some research a while back, and discovered these to be “maintenance free plants” and are they ever! [Ed (from Helen): Actually, I learned it in a course on low maintenance shade gardening taught by Judith Adam at the Toronto Botanical Garden] Blooming a glorious lime green right now in a very dry garden. You are a star, and truly Tough. Like some Very Old Boots.

I’m sure there are more, but these will serve to start the list. And think, if they do this well in the Gobi Desert-like conditions of our gardens, imagine how brilliant they will be in a garden of more hospitable conditions.

These plants belong in every garden indeed. And I’m not going to worry about them. Because… know.


  1. To which I can add, quickly and incompletely: Lily of the valley; Euphorbia polychroma — the nastily named cushion spurge; with some reservations, Lady’s mantle; and Periwinkle (once it gets established). H.

  2. Lady’s mantle seems to stick around in your garden, Helen, but they just keep disappearing in mine. I planted about 3 or 4 and barely see anything of them. Don’t know why, maybe because mine are planted in the extra tough strip between the walkways?

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