It was a close call between #5 and #6 because both are essential, but rudbeckia finally won the debate because it is SO much easier to grow. Here in my Zone 5 gardens, rudbeckia is usually a perennial, sometimes a short-lived one lasting only three to five years, depending upon how soggy our seasons are, sometimes longer. Rudbeckias don’t like a lot of wet roots, and definitely not a wet crown, especially in winter. Another winning factor is that they are excellent self-seeders, which means I can usually count on a number of interesting “new” colors and forms each year without having to purchase any seed at all! All of the plants shown in the photo above evolved from a couple of plants of “Chim Chimnee” planted 7 years ago in the South Island. “Chim” is known for its interesting colors ranging from yellow to orange to rust tones and its quilled, pointy petals. As you can see, some of them have retained those quilled petals and some of the “children and grandchildren” have not. Some have retained the single row of petals and some have actually become doubles. I love them and find the slightly smaller flowers like those in the foreground are longer lasting in bouquets than the sometimes slightly floppy larger-petaled ones in the back.
If however, one doesn’t have rudbeckias already established, they are certainly easy to grow from seed as well. One can direct seed them outdoors in late summer to bloom the following summer, or start them indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost to get blooms yet the same year, or direct seed them in early spring and hope for a late first frost. I usually chill the seeds for a couple days in the freezer, then a few days in the refrigerator before very lightly covering them with vermiculite in the seeding flat. They need light to germinate. After only 5 days on the heating mat, they are usually sprouted. These new babies are very tiny to start but grow very quickly. In a matter of days their fuzzy leaves are the size of a dime and are ready to transplant to 4-packs or pots in about two weeks. Water the roots but keep the crown dry.
Once growing in the gardens, rudbeckias will produce several bloom stalks per plant. There is some variation in height from different varieties. I find “Cherry Brandy” and “Sahara” to generally be too petite for bouquets unless I’m doing a shorter arrangement, but these can be lovely toward the front of the border or in containers. They are happiest in full sun with good drainage.
Like most flowers with hairy stems, rudbeckias are classed as a “dirty” flower, which means it quickly aids bacteria to grow in water, so put a few drops of bleach in the bucket at harvest time and when you change the water in the vase.
Last summer there were a variety of rudbeckia blooms from June 11 through July 18. I had planted new babies (the plants in the second photo above) but the rabbits made a hole in the row cover and merrily devoured them all. They were supposed to be my succession crop to bloom after the “old, established” plants in the garden were finished. So, this year I’m trying again with more protection. Once they are established, rudbeckias are rarely bothered by rabbits or deer. It is only in the very early part of the growing season, when the young and tender leaves of newly planted babies are introduced and there isn’t a lot of other food available that rabbits and other critters are tempted. The varieties I’m seeding this year are “Irish Eyes” which are wide yellow petals around a green center rather than a brown one, and more “Chim Chimnee” mainly for the plant sale because I don’t want to dig any of those plants out of my gardens this year. (and I can always use more!!)
There are many, many rudbeckias from which to choose. Geo lists 4 varieties of Rudbeckia fulgida; one “R. grandiflora Sundance” which is a whopping 5′ tall; and 21 “R. hirta” choices with names like “Cappuccino,” “Cherokee Sunset,” “Goldilocks,” and “Chim Chimnee.” They range in size from very short “Toto” (8-10″) to 3′ tall “Irish Spring.” The old-fashioned Black-eyed Susans are also included in R. hirta class and they are useful as supporting cast flowers later in the summer to early autumn. For something very unusual, grow Rudbeckia occidentalis “Green Wizard” 3′ tall with a large dark center cone with stiff green sepals. All rudbeckias are good for pollinators.
So if you need a really cheery, easy to grow, usually perennial in your gardens, give rudbeckias a try. The pollinators will thank you and you’ll have lots of flowers for cutting or just to enjoy!