Black Eyed Susan is one of the most cheerful summer flowers you can plant. This perennial plant is practically care-free once established and puts on a joyful display for weeks.
Also called Rudbeckia, black-eyed Susans are very versatile plants. They come in a range of sizes including very compact varieties that are perfect for small spaces and urban gardens.
If you want to add these vibrant, daisy-like flowers to your garden, here’s what you need to know about how to grow and care for black eyed Susan plants.
What Are Black Eyed Susans?
Black-eyed Susans got their name because of the cone-like centers that appear in the middle of yellow, daisy-like petals. These “black eyes” are more of a dark brown-purple color but can appear black against the yellow flowers.
Belonging to the aster family (Asteraceae), black eyed Susan is a perennial wildflower native to North America. The most common species is Rudbeckia hirta, but there are several others.
Black-eyed Susans are named because of the “black eye” in the center of their flowers. They are one of the most cheerful plants you can grow as well as one of the easiest.
You may occasionally hear Rudbeckia called by the common name of coneflower because of the dark cone-shaped heads it grows. However, don’t confuse it with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), which is an entirely different plant.
There is also a plant called black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) because the flowers are similar to Rudbeckia, but this is also an entirely unrelated plant.
Characteristics of Black Eyed Susan
You can grow black-eyed Susans as a perennial if you live in USDA hardiness zones 3-9. Some varieties are what’s known as a short lived perennial, which means they will fade out after several years.
Plants typically start blooming in June or July and will continue until the first frost. The flowers themselves are long-lasting and make excellent cut flowers.
There are many varieties of black eyed Susan that range in height from a mere 10 inches tall to almost 7 feet. However, the typical height is 2-3 feet tall.
The classic look of Rudbeckia is bright yellow petals and a dark center. Some cultivars have petals that have an orange or gold tinge, while others have red or mahogany in their petals. You can also find ones that have green centers rather than dark brown.
Cultivars have been developed that keep the classic black eyed Susan appearance yet on more compact plants. These are a great choice if you are short on space.
Most black-eyed Susans like to spread themselves out, which can be good or bad depending on your perspective. It gives you free plants and can help fill in an empty area, but nearby plants may end up being crowded out unless you keep an eye on them.
Why Grow Black-Eyed Susans?
Besides their cheerful flowers and appearance, there are many reasons to add black-eyed Susans to your garden.
Because they are native to parts of North America and have been naturalized in many other areas, Rudbeckia plants are extremely easy to grow. They tolerate a wide range of soils, even clay and salty soils, which can be hard to grow in.
Black eyed Susan is a top choice for a low maintenance plant and requires little care behind occasional deadheading and division.
Plants are rarely bothered by diseases or pests, are drought tolerant once established, and deer- and rabbit-resistant as well. There are even varieties that tolerate wet soil and higher humidity levels.
Bees and other pollinators are attracted to black-eyed Susans and will show up at your garden once they start blooming. The seed heads will also attract birds later in the season who love to snack on them.
Besides ease of care, black-eyed Susans are loved by pollinators and will attract bees, butterflies, and birds to your garden.
If you’re going for the classic black eyed Susan plant, nothing beats the straight species, Rudbeckia hirta. However, there are many new cultivars with different colors, heights, and looks to fit any garden.
Here are a few you might want to consider:
- ‘Double Gold’– This cultivar has a double layer of golden-yellow petals that makes it very showy. Plants grow 3 feet and are short-lived perennials in zones 4-9.
- ‘Maya’– Another double-flowering cultivar, Maya has a very unique pom-pom look that’s a standout in the garden. The only downside is that plants are biennials (annuals in some zones).
- ‘Cherokee Sunset’– This cultivar produces flowers in a mix of yellow, orange, mahogany, and bronze. Plants grow 2-3 feet and are short-lived perennials in zones 5-9.
- ‘Becky Mix’– This is also a mix of colors ranging from yellow to orange to red. Plants are more compact, growing only 1-2 feet tall, and great for small spaces or containers. Short-lived perennial in zones 4-9.
- ‘Toto’– Toto gives you the classic black eyed Susan look but in a much more compact size. Plants grow 1-2 feet tall and bloom profusely from early summer to frost. Biennial but will reseed itself.
- ‘Green Eyes’ or ‘Prairie Sun’– Both of these cultivars have green rather than brown centers. They each have large golden-yellow blooms and grow 2-3 feet tall. Green Eyes is usually grown as an annual and Prairie Sun as a biennial.
Certain cultivars like ‘Prairie Sun’ and ‘Green Eyes’ have green centers rather than brown. They are a nice twist on the original but are usually shorter lived than the straight species.
- Rudbeckia subtomentosa– Most Rudbeckias are drought tolerant and don’t like their feet to be wet for very long. Rudbeckia subtomentosa, on the other hand, grows naturally along stream banks and other moist areas. It’s a good choice for wetter areas and clay soil, yet still tolerates short periods of drought. Perennial in zones 4-8.
How to Grow Black Eyed Susan
You can easily find black eyed Susan plants at your local nursery or garden center, but they also grow extremely well from seed. Buying and planting seeds is more cost effective than buying plants and gives you a wider range of choice.
Most varieties can also be propagated by division, which is a good choice if you have plants you want more of or know someone else who does.
Growing from Seed Outdoors
To sow seeds directly into your garden, wait until soil temperatures have warmed up to about 70°F in the spring.
Prepare your soil ahead of time by working through it to get rid of rocks and weeds and raking it smooth. Mix in some homemade compost to give your soil some extra fertility. If your soil is heavy or doesn’t drain well, you can amend with sand or compost before planting.
Once your soil is ready, scatter seeds over the top of it. You can either gently press them into the soil so they don’t get blown or washed away, or you can loosely cover them with a very light layer of soil.
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Black eyed Susan seeds need light to germinate, so make sure you haven’t buried them deeply.
Water the soil as needed to keep it consistently moist but not soggy. Seeds can take anywhere from 7-30 days to germinate, so be patient if you don’t see anything right away.
Once your seedlings sprout and have grown for about a week, thin them out to the correct spacing for the variety you’re growing. This could be anywhere 6-30 inches apart, but the most common spacing is 12-18 inches.
Growing from Seed Indoors
To give your plants a headstart, you can start them from seed indoors about 6 weeks before your last average frost date.
Use flats or cell packs and fill them with a good quality seed starting mix. Sow the seeds on top of the soil and press them down gently without covering them. Water your seeds and cover trays with plastic domes if you have them.
Because black eyed Susan seeds need light to germinate, you’ll need to place your seeds and trays under grow lights or by a very sunny windowsill. Give them about 6-8 hours of light a day.
Starting your seeds indoors will give plants a head start in the spring. They may also flower more quickly than those started from seed outdoors.
Once your seeds germinate, remove the plastic covers if you had them on, and give the seedlings plenty of light each day. Water when the soil starts getting dry, but avoid getting the leaves wet. Running a fan a few times a day helps with air circulation and will help keep your plants healthy.
About a week before planting time you’ll need to harden your seedlings off. This simply means taking them out during the day to get used to outdoor weather and bringing them back in at night.
Propagating by Division
If you or someone you know has an established clump of black-eyed Susans, one of the easiest ways to get new plants is by division.
Only established clumps of black eyed Susan should be divided, so this method won’t work for every variety. Clumps should be 3-4 years old and have spread out from the original plant before you attempt to dig them up.
Plan to divide plants in early spring and pick a cool day to work on if possible.
Division is a good way to get new plants. It only works for true perennial varieties, so you may not be able to divide some of the showier cultivars that are grown as short-lived perennials or biennials.
Dig in a wide circle around the plants to get as much of the root system as possible. Then, angle your shovel down and in to cut through the roots directly below the plants. Lift up on the clump with your shovel and carefully lift the plants out.
Use a sharp shovel or trowel to separate the large clump into several smaller plants. Each section should have 3-5 shoots and a healthy-looking root system.
You can keep your newly divided plants in the shade for a little while, but plant them in the ground as soon as you can. Replant one where the original clump used to be.
Planting Black-Eyed Susans
Most Rudbeckia varieties should be planted in full sun, although a few will tolerate partial shade. For the most part, well-drained soil is preferred with the exception of Rudbeckia subtomentosa, which can take wetter soil.
Black-eyed Susans develop large root systems, which means they won’t do well in a container garden. However, a few of the compact cultivars can be grown in pots, especially those that are typically grown as annuals.
Most varieties of black-eyed Susan need full sun to grow in. You can find cultivars that take partial shade, but too much shade will lead to poor flowering.
Space out your plants according to how much room the variety you’re planting will need when it gets full size. Most varieties need at least 12-18 inches of room between plants.
Mixing in some compost with your soil before planting will provide your new plants with good nutrients to grow into healthy plants.
You can plant black eyed Susan in your garden after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has started to warm.
If you haven’t already, clear weeds and rocks from the area you’ll be planting in and add in any soil amendments that are needed. Then, dig holes that are a few inches wider than the root ball of your transplants.
Place one seedling in each hole and fill back around them with soil so that the soil just covers the top of the root ball. If plants are rootbound, gently pull the roots apart with your fingers before putting them in their holes.
After planting, firm the soil around each plant with your hands and water generously.
Black Eyed Susan Care
As mentioned, black-eyed Susans are remarkably low maintenance and tolerate neglect well. However, there are a few tasks you can do that will help your plants stay healthy.
Although plants are drought tolerant once established, your new seedlings will need to be watered regularly until they grow deeper roots.
Birds like goldfinches will be attracted to the seed heads of black-eyed Susans once they mature. Leaving them on the plants, especially in the fall, provides birds with a food .
If you started plants from seed in your garden, they may bloom late or not at all during their first year, but this depends a lot on growing conditions and variety. Otherwise, most varieties start blooming in June or July and continue for months.
Deadheading is optional, but cutting off spent blooms encourages plants to send out more flowers and extends the blooming period.
As fall and winter approach, leave some seed heads on your plants to feed birds who visit your garden. Or if you absolutely don’t want your plants to self-seed, cut off all seed heads to prevent this.
Perennial black eyed Susan clumps should be divided every 3-4 years to keep plants healthy and curb them from spreading. They also spread by seed, but you can dig up seedlings that pop up in spring to prevent this.
Pests and Diseases
Rudbeckias rarely have a problem with pests or diseases, but they can develop a fungal disease called powdery mildew, especially in humid conditions or if plants are crowded together.
Black eyed Susan plants rarely suffer from disease, and few pests bother them. Even deer and rabbits typically stay away, although they may munch on the leaves in an emergency.
The best way to prevent powdery mildew is to properly space plants so that they all have good airflow. If you do need to water plants as they get established, make sure you water the soil around them and not the leaves. Wet leaves are an invitation for pathogens.
What to Plant With Black-Eyed Susans
There are many options for garden designs with black-eyed Susans since they work well with a wide range of plants. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- For low maintenance landscaping, plant black eyed Susan with other native perennials like purple coneflower, Shasta daisy, agastache, or Gaillardia.
- Build a pollinator-friendly garden by planting black-eyed Susans alongside other flowers that attract pollinators. There are lots of choices, but a few excellent ones include bee balm, butterfly weed, goldenrod, agastache, and milkweed.
- The striking yellow of black eyed Susan flowers really stands out when paired with ornamental grasses like purple fountain grass, little bluestem, or feather reed grass.
- Create a cut flower garden by mixing in plants like sunflowers, cosmos, daisies, zinnias, and asters alongside your black-eyed Susans.
As you can see, black-eyed Susans have a lot to offer in any garden. Although some gardeners think of them as an old-fashioned plant or common wildflower, new cultivars have really brought more showy and colorful options.
Whether you opt for classic charm or a more striking display, black eyed Susan is a plant you shouldn’t miss out on!