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Plants for Tough Places: Home

Hibiscus mosheutos 'Jazzberry Jam'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Hibiscus mosheutos 'Jazzberry Jam'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Sometimes an area in your garden can feel like a tough place when it really isn't. It may actually be an unforgiving site and not a matter of perception; but how you approach its challenging condition matters.

The best way to circumnavigate rough terrain is to work with what you have, not against it. Stated simply, if you have a wet site, choose plants which thrive in boggy conditions. If the sun bakes with all the intensity of the desert, find the sun worshippers. The site conditions will, to a large extent, dictate the plant palette.

Remember, no matter how hard you try, if the plant isn't suited to your growing conditions, it will not look good. Grow delphiniums in Maine; see how the peach-leaved bellflower (Camapanula persicifolia) does in New York. If you have, as the maxim states, "the right plant, in the right place," then it shouldn't fail to please.

Challenging sites should not foil any plans for a beautiful garden. There is plenty of diversity in terms of available plant material. Specialist nurseries are abundant, mail order makes it easy and growers are constantly adding new and exciting cultivars to their repertoires.

All a gardener needs is a little common sense and some creativity, and on a good day creativity can be unlimited. Let's take a look at the shady garden, the soggy garden, rock walls and crevices, beach bathers and clay dwellers to see how we can embellish these sites and make them flourish.

hakonechloa macra 'aureola' is an excellent shade plant
Hakonechloa macra 'aureola' is an excellent shade plant

Most of us have shade in part of our garden. Shade plants tend to have wonderful foliage that lets them capture as much light as possible. Create a tapestry with the textures by taking familiar plants such as hosta (Hosta) and coral bells (Heuchera) and combining them with graceful natives such as merrybells (Uvularia), wild ginger (Asarum), mayapple (Podophyllum) and Solomon's seal (Pologynatum).

You can further exploit the situation by inter-planting these areas with bulbs (e.g., daffodils, snow drops, wood anemones) or with spring ephemerals (e.g., Virginia bluebells, claytonia) that take advantage of early-season light before the trees leaf out. The early additions will wake the garden while the later ones often accentuate the beauty of the surrounding plants.

The most important lesson for the shade garden is to keep the leaf litter on the ground. If the leaves are coarse, you can shred them. If you strip the ground clean of foliage in the fall, you are depriving the soil of important organic matter that keeps the environment thriving.

Soggy gardens can be a challenge. Most of them get particularly wet in winter from rain and snow. Classics for the wet garden are ligularia (Ligularia) and rodgersia (Rodgersia). If those leaves are not large enough and you have part to full shade, try Roger's flower (Astilboides).

Tropical plants, like this Alocasia, add an exotic feel to any garden; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Tropical plants, like this Alocasia, add an exotic feel to any garden; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Tropical plants add exotic feel to any garden. Elephant's ears (Alocasia, Colocasia) and angel wings (Caladium) love mositure and part to full shade. Cannas (Canna) have wonderful translucent foliage that comes in all shades of green and purple. They, along with the majestic ears (Xanthosoma), do well in full sun to partial shade.  These plants will need to be over-wintered in a cool garage.

For those yearning for a more naturalistic feel, the swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) make wonderful woody additions. Cover-up their feet with native ferns (royal ferns, cinnamon fern, and sensitive fern are a few examples). Add Japanese and blue flag irises to sunnier sites to make the garden shimmer from late spring into summer. Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), New York iron weed (Vernonia), and hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) will brighten up the garden later in the season.

Rock climbers are those plants that are good for the nooks and crannies in your garden. Adorn a stone wall with low growing sedums. Sedum kamtschaticum var. floriferum 'Weihenstephaner Gold' flowers in June. Sedum spurium 'Voodoo' flowers in July to August and Sedum sieboldii flowers in September to October. With careful selection you will have any rock ledge covered with flowers throughout the entire summer.

If succulent foliage is not your style, steer away from sedums and hens-and-chicks and dabble in the creeping speedwells (Veronica) or creeping thymes (Thymus). Several speedwell cultivars, such as Veronica 'Aztec Gold' and 'Sunshine' come with bright yellow foliage and create a showy display.

Whether planting a rock garden or a rocky crevice, plants that are adapted to these situations require well drained soil. Adding pea gravel or grit is not essential but often aids in creating an environment where these sun-loving, rock climbers thrive.

Beach-bathers also demand good drainage. These plants need to contend with sun, salt and sandy soil. Instead of opting for ubiquitous beach rose (Rosa rugosa), see if you can track down the beautiful and adaptable Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Scotch broom (Cytisus) and bush clover (Lespedeza) are two gracefull, arching shrubs that fill the seaside garden with blooms in early and late summer respectively.

Seaside gardens are often hampered by strong winds. Build wind barriers with trees and shrubs to help diffuse the intensity of heavy gusts. An effective way of building a wind barrier is to combine evergreen and deciduous plants. Plant them fairly close to eachother in multiple rows so that nothing has to absorb the full intensity of the wind.

Finally, heavy clay soil vexes even the most robust gardener. Add compost when you plant and top dress with a fine organic mulch. Never walk or work in heavy clay when it is wet; you should avoid soil compaction at all cost. Annuals will not fare well but plenty of shrubs and perennials will flourish.

You will find that you are not only able to grow some tough customers, like the compact golden rods (Solidago 'Firework' or 'Golden Fleece'), but you will also be able to add perennial beauties ranging from the new cultivars of fragrant bugbane (e.g., Actaea simplex 'Brunette' and 'Pink Spike') to colorful sneezeweeds (Helenium). Your selection of shrubs can be equally glamorous ranging from spirea (e.g. Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon') to flowering quince (e.g., Chaenomeles 'Cameo'). Who could ask for more? 

Ligularia is a classic plant for wet soil; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Ligularia is a classic plant for wet soil; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

For a selction of plants see the tab at the top of this page labeled 'Plant Selections fo Tough Places'

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