Roots and Shoots: Plants For Tough Conditions

Most of the gardens I visit have a challenging section where it seems like nothing thrives except the plants that are least wanted. In my yard, that’s a patch along a rock wall on a slope in full shade, with the added difficulty of large tree roots and the constant presence of hungry deer. 

Butterflyweed, a native milkweed, is a tough and hardy plant suited for full sun and less-than-ideal areas. Photo by P. Doan

Butterflyweed, a native milkweed, is a tough and hardy plant suited for full sun and less-than-ideal areas. (Photo by P. Doan)

I’ve tried planting sedges, wood poppy, bleeding heart and ferns. I’ve tried viburnum and clover seed. 

The sedges are still there but haven’t spread out. The wood poppies are overrun by the unwanted Asian honeysuckle. The bleeding heart disappeared and never returned. The ferns, too. 

The clover didn’t get enough sun and the seed probably washed down the slope. The viburnums, even though they are planted on the edge for more sun exposure, get eaten by the deer and never grow beyond 12 inches high. 

Desperate circumstances call for deeper research. There are plants that will handle any situation, although these specialists aren’t as readily available at a retailer. The generalist plants that thrive in most areas — full or part sun, average soil, medium water needs — these are the plants that are stocked at all the garden centers. Specialists are more precise in their needs and will fit into these hard-to-plant places.  

Here are suggestions of native perennials for scenarios that test the limits: 

Dry soil and full shade
If you have a woodland edge to your yard, chances are there is a spot where even after a heavy rain the soil still feels dry. Maybe the tree canopy shields the ground or the water runs off down a slope.  

Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula): This is the least-picky native fern. It will do well with sun or shade, moist or dry soils. It can also be dominating and create a monoculture. In my own yard, I liberally mow it or remove it from areas where it is becoming too dense. During last year’s drought, it dried up and went dormant like many plants, but returned in force this year. 

Pennsylvania sedge, (Carex pensylvanica): It’s easy to be sedge-blind. They look similar to grasses unless you stop and take a moment to really notice the plant’s characteristics. For years, I spent all my time in the forest studying trees. Looking down, however, reveals a rich covering of herbaceous plants to identify and understand. 

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricatus): The deer mostly leave these alone and even during last year’s drought, they still bloomed in the fall. I especially like to see them growing in clusters. The flowers aren’t particularly showy but grouped together, they have an impact. 

Shallow soil
Stonecrop plants, also known as sedums in the Hylotelephium genus: These are champions when it comes to shallow and rocky soils. I also like to use varieties of thyme, the perennial herb, that can be found in lovely colors and habitats.  

Eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa): New York’s native cactus loves sun and shallow soil. Handle it with tongs and gloves, never bare hands, and plant it somewhere off to the side and let it thrive. It has pretty flowers and edible pads. 

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa): This is a native milkweed with orange flowers for a burst of color. It’s tough and hardy, and will handle the less-than-ideal conditions at the end of my driveway, where there is a lot of dust, disturbance and heat. 

Catmint (Nepeta racemosa): I don’t usually find the straight species of this plant, but there are many varieties available. Look in the herb section if it isn’t with perennials. These plants are extremely resilient and even though they are in the mint family, I haven’t found spreading to be an issue. 

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): The straight species of this herb has white florets and lacy, fern-like foliage. It’s long-blooming, spreads a little bit to take up bare spaces and is shallow-rooted, making it versatile for several challenging planting scenarios. 

Consistently wet soil
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata): This is another native milkweed and has bright pink blooms and prefers sunny spots with consistently wet conditions. I’d love to have this plant in my landscape but I don’t have a good spot for it. 

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica): I was delighted when I found these growing on a stream bank. The deer leave them alone and the blue-to-violet flowers are showy. 

Swamp rose (Rosa palustris): While this plant isn’t deer-resistant, they tend not to eat the entire plant and it’s fairly fast-growing and rebounds, at least in my experience. 

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