Problem areas are those that cannot be amended and tended the way a cultivated garden would be, and many a gardener suffers from just such a spot. While it is possible to be successful with such challenging spots, success depends mostly on the gardener.
We always hear about (and say ourselves) “right plant, right place.” Sometimes, though, it seems there’s only wrong plants for that oh-so-awful space. There really is a plant for that! Well, usually, and there may be some trial and error, so above all else a healthy dose of patience is useful.
Here are a few plants for a few tough spots, followed by some simple planting tips to give them their best shot at making it.
Road salt and drought
Boulevard and roadside gardens are a tough place for plants to grow. There is often scorching heat, strong winds, and winter road salt. Look to roadway median plantings for plants that thrive in tough conditions with a healthy dose of neglect. Below are a few of the easiest to grow.
Sedum: Groundcover or upright, these plants thrive in tough conditions. Take advantage of the interesting variety of leaf shapes and colors. Full sun.
Peony: These early bloomers only seem delicate, they are long lived and can process harsh salts. Plant in full sun, though they will handle light shade. They are susceptible to powdery mildew, so preemptive treatment is encouraged.
Nepeta: Known as catmint, this one will bloom all season long. It’s a re-seeder, so it might spread out a little. Just pull it where you don’t want it, and don’t expect it to behave. Part to full sun, groundcover to upright type habit.
Monarda: (shown at top of post) Its common name is bee balm, but it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, too. It’s in the mint family, so it’s a runner. Voted “most likely to travel” back in school. Mid-season blooms, part to full sun.
Karl Forester grass: Seen everywhere, great for structures. Plant in part to full sun. Good for fall and winter interest.
Clay soil is heavy, often compact, and has poor drainage. It takes special plants to handle these tough conditions.
Geranium: There are different geraniums for different bloom times, and they are incredibly easy to grow. Part to full sun.
Baptisia: This plant grows 3 to 5 feet tall, and though it’s a perennial, it becomes shrub-like. It has a taproot, so plant it where you want it to stay. An early bloomer, both the flowers and seed heads are attractive for arrangements.
Russian Sage: This is another one that could almost be mistaken for a shrub. The grey-silver foliage provides a nice contrast with other plants, and the lavender-esque blooms are stunning. Full sun.
Echinacea: The much beloved coneflower is a no-brainer. White and pink varieties are the most hardy. Plan for midsummer blooms and lots of bees and butterflies. Full sun.
Rudbeckia: This late summer bloomer is a pollinator magnet and looks stunning planted in mass. Once established, it will reward you year after year. Full sun.
You know those areas of the lawn that are soggy in the spring? Grow a garden! Many plants don’t like wet feet, but there are those that can process a large amount of water, and that’s what they need to do in a damp area.
Cimicifuga: Finding late fall bloomers can sometimes be a challenge – this one is worth the wait and will reward you with a show. Tall, white, snake-like flowers bloom in late summer above deep-hued foliage. Part sun to shade.
Astilbe: Pink, red, or white blooms come in a variety of heights and bloom times. Plant them along a border and enjoy the show – just snip off the flower when done and the foliage will make a nice border. Part sun to shade.
Lobelia: One of the few true red perennials, or true blue perennials (depending on the variety you choose), this is a hummingbird favorite and it loves to be a little soupy. Part to full sun.
Joe Pye Weed: Tall and stunning, the lilac color of the bloom and tall stature can be seen from quite a distance, and will be noticed by bees and butterflies, too. Part to full sun.
Swamp Milkweed: This is one of the most important plants to grow for Monarch butterflies – it is the only food for Monarch caterpillars. It can also process a fair amount of water, so it’s great for wet spots and rain gardens. It lives up to its name, though - it’s a heavy re-seeder and will grow like a weed, so just pull it out where you don’t want it (early in the season), or cut the seed heads off before they open in fall. Full sun.
This is one tough spot! Here are a few options.
Oak Sedge/Carex Pennsylvanica: This is a low, mounding grass that has an adorable little bloom in early spring and adds soft, gentle movement to the garden. Mass under trees and don’t mow at all, or mow twice a season at most for best results.
Goat’s Beard: Get the full-size version for a backdrop or the cute little one for a front border. Either way, they’ll be great in dry soil and need very little sun.
Brunnera: Try a silver-foliaged version to brighten up a shady spot. Tiny blue flowers, reminiscent of forget-me-nots, dance above the leaves in early spring.
Lady's Mantle: Be sure to visit this one in the early morning and enjoy the way the dew rests and glistens on the fuzzy, delicate leaves. Funky yellow flowers bloom mid-summer, just chop ‘em off (the flowers) when they’re done.
Bergenia: This fun one is also known as pigsqueak because that’s how it sounds when you rub the leaves together! Pink blooms shoot up from the middle of the plant on a straight stalk in early spring, and with some varieties the leaves turn reddish in fall. Don’t cut the leaves back, just clean up any dead ones in spring. Technically this is an evergreen, so it will generally look great even as the snow is just melting.
Problem areas can be successfully planted and, if planted with the right plants, they can be easy maintenance with time. All gardens, though, need some tending when first being established. Competition from weeds can be a problem in the beginning, so weed or mulch like any other new garden. Watering is a must for newly planted plants to release the roots and signal it’s time to grow. And in the case of drought tolerant, or xeriscape style gardens, it is important to water in upon planting and keep watering throughout the first season to get plants fully established.