Gardening Made Easy: 60+ Tough Plants

Take the guesswork out of your garden and put these tough plants to the test in your backyard.

Sometimes you just need a sure thing. You know what I mean—an easy, resilient, no-fail, plant-it-and-leave-it option for your garden. I’ve been there myself. In fact, I’m there right now. I recently moved from my home of more than 20 years, and I have a blank garden canvas just waiting to be filled. While I can’t wait to try new and unique varieties that I’ve never had space for before, I also need a good base of things I can rely on. Basically, I need tough plants.

I know I’m not the only one. As a horticulturalist and garden speaker, I’m always asked for recommendations on especially hardy plants. So follow my advice, and be sure to check out my top picks. If you include some of these in your garden planning, you’ll be able to say you have some of the toughest plants in America!

Start With What You Know

It goes without saying that the hardiest and healthiest plants are those suited to your growing conditions. Matching plants to your climate, soil, sunlight and moisture levels gives you the most success with the least effort.

Native plants are always a good place to start. They provide food for native birds and butterflies, and they’re already accustomed to your region. Keep in mind, though, that our environment has changed over the decades, putting stress on many native plants. For instance, air pollution has increased, while construction has damaged soil. Paved surfaces and buildings have affected drainage, soil moisture and temperatures. If you’re looking at native plants, make sure the ones you pick will tolerate the existing growing conditions.

All plants need a bit of TLC when getting established. Even native plants or those listed as drought-tolerant benefit from supplemental watering when rainfall is lacking. This is especially true when plants are young. But once they get going, these tough plants are able to make it through challenging growing seasons with minimal help.

Benefits of Being Popular

You’ll probably recognize many of the plants I’m going to mention, but don’t let their popularity dissuade you from using them. There’s a reason you find hostas, daylilies, crabapples and spireas growing in landscapes across the country.  And there are so many new varieties out these days that you can find some with unusual shapes and colors to add pizzazz to your yard.

If you’re looking to add seasonal color, focus on those tough-as-nails annuals. We all have our favorites, but I always recommend zinnias for both beginners and experienced gardeners. Newer cultivars like Profusion, Classic and Zahara are more disease-resistant than some you may have tried in the past.

Other good annuals for color include begonias like Dragon Wing or the Big and Whopper series—they thrive in either sun or shade. You can also try SunPatiens or sunflowers. One of my favorite newer sunflower varieties is called Suntastic Yellow With Black Center. It was named an All-American Selections winner, and it’s a great addition to any garden.

Looking for good foliage plants? Yuccas add both a vertical accent and summer blooms for hummingbirds; try using one of the variegated varieties for extra color.

For an entirely different type of foliage look, try prickly pear cacti, which, believe it or not, are native to 48 of the 50 states. Plus, they tolerate heat and drought, and they have a bold texture.

Ferns are perfect for shady locations. With hundreds of options available, you’ll want to look for native species suited to your climate. Japanese painted fern is a good general pick, selected as the 2004 Perennial Plant of the Year. It’s low-maintenance and hardy throughout most of the country and has nice texture and color.

Selecting Trees and Shrubs

If you’re in the market for shrubs, you’ll find a lot of new varieties. Many are more colorful than older choices; some are smaller, making them more versatile in your landscape. Take ninebark, which is native to most areas. Today, in addition to the traditional shrub, you also have cultivars like the purple-leafed Diablo, the petite Little Devil or the colorful Amber Jubilee, making this heat- and drought-tolerant shrub more appealing than ever.

Juniper’s another classic shrub that has gotten a makeover. Long a favorite for its heat and drought tolerance, it also provides food and shelter for birds. Even if you haven’t considered juniper in the past, it might be time to take a look at some new cultivars. Gold Coast is nice and compact, Icee Blue is almost like a ground cover and Blueberry Delight is prized for its dark green foliage with a silvery blue cast and abundance of fruit.

Here’s one more shrub worth calling out: The new panicle hydrangeas are taking the landscape by storm. From the small-scale Little Lime, with lime green blooms, to the large flowering Vanilla Strawberry, with white flowers that turn from pink to strawberry red, there’s a variety for just about any landscape. And these beauties will tolerate full sun to partial shade—they’re the most adaptable of hydrangeas.

No, I didn’t forget trees. Consider the fringetree, a small species that adapts to a variety of soil conditions and is tolerant of pollution. It has fluffy white flowers in spring, followed by blue fruit that birds will feast on.

Some of the other trees I recommend are serviceberry (Amelanchier), which is good for four-season interest; the deciduous conifer bald cypress; the ginkgo tree; and the Kentucky coffeetree. This last one starts out as an ugly duckling, but it grows into a beautiful, durable tree with interesting bark, blue-green leaflets and dramatic texture in winter.

A few of these tough plants will give you a solid foundation, and then you can experiment with new varieties each year. Soon you’ll have a much larger list of low-maintenance beauties that are sure to flourish in your landscape.

Proven Winners

Tough plants for sun

Annuals for sun

  • Zinnia
  • Sunflower
  • Dahlberg daisy (Thymophylla tenuiloba)
  • Annual vinca (Catharanthus roseus)
  • Pentas

Perennials for sun

  • Native and ornamental grasses
  • Peony
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon)
  • Russian sage (Perovskia)
  • Fernleaf yarrow
Proven Winners
Coleus (left), Elephant ears (center) and Begonia (right)

Tough plants for shade

Annuals for shade

  • Coleus
  • Begonias
  • Pansies
  • Torenia
  • Iresine (Alternanthera)

Perennials for shade

  • Bleeding heart
  • Coral bells
  • Hostas
  • Daylilies
  • Ferns
Proven Winners

Tough plants for wet areas

Annuals for wet areas

  • Papyrus
  • Elephant ears
  • Canna
  • Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)
  • Mexican bluebell (Ruellia simplex) (invasive in parts of southern U.S.)

Perennials for wet areas

  • Marsh marigold
  • Sedges
  • Swamp milkweed
  • Ligularia
  • Joe Pye weed
Proven Winners

Tough shrubs

Shrubs for sun

  • Ninebark
  • Spireas
  • Landscape or shrub roses
  • Smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria)
  • Juniper

Shrubs for shade

  • Annabelle or smooth hydrangea
  • Viburnum
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis)
  • Boxwood
  • Yew

Shrubs for wet areas

  • Redtwig dogwood
  • Chokeberry (Aronia)
  • Elderberry
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
  • Dappled willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’)
Nancy Kennedy/
Crabapple trees

Tough trees

Trees for sun

  • Crabapples
  • Hawthorns
  • Hackberry
  • Oaks
  • Ginkgo

Trees for shade

  • Dogwoods
  • Fringetree
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
  • Musclewood or hornbeam (Carpinus)
  • Ironwood or hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)

Trees for wet areas

  • Sweet bay magnolia
  • Red maple
  • Bald cypress
  • Native alders
  • Swamp white oak

Melinda Myers
Melinda Myers is a nature and gardening writer whose specialty is attracting wildlife, especially birds, to the garden. She contributes regularly to the magazine Birds & Blooms, and lectures widely on creating gardens that please both human and avian visitors.