15 Impossible-to-Kill Outdoor Plants
If you’ve always assumed that your yard was too dry, too shady, or that the soil was too sandy to support such beautiful plants—guess again. In fact, these common problems may just inspire you to get more creative with your plant picks. With expert advice and care tips from a couple of plant pros, we’ve ID’d 15 pretty plants that will thrive in even the least plant-friendly spaces.
Fragrant, flowering dianthus will not only survive in sandy soil, but it will also fill your backyard with color and a lovely, slightly spicy scent. If you have a shady yard that doesn’t get much sun, skip the grass and carpet the ground with common oak sedge, which adds textural interest to the area. With these hard-to-kill plants readily available at nurseries and garden centers, there’s no reason to let a dry, low-light space stop you from creating a show-stopping backyard.
Pro Pick: Ajuga
If your backyard doesn’t get much sun throughout the day, it can be tough to find attractive plants that will thrive in the shadows. To find the best shade-loving plants around, we asked Justin Hancock, a horticulturist at Costa Farms, for the company’s top picks. Headquartered in Miami, Florida, Costa Farms supplies houseplants and garden plants to retailers and garden centers across the country, so the team is well-versed in selecting plants that will survive in real backyards.
The shade-surviving plant at the top of the list: ajuga. “This weed-smothering groundcover is a great pick if you’re looking to add color and decrease maintenance in shaded areas of your backyard. It offers adorable spikes of blue-purple flowers in spring, then a mat of dense foliage the rest of the gardening season,” Hancock says. To up the visual interest, look for variegated selections, such as “Burgundy Glow,” which has shades of pink and silver in its leaves. Plus, ajuga comes back every year, so you can plant it once and enjoy it for years to come.
Pro Pick: Caladium
“Bring a touch of the tropics to your shaded backyard with the big, beautiful leaves of caladium,” Hancock recommends. This plant’s arrowhead-shaped leaves are readily found in shades of red, pink, and white, so you can coordinate this pick with the other plants in your garden. Costa Farm’s favorite hue? “The white varieties are particularly fun in shade because they seem to glow, especially at dusk,” Hancock says. You can treat caladium as an annual and leave it in the ground throughout the year, or you can dig it up and store it in a cool place for the winter.
Pro Pick: Persian Shield
If you’re searching for a failproof plant that can thrive in the north or the south, in sun or in shade, in a garden bed or in a container garden, then the persian shield is for you. This colorful, leafy plant is more than just durable, it’s also a true standout in the garden. “We adore this tropical plant’s metallic-purple foliage—it definitely makes a statement on its own or paired with other plants,” Hancock says. Treat this tropical plant as an annual, or if you’re adventurous, Hancock recommends bringing it indoors in the winter and keeping it in a bright spot.
Pro Pick: Oakleaf Hydrangea
To get even more shade-surviving selections, we turned to the plant pros at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Jacob Burns, the curator of herbaceous perennial plants, guided us through the varieties best suited for deep shade. Even when hidden beneath a conifer or tucked into the darkest corner of your yard, these plants are likely to thrive.
One low-light pick at the top of Burns’ list was the oakleaf hydrangea. Bold, textural leaves and large cone-shaped flowers make this shrub an option with serious curb appeal for the front yard. “These plants just started blooming about two weeks ago, in mid-June, and they bloom well into the summer, when a lot of other shrubs aren’t,” Burns explains. To enjoy blossoms throughout the season, opt for the oakleaf hydrangea.
Pro Pick: First Frost Hosta
If you’re dealing with a backyard that’s both shady and dry, the hosta is one of the few plants that will be happy to call it home. Growing to about 16 inches tall and 30 inches wide, a group of hostas can help fill the space in a low-light garden. In fact, most hostas prefer some shade and, the darker the plant, the more likely it is to thrive in a dim environment. When planting in deep shade, Burns recommends planting the “First Frost” variety of hosta, which has pretty variegated leaves with pale lavender flowers.
Pro Pick: Carex Pensylvanica
“This is a great alternative to grass for a shady spot,” Burns says. This free-growing ground cover is similar to a soft carpet for your garden. Once planted, it will spread out over the yard, filling in any open areas without choking out the plants that already live there. “It adds a softer texture and will spread out and mingle with the other plants,” Burns explains, so you won’t have to worry too much about it. Pair this shady plant with a flowering, low-light pick, such as a hellebore, that will bring a pop of color to the lush green landscape.
Pro Pick: Agave
If your yard happens to be situated in a bright and dry area, choosing plants that will thrive there can be just as difficult as finding shade-surviving varieties. One of Hancock’s favorite picks for a drought-prone area is the agave, a low-water succulent that makes a statement anywhere you plant it. “There are a wealth of varieties from which to choose. Our favorites are variegated types that bring in an extra splash of color,” he suggests. Look for two-tone leaves with distinctive colorings, such as those with yellow borders and deep green centers, to up the visual interest.
“Think all succulents are spiny? Think again!” Hancock challenges us to reconsider what we think we know about these drought-tolerant plants. “Desert rose looks like a bonsai with a thick, squat trunk and beautiful flamboyant blooms. Because its trunk stores water, you don’t have to water it—even in times of drought,” he says. Whether planting in the backyard or designing an indoor container backyard, pair this flowering plant with cacti or more classic spiky succulents for a desert-inspired garden that will survive even the hottest summer. Plant desert rose as an annual in the north, or treat it as perennial in frost-free regions.
Pro Pick: Sedum
Even at the height of summer, this low-maintenance plant rarely needs to be watered. And because there is a seemingless endless variety of sedum available, ranging from low-growing groundcovers to upright bloomers, the best plant to pair beside sedum, is, well, more sedum. To take the guesswork out of planting small individual plants, Hancock recommends buying a sedum tile (a “living carpet” made of a patchwork of smaller plants), which can often be found at garden centers. To settle a sedum tile into its new environment, simply drop it onto loose soil, water well to start, and watch it grow.
Pro Pick: Armeria
If you’re lucky enough to have a yard that’s neither shady nor dry, it may still face a third common gardening dilemma: sandy soil. If you’re a seaside gardener searching for a plant that can survive not only sandy soil, but also salt sprays and not-so-gentle seaside breezes, low-growing armeria will shine in your beachside backyard. “Cute and charming, this adorable little perennial has tufts of grassy foliage and globe-shaped flowers in shades of red, pink, and white throughout the spring,” Hancock explains. Measuring just 6 to 10 inches tall, this ground-hugging plant seems to duck underneath the wind in blustery areas.
Pro Pick: Dianthus
“Dianthus is one of those plants you may be able to smell before you see it,” Hancock says. Especially on a warm day, this flowering plant’s lovely fragrance will greet you long before you spot the beautiful blossoms in shades of purple, pink, white, and lavender. While some varieties of dianthus bloom in spring, others, such as “Kahori,” start in the spring and continue to flower all summer long. In addition to the spectacular blooms, annual dianthus isn’t afraid to show off its blue-green foliage, making it a welcome addition to garden beds or potted gardens.
Pro Pick: Shrubby Cinquefoil, “Primrose Beauty”
When selecting plants for sandy soil, Jacob Burns from the Chicago Botanic Garden leans towards low-maintenance options, such a “Primrose Beauty,” a type of flowering shrub that favors well-drained soil. Known for its pale yellow blooms, this variety fares best when situated in full sun. And the best part? “You don’t have to prune it,” Burns reports. From June until September, the blooms come out in full force, but with a maximum height around three feet, this shrub won’t take over your garden and will play nicely with other plants.
Zagreb, Threadleaf Tickseed
“Bees and butterflies love this plant,” Burns says, so if you’re looking to attract winged beauties to your yard, this flowering plant will soon become your go-to variety. The bright golden flowers will bloom for over a month from June to July, and they will continue to bloom into the fall if you deadhead the spent flowers. Considering that its blooms don’t seem to mind a trim every now and then, this plant makes an excellent addition to a cutting garden.
Burns suggests planting butterfly weed, not only because its vibrant orange blossoms will attract compliments, but also because it’s the monarch butterfly host plant, and planting milkweed supports the species’ survival. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed plant, since the leaves are the only source of food for monarch caterpillars. Native to North America, milkweed grows naturally almost everywhere across the country, except for parts of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s adept at surviving not only sandy soil, but also the varied weather conditions across the country. Introduce this showy, no-fuss plant to your garden, and don’t be surprised if it steals the show with its colorful flowers and entourage of butterflies.
Pro Pick: Lilac Sage, aka “Purple Rain”
As a professional plant curator at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Jacob Burns is continually considering which plants will coordinate well with others. Luckily, lilac sage makes the matchmaking process remarkable easy. “The purple color goes well with almost any other color in the garden,” Burns explains. While well-drained, sandy soil typical provides a decent support system for these flowers, if they begin to droop under their own weight, Burns recommends cutting the stalks down and starting fresh. A relatively long bloom period, from July through September, will brighten up the garden for months, and deadheading faded blooms could help extend the season even longer.