By Marty Ross
To survive the challenges of the extreme climate of the Midwest, garden plants must be resilient. Fortunately, lots of beautiful plants thrive through our steamy summers, unpredictable autumns, deep-freeze winters, and fickle springs.
Hardy, adaptable plants are the essentials of Midwestern gardens. Lilacs (pictured), peonies, and irises are favorites in our region for a reason: They survive droughts and deluges, ice storms, and desiccating winds from the north and south. They grow vigorously in our heavy clay soil and silty loams. Plants like these live for years -- in some cases generations. Planting them brings large rewards.
Native Midwestern plants, as well as modern cultivars of natives selected for their sizes, colors, or other outstanding characteristics, always are good choices. Natives are not a narrow compromise: Charming little primroses (pictured), handsome spring-flowering viburnums, hydrangeas, coneflowers, and even magnificent oaks add character and color.
When you choose the right plants and give them appropriate amounts of sun or shade, your garden flourishes without pampering. Hostas (pictured) and ferns grow bigger and more luxurious every year in shady beds. Panicle hydrangeas, such as ‘Limelight’ and ‘Tardiva’, are Midwestern favorites. They sail through the toughest winters and bloom profusely in late summer.
But you can’t just leave a garden to its own devices. Good horticultural practices help: Healthy plants can better withstand the vicissitudes of weather than plants that struggle. Weeds simply have to be dealt with. Proper tree pruning, as well as selection, limit damage in windstorms or heavy snows.
Drought distresses plants and gardeners. A layer of organic mulch (such as compost), 2 inches deep in flowerbeds and shrub borders, limits moisture loss, helps struggling plants through a drought, and helps keep weeds in check.
But here in the Midwest, drought-tolerant plants are the secret to survival. Watering the garden through a long period without rain is expensive and impractical.
A couple of years ago, in a summer of intense drought, the gardeners at Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Missouri, near Kansas City, made a careful study of the toughest plants in their collection. ‘Green Velvet’ boxwood came through the summer without additional watering, while yews suffered. Redbud and sumac trees now are on the gardens’ list of recommended drought-resistant small trees, large shrubs, perennials, groundcovers, and vines. Among perennials, bee balm, santolina, and many native perennials, including bluestar and asters, sailed through the season.
There’s not much you can do to avoid damage to early roses in a late spring freeze, or protect leafy hydrangeas, hostas, and other plants from the damage of hailstorms. But hardy plants, chosen for Midwestern hardiness in Zones 3–6, recover well from wicked weather, whenever it occurs and whatever it brings.