By Marty Ross
A good garden is a living tapestry, with layers of plants all around — from tall trees to groundcovers. Midwestern gardeners have an endless number of excellent plant choices for gardens of great depth, color, texture, and character.
We live on the western edge of the Eastern deciduous forest, and magnificent trees flourish in our challenging climate. Oaks, maples, tulip poplars, hickories, sycamores, lindens, and walnuts thrive here. Often these trees are planted as street trees in the Midwest. Unless you live on a large lot, you may not have room for more than one tall tree.
Instead plant understory trees, which grow 15–30 feet tall. These trees frame your landscape without overpowering it. Serviceberry (Amelanchier), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and fringetree (Chioanthus virginicus) are three midsize native trees with attractive spring flowers and fall foliage. Spring-flowering magnolias, like the one in the opening photo, are not native, but they are classic garden trees in the Midwest. Their vivid-pink petals seem to flutter like exotic butterflies, and bloom at about the same time as daffodils.
Shrubs play an important role too: They are the garden’s middle layer. Plant them as foundation plants, in mixed borders with perennials and small trees, and around patios or at the front door. Smooth hydrangeas (look for H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’), hardy to Zone 3, and oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), hardy to Zone 5, are natives with long-lasting flowers.
Midwest gardeners prize mop-head hydrangeas (‘Endless Summer’ is one of the most widely available) for their fancy blue or pink flowers and long bloom period. ‘Endless Summer’, developed by Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota, is hardy to Zone 4.
Colorful perennial flowers steal the garden show through summer. Plant native perennials — black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), bluestar (Amsonia), and evening primrose (Oenothera) — for their pretty flowers and for the honeybees and butterflies they attract. Be sure to make room for butterfly milkweed to do your part for the struggling population of Monarch butterflies. (Milkweed is the only food source for Monarch caterpillars.)
Every plant in the garden doesn’t have to be a native. Midwestern gardens are known for their stunning and stalwart roses and peonies, both strictly nonnative. Strike a balance between native and nonnative plants: Biodiversity is good for gardeners and the environment.
The best plants for Midwestern gardens have to be hardy and sturdy, able to survive hot summers and bitter cold winters. They must tolerate drought and deluge, and stand up to drying winter winds. If you choose wisely, find the right spots, and take care of your plants, they will flourish, no matter what the weather brings.
Take a big step toward ensuring success in your garden. Stick with plants that are well adapted to your region’s climate.Learn More