Flower gardening in the Northeastern United States presents its own unique set of challenges. These obstacles can be especially troublesome when trying to plant perennials, or plants that have to survive the long, hard winters and renew themselves every year.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of growing perennials in the Northeast is the legendary Northeastern winter. According to the United States Arboretum, parts of the Northeast can expect lows of -35 degrees Fahrenheit (-37.2 degrees Celsius), meaning that unless you commit serious time and resources to protecting your perennials, you're limited to the plants that can expect to survive these brutal winters [source: U.S. National Arboretum]. Believe it or not, the very same challenge can also help certain plants. A long, hard winter can give perennials a much-needed dormant period, as well as keep the insect population under control.
The clay that makes up the soil of much of the Northeastern United States is also less than ideal, since it's heavy and drains poorly. It will take a little extra work, and maybe some amendments like mixed-in compost, but this clay can be suitable for many types of plants, and the harder, heavier soil can even give taller, more rigid plants the foundation they need to anchor themselves. In some areas of the Northeast, you might even encounter bedrock very close to the surface. In this situation, your best bet might be to build raised beds for your garden.
Despite the long winter and other challenges of planting perennials in the Northeast, a beautiful flower garden can be a reality. Just like every other region, there are plants better suited to the Northeast's climate and terrain. The 10 plants in this article have the characteristics needed to survive and thrive in the Northeast, giving anyone willing to put in the work a beautiful garden of flowers that should return year after year.
Check out the next 10 pages to read up on these perennials.
New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is a tough plant, and its name was given to it in recognition of the strength of its stems. However, it's not just strong -- it's also quite beautiful. Each branch bears a grouping of deep violet flowers in a cluster of about 30 to 50 blossoms. These beautiful blooms will show up in late July or early August and can last as late as the end of October, depending on the onset of winter. Even when the blooms begin to fade, they'll dry up and turn a stunning rust color to provide a few more days or weeks of color before the plant goes dormant for the winter. The other main attraction is of course the butterflies. Butterflies love the nectar of New York ironweed and will frequent any garden with plenty of these flowers [source: eNature.com].
Plant ironweed where it will get as much sun as possible. Ideally, the site should have slightly acidic but rich soil, though ironweed can tolerate an impressive range of planting conditions.
If you don't want the plant to self-seed, flower heads should be removed before the seeds develop; otherwise this hardy plant can easily multiply year after year. Ironweed can be slow to adapt to the quick-drying soil of the Northeast and may need extra attention when it comes to watering for the first six weeks after planting. With a minimal amount of attention and a little planning, New York ironweed will bring beautiful deep purple flowers to any Northeastern garden for years.
Learn about another popular perennial on the next page.
There are a lot of reasons that garden phlox (Phlox paniculata) is a great addition to any Northeastern flower garden. Much like many other plants listed here, garden phlox's strong stems are resistant to wind and the quick onset of winter. It's not picky about the soil it's planted in. And finally, it comes in an amazing number of variations -- dozens of combinations of plant size, bloom time and flower color [source: Dayton Nursery].
Although garden phlox comes in several varieties, they do share a few characteristics. As mentioned, all have a sturdy foundation of strong stems. On the top of these stems are clusters of flowers, typically five-petaled, coming out of a narrow tube. The plant's range of colors is staggering. You can find pure white to deep purple, bright bold red to light pink with white centers. There are even varieties that offer clusters of different colors from stem to stem.
Ideally, garden phlox should be planted in full sun in relatively moist, well-drained, sandy soil that's either neutral or slightly alkaline. Pruning through mid-summer will allow more stems to grow and delay blooming. Other than the usual problems with insects and other pests, the only issue that garden phlox is susceptible to is mildew. To prevent the onset of powdery mildew, simply spray the plant with sulfur every few weeks [source: Dayton Nursery].
Even in the trying conditions of the Northeast, planting the super low-maintenance garden phlox is one of the easiest ways to add color and character to a garden.
Head over to the next page for yet another successful perennial.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is another beautiful plant that needs very little to thrive. Despite its delicate appearance, it can also survive in less-than-ideal conditions. It can be taller than other plants in the Northeast, useful for adding color to the back of a garden or framing a tree.
Yarrow's long, slender stems tipped with delicate flowers can be a nice change from some of the bushier, hearty flowers that inhabit gardens in harder-to-cultivate regions. Yarrow's flowers are small but densely packed in 2- to 6-inch (5.08- to 15.24-centimeter) pads, giving an almost lacelike appearance. When in bloom, yarrow's flowers can be white, yellow, gold or pink. Their aromatic scent can also attract many welcome animals and make it a perfect choice for homemade potpourri. Yarrow will certainly bring a lot of color to a garden, but it's also a commonly cut flower [source: GardenGuides.com]. If Yarrow is going to be dried, cut it at its peak, before the sun bleaches it. Then hang the flowers upside down in a dry place out of the sun. Yarrow has also been used for an array of medical applications and is an ingredient in many herbal cosmetics.
Yarrow doesn't need much from the soil it grows in, but ideal conditions include lighter soil and good drainage. Like many other plants, yarrow loves light, so the sunnier the position it's planted in, the better. Although it doesn't grow on quite as strong a stem as some of the other plants listed here, it shouldn't need staking unless it grows taller than normal. Yarrow can take up to two years to establish itself from seed, so patience may be needed for the first season. And like phlox, sulfur spraying can help ward off mildew [source: GardenGuides.com].
Whether planted as the centerpiece of a flower garden, for its medicinal purposes, or for cutting for live or dried floral arrangements, yarrow is a perfect perennial for Northeastern gardeners.
Looking for a striking centerpiece to your garden? Read on to discover the astilbe.
Astilbe (False Spirea) is a sturdy plant that needs very little to thrive. Dramatic, colorful blooms top the plant. Like garden phlox, this plant also comes in a staggering array of colors, sizes and shapes. But unlike many of the plants on our list, astilbe can be grown in full shade as well as full sun. This makes astilbe ideal for the shaded areas of a garden that other plants can't survive in.
Astilbe's most striking attribute is its distinctive flowers. The flowers bloom in feathery spikes atop the plant. Different varieties bloom at different times, between early June and as late as the end of the summer. The color of the flowers varies widely from species to species, as does the color and qualities of the leaves. Astilbe can also be found in sizes ranging from small enough to keep as a potted plant to ones that can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall. Like New York ironweed, astilbe is known to attract butterflies, a welcome addition to most gardens since they can help pollinate and add even more color.
Astilbe needs very little light to thrive. In fact, the plant will last longest if not planted where it will take the brunt of the full afternoon sun. Much like its light needs, the astilbe is also not very picky about the soil it grows in. It prefers well-drained, but can tolerate occasionally wet or moist soil. Astilbe is susceptible to pests such as aphids. Although the Northeast's winters can keep the population of such insects under control, it might help to plant it near another plant that attracts birds, such as garden phlox.
If there's an area of your garden that other plants won't grow in, perhaps astilbe is the answer. However, even if you don't have a problem spot in your garden, astilbe's dramatic spikes of color come in nearly any shape a gardener could want, meaning there's a perfect astilbe for almost every Northeastern garden.
Read on to discover coral bells ...
Coral bells (Heuchera) is another plant that does well in shade. Its spikes of flowers can be bright red, pink or white, but for most gardeners, this plant's real beauty lies in its stunning foliage of silver, burgundy, bronze, plum and gold. The best-known coral bells variety is Purple Palace, which has deep purple leaves with bright red undersides. Like other plants that do well in the Northeast, this plant needs very little care to add stunning colors to a garden.
Coral bells' bright colors and shorter height make it a common border in perennial gardens. Although the better-known varieties feature deep, dramatic colors, they do come in many shades, including more subtle light greens and gray. Although the foliage gets all the attention, coral bells has flowers, as well. The tiny flowers grow in spikes on the top of plant and are known to attract hummingbirds [source: Better Homes and Gardens]. Different species can even vary in the reflective qualities of the leaves: Some are shiny and reflect light very well, while others have more of a matte finish. Since most species of coral bells carry color in their foliage, they can provide color longer than plants that rely on their flowers for hue.
While coral bells are hearty, withstanding drought and tolerating moist soil, their ideal soil is well-drained or sandy with a pH of neutral [source: Dave's Garden]. Coral bells' light requirements are loose, as it can thrive in partial shade and full sun, although it will last longer when planted in an area that doesn't face full afternoon sun. Despite needing very little care, coral bells can benefit greatly from occasional fertilizing.
The short, intensely colorful coral bells are a perfect frame for any garden or ground cover, especially in areas where other plants won't grow.
Next, why you might want to look at Veronica ...
For many gardens and landscapes, the spiky, surprisingly blue Veronica is a staple plant, and for good reason: It loves sun, takes little care, and provides color not only in borders, beds and rocky areas but also in containers and as cut flowers indoors.
Also known as speedwell, the typically spiky blooms on these perennials, which flower from spring all the way through fall, can supply some of the most beautiful blues in an outdoor space, but Veronicas aren't always blue. Some varieties are white, purple or pink. But it's the blue ones that so many gardeners seek out, since you don't find too many ways to add this color to your yard.
There are many varieties of this common plant, which is so low-maintenance it grows roadside. You'll find heights ranging from 4 inches to 4 feet (10 centimeters to 1.2 meters ), potentially no limit on width, and flowers that can be star-, saucer- or tube-shaped and grouped into either loose clusters or tight spikes [source: Rushing]. The lower versions, including prostrate speedwell, are an excellent, hardy ground-cover option that can thrive in part or full sun.
One thing to keep in mind about Veronica is its soil preference: While average soil is perfectly fine, it should be well-drained. This plant doesn't like to soak.
Read on for a much less-common but fairly ideal plant for the Northeast ...
Another super-low-maintenance perennial that thrives in a wide range of conditions and is hardy in the Northeast, soapwort grows beautifully even on dry roadsides. You can imagine, then, how it might thrive in your garden with just a tiny bit of care.
Featuring flowers in red, white, purple or pink that bloom from spring to fall, soapwort varieties can add color pretty much wherever you need it. Varieties can reach up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) tall and 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) wide; others can grow to a height of just three inches (7.6 centimeters) and provide a bed border or a tumbler over rock walls or through rock gardens [source: BHG]. Since it tends to be drought resistant, soapwort can be a colorful choice in a rocky area you don't water very often.
These perennials are resistant to deer, attractive to butterflies and add a beautiful fragrance to the night air [source: Colston]. Ideal conditions are full sun and well-drained soil. Still, they're hardy in the Northeast and will do just fine in moister soil and a bit less sun. Like Veronica, you can bring soapwort blooms inside as cut flowers. The strong stems hold up as well in a vase as in windy garden spaces.
Known as the "true geranium," cranesbill not only survives the harsh Northeastern winter but also offers flowers that add a range of color (from white to pink to blue) to a garden during blooming months.
Sometimes confused with the annual geranium (common name "storksbill"), cranesbill is of a different genus entirely and is very hardy. It's also versatile: The geranium can thrive in a good range of conditions, from some shade to full sun, and grows anywhere from 6 inches (16 centimeters) to a few feet (1 meter) tall [source: Sooner].
Cranesbill is a low-maintenance plant that suffers few susceptibilities to pests or disease and will grow without any above-and-beyond care on your part -- basically, it likes some fertilizer once a year [source: Sooner]. It can even thrive in containers, which is an increasingly big plus as more and more city dwellers get in on the gardening action. You'll get great color when it's in bloom, from about May to October (or beyond!), in white, pink, purple or blue, depending on variety; but its big, lobed leaves provide interest even without the flowers.
If your Northeast garden has greenery in need of some seasonal pop, cranesbill could be a way to add color to these inhabited areas since it grows nicely throughout shrubs and in lightly wooded areas. What really sets this perennial apart, though, is its ability to grow in dry shade. You won't find too many options for this type of garden location, and cranesbill is one of them [source: Fornari].
If you've been around miscanthus at all, you've almost certainly noticed it. The morning light variety is the ornamental grass that screams "island paradise" (even in the Northeast) when backlit by the sun with its large, pink-orange blooms, which dry beautifully for indoor arrangement, and fountainlike foliage, and the zebragrass type is one of the most unique-looking grasses you see in a landscaped space.
A welcome addition in any setting -- landscape architects have been using it for centuries to add height, color and drama -- miscanthus can be especially useful in the Northeast, where winter can steal so much interest from your outdoor space [source: FloriData]. Miscanthus, while most stunning in full color, is still impressive in winter, as its tall spikes of grass can survive the cold and make a winter garden look a lot less barren.
Miscanthus is easy to grow in full sun and moist, well-drained soil, and varieties of this grass can range from 2 feet to 9 feet (0.6 to 2.7 meters) tall. They won't spread, reaching a maximum width of 2 to 5 feet (0.6 to 1.5 meters) and staying clumped, so you can place it precisely as a center piece, in a row along a wall or fence, or in a line as a soft privacy border.
Finally, a lovely perennial with a funny name ...
Catmint is an ultra-hardy perennial with serious benefits: This plant will not only brave drought and extreme heat, resist deer, adapt to a variety of soils and do just fine in part sun in the Northeast , but it's particularly long-blooming, too [source: Ross].
This low-maintenance perennial enjoys, ideally, full sun and well-drained soil. Some varieties bloom in clusters of white, tubular flowers, but more commonly they're blue, purple or lavender. It's part of the mint family, so it's an excellent choice if you're looking to add fragrance to your outdoor space, and while it's not the same plant as catnip, felines do enjoy certain catmint varieties -- as do butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.
Catmint comes in a variety of sizes, from a few inches to a few feet tall and 1 to 3 feet (0.3 to 1 meter) wide. They do well in borders, beds, containers and vases, their silver-gray leaves are pretty enough to add interest even without the multitude of flowers that appears in early spring and again in the fall if you trim it back in early summer [source: Ross].
While Northeast conditions can sometimes seem harsh, there really are so many options for hardy, beautiful perennials in the region. This list includes just 10 of the best ones -- there are plenty more out there. You can cut back your gardening expenses considerably by choosing plants that are hardy in your area, surviving the winter to come right back in the spring, better than ever.
Check out the next page for links to more information about popular perennials for your area.
Using less water on gardening doesn't have to mean less of a garden. Learn how to save 30 percent of your gardening water just by watering at the right time of day in this article.
- Better Homes and Gardens. "No-Fail Perennials of the Northeast." Meredith Corporation. (Accessed 01/15/2009) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/gardening-by-region/northeast/types-of-northeastern-perennials/
- Burrell, C. Colston. "Soapwort, Bouncing Bet." HowStuffWorks. (Jan. 7, 2012) https://home.howstuffworks.com/soapwort-bouncing-bet.htm
- Catmint - Nepeta x faassennii 'Six Hills Giant.' The Mulch. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.themulch.com/plants/90051
- Cranesbill - Geranium macrorrhizum. The Mulch. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.themulch.com/plants/90049
- Cathey, Henry M. "USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map." The United States Arboretum. (Accessed 1/16/09)http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html
- Dave's Garden. "Coral Bells: An Introduction to Heuchera cultivars" (Accessed 1/18/09)http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/253/
- Dayton Nurseries. "False Spirea/Feather Flower." (Accessed 1/18/09) http://www.daytonnursery.com/Encyclopedia/Perennials/Astilbe.htm
- eNature.com. "New York Ironweed." (Accessed 1/16/09) http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/detail.asp?recNum=WF0066
- Dayton Nurseries. "Phlox paniculata, Garden Phlox." (Accessed 1/18/09) http://www.daytonnursery.com/Encyclopedia/Perennials/Phlox%20paniculata.htm
- Fornari, C.L. "Low-maintenance perennials – Northeast." The Mulch. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/plant-dictionary/perennial/miscanthus/
- GardenGuides.com. " Yarrow." Hillclimb Media. (Accessed 1/18/09) http://www.gardenguides.com/plants/info/herbs/yarrow.asp
- Gernanium (Cranesbill). Sooner Plant Farm. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.soonerplantfarm.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/specials.specDetail/recID/26/index.htm
- "Giant Grass Miscanthus Can Meet US Biofuels Goal Using Less Land Than Corn Or Switchgrass." ScienceDaily. July 30, 2008. (Jan. 7, 2012) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080730155344.htm
- Hamill, Natalia K. "Catmint, Faassen Nepeta." HowStuffWorks. (Jan. 6, 2012) https://home.howstuffworks.com/catmint-faassen-nepeta.htm
- Loveland, Elizabeth. "Perennials for Windy Northeastern Gardens." Suite101.com. (Accessed 01/15/2009) http://flowergardens.suite101.com/article.cfm/perennials_for_windy_northeastern_gardens
- Mackey, Betty Barr. "Garden Phlox: A Perennial Flower." HowStuffWorks, Inc. (Access 1/18/09)https://home.howstuffworks.com/define-garden-phlox.htm
- Macky, Betty Barr. "Veronica, Speedwell." HowStuffWorks. (Jan. 6, 2012) https://home.howstuffworks.com/define-veronica-speedwell.htm
- "Miscanthus sinensis." FloriData. (Jan. 7, 2012) http://www.floridata.com/ref/m/misc_sin.cfm
- Miscanthus. Plant Dictionary. Better Homes and Gardens. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/plant-dictionary/perennial/miscanthus/
- Native Plants by American Beauties. "Vernonia noveborancensis New York Ironweed." American Beauties. (Accessed 1/16/09) http://www.abnativeplants.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=plants.plantdetail&plant_id=60
- "Nepeta × faassenii 'Walker's Low' (Catmint)." Fine Gardening. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.finegardening.com/plantguide/nepeta-x-faassenii-walkers-low.aspx
- Perennial Plant Association. "1991 Perennial Plant of the Year" (Accessed 1/18/09) http://www.perennialplant.org/ppy/91ppy.html
- "Plant Care Guides: Veronica." National Gardening Association. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.garden.org/plantguide/?q=show&id=2060
- Ross, Marty. "Top Deer-Resistant Plants of the Northeast: Catmint." Better Homes and Gardens. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/gardening-by-region/northeast/the-top-deer-resistant-plants-for-the-northeast/#page=4
- Rushing, Felder and Kelly Roberson. "No-Fail Perennials of the Northeast." Better Homes and Gardens. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/gardening-by-region/northeast/types-of-northeastern-perennials/
- Soapwort. Plant Dictionary. Better Homes and Gardens. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/plant-dictionary/perennial/soapwort/
- "Veronica." The Old Farmer's Almanac. (Jan. 7, 2012) http://www.almanac.com/plant/veronica
- Veronica. Plant Dictionary. Better Homes and Gardens. (Jan. 2, 2012) http://www.bhg.com/gardening/plant-dictionary/perennial/veronica/