Sedum 'Herbstfreude' in a garden

Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ is ideal for poor soil and dry conditions
Image: Peter Turner Photography

Many people have a tough spot in their garden – too dry, too shady, or just too exposed to be able to easily grow plants that will thrive. Others have damp, boggy areas or frost pockets that present challenges to plant life. 

We asked The Sunday Gardener, Carol Bartlett, to share her expert advice on tough plants for tough locations. Here are some of her top suggestions for plants with the stamina and staying power to fill your tricky spots.

Shrubs for exposed areas

Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ from Thompson & Morgan

The silvery variegated foliage of euonymus brings all year round interest to tricky corners
Image: Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ from Thompson & Morgan

A blustery corner of the garden could be the ideal spot for a tough shrub such as cotoneaster. There are lots of different varieties in this group of shrubs, and an ideal sized variety that grows to around 2.5m is C. Amoenus. It’s tolerant of all soil types and copes well with partial shade and blustery conditions. An evergreen shrub, its lovely white flowers in the late spring and early summer are attractive to bees.

These are followed in the autumn and winter with masses of red berries – a feast for wild birds, and especially loved by blackbirds. It’s a tough shrub and will grow wherever you plant it, except in wet conditions.

Another tough shrub which is very hardy and tolerant of most conditions is elaeagnus. Most attractive are those with variegated leaves such as ‘Limelight’ and ‘Gilt Edge’ which has the RHS award of garden merit. Equally tough, with bright variegation is Euonymus fortunei. ‘Emerald and Green’ which has golden green leaves, and ‘Emerald Gaiety’ with white and green variations are good varieties to grow.

If you’re looking for a tough shrub with flowers, Viburnum tinus is an ideal choice. It has pretty, white-tinged, pale pink flowers in the spring and it tolerates most soil conditions, sun and shade.

Buddleja davidii is another hardy and easy to grow shrub that’s tolerant of all conditions, except wet and boggy soils. Buddleja is often called the ‘butterfly bush’ as its aromatic flowers attract a wide variety of butterflies into the garden.

Grasses for exposed areas

Carpet of pink achillea

A carpet of achillea is the perfect partner for grasses
Image: The Sunday Gardener

As an alternative to shrubs, you might like to try some of the hardier plants and grasses, but bear in mind that windy positions will cause tall grasses like Cortaderia selloana (Pampas grass) and Miscanthus to shed their lovely plumes.

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) is an attractive, compact grass that grows to around 35cm. Ideal in harsher conditions, and with masses of soft fluffy plumes, it combines beautifully with achillea in a dry spot. Achillea’s large, flat, long-lasting flower heads continue to look good as the flowers fade.

Another plant that combines well with shrubs or grasses is nepeta. Tougher than lavender, and tolerant of different conditions including semi-shade and damp, it brings clouds of blue to your borders, from pale mauve through to deep indigo.

For excellent ground cover and as an edging for paths, Alchemilla mollis tolerates full sun, full shade and everything in between. Extremely hardy (to -20 degrees C) and tolerant of all soil types, it’s an ideal plant for tough areas. However, you’ll need to keep it in check as it’s vigorous, almost to the point of being invasive.

Plants for dry soils and rockeries

In dry poor soils, or for the small spaces between paving slabs and in rockeries, Erigeron karvinskianus is an excellent choice with its lovely pale pink and white daisy-like flowers. It will grow in many awkward areas and, once established, re-appears reliably each year.

Equally tolerant of dry conditions, if provided with a sunny spot, is sedum. This group of plants contains many different varieties including larger, upright specimens such as Herbstfreude with its familiar red and rosy pink flowers so loved by pollinators, to tiny ground-hugging plants with small but attractive flowers.

Plants for dry shade

English ivy in a garden

English ivy is a native plant loved by wildlife
Image: The Sunday Gardener

One of the trickiest conditions to successfully garden, and requiring a very tough plant, is dry shade. I recommend trying vinca, commonly known as periwinkle, which has lovely blue flowers to brighten up the gloomy areas.

Equally happy in these conditions is the English ivy Hedera helix. When mature this plant produces late autumn flowers that provide high quality nectar for bees and pollinators just when they need it, before winter hibernation. The flowers are then followed by purple berries loved by blackbirds, thrushes, blackcaps and wood pigeons. It’s a native plant with great wildlife value, as is Hawthorn, which will also tolerate difficult conditions.

With stunning lime green foliage, euphorbia is another ideal plant for dry shade. Varieties such as Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae retains its lovely fresh, lime green leaves and combines well with the blue flowers of Vinca to provide bright colour in a dry shady area.

Plants for damp shade

Hosta in a garden

Slug-resistant varieties of hosta thrive in damp shade
Image: The Sunday Gardener

A tough condition that’s slightly easier to accommodate is damp shade. One of my favourite stand out plants for a darker damp corner is Astilbe. The strong white plumes of Astilbe ‘Professor van der Wielen’ are particularly good.

Astilbe combines well with ferns and hostas which thrive in damp shade. Try planting some of the more slug-resistant hostas such as Big Daddy, Gold Regal, Liberty, Halcyon, and Silvery Slugproof to keep the pests away.

Conservatory flowers

Geranium ‘Moulin Rouge’ F1 Hybrid

Smothered in scarlet blooms, this was the most outstanding pelargonium in T&M’s trials
Image: Geranium ‘Moulin Rouge’ F1 Hybrid

Finally, are you fed up of composting dead and diseased conservatory plants? If the toughest place to grow successfully in your garden is your conservatory, take a look at pelargoniums. These non-hardy geraniums not only withstand the extreme heat of your conservatory – they positively bask in it. They’ll also survive the winter in an unheated conservatory. Tolerant and forgiving, just give them a regular water and occasional feed (tomato food is fine) and geraniums will flower away from March to November. I have to make myself cut them back in November when they’re often still in flower, knowing that this will improve the plant for next year.

Geraniums have many different flower types, some with amazing scented leaves, that will happily live in your conservatory for several years. When they get leggy, simply take a cutting and start again with a fresh plant.

Geraniums really brighten up a conservatory and are one of the few flowering plants which will take the very hot temperatures unscathed.

We hope this has given you plenty of food for thought when it comes to tricky areas of your garden. For more inspiration, check out our plants for a purpose resource page. If you need more gardening advice, find everything you need to know about growing drought proof plants on our hub page.

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