(Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I live in the U.S. Midwest. My gardens suffer hard winds, severe cold and often harsh summer heat. The plants I have listed in this article have endured not only the extreme Midwestern cold but the hard spring winds and the summer heat and humidity. If you wish to plant any of the top ten stress-free plants I have listed consider the variables unique to your zone before planting.
I have several altheas (Hibiscus syriacus), also known as Rose of Sharon or simply shrub althea, planted in my gardens. I have 'Lady Stanley' a double pink, 'Ardens' a double purple and the althea pictured is called 'Double Red'. Altheas are simple to grow and create graceful backdrops for individual garden beds or a single althea looks impressive trained as an espalier. An althea hedge is both practical and beautiful. If you are in need of a hedge consider planting a line of altheas. You may want to plant evergreens behind the althea hedge as altheas are deciduous shrubs. The althea reaches an impressive height of ten to twelve feet. Altheas are covered with hollyhock-like flowers from mid to late summer and often until frost. Mine bloom until frost puts them to rest for the season. Altheas are hardy to zone 5, but require winter protection for the first few seasons. They are drought tolerate and do not mind the Midwestern summers. In fact mine seem to thrive in the humidity. And if you like your altheas, they are easy to propagate. Cut several limbs off and pop them into a jar of water. You will soon have little althea babies to share with your garden friends.
Delicate is the word which comes to mind when I gaze at my columbines (Aquilegia). They are the delicate bells of my dooryard garden. But they are not delicate plants. They are tough enough to endure the upper Midwestern climate. The lacy plants grow up to four feet high and bloom in pastel hues in spring or early summer, depending on your zone. Columbines look particularly nice interspersed throughout a cottage garden.
What can one say about daylilies? They are spectacular plants. Hemerocallis are easy to grow and wonderful in bloom. I love them all. I have tons of hybrids planted throughout my gardens of which I have forgotten every name. Still I enjoy their blooms. From the common orange daylily to the multihued hybrids daylilies are tough contenders in the garden. Daylilies are hardy, require little care and can be planted in a variety of ways. Mass plant them on banks, beneath trees or along a driveway. Use them in borders or lay out an entire bed with daylilies alone. Daylilies adapt to most any soil, although my mother's daylilies have not been overly happy with her sandy Florida yard. She has had to amend her soil to suit the daylilies' needs. The sole trouble I have had with my daylilies is that they multiply too fast for me to keep up with the job of dividing them. But is that truly a problem, Gardeners?
When I see my Dianthus dancing in the breeze, I think of the English countryside dotted with tired cottages and small fenced yards filled with a profusion of cottage plants. I planted several of the cheddar pinks in my front cottage garden. The blue-green foliage of dianthus creates a beautiful pedestal for the bright pink blooms which light up my front yard from mid spring to summer. The one featured in the photo is 'Firewitch'; it is hardy to -40° F. It is happiest when planted in full sun and prefers well-drained, alkaline soil. It will grow to a height of 8 inches.
Tall Bearded Iris
Also known as cranesbill, Geraniums are hardy plants are not to be confused with the more commonly known geranium, Pelargonium. The flowers of the hardy geranium are not as impressive as Pelargonium, but hardy geraniums give the gardener many years of stress-free bloom. I have had no difficulties with my hardy geraniums in Zone 5. The one pictured above is 'Johnson's Blue'. The flowers are two inches across, and it blooms from spring to fall and stretches across the garden with fine, jewel green limbs. I planted mine at the base of an antique water well pump in a mini cottage garden. The flowers peek at me from beneath the pump as I stroll by it on a hot summer day.
Tall Bearded Iris
The tall bearded Iris is one of my favorite plants. They are easy to grow and multiply quickly. I have given away many of them over the years. They prefer full sun and do not like for their feet to stay wet. In my heavy Midwestern clay soil I planted my irises in a slightly raised bed. If you cannot build a raised bed, then mound up the dirt and plant the rhizome on the mound. This will effectively raise the iris out of the heavy clay soil. Tall bearded irises are hardy to the extreme upper Midwest. Mulch the newly planted iris bed to keep the rhizomes from heaving in the constant cycle of freezing and thawing in cold winter climates. Many varieties are fragrant. Plant a bed of tall bearded irises and enjoy them for years to come.
At present count I have 29 lilacs (Syringa) in and around my yard; I intend to plant more. Suffice it to say, I love lilacs. They are the azaleas of the north. With an exquisite fragrance and beauty that rivals all other flowers, lilacs are a perfect addition to any garden. I planted several Syringa patula 'Miss Kim' lilacs as a garden wall in my magnolia garden. I also have some planted along a section of the lattice panel fence I built, at the barn and near my garden shed. Lilacs can be planted anywhere you want a tall, hardy shrub that will delight the onlooker with fragrant blooms each spring. But keep in mind lilacs take time to settle in. Once you plant them leave them there. In two to three years you will have an abundance of fragrant blooms on your new lilac. My 'Miss Kim' lilacs are hardy to -40° F and will grow up to seven feet tall. Lilacs prefer well-drained, slightly alkaline soil. The major pests of lilacs are stem borer, scale and leaf miner. Powdery mildew, leaf spot and bacterial blight may be problems as well. I have not once in fourteen years had any of these problems with my lilacs. And I hope I never do. But lilacs are worth any trouble, so I will continue to grow them.
Herbaceous types of peonies (Paeonia) die to the ground in fall. That is the kind I know and love. Peonies are long-lived plants. I got my first peony from my mother-in-law. She has now passed away, and the peony yet blooms on. Peonies demand a site that has been well prepared with compost or manure. Mine, however, have been happy to be ignored. They like the healthy Midwestern soil. I have never had a problem with my peonies. And for that reason I have added them to my stress-free plants list.
My husband bought three bareroot Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) one spring. He planted them, and we have had Shasta daisies since that spring. Admittedly, there are times they come up in the most annoying of places. I had to pluck several from my front gate garden last season. But I would not wish them all away. I enjoy looking across the fields of pure white daises during the summer. So, plant them and more will come.
You are either a lover of sweet peas or not. I am a lover of perennial sweet peas (Lathryus vernus). Other folks consider them an invasive nuisance. I enjoy the profusion of orchard-like blooms far too much to ever deem sweet peas a nuisance. The perennial sweet pea will grow up to nine feet and is hardy into the upper Midwest. It will bloom all summer unless it is permitted to go to seed. The perennial sweet pea also creates a stress-free bank plant, trellis or fence cover. Mine is planted near my barn in a cottage garden. Last season it outgrew its allotted area. I will move it in the spring allowing it a larger area this time. But I could never give up my sweet pea altogether.
And so this completes my top ten list of stress-free plants. I hope you have gleaned some bit of information from my list. At the very least, I hope you have chosen a few of them to try in your garden. And enjoy creating your own top ten stress-free garden plants list.
Dave's Garden Community
Photos are the author's.