Toughen Up Your Landscape: 10 Shrubs That Can Handle Harsh Conditions

My Garden Life
September 13, 2018
Table of Contents

There’s no doubt about it–ornamental shrubs are the workhorses of any landscaping project. They provide structure to garden paths, definition to border plantings, camouflage around unattractive walls and other outdoor features, and color along woodland edges. But did you know that some shrubs can also thrive in less-than-optimal conditions–from soggy soil to low water? Some can even resist fires.

If you’d like to toughen up your landscape with shrubs that have proven they can handle some of the worst that Mother Nature has to offer, here’s a list of winners. Because these shrubs are so resilient on their own, you’ll find them to be low maintenance for you too!

1. Mugo Pine

(Pinus mugo)

Pinus mugo - Mugo pine

The Mugo pine is native to the mountainous terrain of the Alps. It thrives in almost any soil, high heat, cold winters, and drought conditions. This slow grower is easy to maintain and will develop into attractive low mounds of evergreen foliage. This is a great choice for low screening, defining garden paths, or planting on slopes.

2. Creeping Juniper

(Juniperus horizontalis)

Juniperus horizontalis - Creeping juniper

Another evergreen plant that can take poor or rocky soil, high heat, and drought is the creeping juniper. It grows to heights between 12 inches and 24 inches (30 cm to 60 cm) so it works well as ground cover or under-plantings in beds. Use it around decks so you can enjoy its pleasant fragrance and blue-green color year-round. The dense foliage blocks out most weeds making this a low-maintenance solution for hillsides or other areas that are difficult to access and maintain.

3. Potentilla

(Potentilla fruticosa)

Potentilla fruticosa - Cinquefoil

Potentilla, also known as “shrubby cinquefoil,” is the perfect choice for gardeners in areas with long, harsh winters. Potentillas can grow in the poorest quality soil. They produce a low mound of branches sprinkled with delicate blossoms from spring until fall – even under drought conditions. Northerners love this plant for its ability to survive the prolonged subzero temperatures experienced as far north as USDA zone 2, where plants must withstand temperatures as low as -50° to -40°F (-46° to -40°C). Potentilla is available in a range of colors including pink, orange and white.

4. Forsythia

(Forsythia x intermedia)

Forsythia species

There’s no more reliable harbinger of spring than the dramatic bursts of yellow blooms on the hardy forsythia bush. These favorite garden shrubs aren’t picky about the soil in which they’re planted and, once established, they will tolerate drought as well. Makes a nice hedge, screen or windbreak and can be pruned freely to maintain the desired size.

5. Crape Myrtle

(Lagerstroemia indica)

Lagerstroemia indica - Crape myrtle

A favorite in Southern regions, crape myrtle is a tall shrub that can really take the summer heat. Growing as high as 10 feet (3 m), these disease-resistant bushes, some which can be pruned to look like small trees, bloom over a long season from summer through fall. They bring a lot of color to the landscape and even in the winter add interest with their mottled bark that has a smooth, polished appearance.

6. Red Twig Dogwood

(Cornus sericea)

Cornus sericea - Red twig dogwood

If damp soil rather than drought is your gardening challenge, consider the red twig dogwood. This fast-growing shrub prefers full sun and wet feet but it will still thrive in most soil conditions. Look for white flowers in the summer followed by light blue fruits and magenta foliage by fall. Once its leaves fall, the red twig dogwood lives up to its name with a stunning display of vibrant red branches. A great source of color for the winter landscape and especially beautiful set against a background of snow.

7. Cranberry Viburnum

(Viburnum opulus)

Viburnum opulus - Cranberry viburnum

The cranberry viburnum, also know as European cranberry viburnum, is another tough shrub that can tolerate boggy conditions and poor soils. Put this bush in a sunny location where nothing else will grow and enjoy endless seasons of color and interest. Cranberry viburnums produce showy white flower clusters in the spring, followed by red, cranberry-like fruits in summer. The fruits can persist through the fall and well into winter. The beautifully cut foliage adds texture and interest to the landscape, especially in the fall when the leaves turn to scarlet red. An excellent choice for planting along foundations, fences or creating a hedge.

8. Lilac

(Syringa vulgaris)

Syringa vulgaris - Lilac shrub

There’s a reason that lilac bushes have been a home landscape favorite for generations. Besides the array of colors available and their luxurious, fragrant flowers, lilacs are simply one of the toughest shrubs around. Once established, they require little maintenance and come with an added benefit – they are fire resistant, meaning slow to burn if a wildfire were to threaten your property. The flowering branches are wonderful for cut arrangements.

9. Yucca

(Yucca filamentosa or aloifolia)

Yucca filamentosa

Yuccas are another great fire-resistant choice if you’re landscaping in an area prone to forest fires. They also tolerate drought and rocky soils, and their spiky yellow and green leaves blend well into any desert-themed garden.

10. Red Cape Honeysuckle

(Tecomaria capensis)

Tecomaria capensis - Red cape honeysuckle

The red cape honeysuckle is a versatile shrub that can also act like a vine if you give it free reign to climb over fences and trellises. It’s a great choice for Southern regions because of its tolerance to high heat and drought. This resilient shrub is also fire resistant and requires little care when left to grow as a vine. Red cape honeysuckle’s red and orange, trumpet-shaped blossoms attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators.

The best thing about naturally tough shrubs is that by their very nature, they grow happily with very little care from you. Just get them off to a good start and they’ll take care of themselves.

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