Top Plants For Tough Spots

Shade tolerant. Drought resistant. Cold hardy. Long blooming.

For a tough spot, sometimes you just need a tough but easy-going plant. But that doesn't mean you have to settle for unattractive or boring. Try these beautiful, high-performing plants for year-round interest and worry-free care. They are some of my personal favorites, put to the test in my Northwest garden.

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Himalayan Maidenhair Fern Botanical name: Adiantum venustum Hardiness Zones: USDA 5-8 Size: 3"-4" high x 3' wide Evergreen Growing Conditions: Dappled shade to full shade, rich, well-drained soil, summer water

Topping the list is this dwarf evergreen fern with lacy sprays of delicate, green leaves on wiry black stems. Got to love those black stems! Fantastic as a top-of-the-line, slow-spreading groundcover in highly visible areas along walks or entrances. In 2010, it easily weathered a week of temps below 20 degrees, only to pop back with a vengeance. It's stunning with the erect blades of Black Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) poking through it and accompanied by the succulent, chartreuse-speckled foliage of Variegated London Pride (Saxifraga x urbium 'Variegata'). Occasional summer water keeps these ferns at their best.

Boxleaf Azara Botanical Name: Azara microphylla Hardiness Zones: USDA 7-9 Size: 12'-15' high x 6' wide Evergreen Growing Conditions: Full sun to light or dappled shade, well-drained soil, occasional summer water once established

This elegant, upright evergreen tree is exceptional for its distinctive architectural form. The delicate play of light through the tiny, glossy leaves never loses its appeal. Adaptable to varying exposures, it is currently growing happily in a narrow, partially-shaded strip along my driveway.  The graceful, arching limbs are particularly captivating in late spring when tiny, vanilla-scented, yellow flowers line the stems in abundance. Interesting year-round, it is perfect when you want an open, lacy screen.  Wonderful when underplanted with the large, bold foliage and conical white flowers of Pee Wee Oak leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’).

Three-leaf  Bittercress, Lady’s Smocks Botanical Name: Cardamine trifolia Hardiness Zones: USDA 5-8 Size: 4"-6" high x 12"-18" wide Evergreen Growing Conditions: light to dappled shade, well-drained soil, occasional summer water once established

A workhorse for dry shade, this dark green, thick-leaved woodland gem is one I recommend for difficult sites under mature trees or established Rhododendrons. Although the six-inch-high white flowers in June are relatively fleeting, their appearance is always welcome and complements my nearby patches of native Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax). I completely overlooked watering a small stand during last summer’s prolonged drought and it remained as fresh and as appealing as ever. Patience is required for a season or two as it gains ground but it is well worth the wait.

Maiden’s Wreath Botanical Name: Francoa sonchifolia Hardiness Zones: USDA 7-9 Size: 3' high x 12"-18" wide Evergreen Growing Conditions: Dappled to full shade, well-drained soil, tolerates clay, occasional summer water once established

I love tucking perennials between structural plants that will provide a long season of interest yet require little attention. I often forget the lobed, evergreen, mounded foliage of this Chilean native until the lilting sprays of orchid-like, pink flowers make their appearance in midsummer and just keep on coming well into fall. The burgundy leaf tones in fall are a real bonus. Combine with the red stems of Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) and the silver-veined foliage of Helleborus x sternii ‘Blackthorn Group’ and you’ve got a partial-shade, four-season, low-maintenance vignette that can’t be beat.

Himalayan Huckleberry Botanical Name: Vaccinium glaucoalbum Hardiness Zones: USDA 5-7 Size: 2'-3' high x 2'-3' wide Evergreen Growing Conditions: Light shade to shade, well-drained soil, average summer water

Don't overlook this quiet plant that draws attention to itself with its unique, powder blue, evergreen foliage with a silvery reverse. Slow to mature, this compact huckleberry is a stellar choice in the small urban garden where thoughtful selection and plant placement counts for so much. As temperatures cool, it shows an even softer side as burgundy highlights grace the leaves and stems. Pendulous clusters of pinkish-white flowers in May yield blue-black huckleberries, if the birds don’t get to them first that is! Excellent with Alpine Water Fern (Blechnum penna-marina) and the silvery blades of Snowy Woodrush (Luzula nivea).

Photo credits: Himalayan Maidenhair Fern, Boxleaf Azara and Three-Leaf Bittercress, Richie Steffen for Great Plant Picks; Maiden's Wreath, Wikipedia; Himalayan Huckleberry, Youngblood Nursery.