Tough Plants for Midwest Gardens

From the climate to the soil, gardening in the Midwest can be a challenge. Find the best plants for your region with Edward Lyon, director of Iowa's Reiman Gardens and author of Growing the Midwest Garden.

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Photo By: Photo by Edward Lyon / Courtesy Timber Press

Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro)

Steely-blue globe thistle is a bee magnet. It's also great to grow for fresh-cut or dried flowers. Hardy in zones 3 to 10, this tall perennial adds structure to the landscape or garden. Lyon suggests growing E. sphaerocephalus if you want a bushier, mounded plant; it has rounded, silvery-white flowers. 

Growing the Midwest Garden

Author Edward Lyon is a horticulturist and a working gardener who doesn't mind getting dirt under his nails. His book is an A to Z guide to the best trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, grasses and vines for the Midwest. It's also packed with tips on growing techniques and regionally appropriate gardening styles. 

Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii)

Also called turkeyfoot grass, big bluestem is a tough ornamental grass. This perennial native is a great addition to fall landscapes, when the bluish-green foliage turns red, purple and bronze.

Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)

Think miniature orchids when you look at the spurred flowers of barrenwort, a perennial that works well as a ground cover. The blooms appear in early spring and may be red, orange, yellow, white or other colors. Despite its shallow roots, barrenwort is drought-tolerant, Lyon says.

Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis)

Leathery-leaved marginal wood ferns can survive in rocky, dry soils and withstand periods of drought. These deer-resistant plants can take full to light shade--or even full sun. Wood ferns start out light green and become darker in summer.

Coreopsis 'Mercury Rising'

Tickseed, or coreopsis, is a cheerful addition to Midwestern gardens. Edward Lyon, author of Growing the Midwest Garden, says these plants are fine for landscapes or containers. He recommends doing a little research to find a hybrid that's hardy enough for your locality; he has found the Big Bang and Permathread Series are dependable in zones 5 and colder. 'Mercury Rising' has magenta to deep red petals with frilly, yellow centers.

Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Blue False Indigo grows deep roots, so don't plan on dividing or transplanting it. But this very adaptable perennial, which is hardy in zones 3 to 9, stands up to heat, humidity and drought, and even resists deer. The indigo blue flowers, held on spikes, bloom in spring.

Bush Clover 'Pink Fountain' (Lespedeza bicolor)

Mums aren't the only choice for fall color in midwestern gardens. Lyon says bush clover is an underused shrub that bursts into bloom from late summer to fall. 'Pink Fountain' has arching stems covered in pretty, pink, pea-like flowers.

Panicle Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata)

As flowering shrubs, panicle hydrangeas are hard to beat. These sun-lovers can take urban environments and grow fast. Unlike some hydrangeas, they can be pruned and you'll still get flowers on the current year's growth. Lyon calls 'Limelight' one of the best panicle types to date, with large, greenish-white blooms that age to "vintage pink" when the temperatures drop.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata)

Author Edward Lyon says blanket flowers are also known as the "sunshine of the western prairie". Although most cultivars will behave as annuals or short-lived perennials, the plants flourish in sandy, well-drained soil and bloom from spring into fall.

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum)

Look for sweet woodruff's small, white flowers popping up on the woodland floor each spring. Its foliage is aromatic if it's cut or crushed underfoot, making it nice for a ground cover. Grow this perennial, hardy in zones 4 to 8, in dry shade.

Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Hardy in zones 4 to 8, perky, purple pasque flowers have bell-shaped blooms that eventually form feathery, plumed seed heads. These spring-blooming perennials self-sow easily, yielding colors that range from lavender to dark magenta. Lyon says it's hard to find cultivars in stores, so look for them by mail order.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Little bluestem is an ornamental grass that holds its interest almost year-round. In spring, the fine-textured leaves are blue-green; from autumn to winter, they take on tones of wine, blue, purple and gold. Although it adapts easily to most soils, avoid planting little bluestem in wet or very fertile spots. If you can, position the plants so the silvery, summer seed heads will be backlit by the sun.