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14 Tough Perennials That Can Take Abuse (and Still Thrive)

Do you have area in your yard where you either have an existing garden, or a place where you’d like to plant a flower garden to add curb appeal, or just for your enjoyment, but not much will grow there. Perhaps the area has poor soil, either not enough water or too much water, salty road spray or it gets piled with a big heap of snow in the winter. What you need are tough perennials that can take abuse. Despite gardeners’ best attempts, sometimes plants have to survive without the best of circumstances and these perennials fit the bill.

Image of a Flower Garden

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How These Tough as Nails Perennials Made the Cut

  • These perennials can tolerate low water or drought conditions.
  • The plants on this list can tolerate road spray and salt spray.
  • They can tolerate poor soil conditions.
  • These perennials can tolerate mounds of snow in the winter and snow melt in the spring.

Sample Garden with Perennials That Survive Abuse

One of my favorite gardens is in an area on the corner of our ½ acre lot that borders two streets. The perennials in this bed are forced to survive pretty awful conditions. Not only does this bed look great, it is thriving in spite of all the abuse it endures. This flower garden has all of the conditions I list above. Plus, the snow plows push snow onto the garden from the intersection. So this flower garden has a 6 foot plus mound of snow on it for most of the winter. That snow includes salt and other muck and chemicals from the road. And sometimes the snow plows will scrape the surface of the soil.

For a little background on this flower bed, when we moved into our fixer upper home about 4 ½ years ago, this flower bed was just plain ugly. The bed had a diseased maple tree growing in it, so plants roots have to contend with the old tree roots. The previous owners had covered the mess with a layer of mulch to make it look okay for the sale. Once I started digging in, the mulch was covering about 6 inches of river rock with landscape fabric underneath. Check out this flower garden makeover when you’ve finished up here.    

Although, I’m working on amending the soil, it’s still very rooty (my made up word), rocky and sandy, and I’m amazed that anything grows in this flower bed, let alone thrives. So plants in this garden have to not only be able to survive very dry conditions (because I don’t always drag the hose that far to water), they must be able to survive a wet winter and spring from snow pack and melt.

Perennials That Can Take Abuse and Thrive

This will be our 5th summer and I have lost many, many perennials in this flower bed. Here are the star perennial plants in that garden that have stood the test of time and actually thrived.

Daylilies – I don’t mean the awful hemerocallis fulva (a/k/a ditch lilies). I have 7 or 8 hybrid varieties of daylilies in this garden bed and they are thriving. Daylilies are definitely a tough-as-nails perennial that can take some abuse and thrive in spite of said abuse. My favorite daylilies are any from the “returns” family, like: Happy Returns, Rosy Returns, When My Sweetheart Returns and many more. Stella de Oro is another tough as nails daylily, but I think it’s overused.

Image of Daylilies
Pure and Simple Daylily

Sedum – Not one of my favorite plants, but it wins in the category as tough-as-nails. I have dug up sedum and not gotten around to replanting it and it still survives. I think it could be run over by a Mack truck and it would survive. There are many varieties of sedum from low ground covers to tall plants. 

Autumn Joy Sedum, a tough perennial
Autumn Joy Sedum

Catmint – An amazing long blooming perennial that can take neglect and still thrive. Catmint can be sheared when it starts looking weary and within a week or two, it will be blooming and look amazing again. Look for shorter varieties that don’t flop, like Cat’s Pajamas or Walker’s Low Junior. If you do have taller varieties, you can keep them from flopping, or splitting down the middle by placing a hoop stake around them in the spring when they first emerge from the soil.

Catmint

Russian Sage – Some gardeners say Russian Sage can be an aggressive perennial, but I have not experienced that. I recommend going with a shorter variety like Little Spire, or Blue Jean Baby. They stay upright and don’t flop over. Be sure to place a plant marker by your  Russian Sage, because it’s slow to emerge in spring.

Russian Sage
Blue Spire Russian Sage

Blazing Star (Liatris Spicata) – A North American native. Not only is it tough, pollinators love liatris. Liatris is also a beautiful cut flower and a favorite of florists.

Liatris
Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)

Coneflowers (Echinacea) – There are so many cultivars of coneflowers and some are better than others at being tough perennials. If you have a really tough area, I would recommend just sticking with purple coneflowers, or pow wow wild berry. Those seem to be the toughest in my gardens.

Coneflowers - Tough Perennials That Can Take Abuse

Black-eyed Susan – Aww, the cheeriest flower ever! Cheery and tough, make Black-eyed Susan a winner in a garden where it’s a bit neglected. Another awesome pollinator flower!

Black-eyed Susan

False Indigo (Baptisia) – This is an amazing plant and makes my Underused Perennials list. Baptisia is tough as nails and you can’t even kill it if you want to. The thing to remember with Baptisia is to plant it where it will remain forever. It has a very long tap root and does not like to be moved. Also, give it space to grow, because they get massive. Here in my Zone 4b gardens, Baptisia is a spring bloomer and the bees love it, as much as I do.

False Indigo - Tough as Nails Perennial

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa) – a native perennial that, you guessed it, butterflies and other pollinators love. This is another plant that I have to mark in my gardens, because it takes it’s time coming up in the spring. 

Yellow Butterfly Weed
Yellow Butterfly Weed

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – There are many breathtaking cultivars. Stay away from common yarrow, it spreads like crazy, and you will likely regret planting it in a few years. Yarrow will rebloom if you deadhead the spent blooms.

Yarrow
Pomegranate Yarrow

Hardy Geraniums (Cranesbill) – There are so many varieties of cranesbill. Rozanne and Max Friel get my vote, as they are very long blooming perennials. There are also many cranesbill varieties that will grow in shade. If cranesbill outgrows its bounds, the plant will benefit from a good haircut.

Cranesbill (Geranium)
Rozanne Cranesbill

Irises are another tough as nails perennials. Yes, they are a little picky about how deep they are planted (the rhizomes like to rest on top of the soil). But, I’ve dug up irises tossed them in a pot and left them sitting all winter and they were still alive the following spring. It’s nearly impossible to kill irises, unless iris borer gets ahold of them. It does take a few years for irises to become established, but once they do, you will have plenty to share.

Irises

Blanket Flower (Gailardia) – This is a perennial plant that actually likes growing in crappy soil. It basically doesn’t like rich soil and doesn’t tolerate over-fertilization. Be sure to use a plant marker in the places where you have blanket flower, because it is slow to emerge in spring. Blanket Flower is also loved by pollinators. The combination of orange butterfly weed and blanket flower is stunning in the picture below.

Blanket Flower and Butterfly Weed
Arizona Sun Blanket Flower and Butterfly Weed

Globe Thistle (Echinops) – The name on this one will scare many away from it. After all, who wants thistles in their flower gardens. Trust me when I say, that once Globe Thistle gets established it’s tough as nails and not weedy at all. It is also a favorite of bees.

Globe Thistle
Globe Thistle (Echinops Ritro)

Tough Perennials for Shade 

Although most of the perennials suggested above are for full – part sun, there are also some shade plants that can tolerate just about anything.

  • Hostas
  • Barrenwort
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Lamium
  • Lily of the Valley – Be careful where you plant this one, as it can be crazy aggressive.
  • Ajuga – This ground cover is beautiful in the spring, but it can be aggressive too.

A Few Things to Remember About Tough Perennials

Don’t neglect your perennial flowers on purpose. In order to look their best and thrive, even tough perennials will benefit and reward you if you take care of them. The perennials in this article are tough and will likely survive neglect, but they won’t look their best. To become even more indestructible, all the plants in this article need to become established. You can’t expect to plant a new perennial and not have to take care of it. 

Be willing to experiment and find what works best for you in your situation. What works for me in my zone 4b gardens, may not work for you. If you have things you can fix, like crappy soil, then do what you can to amend your soil.

There are more plants that can survive anything, but they are referred to as garden thugs and you definitely don’t want to add invasive or aggressive plants to your garden, no matter how desperate you are.

With this list of perennials, not only do you have plants that can take abuse, or indestructible perennials, you have gorgeous flowers that attract pollinators and add tons of curb appeal to your home. Is there a perennial that I didn’t include in my list that you’ve found to be tough as nails in your gardens? If so, please leave a comment to let other gardeners know.

Thanks for stopping by Gingham Gardens today. I hope you are leaving with some ideas of tough plants you can try in your less than perfect garden terrain. There are tons of awesome gardening resources here, along with gardening tips, tricks and how-tos, plus, some beautiful garden pictures. Feel free to hang out in the gardens for awhile.

Happy gardening,

Joanna

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17 Comments

  1. I have nearly all of these and whole-heartedly agree with your list! Catmint is also my favorite of all flowers in terms of blooming its heart out ALL SUMMER LONG! My Rozanne Geraniums are hard workers with no input from me. Here in zone 4A, Shasta Daisies have been fool-proof for me, and my double knock-out pink roses don’t stop all summer long. Other perennials that thrive on my neglect: Fama Blue pincushion (even more gorgeous than my Blue Mist pincushions, though those are more prolific! And also makes an awesome cut flower. If you’re willing to occasionally deadhead it, you’ll be rewarded), Cardonna Salvia, Candytuft, Lychnis Jenny, Fireworks Goldenrod, Millenial Alliums, Asters (every kind I’ve ever grown just does their thing and pumps out the blooms in August & September), Creeping Buttercup, Birdsfoot Trefoil (will spread fast), Mockorange (it’s a shrub, but so darn hardy and smells divine when it blooms). And how could I forget my peonies–love kicking off spring with those party-starters!

    1. Katie – thank you so much for stopping by Gingham Gardens and adding your suggestions to 14 Tough Perennials That Can Take Abuse (and Still Thrive). I love the additions! Happy gardening, Joanna

      1. I love reading and educating myself on the most hardy perennials, and reading of other peoples successes.
        We live in Ontario, Canada I’ve been trying out different perennials by trial and error over the years. I’m now doing research as to what plants would do good in my perennial gardens which are all in full sun..
        I LOVE your articles and all the information that you provide for a beginner gardner. Thanks for all your inputs.

  2. I love catmint and plan to buy some. Then my next purchase will be so globe thistle, and butterfly weed. All the others I have. Love to plant flowers that the birds and bees like.

    1. Yes, Shirley, catmint is an amazing perennial and very long blooming. You won’t be sorry adding that one to your garden. Happy gardening, Joanna

    1. Hi Susan – I love Rose of Sharon, a/k/a hardy hibiscus. One reason I didn’t add it to the list is because sometimes here in zone 4b, you can have a beautiful established plant and the next year it doesn’t return. Plus, Japanese Beetles also decimate the plants. Thanks for weighing in! Happy gardening, Joanna

  3. Wow, I have almost all of these! I will not be planting catmint or lemonbalm which I did when we first moved here and then had to pull it out for about 20 years.. LOL., but I will try some Cranesbill and Baptisia. Great article, Thanks, Sandi

    1. Hi Sandra – oh definitely try a newer variety of Nepata (a/k/a catmint) again. They are not aggressive at all and they bloom the entire summer. Good luck and happy gardening, Joanna

  4. Thank you for this article. I live just 30 miles from the twin cities so we live in the same zone. This is so helpful as I am trying to get some perennials growing in my new flowerbeds. Some of the varieties you mentioned are hard to find at nurseries. Do you know where I could find the pow wow coneflower?

    1. Powwow Wild Berry coneflowers are available at most nurseries. In the cities (on the south side), I’ve seen them at Bachmans and Gertens. Perhaps I could give you a few more ideas depending where you are located, send me an email and I’ll see if I can help. Happy gardening, Joanna

  5. Thanks so much for being REAL. I’ve also had great luck with Rugosa roses and Black Eyed Susans.

      1. If I lived in the U.S.A. I could give her some seed of the pink coneflower. I live in about the same zone and I have had good luck with perennial Mallow. Mine is in full bloom at the present time and it is white and beautiful. I have seeds for also.l

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