Plants for rocky soil

Top 5 Plants for Rocky Soil

It is a simple fact that the majority of plants need a nice nutrient rich place to set their feet. Most plants crave lovely loamy soil with plenty of fertility and just the right amount of moisture and drainage. This is why rocky spaces can be so challenging. Rocky areas are dry, low in fertility and tend to conserve heat, which can make them too hot for some plant’s tastes. This is a laundry list of potentially unfavorable traits in the eyes of a plant. Successfully growing in rocky soil can be done if you amend it to increase nutrient content or if you simply choose plants that grow in this type of soil. Here are the top 5 plant types for rocky soil conditions.

1. Herbaceous perennials. Rocky soil can be hard for plant roots to get a footing into. Shallow rooting plants and those with tough, tenacious systems are the optimum choice for such areas. Herbaceous perennials are often the perfect choice for rocky soil. They will need a little TLC while they establish but can thrive for years once they are mature. Start with these:

  • Butterfly weed
  • Coneflower
  • Epimedium (shady rocky areas)
  • Oxeye Daisy
  • Verbena
  • Rose Campion
  • Black Eyed Susan

2. Herb plants. Herbs are also perfect for the rocky soil regions of your landscape. Sages produce lovely flowers while oregano will colonize an entire area quickly, producing bee attracting blooms. Catmint not only attracts the local felines but makes an excellent tea for you.

3. Succulent plants. When you think of areas of the world with rocky soil, what comes to mind? Deserts. Desert plants, such as succulents, are uniquely adapted to low nutrient soils. Sedum, Sempervivum, and larger plants like Yucca and Agave thrive in this soil situation. These plants won’t work for many northern gardeners, as they can be frost sensitive, but temperate to warm region gardeners will find them useful. Ice plant is another succulent that has brightly colored flowers and will enliven the rocky regions of your garden.

4. Small trees and shrubs. Trees and shrubs offer dimension to the landscape but often need deep soil in which to root. Many of the juniper species can survive in rocky soil, however. These include creeping Juniper, Chinese Juniper and Japanese Juniper. For larger “bush” sized plants, many of the ferns that are native to your region will provide lush greenery in rocky soil. Other options for larger plants are Ninebark, Sumac and Bladdernut. Each has a different season of beauty well into winter and are hardy in low nutrient soils.

5. Ornamental grass plants. Ornamental grasses may also be suitable for your rocky soil. The lovely Prairie Dropseed, when planted en masse, produces a sea of waving foliage with accompanying whispers in the wind. Little Bluestem is an exciting clumping plant with bluish foliage at the base and bronze fall foliage. Coastal grass plants have to be tenacious when clinging to rocky cliffs and beaches. Dune grasses have shallow rooting systems and have an airy elegance and movement that is exciting in the home landscape.

There are many choices out there for the rocky soil predicament. Reach out to your local extension office for native and zone appropriate choices in your region. Doing so will ensure you have the right plant for the site and growing conditions.

Planting ideas for shallow soil


Large shrubs are not a good choice for shallow soil zones as they don’t have stability; they will only reach a small size.

Instead, choose shallow-rooted plants, such as grasses and ground covers for stability, rhizomal plants, vines and succulents (which are appropriate for hot, dry zones).

Grasses and ground covers

Try turf and spreading plants such as native violets (Viola hederacea), Johnny Jump Up violets, and Zoysia grass. Spreading plants are self-sustaining; when the older plants die, the new plants can keep growing. A mat of spreading plants will keep moisture in.

Rhizomal plants

Rhizomal plants that cope well with shallow soil include Clivias (for shaded areas), Agapanthas, Lomandras, Dianellas, and Poa.


Vinges are aggressive growers (requiring a lot of fertiliser), but shallow rooted. They are great to train up retaining walls or to espalier.


Succulents thrive in difficult conditions such as dry, hot zones and shallow soil. See the SEED Landscape Designs project in Hamilton for a great example of use of succulents in the property’s front plant beds.

Do you have heavy clay soil, soil that is depleted of nutrients or just doesn’t really seem to allow anything you plant in it to thrive? You may be planting the wrong things in it, as there are certain perennial flowers and herbs that actually thrive in poor soil. Learn about the best plants to grow in poor soil or heavy clay soil with our short guide!

1. Lenten Rose
Pictured above, lenten roses are tough plants that stand up to poor soil, drought, heat, humidity, and even the cold. Their gorgeous and dainty blossoms brighten up a garden and are long-lasting, making them perfect as cut flowers for an arrangement. Lenten roses grow up for 2 feet tall and prefer part shade or full shade. Use them as borders, in baskets or at the ends of rows in your veggie garden.

2. Periwinkle
Periwinkles are a wonderful, creeping ground cover that produce sweet, star-shaped blossoms in light blues, pinks and whites. The leafy stems of this plant usually reach about 1 to 2 feet in length, but spread across the ground instead of growing up. Periwinkle prefers part shade but can manage in a sunny spot as well. Plant it after clearing the ground of weeds, and enjoy how well it suppresses future weed growth.

3. Bleeding Heart
One of the most delicate and intricate flowers, the bleeding heart is a heritage plant that produces distinctively-shaped pink summer blossoms from arching stems. They grow between 6 inches and 2 feet tall depending on variety, and prefer light to medium shade. Plant them with ferns, wood sorrel, hosta and lady’s mantle for a woodland inspired cottage garden.

4. Gaillardia Fanfare
Brilliantly colored, this flamboyant flower is hardly one you’d think prefers poor soil, but it really does. A sun lover, gaillardia fanfare grows to about two feet high and is best for pots, borders or mass plantings. These unique blossoms bloom from late spring all the way through to fall, and make wonderful cut flowers for arrangements.

5. Black Jack Sedum
This variety of sedum has deep purple foliage with clusters of tiny, light pink blossoms. Easy to grow and maintain with its thick, succulent leaves that store water, this poor soil preferring plant loves the sun but does fine it part shade. These plants grow up to 3 feet tall with up to 8 inch wide flower blossoms. Plant them as accents for your garden or in deep pots and enjoy the unique foliage until the blossoms come on in late summer.

6. Oregon Grape
This bush is also known as holly-leaved mahonia, and is a tough evergreen that grows between 2 and 4 feet tall tall and almost as wide. The shiny, green leaves have small thorns on their edges, and the plant produces small white flowers in the summer that turn into small, grape shaped and colored berries later in the season. Use it as a hedge or tall border that is beneficial for wildlife.

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Plants for light and stony soil

Soils that are sandy or stony are described as ‘dry’ because water drains through them quickly. They are easy to cultivate and warm up quickly in spring.


The downside is that plants can suffer from a lack of both water and food, because nutrients are soluble and soon get washed through. Improving the structure of the soil with organic matter such as well rotted manure or garden compost can help hugely with this.

The trick with dry soils is to choose drought-tolerant plants. You are also more likely to have success with borderline hardy, exotic plants, as they are more able to survive winter cold if they don’t have wet roots.

More advice on your soil type:

  • Find out your soil type
  • Types of organic matter for soil (video)
  • Testing your soil pH (video)

Here are some great plants for dry soils to try.

The trick with dry soils is to choose drought-tolerant plants. You are also more likely to have success with borderline hardy, exotic plants.

Star jasmine

Fragrant star jasmine flowers

Trachelospermum jasminoides likes a sunny sheltered site in milder areas of the UK. This climber has highly scented, starry blooms in summer and autumn, and evergreen foliage.

Golden oats

Stipa gigantea seedheads

Stipa gigantea is an elegant ornamental grass with tall, light-catching flowerheads that ripen to gold, providing interest through to spring. Plant it in sun or light shade.

Japanese rose

Rugosa rose hips

Rosa rugosa is one of the few roses that likes light soil, even sand. Choose ‘Alba’ or ‘Rubra’ for large white or pink flowers followed by red hips. Plant in sun or part shade.

Lavender in full bloom

Lavender offers aromatic foliage along with pretty summer flowers beloved by bees. Varieties such as ‘Hidcote’ are ideal as border edgings or low hedges in full sun.

Mexican fleabane

Erigeron flowers and buds

A ground-covering perennial, Erigeron karvinskianus self-seeds freely into paving and walls. It’s covered in small pinky-white daisies from spring to autumn. It likes sun or part shade.


Pink dianthus flowers

The fragrant summer blooms of dianthus are usually pink, but varieties can range from white to red. These perennials are ideal for raised beds and rockeries in full sun.


Buddleja with a nectaring peacock butterfly Advertisement

Buddleja thrives in poor soil and has the added advantage of being extremely attractive to butterflies, hence its common name, the butterfly bush. Cut back hard every spring.

Add organic matter

Add plenty of organic matter such ashomemade compost, well-rotted manure or a soil improver – it will hold onto water and nutrients. Dig into a depth of 1-2 spades before planting and add more every spring.

By Erin Marissa Russell

If your gardening area has rocky soil, you can choose to use what you’ve got and plant what flourishes in rocky areas or you can put in some elbow grease. If you want to grow any type of plant, you may choose to amend your rocky soil, construct raised beds so you can grow on top of your soil, or opt for a container garden. But if you’re going to work with what you’ve got, you must be sure the plants you choose will be capable of performing well in the rocky soil.

The Best Plants for Gardens With Rocky Soil

As a rule, you can count on most types of succulents and cacti to grow well in rocky soil. However, there are varieties that perform better than others, and there are also shrubs, trees, flowers,and herbs that will do well in areas that have rocky soil. Choose among the plants on this list to work with your rocky soil instead of against it.

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is a succulent well known for the healing properties of the gel inside its leaves when applied to sunburns, burn injuries, and other skin problems. It’s appropriate for USDA growing zones 9 through 11 and can grow up to 24-39 inches tall.


Anemone (Ranunculuacaea) does best in moist rocky soil and offers varieties that produce blue, pink,purple, red, white, and yellow flowers. It can reach three or four feet tall in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 8.

Baby’s Breath

Baby’s breath (Gypsophila) is known for its sprays of white flowers, which you’ve probably seen in cut flower arrangements or used at weddings. There are also types that bloom in pink. Grow baby’s breath in USDA zones 3 through 9, and it can get between two and three feet wide.

Black-Eyed Susan

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are a wildflower with yellow daisy-like blooms that have black centers. It does best in USDA zones 4 through 7, and varieties range from a foot or so in height to a six-foot-tall giant variety.


Cacti can grow just about anywhere, and they require very little care, being suited to desert conditions. Best of all, there are plenty of varieties to choose from to suit your location and size or appearance preferences.


Catchfly (Silene armeria) is a perennial that flowers in white and shades of pink in spring and summer. Mature plants stand between 12 and 18 inches tall in growing zones 5 to 8.


Catmint (Nepeta) is a relative of catnip that blossoms in purple, white, pink, and yellow. Plant in zones 3 to 7, and it’ll grow between 12 and 36 inches tall.

Columbine (Aquilegia) offer beautiful, unusual blooms in a variety of colors for dappled and partially shaded areas. They’re usually about two feet tall and can be cultivated in hardiness zones 3 to 9.

Common sage

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is a pretty herb that’s a traditional addition to flavor stuffing, sausage, and lots of other dishes. Gardeners in USDA zones 4 to 11 can see their sage plants grow up to 18-24 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.


Coneflower (Echinacea) is a pink, daisy-like plant that requires little from the gardener. Plant it in USDA zones 3 through 9, and watch it grow to about three feet tall.

Crabapple Tree

Crabapple trees (Malus) are a favorite of gardeners for their glossy foliage and white or pink blooms. They can get up to 20 feet tall and do best in hardiness zones 4 to 8.


Crane’s-bill (Geranium) is an annual flower in pink, purple, red, or white that gardeners love for its easy care. Size varies, with heights from four to 48 inches. Plant these in zones 10 or 11.

Creeping Jenny

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) is a groundcover with yellow blossoms that prefers full sun. Plants are mounding, just two to four inches tall, but spread along the ground from 12 to 18 inches wide in zones 3 to 9.

Dogwood Tree

Dogwood trees (Cornus) are an ornamental known for their gorgeous white blooms. They can stretch up to 20 to 40 feet tall and thrive in USDA zones 4 to 9.

Hazelnut Tree

Hazelnut trees (Corylus) are easy to care for and, in addition to adding beauty to the garden, you can harvest the delicious hazelnuts (also called filberts). They grow to about 10 feet tall by 10 feet wide in zones 4 to 8.

Hawthorn Tree

Hawthorn tree (Crataegus) blossom in red, white, or pink as well as growing small fruits. Between 15 and 25 feet tall, they do best in zones 3 to 8.


Hellebores are old-fashioned flowers in a variety of colors, even unusual shades like pale green or black. They’re about two or three feet tall and do their best for gardeners in zones 4 to 9.

Holly Bush

Choose between winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), American holly (Ilex opaca), and Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Some grow to six feet, while others tower at 50 feet tall. Most breeds flourish in zones 5 to 8, but some can be grown in 7 to 11.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up (Viola) is a cheerful tricolor flower in purple and yellow that’s related to the pansy. In USDA zones 1 to 10, they grow between four and six inches high.

Lavender (Lavandula) is often grown for its scent and gray-green foliage in USDA zones 5 to 9. This small shrub grows between 20-24 inches in both height and width.

Pinks (Dianthus) are a popular perennial, with pink, white, or bicolor flowers with jagged-edged petals. Most grow in zones 3 to 9 and reach between six and 18 inches tall.

Purple Fountain Grass

Purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum rubrum) is a dramatic ornamental grown as a perennial in zones 9 to 11 and an annual in other zones. Plants stretch to between three and six feet tall.

Red Cedar Tree

Red cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana) is a gardener favorite for its needled branches and pyramid-like shape. It can reach heights of 50 to 70 feet in hardiness zones 2 to 9.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is known for its delicious taste and clean, woodsy scent. The small shrubs can grow up to 3 to 8 feet high in zones 8 and 9.

Russian Oregano

Russian oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. gracile) is an herb, but it also offers flowers in bluish purple. It gets to be between a foot and a foot and a half tall in zones 4 to 8.

Shasta Daisy

Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum) are the classic daisy: white with yellow centers. Plants stand two to three feet tall in gardens in hardiness zones 5 to 8.

Showy Milkweed

Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is a perennial in the dogbane family that will draw plenty of pollinators, especially butterflies. In zones 3 to 9, it can reach heights of two to six feet.

Smooth Hydrangea

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a favorite of any old-fashioned garden with its enormous white flower clusters. They’re three to five feet tall with a spread between four and six feet, and they thrive in growing zones 3 to 9.


Stonecrop (Sedum) has lots of varieties to choose from that do well in rocky soil, so choose the one you like the best. For gardeners in growing zones 3 to 10, they grow between one and three feet tall.

Sweet Alyssum

Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is also called carpet flower and is known for its generous clusters of white flowers. Plants grow to 10 inches tall and 14 inches wide year-round in zones 7 to 11.


Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is another herb garden mainstay that can be used to flavor meat, potatoes, and more. Plant in zones 5 to 9, and it can grow from just two inches to 15 inches tall.


Tickseed (Coreopsis) offers yellow or orange flowers, with plants from 12 to 24 inches tall. Grow in hardiness zones 4 to 9.


Verbena is low maintenance and blooms between spring and fall in shades of red, white, pink, purple, or apricot. It grows in clumps that reach six to 10 inches tall and does best in zones 5 and up.

More Plants You Can Grow in Rocky Soil

American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)


Barrenwort/Bishop’s hat/Fairy wings/Horny goat weed (Epimedium)

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa)

Bellflower (Campanula)

Blue fescue ornamental grass (Festuca glauca)

Bugleweed (Ajuga)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

Common bearberry(Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)

Evergreen candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)

False Indigo (Baptisia)

Gentian violet (Gentiana)

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum)
Ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)

Juniper trees

Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Magnolia tree

Maiden silvergrass/Chinese silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’)

Missouri evening primrose/Bigfruit evening primrose/Ozark sundrop (Oenothera macrocarpa)

Mugo pine (Pinus mugo)

Netted iris/reticulated iris (Iris reticulata)

Ninebark (Physocarpus)

Olive tree ( Olea europaea)

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Purple poppy-mallow/Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)

Rockfoils (Saxifraga)

Rockspray cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

Rose campion (Silene coronaria)

Royal candles speedwell (Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’)

Royal catchfly (Silene regia)

Sea thrift (Armeria maritima)

Silvergrass (Miscanthus)

Smokebush (Anacardiaceae)

Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)

Sumac tree (Rhus)

White heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides)

Wineleaf cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata)

Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)

Yucca (Asparagaceae)

With so many plants to choose from, there’s no reason to be down in the dumps about a property with rocky soil for gardening. If you don’t want to install raised beds, plant in containers, or amend your soil, the plants we’ve listed here will be good options for your rocky soil garden.

Want to learn more plants to grow in rocky soil?

Birds & Bloom covers Top 10 Plants for Rocky Soil

HGTV covers How to Plant in Rocky Soil

Gardening Know How covers Working in Rocky Soil

SFGate Homeguides covers Plants That Will Grow Through Gravel

Living the Country Life covers Dealing with Rocky Soil

Missouri Botanical Garden covers Plants for Shallow, Rocky Soil

The Spruce covers Plants for Rock Gardens

Troy-Bilt covers Plants that Grow in Rocky Soil

Troy-Bilt covers How to Amend Rocky Soil

Top 10 Native Plants for the Northeast

For a low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly landscape, use native plants adapted to the climate and range of soils in the Northeast

January 9, 2017

Ellen Sousa/Turkey Hill Brook Farm, original photo on Houzz

The key to gardening success in the northeastern U.S., with its variably cold, snowy winters and short, humid summers, is choosing plants already adapted to the local climate and soils, as well as the specific conditions in your yard. By learning to read the varied conditions of your landscape — and you may have multiple habitats that are very different from one another — you can then look for plants that grow naturally in those conditions without needing water over the average 40 to 60 inches of annual precipitation in this region.

Instead of impulse-buying plants that strike your fancy in bloom at the nursery, first take a good look at what you have to work with.

Lots of shade from trees and buildings? Choose Northeast natives such as foamflower and serviceberry, which happily bloom in the shade underneath trees.

Sandy soil in full, blazing sun where nothing seems to grow well without constant fertilizer and water? Look for native-plant nurseries selling butterfly milkweed and New Jersey tea. Both are important wildlife plants, feeding a diversity of pollinator species, including the endangered monarch butterfly, but they’re rarely seen in the wild because the sandy, well-drained soils they like to grow in make for perfect areas for development.

Residential landscapes are now one of the few places you are likely to see some of these beautiful plants, so incorporating them into your landscaping can help maintain their valuable attributes for generations to come.

10 Plants for Interest All Year

Here are 10 plants, from herbaceous perennials to woody vines, shrubs and trees, chosen for their multiseason beauty and interest, wildlife value and adaptability to a variety of garden conditions found across the Northeast, from dry sun to moist shade. Other than irrigation in their first year or two and an annual weeding, once these plants are established in conditions to their liking, they should require little else to thrive in your Northeast landscape.

(Tiarella cordifolia)
Native to rich Eastern forests and woodlands

Best shade perennial. Foamflower, shown here, is a beautiful semievergreen ground cover that blooms in a sea of pink and white foamy flowers in spring. Fairly deer resistant (definitely not a deer’s first choice), it is perfect for growing in shady areas underneath trees or in the shade of a house. In rich soil, foamflower can spread annually a few feet in each direction from stolons (underground roots), but it is never invasive like Vinca and Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), commonly planted ground covers that can escape into nearby woodlands.

Ellen Sousa/Turkey Hill Brook Farm, original photo on Houzz

Choose spreading varieties if you’re looking for a ground cover effect. Named cultivars found in nurseries are often labeled incorrectly as Tiarella cordifolia and are actually the clumping Appalachian species, Tiarella wherryi. These don’t spread from underground stolons, so read labels carefully if you prefer a spreading plant to fill an area.

Butterfly Milkweed
(Asclepias tuberosa)
Native to open, sandy soils and uplands across eastern North America, but a rare species in most New England states

Best full-sun perennial for sandy or well-drained soil. This gorgeous native plant sports neon-orange blooms in early summer, attracting many butterflies and pollinators to its sweet nectar. Butterfly milkweed thrives in any sunny spot with well-draining soil, especially sand. As a milkweed, it’s an occasional food plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars, although swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which leafs out and blooms later than the orange milkweed, is preferred as a host plant.

Plant Common Milkweed in a Northeast Garden to Attract Butterflies

New England Aster
(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Native to moist meadows and fields on the East Coast and south to Virginia

Best full-sun perennial for moist soil and late-season blooms. The purple flowers of New England aster, along with goldenrod (Solidago spp), signal the summer’s end here in the Northeast. An important nectar and host plant for butterflies and late-season beneficial insects, it loves full sun and moist soil, but it will put on a great show in any reasonable garden soil. Allow it to self-seed and create large drifts of fall color, and watch for monarch butterflies drinking nectar from the flowers, essential fuel for their long flight south to Mexico.

GardenArt, original photo on Houzz

(Amelanchier spp)
Some species are native to low woods and swamps, and others are adapted to high and dry exposed areas

Most adaptable flowering shrub. Serviceberry, also called shadbush, shadblow and juneberry, is a beautiful multistemmed shrub or small tree that grows in sun or the understory of larger trees. Clouds of white flowers cover serviceberry in April, and the early-season nectar is valuable forage for many pollinators. Birds flock to feed on the pink and purple edible berries that ripen in June. The fall foliage is a striking orange and yellow, especially when grown in the sun. Plants sold in nurseries are usually natural hybrids of local species.

Ellen Sousa/Turkey Hill Brook Farm, original photo on Houzz

New Jersey Tea
(Ceanothus americanus)
Native to sandy pine barrens and rocky soils of eastern North America

Best full-sun shrub for dry soils. This shrub makes it into the top 10 for its ability to thrive in the leanest and driest soils without wanting or needing fertilizer or watering. Planted in these conditions, it’s as close to a zero-maintenance flowering shrub that exists in the north. Billowy, white early-summer blooms attract hordes of pollinators and beneficial predatory insects that help control garden pests. New Jersey tea is hard to find for sale; look for it at native-plant nurseries in your region.

Enjoy Your Native Landscape Almost Year-Round With a Fire Pit

Highbush Blueberry or Lowbush Blueberry
(Vaccinium corymbosum, Vaccinium angustifolium)
Native to a variety of habitats, ranging from swamps and bogs to woods, fields and rocky outcrops

Best edible plant. Blueberry is an essential Northern garden plant because of its delicious berries, fiery fall foliage and, depending on the species, ability to grow just about anywhere with some sun.

Ellen Sousa/Turkey Hill Brook Farm, original photo on Houzz

Trumpet Honeysuckle
(Lonicera sempervirens)
Native to forest edges, woodlands and ledges in southern New England and south

Best flowering vine. Trumpet honeysuckle, also called coral honeysuckle, is a well-behaved flowering vine that attracts hummingbirds and won’t take over your house or yard the way Asian wisteria (Wisteria sinensis or W. floribunda) or English ivy (Hedera helix) can. Trumpet honeysuckle is perfect for twining up an arbor or along a fence line.

Important note: Don’t confuse trumpet honeysuckle with trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) or crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), which are also vines with trumpet-shaped flowers but should be avoided, due to their aggressive spreading through underground runners.

Gray Birch
(Betula populifolia)
Grows wild in abandoned fields and disturbed areas of the East

Most adaptable small tree. Gray birch is an attractive and fast-growing tree for sun or shade, wet or dry soil. It’s more resistant than other birches to the bronze birch borer pest. Grow gray birch to add quick and easy wildlife habitat to your property — its seeds and catkins feed birds, and its foliage hosts many butterfly and moth caterpillars, which in turn become a protein-rich food that birds use to feed their babies in the nest.

Ellen Sousa/Turkey Hill Brook Farm, original photo on Houzz

Red Maple
(Acer rubrum)
Native to swamps, forests, fields, and river and wetland edges

Most adaptable large tree. Grow red maple, also called swamp maple, for its fast growth when young and its multiseason interest. Its red flowers in early spring feed native bees, and its brilliant orange and red fall foliage rivals the iconic colored foliage of sugar maples, which are beginning to die out due to a warming climate.

Creeping Juniper
(Juniperus horizontalis)
Native to dunes and sandy, gravelly or rocky outcrops, often seen growing on highway embankments

Best evergreen ground cover for full sun and dry soil. What it lacks in showy blooms, juniper makes up for with its tough disposition, growing in the toughest, driest soils. Its low, spreading habit creeps nicely around rocks and into awkward spaces, highlighting nearby showy plants and unifying landscape designs large and small. Easily the most drought-tolerant evergreen ground cover for Eastern gardens, juniper grows in any well-drained soil in full sun, including sand and on steep slopes.

Fill a Vase with a Bouquet of Native Wildflowers for Natural Decor Indoors

Categories: Gardening & Landscape

Seven Perennial Soil-Building Plants

But there are also perennial soil-building species, which can be cut for “biomass” several times each year to either be used as a composting material, or to place directly on the ground as mulch. These species are particularly useful in small scale homestead-style gardens where fruits, nuts, berries, and flowers are grown in addition to traditional annual crops.

What qualifies a plant as a soil-builder?

These are plants that thrive in relatively poor soil, produce a prolific amount of biomass (a fancy word for foliage), and quickly improve the soil quality. Many species that have earned this moniker are also known for deep, powerful taproots, which break up hard subsoil, as a well as an ability to accumulate nutrients in their tissues – nutrients that can be made available to other plants when the soil-building species is cut and left to decompose.

Soil builders must respond well to being constantly pruned back. Some perennials are stunted by being cut back on a regular basis; soil builders, on the other hand, are species that regrow even more profusely each time they’re trimmed. These plants are typically planted along the border of a food garden as a hedge, but the smaller species are also suitable for planting beneath fruit trees, where they are perfect for the “chop-and-drop” method: cut off a handful whenever you go by and let the biomass decompose in place on top of the soil, where it acts as a moisture-conserving mulch in the short term, and adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil in the long term.

Let’s get to our list.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey grows only about two feet tall but it’s roots can extend more than six feet deep. Photo by guppyss /.com

Often considered the king of soil-building plants, the roots of comfrey, a plant that grows less than 2 feet tall, are known to burrow 6 feet or more into the earth, essentially mining the subsoil for nutrients that are unavailable to other plants, which are then concentrated in the foliage. Growing in a low dense clump with leaves up to two feet in length, comfrey produces an armful of biomass in a few months. Once established, you can cut it to the ground and within weeks it will regrow into another shrubby mass. It is easily propagated from root cuttings. USDA zones 3 to 9.

Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa)

The Empress Tree can be kept as a small shrub with regular trims. Photo by ncristian /.com

This tree, which has gorgeous purple flowers and heart-shaped leaves the size of a dinner plate, will eventually grow to more than 40 feet in height, but you can maintain it as an eight-foot shrub if you cut it back every few months. After being cut back to the ground, a thicket of new shoots emerges from the stump with even larger leaves (up to 2 feet across) that make a copious addition to the compost pile. Be forewarned, however, that in some areas this species seeds itself prolifically and can become invasive. Saplings are widely available online. USDA zones 5 to 9.

Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

The stems from the Cardoon plant, which is related to artichokes, are edible. Photo by nnattalli / .com

This edible soil builder is closely related to artichokes, but instead of eating the unopened flower bud, you eat the blanched stems. Cardoon is a striking Mediterranean plant that grows as a leafy six-foot tall clump, producing an astonishing amount of foliage each year, which is topped with fist-sized purple flowers that resemble a thistle. Grow it from seed or purchase seedlings online. USDA zones 7 to 9.

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Nettles are known as a nutrient accumulator, similar to comfrey. Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / .com

Like comfrey, nettles are known as a nutrient accumulator. This plant is a little more complicated to grow, however, as it is covered with tiny hairs that give a mild “sting” if you brush up against them with your bare skin. So it’s not recommended as a garden plant, but it is a native species suitable for cultivation in naturalized areas on rural properties. It grows in sun or shade, but likes lots of moisture. When you’re ready to make a new batch of compost, protect yourself with gloves and thick, long-sleeved clothing and cut the nettle patch to the ground – it will regrow profusely from the underground rhizomes. Grow from seed, USDA zones 3 to 10.

‘Mammoth’ Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

The Mammoth red clover plant has gorgeous, red flowers and is a nitrogen-fixer.

Mammoth is a cultivar of the common red clover plant, which bears lush leafy stalks up to three feet in height and has dazzling red flowers. Like other clovers commonly grown as cover crops, red clover is a “nitrogen-fixer,” meaning it converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a soluble form that other plants can absorb through their roots. Each time you cut red clover to the ground to harvest biomass for mulch or compost, some of the little nitrogen-making nodules on the roots die off, releasing their nutrients into the surrounding soil. Compared to most other plants, the foliage of clovers (and other legumes) also contains above average nitrogen for your compost pile. Grow from seed. USDA zones 3 to 9.

Bush Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)

This nitrogen-fixer is virtually indestructible. Photo by nnattalli / .com

This leguminous shrub, also a nitrogen-fixer, grows quickly to eight feet tall and wide, and can be cut back again and again, yielding wheelbarrow loads of biomass. Virtually indestructible, it prefers moist, partly shaded locations, and is native to forests throughout much of the United States. Grow from seed. USDA zones 4 to 9.

Siberian Pea Tree (Caragana arborescens)

This nitrogen-fixer is virtually indestructible. Photo by Tatyana Mi / .com

A tough and hardy soil builder, this nitrogen-fixing legume matures into a small tree with yellow flowers, but is easily maintained as a 6-foot shrub if you cut it back on a regular basis. It fairs poorly in hot climates, but is one of the best soil builders for cold, northerly places. Seedlings are widely available from mail order nurseries. USDA zones 2 to 7.

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Robust mounds of Euphorbia add structure and backbone to mixed plantings of perennials and grasses.

You could say that the only true indestructible plants are the ones that won’t go away – weeds!

But some flowers, native plants and herbs are much tougher than they look.

Most plants need a decent amount of food, water and light to get off to a good start but once they’re established these plants show their true mettle when it comes to droughts, frosts, poor soil, under-watering or over-watering.


These little battlers are suckers for punishment and thrive in dry, thin soils, although they’ll grow pretty much anywhere. They’re unusual plants with whorls of blue-grey leaves that are topped by lime-green flowers which are not dissimilar to Shrek’s ears. Described by iconic British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll as “one of the grandest of plants”, their unusual blue-grey, lime-yellow combo makes them ideal partners for offsetting other plants in a border and they’re general great evergreen fillers. They can be a bit rough as well as tough if you come into contact with their milky sap, which is a touch irritant and hell for eyes, so wear gloves when handling them. These biennials produce new shoots from the base each year. Available from Marshwood Gardens.

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Cosmos flowers can be simple with single petals but there are frilly, double and fused-petal forms too.


Their cupcake-wrapper petals and frothy foliage might not scream out “staunch as” but, don’t be fooled by these easy-care bee magnets. Quite relaxed with a bit of neglect, they’re the Everready Batteries of the summer garden and will keep going and going all season long.

Hardy cranesbill geraniums have gorgeous foliage and flowers in shades of white, pink, blue and purple. There is a hardy geranium for all conditions from full sun right through to dry shade.

These annuals will easily self-seed, and you’ll find them popping up in a different part of the garden from where you planted them. They grow from 45cm to 1.2 metres and come in an array of colours – pink, white, orange, yellow and rose – and patterns. Check out the yellow and white bicoloured ‘Lemonade’ from Egmont Seeds.


Not to be confused with the widely grown pelargonium, which is frequently labelled a geranium, well-named hardy cransebill geraniums are the real deal. These prolific-blooming perennials come in pink, magenta, purple, white and blue and will tolerate most situations, spreading out in a thick carpet between other plants, making them a great non-invasive filler.

STUFF Lomandra is beloved by landscape designers for mass planting as it flows beautifully in the wind and doesn’t get tatty.

They’re so popular that the variety ‘Rozanne’ was crowned “Plant of the Centenary” at the Royal Horticultural Society’s 100th Chelsea Flower Show in 2013. Check out the wide range available from Heirloom Perennial Plant Nursery.


Drought-tolerant, tough, reliable, evergreen in cold weather and attractive. Could this little Aussie battler be the perfect plant? These Australian tussocks also have a tidy manner about them as opposed to other grasses which require grooming, plus they’re not a martyr to slugs and snails.

They look fantastic along pathways and planted in mass groupings under slender trees such as silver birches and they have creamy yellow flowers in spring. Try the zingy ‘Lime Tuff’ or compact ball-shaped ‘Little Con’ which grows to 30cm x 30cm. Plants are available from Southern Wood Nurseries.


Tough as old boots, these loved or loathed “lilies of the Nile” (they’re not really lilies or from the Nile) will cope with all kinds of weather and are strong enough to hold up an entire sandy bank. Their clump-forming and promiscuous self-seeding habits have earned them official weed status by DOC and various regional councils across the country.

Choose eco-friendly sterile agapanthus varieties to hold up that steep bank where nothing else will grow.

Fortunately eco-friendly sterile and low-fertility hybrids are now available in a range of sizes in blue, white and purple. ‘Thunderstorm’ has variegated yellow and green foliage and the sweet semi-dwarf ‘Seafoam’ has pure-white flowers. Available from Wairere Nursery.


The superhero of the toughies, these succulents are perfect for anyone with fingers of death because semper means “always” and viven originates from “vivus which means “living”. In ancient Rome they were the plant of the god Jupiter and grown on roofs as protection from lightning, thunder and sorcery. They were also considered the plant of Thor in Nordic mythology (the double-god status is pretty impressive). They’re also known as hen and chicks because the rosettes produce new plants which spread like a mat.

Sempervivens, aka house leeks or hen and chicks are exceptionally hardy plants.

Colours range from purple, grey, red, bronze and green. They look fantastic mixed up in bowls with other succulents. Succulents are available from Wairere Nursery Ltd Auckland, Coromandel Cacti and Mauways Nursery and Gardens.


Want a no-problem plant that settles in without any problems? Then do your research and find out which native plants naturally grow in your area. Despite their names, swamp flax (harakeke or Phormium tenax) and mountain flax (wharariki or Phormium cookianum) both grow in mountainous and coastal areas throughout New Zealand. Swamp flax is larger and more upright with dramatic red flower spikes beloved by nectar-eating birds, whereas mountain flax has softer, more arched leaves and yellow-green flower spikes.

STUFF Iconic plantings of flax along motorways look majestic and it will survive in your most challenging garden positions too.

All the different flax varieties available originate from these two species and come in a glorious array of colours from chocolate brown ‘Dark Delight’ to ‘Alison Blackman’ with stripes of olive, yellow and orange.


Most herbs are hardy, but if you’re a bit tardy when it comes to watering, good old rosemary is the herb for you. The saying “Treat ’em mean to keep ’em keen” applies here because once established it doesn’t seem to care whether it’s watered or not and don’t bother feeding it. Rosemary does have some preferences though, ideally a free-draining soil and full sun. It can cope with frost too but (and this is its only “but”), it doesn’t like being planted in a soggy soil in an area with frosts – who would?

Plant rosemary by paths so you can enjoy the fragrance as you brush past the foliage.

Choose between upright varieties that grow to head height and prostrate, cascading varieties. Cutting them back by one-third in early spring will stop them from becoming woody. Other herbs with the hardiness tick are thyme, marjoram and oregano.


These harbingers of spring have a deserved rep for being some of the hardiest of the bulb bunch and you’re pretty much assured of growing success. Simply plant daffodil bulbs in free-draining soil or a bulb mix (Daltons sells a good one) in autumn at 2.5 times their depth and come spring you’ll be rewarded with a host of golden or cream or orange or peach daffs.

Daffodils may be blown around by spring storms but they’ll be back year after year.

Choose from a chocolate-box assortment of varieties at NZ Bulbs or Bulbs Direct. And if you think that still sounds like too much of a gamble, garden centres and supermarkets sell potted blooms from midwinter.


These splendid trailing annuals self-seed so readily that they’re often labelled weeds, not nasty weeds though – pulling them out is as easy as brushing wet hair. Grow them over the side of a raised beds or in a hanging baskets.

Nasturtium flowers and leaves are edible.

The individual plants are short-lived, but by the time they’ve turned up their toes, new plants are on the way. They’ll tolerate poor soils and flower until a hard frost. Try peach and red ‘Rumba’ from Kings Seeds.

NZ Gardener

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