The 15 Best Landscaping Plants
Landscaping is somewhat different than gardening, in the minds of most. A person who gardens generally wants to spend more time outside, caring for plants. A landscape, in terms of a home landscape or business landscape, is generally a planting that is aesthetically pleasing (nice to look at), low-maintenance (benefits from a spring and fall cleanup and regular watering, usually with irrigation), and composed of masses of plants. Some plants work better for landscaping than others.
Here are our top 15 picks for the best landscape plants.
- Trees and Shrubs
Trees and shrubs give your landscape height, structure and winter interest. They provide a backdrop for the other plants, and have form even when the annuals and perennials have died back. Each zone will have a different set of best landscape plants. This list will primarily work well in Zones 4-7, in the temperate areas.
There are a variety of viburnum species and cultivars. Viburnum tinus is an evergreen species that grows well in the south, zones 6-8. Viburnum carlesii is hardy in zones 4-8, and has fragrant, beautiful flowers that open in the late spring. Viburnum dentatum, the Arrowwood Viburnum has serrated leaves and straight, grey branches that were historically used by Native Americans for arrow shafts. Most Viburnum species grow best in part to full shade, and moist soils.
The Amelanchier spp. is a group of relatively small native trees that produce white flowers in the late spring, red berries in the late summer and gorgeous fall color. There are many cultivars. It is best to look for a species and cultivar that is derived from your area. There are native species across the northern half of the United States. These are understory trees, but will grow in full sun.
People either love cotoneaster or hate it. It is definitely a matter of personal preference. Its value in the landscape cannot be understated, though. It grows best in well-drained soils and can tolerate a high pH. This plant is especially nice when allowed to grow over a wall and spill down the bank. Its tight growing habit makes it an ideal and vigorous ground cover, but in the winter, when it loses its leaves, it can look messy. The species Cotoneaster dammeri is an evergreen variety that looks nice during all four seasons.
This rose is a species shrub rose that grows in zones 2 through 7. It is extremely cold, wind, salt, heat and drought-tolerant. It blooms profusely in the summer, with deep pink flowers. It produces fat, red fruits in the fall which complement the fall color in the leaves.
People who love birches but have a difficult time growing them appreciate the river birch. It is resistant to birch borers, and fairly tough. It grows best in full sun to part shade in moist soils. The upright, vase-like form is beautiful in summer and winter. The shedding bark also lends winter interest. The river birch looks nicest when trained to grow as a multi-stemmed tree. It will occasionally sucker, so you may have to prune it to maintain three or five main trunks.
- Annual Flowers
Annual flowers add a pop of color to the landscape. They require a bit more care–usually more water and liquid fertilizer every two to four weeks. However, in the right areas, annual flowers add a lot of pizzazz to a landscape. Shopping malls, one-off restaurants and buildings use this landscape technique to their advantage. The color provided by the annuals attracts the attention of passers-by. Here are the top annual flowers for landscapes. These require the least amount of care and provide the best show.
Annual Vinca (also known as Madagascar Periwinkle)
This plant grows well once the temperature really starts to heat up in the summer. It is available in shades of pink, lavender, white, fuchsia, and red. It is most happy in full sun to part shade, and needs a soil that has had compost added to it a few weeks before planting. It will bloom up until frost, and can be grown as a tender perennial in zone 10. In Zone 7-10, annual vinca will sometimes re-seed itself.
Portulaca or Purslane (round-leafed)
Sometimes called the “moss rose,” portulaca is great for providing low-maintenance color in landscape beds. It grows well only in full sun areas. It can tolerate some periods of heavy rain, but also stands up well to drought. It will re-seed in certain areas. The plants with round leaves and a single flower are the most reliable bloomers, and generally come in pink, yellow, orange, red and white.
Angel-wing begonias have gotten more popular. They have larger, wing-shaped leaves than the more common wax begonias. These plants will grow in full sun to full shade, but most are happiest in a full-shade location. Angel-wings, in particular, need full shade to thrive. In all locations, these plants are quite drought-tolerant, but their leaves will retain best color in the shade. Out of all sun exposures, morning sun is best.
(Some varieties of Lantana are perennial. It depends upon your location.)
Lantana is perfect for dry, hot areas with long summers. These plants can take a while to establish, which is why a long growing season is best. The cultivar ‘New Gold’ is perennial in zones 7-10. There are more colors available than ever, including mixes of pink, yellow, red, orange, white and purple. It grows best in full sun, and well-drained soils.
Impatiens are truly great for large landscapes with heavy shade. If you drive through the streets of Dallas in the summer, you will see huge sweeps of impatiens flourishing under deep, shady tree canopies. They are a low-maintenance plant ONLY if they are planted in deep shade with irrigation. If those two conditions are met, impatiens will, literally, grow like weeds. They do benefit from addition of slow-release fertilizer, or liquid fertilizer applications once a month during the growing season.
Perennials are landscape workhorses. If you select a well-rounded bunch of perennials, you can have blooms in the landscape three seasons of the year. Here are the perennials that will get you the most bang for your buck.
Some people are bored of daylilies. Normally, daylilies push a profusion of blooms in the early summer. Some varieties will re-bloom once or twice more. Their foliage is nice-looking when the plants are not in bloom, as it resembles an ornamental grass. Daylilies are highly drought-tolerant, and grow best in full sun to part shade. Because there are thousands of daylily cultivars and varieties, the best way to find re-bloomers is just to google “reblooming dayliles” and check out some of the online nurseries.
Upright and creeping varieties of sedum are good for the landscape. Sedum does best in full-sun conditions, in well-drained soil. It blooms from mid-summer to early fall, and most varieties have pretty fall color. It will die back to the ground during the winter. It is a tough plant that withstands many conditions.
In certain areas, the black-eyed susan can be a bit aggressive, but it is a great perennial for massing in full-sun locations. It will continue to spread by the roots and re-seed, so it will continue to fill areas where it is planted and provide starts for other areas.
- Ornamental grass
Ornamental grasses function almost like shrubs in the landscape. The best part about many ornamental grasses is that they are pretty three to four seasons of the year. In areas that do not receive a lot of snow, many grasses will remain upright throughout the winter, adding winter interest. Ornamentals are available in every height, leaf texture and color, from green to red to blueish. Miscanthus and Panicum are two of the tallest and most well-adapted varieties.
Don’t roll your eyes at the mention of liriope. Yes, it is boring, but it is extremely weather-resistant, and low-maintenance. About all it requires, once established, is to be mown once a year in the spring so that fresh growth can emerge. It grows best in zones 5-10, in full sun to full shade conditions. It flowers in mid-summer, sending up purple stalks that look like small grape hyacinth blooms.
Selecting the right landscape plants makes maintaining a landscape easy and rewarding. The above plants are great for gardens in a wide range of growing zones.
Evergreen Viburnums of UBC Botanical Garden
The Weather-Resilient Garden: A defensive approach to planning and landscaping by Charles W.G. Smith
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael A. Dirr
Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants by Steven M. Still
Right Plant, Right Place by Nicola Ferguson
Katie Elzer-Peters is a freelance writer living in Wilmington, NC. Her writing and PR business, The Garden of Words, L.L.C. serves clients all over the world. In her free time, Katie bicycles, surfs, reads books, and, of course, gardens.