Whether you’re new to gardening or just plain fed-up of plants perishing in winter, having their spring blossom battered by a downpour, or wilting past the point of no return in summer, then this blog post is for you!
We know how frustrating it is to invest money and effort only to see plants fall victim to the weather, so have compiled a handy list of some of the toughest, most indestructible, low-maintenance garden plants around. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve also included a few ‘pro tips’ for helping the rest of your garden survive and even thrive in adverse conditions.
The best hardy outdoor plants
In our increasingly erratic climate, it’s becoming harder to know what nature will throw at us. With this in mind, we’ve gone for ‘all-rounder’ plants that can not only withstand cold, but also drought, strong winds, and occasional flooding. Crazy, unpredictable weather? Bring it on!
Foliage: deciduous likes: any soil in full sun to partial shade Dislikes: deep shade.
Also known as goat willow, or pussy willow, this spectacularly robust tree will grow almost anywhere and is virtually impossible to kill – something we don’t say lightly! Hardy to -20°C, it copes well in an exposed spot and is one of the few plants to flourish in both waterlogged and dry soil. Being native to the UK, it has the added benefit of supporting many wildlife populations, including tits, bumblebees, and the purple emperor butterfly.
Goat willow is one of our top choices for tough, adaptable, easy-to-grow hedging, though it’s equally successful as a standalone plant coppiced every few years. The latter approach keeps it to a manageable size and encourages the production of the long, straight, silvery-catkin-covered stems which are popular for indoor arrangements.
Alternatively, you can allow it to grow freely as a tree, in which case it will eventually reach up to 12m. For a more compact, garden-worthy form, try one of the smaller cultivars such as ‘Kilmarnock’.
Likes: any soil and any aspect
Dislikes: permanently waterlogged soil, though the odd flash flood shouldn’t do too much harm
More commonly known as English yew, this handsome UK native tree is one of life’s true survivors, with some specimens dating back a staggering 5000 years. Its impressive longevity is down to a resilient and adaptable nature, and an ability to thrive in a range of conditions. As hardy as they come, it can withstand temperatures of -20°C and beyond, and is tolerant of drought, strong winds, and pollution. It will also grow in any light level from full sun to deep shade.
Left to its own devices, English yew can grow into a large tree of 12m or more, however can easily be kept smaller with regular trimming. Its unique growth habit of being quick to establish then slowing in maturity is particularly well-suited to hedging and topiary (i.e., fast initial results followed by minimal clipping needs).
English yew is fabulously forgiving when it comes to pruning and will regrow from almost any cut, whether you take it down hard to the ground, significantly alter the shape, or just give a light trim. The drastic stuff is best done in winter, though the trimming can be done virtually any time of year (just avoid frosty, frozen days).
Likes: any soil and aspect
Dislikes: nothing we know of!
Another UK native – if you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s because native plants tend to be the most well-suited to the unique climate of a place and therefore better equipped to deal with extremes. This one, known as elder, is a shrub or small tree prized for its beauty (delicate, finely cut leaves, flat, fragrant flowerheads, and shiny black berries) and versatility.
Commonly found in hedgerows, gardens, and allotments, it has both ornamental and culinary value, and a hard-as-nails nature. While elder grows best in those hallowed ‘moist but well-draining’ conditions, it will also tolerate waterlogged and very dry soil, and much like English yew, is as happy in deep shade as it is full sun. It stands up admirably to strong winds, whether coastal or inland, and supports masses of wildlife.
Similar to goat willow, elder can be grown as a hedge, coppiced shrub, or freestanding tree. If you’re keen for something more unusual, there are plenty of cultivars offering a variety of colours, forms, and sizes.
Likes: any soil in full sun or partial shade
Dislikes: permanently waterlogged ground
May would be a sad month indeed without the pretty explosion of hawthorn blossom. As an exceptionally tough, robust plant, it is common sight in hedgerows across the land, though can also be grown as a small garden tree. For this, there are plenty of ornamental cultivars available, offering flowers from deep cerise through to the more familiar creamy white.
Hawthorn is untroubled by even the strongest of winds, and easily shrugs off temperatures of -20°C or worse. The thorny branches offer welcome security to nesting birds, and its early blossom teems with appreciative insects.
A fast-growth rate makes this a good choice if you’re seeking quick results, perhaps for a windbreak screen, or an intruder-proof boundary hedge (those thorns!). It is also one of our favourite recommendations for an ornamental tree in difficult spots where little else will grow.
Likes: any soil in full sun or partial shade
Dislikes: permanently waterlogged ground or deep shade
Despite the impression we’ve given so far, native species are not always the most robust choice. Though our native box (Buxus sempervirens) has long been a beloved garden plant, in recent decades the emergence of several pests and diseases (many of them terminal) has left gardeners searching for alternatives.
One that has impressed us hugely is Ilex crenata or Japanese holly. Astonishingly similar in appearance to box, it has in many ways proved itself to be a superior plant. Immune to the problems faced by box, it also tolerates harder pruning and doesn’t suffer from leaf scorch. It’s even a little hardier (to -20°C) and stands up admirably to strong winds and a few days of drought.
Left alone it will form a tree of up to 8m, though it is easily kept much, much smaller with regular pruning (as low as 50cm!). Use as a neat, compact hedge, cloud-prune, or clip into a shape such as ball, spiral, or topiary.
How to protect from extreme weather when planting
Although much of what we’ve said so far centres around plants once they’re established, it’s worth noting that one of the riskiest moments is during and immediately after planting. Here are our top tips for getting things off to a safe start:
What: young trees, shrubs, and some perennials
How: field-grown, lifted to order, and sold without soil or compost
When: November to March
One of the quickest ways to kill plants sold in this ‘naked’ form is by letting them dry out before planting. To avoid this, keep in moist compost from the moment they arrive, and soak in a bucket of water for a few hours prior to getting them in the ground. Try not to plant in extreme weather, whether this be freezing temperatures, heavy rain, or strong winds. If needs be, you can keep them loosely potted in moist compost somewhere sheltered like a shed or garage until the harsh conditions ease.
Visit our How to Plant a Bare-Root Hedge blog post for detailed instructions.
What: larger, semi-mature trees and shrubs, and some evergreens
How: field-grown, lifted to order, and sold with roots and soil encased in a biodegradable covering
When: November to March
Much the same as bare roots, root ball plants need to be kept moist and are ideally planted as soon as they arrive. The difference is that when adverse weather prevents this, their larger size makes protecting them from the elements a far greater challenge. In the absence of a huge barn or outhouse (and let’s face it, few of us can boast either of these!), do whatever you can to keep the roots moist and well-insulated. Wrapping them in fleece, sacking, or even old bedsheets packed with damp compost, straw, or bracken, can make a real difference.
Watch our video on How to plant rootball hedging to see how it’s done.
What: anything from annuals and biennials, to perennials, shrubs, and trees
How: grown in containers in a nursery environment
When: often available year-round
The beauty of pot-grown plants is that they can be bought throughout the year, and there is less of a mad dash to get them in the ground. While this flexibility can be very handy, it does mean that many of us end up planting at a slightly odd time of year – often after we’ve headed outside in summer and spotted the need for new plants.
While the pitfalls of winter aren’t an issue at this time, summer planting does come with its own set of challenges. The main concern is water – without an autumn or spring’s worth of root growth behind them, plants can struggle to access moisture in the ground and subsequently need to be kept well-watered for the whole of their first growing season. For the same reason, they will also need help with nutrient supply – we recommend a fast acting liquid feed rather than slow-release granules. We find it helps to think of them as container plants for this first year, treating them in the same way as plants in our window boxes, hanging baskets, and permanent pots. From year two onwards, approach them as you would any other garden plant.
Check out our Summer Planting Guide blog post for a more in-depth guide.
Aftercare tips for extreme weather conditions
You’ve lovingly planted out your new plants only for disaster to strike almost immediately – the dreaded ‘extreme weather event’. Here’s how new planting can be affected, and what you can do about it:
- Frozen ground
When soil repeatedly freezes and thaws, it can cause something known as ‘frost heave’ – when plants are pushed out of the ground with some of their roots exposed. Left unchecked it can be fatal, even for the hardiest of plants. A thick, insulating layer of mulch after planting helps reduce the likelihood, but even so, it still pays to check recent plantings now and again. If you spot frost heave, apply an extra layer of soil and mulch to cover any exposed roots.
No amount of firming in can match mother nature, and a common problem with newly planted trees and shrubs is ‘wind rock’. This is when gusts of wind catch the top growth of plants, causing the roots to loosen in the ground and air cavities to form in the surrounding soil. This leaves the roots vulnerable to cold damage, and less likely to establish well. Stake newly planted trees and shrubs and make a point of re-firming in their roots throughout winter.
As long as you have applied a thick layer of mulch after planting, the roots of most hardy plants should cope with a bit of snow. The issue tends to be its weight damaging top growth, and is most likely to occur on evergreens (simply as they catch more snow than bare branches!). It pays to brave the chilly temperatures for a quick session of knocking any snow off particularly laden plants.
Most likely to be a problem for spring and summer plantings, a lack of rain can catch everyone off guard. Again – that all important mulch after planting makes a big difference in locking in moisture, but do also water any new plants regularly throughout their first growing season in the ground. Try to do this in the morning or evening to avoid losing water to evaporation.
How to prepare your garden for extreme weather
As well as thoughtful plant choice, careful planting, and well-informed aftercare, there are plenty of other ways to protect your garden from our unpredictable weather patterns.
If your area is particularly prone to this, it might be worth considering planting a rain garden. Our How to Make a Rain Garden blog explains the concept in detail, but in short it involves creating a shallow, planted depression to capture excess water before it becomes a problem. Other steps include reducing impermeable surfaces (such as patios) and replacing with vegetation, and wherever possible going for natural, living screens and boundaries. Fences and walls can’t intercept and slurp up water the way hedges and trees do!
Heat and drought
This is one of the most prominent issues faced by UK gardeners today. As well as the obvious point about growing drought tolerant plants, we have a few extra tips to help your garden survive a more Mediterranean-like summer:
- Gardeners in hot countries often construct a berm around new plantings, building up a ring of soil around the roots to capture as much water as possible.
- MULCH! We know we keep on about this, but a good mulch really is key to locking moisture in the soil. Apply after planting, and again in summer if necessary. Make sure you give the ground a good soaking beforehand.
- Planting trees is one of the best things you can do to future-proof your garden against heatwaves. Not only will they create welcome shade, but their extensive root systems are effective at finding moisture, meaning they require little to no watering once established.
- Harvesting rainwater during the wetter seasons is key to a sustainable garden. Attach a water butt to any downpipe you have, such as on a house, shed, garage, or garden studio.
Check out our How to Care for Your Garden in a Heatwave blog and Drought Tolerant Hedging page for more inspiration.
Planting a windbreak is the most effective way to protect your garden against strong winds. Any of our top five hardy outdoor plants above can be used for this purpose, as can those on our Hedging for Exposed Sites page.
Frost and snow
We are big advocates for only growing plants suited to your conditions, however even these can need winter protection if they are newly planted or grown in pots. New plantings should be – you guessed it – tucked up with a cosy layer of mulch, and containers wrapped in fleece, hessian, or bubble wrap.
Trees, particularly evergreens, should have snow knocked off them as soon as possible to avoid snapping, and hedges should be shaped at a slight angle, so the top is narrower than the bottom. Top-heavy hedges are more likely to hold onto and be damaged by snow. Visit our Winter Hedge Care blog for more expert tips.
Oh, and try not to walk on your grass if you can help it, as it can compress the soil below. Read our guide to Winter Lawn Care for more tips.
We hope you’ve found this blog useful and reassuring. Our weather may be changing, but so can we, and by taking a few easy steps there’s no reason we can’t continue to enjoy healthy, thriving gardens.
As well as our top five bulletproof plants, there are plenty more to be found on our Low Maintenance Hedging page. Happy browsing!