I've decided that perhaps I should just purge my garden of anything requiring the slightest bit of care and just focus on adding more plants that are zombie-proof. Welcome to the Cast Iron Club - 2013. Once the zombies have finally died off and it's time to reclaim your garden, these plants will still be there. But I'd keep a shovel handy, just in case. I've linked these to the online nurseries where I purchased them. However, most can be found at your local garden center. Plants without a link were purchased locally.
Plants That Laugh at Hot, Dry Sunny Spots
Orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Milkweed and knautia
I grow the shorter clay-tolerant cultivar. Here it mingles with native ruellia humilis, also known as wild petunia.
Knautia is a tap rooted beauty that thrives in adverse conditions and self sows easily. It forms a basal rosette of leaves before shooting up tall stalks of flowers that weave themselves easily between other plants. They bloom from early spring until December in my garden. They come in shades of red, pink, and burgundy and attract pollinators.
Liatris spicata 'Floristan White', also known as Gay Feather is ultra easy to grow. These grew from a cheap bags of corms I bought at a hardware store.
I have a lot of different types of liatris and they all want the same thing: hot sun and dry, well drained soil. If you have clay soil, which is a thick, slippery mess when it's wet and concrete when it's dry, just dig the planting hole extra deep and fill the bottom half with compost and pea gravel to help it drain. Highly attractive to pollinators. A large selection of native cultivars of liatris can be found at Prairie Moon Nursery, Lazy S's Farms Nursery, and Prairie Nursery.
Penstemon and knautia
I've lost track of how many penstemon varieties I've killed. While they're beautiful the first season, my heavy clay loam always rings their death knell and the party's soon over. Penstemon digitalis, a southeastern native, is the only one I can keep alive for longer than a few months. Mine blooms in late spring and early summer and attracts pollinators.
Salvia thrive on neglect. I think this is saliva plumosa, otherwise known as the purple fluffy salvia. I cut mine back in spring to keep it bushy but that's it. They need well drained soil and to be ignored. If they were any more maintenance free, they'd be fake.
Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is a tough plant that enjoys a long drink about once a week. If you give it too much water, it will rot. But if it doesn't receive enough, it will have smaller flower heads and will develop mildew, which is a stress response. Of course, I learned that one the hard way. They can take a bit of bright shade in the afternoon and root easily if stuck into a pot of moist soil. They are a pollinator magnet when they bloom in the fall.
Hens and chicks (Sempervivum)
Warning: Do not water these. Ever. Just put them in a cute pot with massive drainage and you're done.
Silene 'Rolly's Favorite'
Silene 'Rolly's Favorite' blooms in very early spring. A dwarf white nepeta, also a champion of heat and drought, grows nearby.
I bought this silene off the clearance table at my local nursery and am glad I did. It blooms bright pink in early spring and is completely maintenance free the rest of the summer. It spreads slowly to form a neat clump and stays small, kind of like a fat chihuahua.
I can't remember what kind of thyme this is since I planted it about 8 years ago, but it refuses to die, which I appreciate. I give it well drained, dry soil and don't use it for cooking after the dogs have peed on it. If this plant can withstand a daily onslaught of dog pee, it can take on a zombie.
Annual vinca (periwinkle)
Annual vinca, also known as periwinkles, come in cheap six packs and thrive in hot sun. They don't want to be fertilized, pampered, or given much water. I use them as my drainage litmus test. If I stick them a spot and they turn yellow, the soil is too heavy. If they thrive, the soil is free draining. Needless to say, I've had a lot turn yellow. I'm glad they're cheap!
A bent verbena bonariensis stalk mingling with the fall blooms of an aster ericoides.
A skipper on a verbena flower
Verbena bonariensis is one tough mutter. It self seeds with gusto, attracts pollinators, and pokes its head up and into other plants. But I can't help but love it. It's tall, lanky, and if it were a person, would laugh at its own jokes. It's a food source for buckeye butterfly caterpillars.
Plants That Love Dry Shade Like a Baby Loves its Mama
Amsonia 'Blue Ice'
Amsonia with yellow chrysoganum (Green and Gold)
Amsonia is one of the toughest plants in my garden. Of course, it took me forever to realize this. I added about a dozen more 'Blue Ice' to my garden last fall. It blooms in early spring and will grow in bone dry shade. It has cool yellow foliage in the fall. It's much shorter than most amsonia and tops out at about 16" tall.
Heart leaf aster (Aster divarcatus)
Heart leaf aster and blue plumbago in the fall
Heart leaf aster's spring growth is very upright. It collapses a bit as the summer progresses, creating a carpet of white asters in the fall. The asters are between the bird feeder and the tan pot.
Heart leaf aster is another really tough plant. While it can take more moisture than dry shade has to offer, it grows just fine under tall shrubs and between other plants. I'll give an extra drink when we've gone long periods without rain but more out of pity than necessity.
Epimediums have tiny flowers that look like UFO's when photographed from underneath. Many cultivars have beautiful tinting to their spring and fall foliage.
Multiple epimedium cultivars all grown in a happy jumble
Epimediums look like they should be fussy but they're not. They spread to form a short but wide clump and require zero care. I'm serious!
I have no idea what color my hellebores are because they haven't bloomed yet. They're all seedlings given to me by a friend. But here's what I do know: deer hate them, they like shade, and they don't need to be watered. When our temps hit the triple digits last year, they laughed. Mine will eventually bloom in late winter/early spring. Apparently, adversity suits them well.
Linaria (Linaria purpurea)
Linaria is the tall bluish plant in front of the monarda. Despite being as far from the soaker hose as possible, I still ended up moving them to a drier spot.
If you've never heard of linaria, I'm not surprised. It's one of those under-the-radar plants that is absolutely incredible. It's evergreen during the winter, attracts pollinators, and thrives in bone dry bright shade. It also self seeds, which gives me an ample supply to use in my ever expanding regions of dry shade.
Kalimeris and sedum 'Autumn Joy'
I never realized how tough kalimeris was until I planted it in an absolutely wretched spot and it didn't die. Instead, it bloomed. I have two cultivars: one with pale blue flowers and one with white flowers. Both are easily available at most garden centers. It self seeds prolifically but you can always just toss the seedlings. However, I've noticed some pretty cool seedlings popping up from all the horizontal hokey pokey that's going on when I'm not looking. If my original plants don't survive the zombie apocalypse, they'll be enough seedlings around to fill their void.
Bowman's Root (Gillenia trifoliata formerly Porterantus)
Bowman's root with amsonia 'Blue Ice' and an epimedium
My Bowman's Root grows in the shade of a massive 'Heritage' river birch.
Southeastern native Bowman's Root doesn't attract wildlife and isn't showy. Instead, it's tough, reliable, and has beautiful spring blooms that feel like wildflowers to me. It forms an easy backdrop to summer bloomers and looks best when cut back by half after it's done flowering.
I think vinca vines are unkillable. I stuck this urn here, added a bit of decoration, and then stuffed in some variegated vinca last spring. I completely expected the vines to die over the winter. Nope! Not only are they still alive, but they had the audacity to root themselves into the surrounding soil. Cut them back through out the summer to keep them from looking stringy.
Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata 'Helleri')
These shrubs are the only remnants of the hideous landscaping left by our builder 10 years ago. They're growing in rotten alkaline soil, squished in between the front walkway and the patio. The patio and walkway leach so much lime into the soil, I have to add soil acidifier to them twice a year. Other than that, I don't do anything to them and they just keep living. Only the few by the clematis get any pampering and that's simply by value of proximity to her majesty, Madame President.