Growing the Northeast Garden: Regional Ornamental Gardening by Andrew Keys, MOBI, 1604694963

December 5, 2017

Growing the Northeast Garden: Regional Ornamental Gardening by Andrew Keys

  • Print Length: 304 Pages
  • Publisher: Timber Press
  • Publication Date: February 21, 2015
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00WAPO9F0
  • ISBN-10: 1604694963
  • ISBN-13: 978-1604694963
  • File Format: MOBI






Part 1.

Elements: Natural Forces That Shape Your Landscape

Seasons: Four Faces of Our Region’s Year

Geography: Your Own Corner of the Northeast

Part 2.

Palette: Outstanding Plants for Northeast Gardens

Framework: Year-Round Landscape Backbone

Spring: Early Risers That Shine

Early to Midsummer: Blooming Abundance

Late Summer to Fall: Floral and Foliar Fireworks

Winter: Horticultural Coda

Part 3.

Design: Building Blocks for Every Landscape

Fundamental Details: Your Sensory Toolbox

Case Studies: Design in Action in Seven Northeast Gardens

Part 4.

Practice: Knowledge for Growing Needs

Environment: A “Plant’s-Eye View” of the Northeast

Soil: Bottom Line for Plants That Thrive

Garden Dwellers: Landscape Cohabitants to Love and Loathe

Culture: Key Duties of Plant Care


Recommended Reading

Mail-Order Sources for Plants

Metric Conversions

Photography Credits



Drumstick verbena (Verbena bonariensis) blooms in the garden of Jack Hyland and Larry Wente, Millerton, New York.

HELLO! As the writer and photographer of Growing the Northeast Garden, we would like to take a moment to personally say thank you for picking up this book. If you haven’t skipped ahead to the photos of beautiful plants, you may be wondering who we are. Here’s a brief synopsis of our paths as gardeners and authors.

Though he’s called Massachusetts home since 2001, Andrew hails from the South, and remembers long summer days playing barefoot in the woods. It was there he first discovered plants, and a lifelong love affair was born. When he grew up and moved north, Andrew endeavored to learn absolutely everything about gardening in the Northeast. Fortunately, he believes learning is the most rewarding aspect of planting a garden—experiments abound in his own yard north of Boston. The narrative of this book reflects Andrew’s passion for helping others discover such rewards, and he feels privileged to have the opportunity to share what he’s learned with you.

Kerry, on the other hand, is a lifelong resident of the Northeast: Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York City. Like Andrew, Kerry was raised with a love for the outdoors. She has worked on farms, though she now focuses on small gardens and containers. She discovered the Northeast as a gardener in 2001, when she moved from Manhattan to her home on the coast of Maine. Kerry feels that gardening has changed her, quieted her, and that photographing plants and gardens has transformed the way she sees the world. The beautiful imagery shared in this book is largely courtesy of Kerry’s talented eye.

In case you hadn’t gathered from getting to know us, we are real gardeners. Sure, we know a thing or two, but Mother Nature is a great equalizer, and the playing field that is the garden is much more level than you might imagine. Consider this book a compendium of lessons we’ve learned in our time as Northeast gardeners, but know that we and everyone who’s decided to plant and grow living things is learning something new all the time. (And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!) Even if you’re just beginning to learn, you’re always in good company.

In this book, we’ve attempted to present plants and gardens that, while they may be gorgeous and inspiring, also have practical value. Maybe you’re dubious as to your ability to grow a garden as beautiful as those in the Design section (you shouldn’t be), but perhaps a small corner of one of those gardens will call out to you and say, “Yes! This is something you can do in your yard!” Guess what? That is how all beautiful gardens begin.

Writing and photographing this book has been a joy for us, so it’s been easy to focus on the most important lesson of all: gardening, above all, should be fun. Humans grow plants for food, clothing, and shelter, but this book is about building a landscape to beautify your world. This type of landscape, first and foremost, should bring you joy. Build your garden with joy in mind, and we believe you’re guaranteed to find it there in some small way, every day of the year.


Small can be stunning, as in James Golden’s garden in Brooklyn, New York.

Welcome to the Northeast! Whether you’ve lived here a few days, a few months, a few years, or your whole life, you’re fortunate to be residing in one of the most exciting and dynamic regions of North America. Even better, if you’ve picked up this book, odds are you’re planting a garden in the Northeast—and that is truly cause to celebrate. Yes, building a garden here (and anywhere) is a lot of work, but it’s also one of the most rewarding endeavors you might undertake.

More importantly, a little knowledge is key to building a garden, and this book seeks to arm you with that. First, we’ll set the stage, with a little bit about the conditions we find ourselves gardening in here in the Northeast. From there, we’ll survey a body of garden-worthy plants with which you can populate your northeastern landscape. (Hint: the possibilities are endless.) After that, the book will guide you through garden design, examining a group of gorgeous gardens in the Northeast through the scope of design elements and principles. Finally, we’ll cover some of the hands-on aspects of growing things here, and what to expect when you’re ready to get out there and get your hands dirty.

But wait—there’s one more thing, and it may be more important than all the others. More than anything, these humble pages will seek to inspire you, not just in one chapter or section, but throughout the entire book. Why? Well, because gardening itself should be an inspiration. If your landscape is uninspired, it’s time to change that. Let’s get started.

The soothing sound of water is an ephemeral quality that helps create a strong sense of place in any garden.


A shady vignette in the garden of Bob Scherer and Jeni Nunnally, York, Maine.

Natural Forces That Shape Your Landscape

Spin your globe around to the part of North America where we live, and consider for a moment the parts that make the Northeast what it is. Yes, it can be plotted out in maps and legends, but these are man-made constructs. What about nor’easters and grains of sand, tidal pools and craggy peaks? The elements that make the Northeast distinct at the most basic level—our climate, our natural landscape—are especially important for us to understand as gardeners. We’re all at the mercy of Mother Nature, but those of us who work with her to grow things tend to be more attuned to the change of the seasons, and the rhythms of our landscape’s setting.


Four Faces of Our Region’s Year

Tulips and hyacinths bloom in Central Park, New York.

YOU’LL OFTEN HEAR that the Northeast “has” seasons. Most every place does, but given our place on the map, this speaks to how the differences between ours are more pronounced. Each season promises joys and headaches of its very own, but one thing’s for sure: there’s never a dull moment. Let’s consider the Northeast’s seasons in the garden.


Most people think winter is the season that makes us come undone here in the Northeast, but my money’s on spring. An average spring brings gradually warming temps and rain, the better to break bud. However, spring in the Northeast is also the most unpredictable of seasons, so a seasoned gardener knows to be ready for anything. Whereas the Northeast’s other seasons tend to be relatively stable (“relatively,” because our home is notorious for wild swings in weather), spring is the mood ring of seasons. Rather than a gradual warm-up, some springs jump ahead to 80 degrees and sunny, then plummet back to 40-degree gloom just in time for the weekend. Some springs see flooding from an overabundance of rain and snowmelt, while the occasional spring sees little rain at all. Hot or cold, wet or dry, spring isn’t just a wakeup call to your garden from Mother Nature—it’s a rallying cry to you, fellow gardener, to hop to it after a long, restless winter.

In places where the ground freezes tight, an integral part of spring is referred to as “mud season,” because of the soil’s sponginess after it thaws and then swells with spring rain.

Some of the best plants of spring are equally capricious. Bulbs are best known, and some of the first to bring bright color to the garden. They go hand in hand with plants we call spring ephemerals, a cast of characters that does all its blooming and growing before summer begins. Spring also sees most flowering trees do their thing for the year, as well as some popular seasonal shrubs.

Since it’s the starting pistol for most plants to get growing, spring in the Northeast is a great season to plant new plants. Newcomers stimulated by rain and warming air and soil will be more likely to set down good roots.


Summer in the Northeast is our personal horticultural reward for the hard work of making it through frigid winter and fickle spring. Thanks to our place on the map, we’re fortunate enough to escape the more extreme heat much of the rest of North America sees—the stickiest humidity of summer in the South; the searing, drought- and fire-prone heat of the West. Summer in the Northeast usually means stretches of long, warm, sunny days, punctuated by periodic rainfall as humidity builds thunderstorms.

Lilies in Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, Pennsylvania.

If spring is what kicks growing plants into gear, summer is when they hit their stride, and it’s the time many an ornamental garden comes into its own. A menagerie of flowering shrubs and perennials blooms in the first half of summer, and warm-season annuals and tropicals can be added to instantly brighten gardens after frost dates have passed. Houseplants in containers head outside for a much needed “vacation.”

Many blooming plants peak in the first half of summer, so a flower-focused ornamental garden can be a dog when the dog days hit. That’s one reason you’ll see many plants in this book recognized for their long season of interest, and why gardens that emphasize great foliage have gained in popularity.


A Northeast summer reaches its zenith near July’s end. The solstice has passed, and come August, those long days, though still hot, become noticeably shorter. Many ornamental gardens quiet down during this period, as if resting up for the beauty bonanza of fall. As the mercury peaks, the floral parade gives way to a simpler but more robust palette. Smoldering shades that foreshadow fall are the order of the day for late summer flowers (that’s why I’ve grouped them with plants from that season), and late summer to autumn in these parts is the last hurrah for most flowering perennials. Rain and cooler temps prompt a new flush for some, while a small but forceful group waits to bloom, improbably, at the onset of fall. If conditions are just right, the first autumn foliage aligns with the last flowers in a magic hour that’s almost unrivaled.

Changing foliage of Japanese maple in the garden of Penny O’Sullivan, New Hampshire.

When fall does arrive, foliage is the order of the day, and deciduous woody plants are the true stars of that season. The Northeast is legendary for the fall color of its trees, and autumnal sweeps of red and yellow, gold and orange are synonymous with the idea of our scenery. While a maple forest in October is truly stunning, there’s a fall foliage plant for any size of garden, and the wise northern gardener fully partakes of this seasonal feature. Early autumn is also an excellent time to plant, as temperatures have cooled, rain is more frequent, and the soil is still warm.

Osier dogwoods brighten the winter landscape in Maine.

After the raucous fall flush comes the most subtly beautiful botanical moment: a brief period characterized by an unmistakable stillness, after the last leaf has fluttered away, but before the first snow. The garden’s bones take the stage for winter, the season we need them most.


Cold, unforgiving, even brutal—these are words humans use to describe winter in the Northeast. The same holds true for plants, and the plants that survive here are remarkable in their hardiness. Winter varies wildly across the region: inland and northerly areas may well see a thick, consistent blanket of snow; those closer to the coast get swings from deep snow to near nothing; snow melts most quickly in the “heat islands” of Northeast cities.

All see frigid temperatures and winds to match. Snow is forever advertised as an excellent insulator for plants, and this is true—when the bottom falls out of the thermometer, a layer of snow is far better than bare ground. Snow becomes problematic when a thick layer begins to melt, refreezes, and becomes icy. Beware this freeze/thaw cycle, as it can mean burn for more tender evergreens and rot for plants that require sharp drainage. Wind makes itself known in winter more than other seasons as well, especially at coastal and high altitude sites. While winter wet can melt plants, winter winds can dry them to a crisp. Combat winter weather foes by getting to know your microclimates and siting plants carefully within them.

Conifers and a sturdy group of broadleaf evergreens are the belles of the winter ball, followed by leafless trees and shrubs with brightly colored bark, pretty berries, and intriguing form. The northeastern gardener’s plant palette just for winter may seem slim, but in fact many plants that tend to be interesting over multiple seasons (see the Framework chapter) count winter as a time to shine.


Your Own Corner of the Northeast

A perennial garden in Greenland, New Hampshire.

THE FRENCH HAVE a term, terroir, which roughly translates to “sense of place.” It’s easy to get caught up in a frenzy of plant shopping and design and sail past that most basic garden question: Where do you live? Where exactly? A house on a busy street in the Philadelphia suburbs? A Maine cottage in a wooded area, a stone’s throw from the water? A Brooklyn brownstone, a New Hampshire peak, or a Massachusetts cranberry bog? Even if your garden’s site isn’t as distinct as these examples, odds are it’s got a touch of a few of them. Your garden’s setting innately affects every aspect of what you can grow there, how it grows, and how you experience it—in work, in play, and as you move through it in your everyday life. Geographically, the Northeast is built out of a gallery of garden settings, both native and man-made. Each comes with unique challenges and rewards, and the most satisfied gardeners are those who learn to love the place their garden lives, and “don’t fight the site.” Since your garden probably has a dash of each, let’s get a little acquainted with all of them to get to the bottom of what makes your garden tick.


The Atlantic Ocean acts as the eastern border of our region. Don’t have waterfront property? Don’t be so sure you’re not coastal. Coastal areas include shoreline and near-coastal sites affected by tides—close to the mouths of tidal rivers, for example. Odds are, your garden could be closer to coastal than you think.

If you’ve ever gardened near big water, you know you can count on wind, sand, and salt. If you’ve got any or all, fear not! A host of tough plants thrive in coastal areas, as you’ll see later in the book.

As with all oceans, it takes the Atlantic’s waters a long time to respond to changes in air temperatures above. For coastal gardens, that translates to temps that are marginally milder in winter than their inland counterparts, but also slower to warm up in spring. Drying winds rob plants of valuable moisture, and many a coastal plant has evolved to work around wind. Likewise, coastal soils tend to be more sandy, with less organic material and less potential to retain moisture. Salt, another coastal constant, can also make seaside soil more alkaline, contrary to the acidic soil that is the standard in the Northeast. If you live near the ocean or a tidal river and see flooding during storms, salty water (called brackish water) can leave salt in your soil even after it drains away. Salt also comes in the more obvious form of salt spray, when the wind actually mists your garden from the Atlantic. Even if you live nowhere near the coast, it’s good to know salt-tolerant plants because winter roads across our region are salted for safer driving, and the results can be the same. Fortunately, the same plants thrive in the shadow of a shoreline or salt truck.

A meadow at Chanticleer Garden, Wayne, Pennsylvania.

Terrain often flattens out as you make the descent to sea level, and coastal areas are often more linear than other settings—a tantalizing hint to your inner compass that the Atlantic is just through the trees. Trees will typically be shorter where coastal winds blow with regularity, too. Everyone knows the coastal soundscape. Those waves may mean special challenges for you as a gardener, but the sound of them means your garden is automatically more relaxing than most.


In the hierarchy of wild places, some might argue meadows are the most untamed of all. Grasses make up the major botanical component of meadows, followed by wildflowers. Thanks to a few innovative landscape designers, the meadow garden is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and rightfully so, as the meadow plant palette is one of the most exciting and ever changing over the course of the seasons.

Don’t be fooled by meadows’ carefree style: until it’s established, a meadow requires as much maintenance as many formal gardens (or more), because it’s very easy for weeds to infiltrate that carefree planting plan. The elegantly unkempt meadow look can be a lot more work than most gardeners are cut out for.

A collection of containers in New York City.

Meadows may be wet or dry, and there are plants that work well in each, but one constant you’ll usually find in a meadow environment is full sun—so much so that many meadow plants will bend toward the light in half-sun sites, and flop to the ground in shade. Because of the Northeast’s history of farming, many a meadow today is yesterday’s pasture, its soil rich from decades of amendment. By the same token, if your site was farmland recently, you may find yourself gardening in more depleted soil, with invasive species moving in to colonize.

Since terrain in the Northeast is naturally rolling, a meadow will often unfurl toward something in the distance—a woodland, a road, a distant neighbor. In context, meadows offer some of the best vistas around, their seasonal progression of plants a visual delight as they grow and change from week to week.


You’re probably familiar with the term “urban,” but I think “metropolitan” is a better word to characterize a common set of conditions for gardeners in urban and suburban settings. The line between “downtown” and “suburb” is much less distinct in the Northeast than in some parts of the country. Cities here have concrete inner cores, usually with precious little green space for residents. These cores are enveloped by layers of suburbs, and yards gradually increase in size as you move outward from the urban core.

Temperature-wise, cities are heat islands, their vast stretches of pavement trapping the sun’s rays and warming the air and soil around them. The closer you are to the urban core of a city, the higher the temperature will typically be.

Metropolitan soil is a smorgasbord in every way, but generally tends to be more disturbed than others. Building materials and road salt affect soil’s chemical makeup, and it can often become lean and compacted. In disused sites, soil can contain all kinds of foreign objects. (Be sure to garden with gloves.) But even in suburbia, soil can be a surprise—often, when new homes are developed, topsoil is sold and carted away, so homeowners have to start fresh. Some builders put down loam, but unless it’s supplemented with organic material like compost on a regular basis for several years afterward, the microscopic living things in soil that help plants thrive may not return naturally for a very long time. And speaking of that, since topsoil may have been taken away and added back to your metropolitan site, it could be wildly unlike your neighbor’s. Soil testing is key.

Metro gardeners face some of the most interesting and varied cultural and design challenges. How to respond to the presence of thick black power lines in the view from your picture window? (Design your view to block, distract from, or accommodate them.) What to plant when your narrow plot gets shade through the a.m., but blasted by afternoon sun? (Tough plants that can take the twilight zone.) Intrusive sound can be especially challenging in metropolitan sites, traffic being the main offender. If you’re bothered by traffic noise, consider adding a water feature—running water masks and distracts from many a racket. Likewise, the challenge of gardening between buildings can be much like gardening in a dry wooded site: full shade and low soil moisture. Dry shade plants are the answer. The payoff for metro gardens is that when thoughtfully planned and fearlessly planted they’re an astounding surprise, not in spite of their setting, but because of it.


Mountain sites are hard to pin down, but the one thing they have in common is shallow, sandy, rocky soil, low in organic material, and often on a slope where water doesn’t stick around. “Rock garden” and “scree” are terms you may hear used for this kind of site, where topsoil can be thin and bedrock sits very close to the surface. New Hampshire, the Granite State, is especially known for this. Even so, an array of hardy herbaceous plants, shrubs, and even some trees are perfectly content to grow in rocky places, sinking their roots into crevices where others fear to tread. Many a mountain site also suffers harsh exposure to sun and wind, so the plants that thrive here grow just as well in tough man-made sites, too—in the cracks of a rock wall, for example, or sloping roadside sites. Soil along roadsides, in parking strips or “hellstrips,” can become lean and compacted. While most gardeners’ inclination is to overhaul the soil completely, there’s a wealth of dryland plants that will grow in these most inhospitable of sites.

Succulents growing on a rocky site, Halls Pond Garden, Maine.

Pondside at Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens, Boothbay, Maine.

While mountain soil isn’t always lean, the sites themselves tend to be more sloped, and for these gardens, guarding against erosion is the name of the game. Mountain gardeners will tell you stories of mulch and topsoil that wash downhill.

Mountain sites offer some of the most interesting topographical context for gardeners, and folks who truly garden in the mountains usually have the views we all envy most. Sure, you can plant whatever you want backing up to your view of the Presidential Range, where your soil allows, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if your garden responded to that view?


Though water is the one thing all wetlands have in common, wet sites come in many forms: ponds, bogs, marshes, ditches, and the banks of streams and rivers. Some gardeners have the opportunity to design a garden around a pond or stream, but many, many more simply garden on sites in the neighborhood of a river, where the water table is high, and the rules are the same.

While every ecosystem has a cast of characters all its own, wetlands teem with life in a way few others can. All manner of mammal, bird, and insect are drawn to water. If you’re a wildlife gardener in the market for a new home, look for the one with the pond out back—but look into your town’s rules about wetlands before you appropriate one for your garden. Because native wetlands are so ecologically valuable, many cities and towns have rules as to how we can work around them, and it’s no wonder. Weeding the average garden is challenge enough, but turn an invasive plant loose on the edge of a wetland, and you’ll find yourself attempting to weed in waders. (It’s a losing battle.) Of course, you can create a man-made water garden in a weekend with a pond kit, and you’ll find it attracts wildlife in much the same way, especially if water resources are scarce in your area.

In soil, the wetland gardener’s lot is obvious: plants should enjoy wet feet, or at least tolerate periodic inundation when rain is plentiful. Drainage is the watchword for wetland planting. Many plants prefer well-drained soil, meaning their roots may rot in soggy sites, and good drainage is hard to come by in true wetlands. Luckily, there’s no shortage of gorgeous wetland plants that thrive in the Northeast.

Naturally occurring wetlands also tend to form in lowlands. In winter, cool air sinks and pools in these areas, so wetland temperatures tend to be on the lower side of their corresponding hardiness zone.

Wetlands can be tranquil and still—a large pond or marsh, for example—or, in the case of rivers and streams, a constant and soothing source of movement and sound. Wetland light and topography varies as much as wetlands themselves, but of the particular wildlife wetlands attract, frogs and insects tend to give wetlands a special evening soundtrack all their own.


If you know trees, you know the Northeast boasts some of the most impressive native woodlands in the world. You may find yourself an inhabitant of a patch of woodland, or you may find your garden mimics woodland, if it’s swathed in mature trees.

If there’s one thing woodland gardeners hold most dear, it’s light—shade gardening and woodland gardening are almost synonymous. If you’re growing things that depend on light, be sure to monitor how the sun’s rays move through your site as the day progresses, both during the growing season (when many plants will need it most) and in winter. For evergreens growing in the shade of deciduous trees, too much winter sun can be damaging.

Many years ago, the entire Northeast was blanketed by virgin woodland. The breakdown of leaves from those ancient trees—as well as trees today—is what gives us our typically acidic soil, high in organic matter. Soil on sites with mature trees will naturally be even more blessed with the decaying organic matter many plants love. Beyond the soil’s makeup, soil moisture divides woodland gardens into two subsets: dry shade and damp. Many a woodland is prone to damp ground—organic matter in soil naturally absorbs and retains more water—and indeed, our mental picture of woodlands is often tranquil, still, and humid. Gardeners with damp shade, rejoice! Most “shade plants” will thrive for you. Those with dry shade know it’s a much more challenging row to hoe in plant selection, but don’t distress. Beautiful gardens grow in dry shade too, and I make mention in Part 2 of plants that do well on such sites.

Interestingly, woodland terrain and context vary in similar ways to metropolitan garden sites. Much the same as with buildings, light may not reach through the trees of your woodland site until, say, midday—then your plants get an extra-strength dose of sun. Maybe your woodland is primarily conifers, and shady year-round, or perhaps it’s deciduous. It could be a mix of tall, mature trees and shorter understory trees and shrubs. One big plus for woodlands is sound. If it’s serenity you’re looking for in a garden, trees make for excellent natural acoustics. Woodlands are often serenely quiet in the daytime, and like wetlands, come alive at night with the sound of crickets and tree frogs.

A woodland area in the Brine Garden, New York.


A diversity of plant size, shape, texture, and color is on display in Maria Nation’s garden in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

Outstanding Plants for Northeast Gardens

Every landscape is a puzzle with many complex pieces, and plants, of course, are chief among them. In choosing plants, perhaps a better metaphor for landscape is that of a painting. If your yard is a canvas, and each new planting a brush stroke, it stands to reason that each plant is part of a palette.

This section outlines that palette, and it’s broken down into five chapters. First, we’ll look in-depth at plants that put on some sort of show over the course of multiple seasons—even year-round. These plants make up the backbone of the garden, or framework. Then we’ll move on to plants that take center stage in the parts of the year that correspond to those in the Seasons chapter: spring, early to midsummer, late summer to fall, and winter. For each plant (or group of plants), I’ll touch on hardiness, size, and bloom period if it’s a blooming plant. I’ll also describe a number of other factors through these symbols:








Follow along for a survey of garden-worthy plants for the Northeast. Some may be familiar, and some may be old favorites, but you’re guaranteed to find a few new hues to brighten up your landscape palette.


Year-Round Landscape Backbone

While we often tend to think of garden plants through the scope of the four seasons, the wise gardener has in their horticultural palette a cadre of plants that do their thing over multiple seasons, or year-round. These workhorse plants make up the framework of the landscape, the basic skeleton of gardens. Incorporate them liberally into your plans, and you’ll always be assured of something exciting just outside your door.

‘Tricolor’ beech (Fagus ‘Tricolor’) is colorful all through the growing season.


Abies species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3/5–7

SIZE: 15–70 ft. high, 6–20 ft. wide

‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’).

When it comes to evergreens, everybody’s always talking about spruce and arborvitae. What about fir? Two specific types are just as sexy with more flexibility, and thrive in our humid summers and with a bit less sun.

Don’t let white fir’s name fool you: it’s blue as they come, and easily passes for more popular Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), but white fir (Abies concolor, Zone 3) does that tree better, with more complex gradations of cyan to indigo. Established white fir grows 40-70 ft. high, and while it thrives with consistent moisture, this tree also makes a better candidate for dry sites in the Northeast than spruce. Want bluer still? Try cultivar ‘Candicans’.

If you’ve got a thing for tinsel Christmas trees, ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’, Zone 5) could be the tree for you. This small fir dazzles with silver-bottomed needles that naturally curl upward like batting eyelashes, and grows 6-12 ft. high. Bonus: ‘Silberlocke’ decorates itself, albeit in spring, in cones that point straight up like toy soldiers, starting out chartreuse and aging to aubergine as the growing season progresses. Give firs well-drained soil and at least some sun, and they’ll give back with a lifetime of evergreen goodness.

Acer species and cultivars

* * *

Japanese maple, moosewood, and paper bark maple

HARDINESS: Zones 3/4/5–9

SIZE: 10–30 ft. high and wide

Moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum).

Japanese maple (Acer japonicum cultivar).

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum).

Much like T-shirts, maples come in S, M, L, and XL. The big trees make for substantial presence year-round, but are truly awe-inspiring in fall, and I’ve included them in that section. Small to medium maples, however, play well in gardens of all types and sizes, and many are legendary for their colorfully filigreed multiseason foliage. All are as tough as they are beautiful, and as understory trees, thrive even in dry shade.

Paper bark maple (Acer griseum, Zone 4) must be the most unsung maple of all. This gracious tree sports distinctively feathery foliage, and its trunk and branches are coated in a glossy, exfoliating, russet-colored bark. It prefers a bit more sun than its cousins.

Better-known Japanese maple comes in a cornucopia of colors and leaf shapes. Most are cultivars of the species Acer palmatum (Zone 5), like familiar red-purple ‘Bloodgood’, and ‘Sango-kaku’, known as coral bark maple, which boasts bright red bark—a year-round treat, particularly in winter. The similar full moon maple (A. shirasawanum, Zone 5) has wide leaves that manage to be bold and finely textured all at once. ‘Aureum’ glows in the landscape.

These maples hail from other parts of the world. For a maple that’s native and completely different, moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum, Zone 3) isn’t just fun to say—it adores the cold and damp, but its bold foliage could pass for tropical. Grow it for that fab fall gold, and its reptilian bark, source of its other alias, snakebark maple. It prefers shade.

Actinidia kolomikta and cultivars

* * *

Hardy kiwi

HARDINESS: Zones 3/4–8

SIZE: 15–20 ft. high, 6–10 ft. wide

Hardy kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta).

A vivacious climber, hardy kiwi struts its stuff with variegated leaves tipped in pink to white, an exotic treat as far north as Zone 4—Zone 3 in cultivar ‘Arctic Beauty’. Male plants are the flashier gender when it comes to hardy kiwi, but it’s the females that produce edible, grape-sized fruit if they’re planted in pairs.

Aristolochia macrophylla

* * *

Dutchman’s pipe

HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

SIZE: 15–30 ft. high and wide

Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla).

Want an easy swath of jungle in your damp Schenectady backyard? Dutchman’s pipe is absolutely the vine for you. This wry climber wows with foot-long leaves, and makes itself at home on whatever structure it needs to reach for the sun. Give it medium to damp soil, and it’s a cinch for fascinating foliage from spring to fall.

Betula species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2/4–9

SIZE: 40–70 ft. high, 25–60 ft. wide

River birch (Betula nigra).

Here’s the thing about birch: you may see it growing wild on dry, rocky outcrops alongside highways, but getting it to grow in your own dry yard will be more trouble than it’s worth. Birch may grow in dry places if it decides to, but in general, and in cultivation, this picturesque tree much prefers damp. (Keep it clear of plumbing.) Birch revels in cold too, especially paper birch, which is too often planted in spots it despises. Unhappy trees planted on hot, dry sites contribute to the spread of a pest called bronze birch borer.

That said, few trees pack more visual punch year-round than paper birch (Betula papyrifera, Zone 2). This native tree’s peely, papery bark has to be one of the purest non-floral whites in the plant kingdom. Resilient river birch (B. nigra, Zone 4) tolerates heat and humidity better than its cousin, and while it would rather grow in damp soil, it works in medium moisture conditions, too. River birch’s cappuccino-colored trunks are coated in a chocolate crinoline of peeling outer bark. Another native, it’s more prevalent in the Southeast, but its range extends to New England. Both birches do well with shade in the hottest part of the day, and paper birch thrives in the bitterest cold climates, where snow blankets the ground and keeps its roots clammy all winter. River birch often comes in a multi-trunked clump, and those with small gardens should look into cute cultivar ‘Fox Valley’, at 12 ft. high.

Buxus species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 5–8 ft. high, 10–15 ft. wide; typically pruned smaller

Boxwood (Buxus cultivar).

Boxwood is a fixture in many landscapes, and indeed, this tiny-leaved shrub makes some of the best hedging around. It grows best in average, well-drained soil, and will take a bit of drought once established. Various cultivars of Buxus sempervirens and B. microphylla have been developed for greener foliage through winter, but it’s best to expect a margin of bronzing. (Conifers may be a better choice for winter green.)

Calluna vulgaris cultivars, Erica species and cultivars

* * *

Heathers and heaths

HARDINESS: Zones 4–7

BLOOM PERIOD: Late winter, early spring, midsummer, late summer

SIZE: 1–2 ft. high and wide

Heather (Calluna cultivar).

A spate of pink heathers hit the market when these plants are in bloom, but otherwise, heathers are too often ignored by consumers. This is unfortunate, because these tiny, needle-leaved rhododendron relatives are fabulously tough and cold-hardy, thrive in the acidic soil of the Northeast, and make more interesting foliage evergreens than many a juniper. Of course, they bloom, too—heaths (Erica) late winter to spring, and heathers (Calluna) summer to fall. C. ‘Orange Queen’ is a favorite, with chartreuse foliage turning burnt orange in winter, while E. ‘Winter Beauty’ sports purple winter leaves with pink flowers. Heaths and heathers excel in seaside conditions.

Calycanthus floridus

* * *

Carolina allspice

HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

BLOOM PERIOD: Early summer, midsummer

SIZE: 6–10 ft. high, 6–12 ft. wide

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus).

Carolina allspice is best known for its best attribute: otherworldly burgundy flowers early to midsummer with the heady aroma of tropical fruit. What you may not have realized (and the reason it deserves a place in this chapter) is that this shrub has other charms, too. If you’re a fan of tropical foliage, its big, glossy leaves won’t disappoint—and even better, these turn a pretty yellow in fall. If it’s fragrance you’re after, shop for a plant in bloom, as it varies in intensity from shrub to shrub.

Carpinus betulus and cultivars

* * *

European hornbeam

HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

SIZE: 40–60 ft. high, 30–40 ft. wide

Fastigiate European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’).

The first name in garden framework is hornbeam, the silly putty of trees, more dynamic than most any other. This gem promises good green foliage and even better gray bark—a fine feature when winter rolls around. It grows in sun or shade, damp soil or dry. Left alone, it’ll be a big, beautiful tree, but if you like, it shears superbly into a hedge. Tall, skinny cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ works even better for that purpose.

Catalpa bignonioides, C. speciosa, and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 6–8 ft. high, 6 ft. wide, if pruned to the ground; 40–60 ft. high, 20–40 ft. wide, if left unpruned

‘Aurea’ catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’).

Want to channel your inner punk into a plant? Catalpa is for you. A tree grown as a large shrub, it works best if chopped to the ground in late winter. When spring arrives, catalpa snaps back with new 6–8 ft. shoots lined with big, bawdy leaves. Southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) is less hardy, to Zone 5, but gave birth to a bodacious bright-gold cultivar, ‘Aurea’. Consider hardier northern catalpa (C. speciosa) for tropical flare in Zone 4. Catalpa makes a grand statement in small spaces.

Cephalotaxus harringtonia cultivars

* * *

Plum yew

HARDINESS: Zones 6–10

SIZE: 5–10 ft. high and wide

Prostrate plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia cultivar).

Often overshadowed by its Taxus cousins, plum yew comes in two graceful types you should know: ‘Fastigiata’, a vertical, skinny, intricately layered shrub, perfect as an evergreen exclamation point in the garden; and its opposite, ‘Prostrata’, a yew that rolls and curtsies in needled waves along the ground. Both make stupendous evergreens in shade, where evergreenery can be a tall order. Plum yew is typically hardy in protected sites of Zone 5.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

SIZE: 40–60 ft. high, 25–60 ft. wide

Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).

Katsura is such an overachiever you’ll be hard pressed to pick a favorite trait. The loosely linear arrangement of its branches and heart-shaped leaves is a geometric delight. Its trunk and surface roots become ornately furrowed with age. Its red-gold fall foliage may be most tantalizing of all, but not for color—when they turn and fall to the ground, those autumn leaves carry with them the scent of cinnamon.

Chamaecyparis species and cultivars

* * *

False cypress

HARDINESS: Zones 4/5–8

SIZE: 3–25 ft. high, 4–12 ft. wide

Gold threadleaf false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’).

‘Crippsii’ hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’).

Another group of indispensible conifers for the garden framework, cultivars of false cypress (also called hinoki cypress) come in more different shapes, sizes, and colors than any other. All would opt for more sun than arborvitae, but take more shade than juniper. All prefer soil of medium moisture, but established plants weather periods of drought with no problem.

In shrubs, it’s tough to beat dwarf hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, Zone 4), with its oddly geometric, whorled foliage. For brighter color and finer texture try a variety of gold threadleaf false cypress, like C. pisifera ‘Golden Mop’ (Zone 5). In time, both of these grow to 3–6 ft. in height, and 4–5 ft. wide.

For a tree-sized false cypress, look no further than hinoki cultivar ‘Crippsii’ (Zone 4), a shimmering coniferous vision year-round, but especially during the dark, chilly days of winter. It grows into a small tree, 12–25 ft. tall, and prefers sun. If gold is too bold, try weeping Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’, Zone 4), the classic cone-shaped conifer enhanced, its pendulous arms conjuring images of fairytale forests year-round. It’s a bit larger, growing 20–35 ft., prefers shade in the heat of the day, and its species is sometimes called Xanthocyparis.

Cotinus coggygria cultivars

* * *

Smoke tree

HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

BLOOM PERIOD: Early summer, midsummer

SIZE: 10–15 ft. high and wide

Purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria cultivar).

Fans of purple will want to be sure to plant smoke tree, a plant so purple it verges on black. Smoke tree gets its name from its flowers, which also produce billowy pink tufts of hair after they’ve faded, like cotton candy. If you’re looking for this “smoke,” keep pruning to a minimum, but for more foliage, this shrub can be cut back dramatically in late winter, prompting giant new shoots with bigger leaves. ‘Royal Purple’ is a classic cultivar, but fans of gold leaves should check out ‘Golden Spirit’. Smoke tree is drought-resistant, and thrives even in lean soils.

Euonymus fortunei and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 1–3 in. high, indefinite spread

Variegated wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’).

Wintercreeper is like wall-to-wall garden carpet: you may hate it until you see the need for it. This viney evergreen grows most anywhere, and makes a great problem-solver for uniform groundcover in dense, dry shade. Its super-creepy habit of blanketing all the ground it’s allowed means it works best with big trees and shrubs, and only the most robust of perennials. Keep an eye out in case it decides to climb—it will scale trees or structures if you let it. Popular cultivars include winter-bronze ‘Coloratus’, white-edged ‘Variegatus’, and gilt ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’.

Fagus sylvatica and cultivars

* * *

European beech

HARDINESS: Zones 4–7

SIZE: 20–60 ft. high, 20–50 ft. wide

‘Tricolor’ beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’).

So you’re gardening someplace with room to grow, and you’ve decided to give a mammoth tree a home. Congratulations! No giant tree is more genteel than European beech, and none more colorful than copper beech, cultivar ‘Purpurea’. If giant purple trees just aren’t dazzling enough, ‘Tricolor’ beech is for you. This cultivar’s leaves aren’t just purple, they’re edged in a wild pink-to-white gradient. At a more polite 25–30 ft. tall and wide, ‘Tricolor’ also fits well into gardens that aren’t the size of golf courses. Beeches may grow into behemoths, but they do best with a bit of shade in their formative years, as well as soil that’s not overly wet or dry.

Fargesia species and cultivars

* * *

Clumping bamboo

HARDINESS: Zones 5–9

SIZE: 6–15 ft. high, 8–12 ft. wide

Clumping bamboo (Fargesia rufa).

Bamboos are huge grasses, but they’re woody like shrubs, and their size means you can treat them as such in the garden framework. While running bamboos spread famously to form groves, clumpers like hardy Fargesia offer the same bamboo ambience and stick where you plant them. All prefer medium to moist soil but tolerate dry, and all do best with shade in the heat of the day. For tight spaces, try red-stemmed F. ‘Jiuzhiagou’, which grows to 15 ft. with a width less than half that. Shorter F. rufa tops out at 8 ft., but stretches its wings to the same width. F. murielae is similar but bigger, at 12 ft. tall and wide. Clumping bamboos grow slowly, so invest in a big plant or give it some time to fill out.

Fothergilla species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

BLOOM PERIOD: Midspring, late spring

SIZE: 3–10 ft. high and wide

Fothergilla (Fothergilla cultivar).

Its name may be a tongue twister, but folks in the know see fothergilla as a multifaceted, multiseason star for shade. This plant blooms with honey-scented white cylinders in spring, ends the season with flaming red-orange fall color, and various cultivars promise interesting foliage in between. Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major) grows to 10 ft., while a dwarf species (F. gardenii) tops out at 4. For the most vavoom between spring and fall, F. gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ and hybrid F. ×intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ both sport a leafy patchwork in hues from silver to powder blue.

Gaultheria procumbens

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3–8

SIZE: 4–6 in. high, 6–12 in. wide

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Looking for an easy groundcover, an edible, an evergreen, or a native plant? How about all four? Wintergreen grows naturally in woodlands of eastern North America, and this woody groundcover’s leaves can be used to make a tea. Its minty berries are forage for wildlife of all kinds—you can eat them, too—and it thrives in acidic soil in shade that’s a bit damp or dry.

Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3–9

SIZE: 40–50 ft. high, 30–40 ft. wide

Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis).

Thornless honeylocust is the tough-as-nails tree that brings elegance to even the most abused of hellstrips. It’s also a chameleon—its branch structure and tiny, glossy leaves reminiscent of the acacias of the African savannah, its lineage purely of American forests. Honeylocust’s trunk grows into a pillar of textured concrete with age, and its open canopy makes it an ideal tree for underplanting.

Hedera helix and cultivars

* * *

English ivy

HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 20–80 ft. high, 10–50 ft. wide

English ivy (Hedera helix).

Don’t be afraid of English ivy—just be smart when it comes time to plant. An impenetrable groundcover or wallcover, evergreen ivy excels given license to do what we all know it does best: spread out. Plant ivy as a singular feature, or with shrubs that can compete. Beware its tendency to treat trees like a stairway to heaven, and especially to run amok in milder Zone 7.

Hydrangea anomola subsp. petiolaris, Schizophragma hydrangeoides and cultivars

* * *

Climbing hydrangea

HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

BLOOM PERIOD: Midsummer, late summer

SIZE: 30–50 ft. high, 5–9 ft. wide

‘Moonlight’ climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’).

Don’t let their botanical names fool you: two plants go by the common name “climbing hydrangea,” and they both do great things in the framework of the dry shade garden. Not content to be ground dwellers, these hydrangeas take to the air. The white flowers of Hydrangea anomola subsp. petiolaris may be more blousy than those of Schizophragma, but two great varieties of the second plant up the ante: pink-flowered ‘Roseum’ and silvery blue-leaved ‘Moonlight’, a shimmering three-season gem in shade. These big woody vines get vertical via aerial rootlets, so site them on something permanent. A freestanding stone wall works well; mortared walls of homes that will need to be repointed may not be a good choice. Climbing hydrangea starts slow, then takes off, and blooms in masses of white clouds in summer. Glossy new leaves add foliar interest to the mix.

Ilex species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 4–20 ft. high, 4–15 ft. wide

‘Sky Pencil’ Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’).

Inkberry (Ilex glabra).

Blue holly (Ilex ×meserveae).

While there are conifers aplenty for Northeast gardens, five-star broadleaf evergreens for cold climates can be hard to come by. Hollies are the workhorses in that category where we live. (One notable holly, winterberry, loses its leaves, but excels in that season all the same.) All hollies are versatile plants, and tough enough to pay their way in the framework of any great northern garden.

If there’s one holly that’s overused in the Northeast landscape, it’s Japanese holly (Ilex crenata, Zone 6/warmer parts of Zone 5). This tough plant’s tidy nature means it’s the fallback for many a formal planting in our part of the country—that said, if planted creatively and pruned correctly, it’s as prim as any boxwood, and can be worth the hype. ‘Sky Pencil’ (or ‘Sky Sentry’) is a standout, growing arrow-straight as tall as 4 ft. Other common types include dwarves ‘Helleri’ and ‘Soft Touch’, both of which grow to 4 ft. For something similar in a native plant, try inkberry (I. glabra, Zone 4), a popular alternative with tiny black berries in fall, great for bird gardens. It’s also hardier and more deer-resistant. Inkberry tends to get leggy if not pruned regularly—for denser plants, try cultivars ‘Shamrock’ or ‘Compacta’.

For those in search of the “holliest” of hollies, blue holly (Ilex ×meserveae, Zone 4) cuts a figure most reminiscent of less-hardy English holly (I. aqui-folium, Zone 6). Glinting leaves in forest green are less prickly than its UK cousin, and always impeccably neat. Be sure to plant male and female cultivars for those famed fall-to-winter red berries. They may be tough, but blue hollies are best sited away from drying winter winds, and grow to 10 ft. if unpruned.

Want to try a holly that’s most underused? Longstalk holly (Ilex pedunculosa, Zone 5) makes an outstanding foundation plant, so named for galaxies of red berries suspended from its branches from fall into winter. A bonus is pretty leaves that’ll have the neighbors wondering why you planted your houseplant weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) outdoors. As usual, you’ll need male and female plants for fruit.

Juniperus species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2/3/4–9

SIZE: 6 in.–20 ft. high, 5–15 ft. wide

‘Gold Coast’ juniper (Juniperus ×pfitzeriana ‘Gold Coast’).

‘Blue Star’ juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’).

The lowly juniper—often maligned, unquestionably useful … but beautiful? That’s right, juniper isn’t just for median strips anymore. This tough genus doesn’t just tolerate blazing sun and dry, rocky soil—it says bring it on. Some junipers creep, some spread, and some grow into trees.

Taller spreading junipers need space to stretch their wings in the landscape, but some are worth it for color, like sparkly Juniperus ×pfitzeriana ‘Gold Coast’ (Zone 4). Another star is a cultivar of native eastern red cedar, J. virginiana ‘Grey Owl’ (Zone 2), a glinting, glimmering evergreen that puts those parking lot plants to shame. These two typically top out around 4 ft., but if you’re in the market for something taller, try red cedar cultivar ‘Taylor’ (Zone 3), a skinny, columnar tree that grows to 20 ft.

Of the creeping junipers, Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ (Zone 4) steals the show. Its intricate needles catch light individually, like tiny cerulean prisms, and this easy groundcover goes well with just about everything. Give it sun and any old non-soggy soil and it’s a happy camper. Those in need of a similarly coniferous groundcover that takes light shade should also consider a creeping juniper lookalike called Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata, Zone 3). This tough green spreader turns a coppery bronze in winter.

Koelreuteria paniculata

* * *

Golden rain tree

HARDINESS: Zones 5–9

BLOOM PERIOD: Midsummer, late summer

SIZE: 30–40 ft. high and wide

Golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata).

Golden rain tree gets going in summer and scarcely skips a beat until frost. First up are frothy clouds of yellow flowers that later drop, hence its common name, a prelude to coral lanterns that hold the tree’s seeds. Add finely cut foliage that turns orange-gold in fall, and there’s got to be a reason for you to grow golden rain tree. This small tree thrives in sun and dry to average soil, a perfect fit curbside.

Leucothoe fontanesiana cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 5–9

BLOOM PERIOD: Late spring

SIZE: 2–6 ft. high, 4–6 ft. wide

Leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana cultivar).

It’s a little tough to say, and maybe that’s why leucothoe (pron. “loo-co-tho-EE”) gets short shrift in gardens, but this elegant evergreen dazzles in deer-prone dry shade. Planted with bold-leaved perennials, it looks downright exotic, and its spreading nature makes it an ideal groundcover to boot. Foliage of variegated ‘Rainbow’ is splattered in white to pink, while ‘Scarletta’ swoons in red.

Magnolia species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 5–10

BLOOM PERIOD: Late spring, early summer

SIZE: 10–40 ft. high and wide

Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

In the Northeast, most magnolias bloom raucously in spring before fading into obscurity the rest of the year. Most magnolias, that is, except for a few notable groups that keep the party going late and loud: bigleaf magnolias (best as foliage plants) and sweet bay for both leaf and flower. Both grow perfectly in damp to medium and, in some cases, even moderately dry soil. In our climate, both will be better with protection from wind, especially in Zone 5.

Two easy-to-grow species of bigleaf magnolia grow in the Northeast, beloved by those in the know for rafts of leaves the likes of banana. Southern native Magnolia macrophylla’s leaves are bigger—up to 30 in.—and subject to shredding like banana. Plant it in the lee of a house or windbreak to be safe. Leaves of M. tripetala may be smaller, but at 24 in. still give tender tropicals a run for their money. A vigorous understory tree whose home range extends into the Northeast, it grows well, if more slowly, even in dry shade. You may miss its spring flowers, but rose-pink cones in fall stop traffic.

Sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) makes a stellar small tree in flower and leaf. Like its namesake true bay (Laurus nobilis), its silver-bottomed foliage smells spicy when crushed—but unlike bay, it’s just for scent, not for eating. Like its bigger cousins, it blooms, but in early summer, with dove-textured white flowers that send a lemon scent into the air. Unlike other hardy mags, many of its waxy mid-green leaves hold through winter. Varieties ‘Moonglow’ and M. virginiana var. australis up the ante on evergreenery.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

* * *

Dawn redwood

HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

SIZE: 70–100 ft. high, 15–25 ft. wide

‘Ogon’ dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Ogon’).

If there’s one tree that’s surprisingly underused, it’s this tree. Reminiscent of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), dawn redwood also grows into a pleasingly green, cone-shaped conifer, with soft, deciduous needles that turn a russet color in fall. The bonus with this tree is a trunk straight out of Middle Earth: a fluted pillar of intricately textured red buttresses with age. Like baldcypress, dawn redwood also works well in wet spots, but even excels as a street tree. Even more spectacular is cultivar ‘Ogon’, also called ‘Gold Rush’, which features sungold foliage.

Myrica species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3–7

SIZE: 5–10 ft. high and wide

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica).

A wilder alternative to ho-hum holly, bayberry is a steel-tough plant with steely blue fruit. Semi-evergreen in the warmer parts of its range, this fragrant-leaved native adapts to damp soils or dry, and adores salt spray, making it a must-have in the coastal garden framework. Male and female plants are a must-have as well, for BB-sized fruit that serves as food for birds.

Physocarpus opulifolius cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2–8

BLOOM PERIOD: Late spring, early summer

SIZE: 4–8 ft. high and wide

‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’).

Native ninebark was a pretty obscure shrub until the arrival of a crayon box of colorfully leaved cultivars, in shades ranging from cheery gold to black-purple to smoldering red. Now is ninebark’s time, and thank goodness, because this hearty shrub is just the ticket for multiseason color in just about any sunny spot (its foliage color will fade in shade). Reds include ‘Center Glow’ and dwarf, tiny-leaved ‘Little Devil’. ‘Diabolo’ is deepest maroon, while ‘Coppertina’ grades from gold to orange to red-purple. ‘Dart’s Gold’ is the granddaddy of them all.

Picea species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2/3/4–7

SIZE: 3–60 ft. high, 2–20 ft. wide

‘Skylands’ spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’).

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens).

Spruces sparkle in gardens of the Northeast, but not all spruces are created equal. Some grow into huge trees, but some delight as lively garden shrubs. Give them full sun and medium moisture in youth, and you’ll be rewarded with a first-class conifer.

A layered green meringue of a shrub, bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’ and others, Zone 3) makes a fascinating accent, its stacked branches puddling out in a pool of evergreen. It only grows to 3 ft. high and 5 ft. wide. Tree-sized ‘Skylands’ spruce (P. orientalis ‘Skylands’, Zone 4), on the other hand, grows into a classically coniferous 35-ft. pyramid. Rather than plain green, its short needles are gold. Like the others, it’s best in sun, but a smidge of shade in the heat of the day won’t slow it down, and its gold will be less likely to bleach out. Shelter ‘Skylands’ from harsh winter winds in the northern reaches of its range.

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens, Zone 2) is the most popular member of the spruce clan, and given its fabulous ice-blue foliage, it’s easy to see why. Make blue spruce happy, and it’s a snap to grow. Too much shade or drought, as a young tree, and it’s a spider mite metropolis. Blue spruce needs room, growing 30–60 ft. high and 10–20 ft. wide. Many homeowners plant it as a living Christmas tree, never considering its ultimate heft. For most, the “dwarf” cultivar ‘Fat Albert’ makes a great garden addition, topping out at a modest 10–15 ft. high and 7–10 ft. wide. Those in search of a truly dwarf Colorado blue should consider shrubby ‘Glauca Globosa’, a botanical star topping out around 5 ft. tall and wide.

Pinus species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2/3/4–8

SIZE: 5–80 ft. high, 5–40 ft. wide

Mugo pine (Pinus mugo).

White pine (Pinus strobus).

A staple among evergreens, pines are perhaps the most well known of their needly clan. Giant native white pine (Pinus strobus, Zone 3) may be best known in the Northeast, and its soft, bluish foliage is a welcome sight year-round. Though it will grow 80 ft. tall in time, it can be sheared to shape—even trained as a hedge—and cultivars come in many shapes and sizes, from prostrate to fastigiate. It puts up with dry soil less well than its cohorts.

Other notable trees include lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana, Zone 4), a star with white-mottled bark that grows 30–50 ft. For smaller gardens, P. flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’ (Zone 4) makes a pyramidal statement with blue needles, or try the deep forest tones of narrow ‘Oregon Green’ Austrian pine (P. nigra ‘Oregon Green’, Zone 4). Both grow to around 25 ft.

All these trees are drought-resistant once well established, but for those with tougher soil and less space, mugo pine (Pinus mugo, Zone 2) is the evergreen answer. This little pine is a steam engine, usually no more than 6 ft., with cultivars like tiny ‘Teeny’ topping out around 1 ft. Each plant resembles a whole forest of conifers in miniature.

Quercus species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3/4–9

SIZE: 50–75 ft. high, 40–75 ft. wide

Oak (Quercus species).

If you’ve got a spot for a big tree and want to plant for wildlife, look no further than oak. Famous for many reasons, but especially for their acorns, oaks are said to provide more value to woodland creatures big and small than most any other tree—especially because animals love acorns. You, however, may not love acorns in spots where you walk barefoot or park your car, so keep this in mind when planting. Natives red oak (Quercus rubra) and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea) are go-tos for dry soil and fabulous fall crimson. Pin oak (Q. palustris) and swamp white oak (Q. bicolor, Zone 3) excel in wet soil.

Rhus species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 3–9


SIZE: 2–25 ft. high, 6–30 ft. wide

‘Gro-Low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’).

‘Tiger Eyes’ staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’).

No, it’s not poison, and yes, you’re missing out if you’re not growing it. Ornamental sumac isn’t only a native plant—it’s a must for fabulous foliage and form year-round, and thrives even in poor, sun-blasted sites. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) grows tall, and features symmetrical, palm-like crowns. Fall color comes in fire engine red, and in late summer, female plants sport pointy, cone-like clusters of red fruit that last through winter. Cultivar ‘Tiger Eyes’ takes it a step further, with chartreuse leaves through the growing season. If you’re more in the market for groundcover than tree, try ‘Gro-Low’ sumac, a spreading cultivar of R. aromatica, with buttercream spring flowers and small, shiny leaves that turn deep red in fall. Sumacs are colonizers, so it’s best to give them space.

Salix species and cultivars

* * *


HARDINESS: Zones 2–9

SIZE: 4–80 ft. high, 5–70 ft. wide

Weeping willow (Salix species).

Dappled willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’).

Arctic blue willow (Salix purpurea ‘Nana’).

Willows exude an air of shabby chic and easy elegance we’d all love for our yards. Large willows, like weeping willow (Salix alba ‘Tristis’ or S. babylonica, Zone 2), are the grand dames of the willow clan, and great for wet sites—the movement of their small leaves gives the sense there’s a pond in the garden even when there isn’t. Big willows can be a challenge to site because they can grow up to 80 ft. tall, litter their nests with twigs and leaves, and their busy root systems sniff out water like bloodhounds. (Read: plant nowhere near plumbing.) Fear not, gardeners lacking in space! There’s a willow for every size garden.

Colorful dappled willow (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’, Zone 5) starts the growing season with white-speckled foliage, splashed liberally in pink. It will grow to 8 ft., but is easily trained, and established plants can be cut back hard in late winter to promote more colorful new growth. Smaller, 5-ft. arctic blue willow (S. purpurea ‘Nana’, Zone 4) has icy foliage and stays shrubby. It benefits from regular hard pruning as well. Perhaps the most underused willow of all is rosemary willow (S. elaeagnos, Zone 4), a decadent color accent with shimmering silver foliage, and reminiscent of olive, for northern gardeners in search of Mediterranean chic. It can be grown as a tree, up to 12 ft., or easily kept to shrub size.

Sambucus species and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 3/4–9


SIZE: 15–25 ft. high, 10 ft. wide

‘Black Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’).

With foliage cultivars in purple and gold that make colorful framework across the growing season, lacy elderberry answers the Japanese maple craving in zones too cold for that plant. Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Black Beauty’ (Zone 4) are two purples—they bloom pink, too—while S. racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ comes in sunny yellow. Hardy to Zone 3, the green native species S. canadensis is all about bubbling bouquets of summer white, and purple fruit fit for jams and pies. Elderberries adapt just fine to a range of soil types, but they’ll love you best if your garden is damp.

Spiraea species and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

BLOOM PERIOD: Midspring, early summer, midsummer

SIZE: 2–5 ft. high, 3–5 ft. wide

‘Ogon’ spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’).

A workhorse among shrubs, vivacious spirea grows as well in parking lots as parterres. It blooms pink to white, with cultivars in a range of foliage choices, some sporting eye-popping pink flowers and citron leaves all at the same time. One standout beats the rest by a mile: ‘Ogon’ spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, Zone 4), also sold as ‘Mellow Yellow’. This plant hits spring like the others, with billows of white bridal wreath bloom, but for ‘Ogon’, that’s the party preview. It follows up with willowy, glittering gold-to-lime leaves, a sight throughout the growing season well into fall—then they turn tangerine. Among other types, S. japonica ‘Goldflame’ and ‘Gold Mound’ make neat, lemony globes all season. For a more understated look, go with ‘Tor’ birchleaf spirea (S. betulifolia ‘Tor’), a confection with white snowball flowers, and tiers of circular leaves that turn a jaw-dropping fall red. Give spirea mostly sun and it adapts to most soils and situations. For the deer-prone garden, it medals in gold.

Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’

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HARDINESS: Zones 3–8

SIZE: 1–3 ft. high, 1–4 ft. wide

Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’).

A spreading solution for slopes and dry shade, stephanandra may be a mouthful, but it’s a sure thing as a polite groundcover, especially if you’re nervous about ivy or wintercreeper and don’t need evergreen. This plant prefers average to moist soil, but swings mild drought just fine with shade in the heat of the day. Sited on slopes, it’s a gurgling fountain of green, turning orange-yellow in fall. Pretty cutleaf cultivar ‘Crispa’ is likely what you’ll find for sale.

Taxodium distichum and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 4–9

SIZE: 50–70 ft. high, 25–40 ft. wide

Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum).

You may know baldcypress as a tree of southern swamps, but this dynamic conifer happens to be completely cold-hardy and so drought-resistant they grow it in traffic islands in Texas—a far droughtier place than any in our climate. Besides that, this picturesque, pyramidal deciduous conifer is known for its beautiful bark and orange fall color. Straight and narrow ‘Shawnee Brave’ is one great cultivar.

Taxus species, hybrids, and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 4–7

SIZE: 2–25 ft. high and wide; typically pruned smaller

Yew (Taxus species).

Whether yours IDs as English (Taxus baccata), Japanese (T. cuspidata), or a cross of the two (T. ×media), workhorse yew makes evergreen elegance easy. Tolerant of conditions across the board, wet soil may be the only place yew won’t do. Yews are champs in dry shade, and upright varieties make some of the best hedging around—be sure to prune before new growth shows up in spring. If yews have one downfall, it’s that deer love them too.

Thuja species and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 2/3/5–8

SIZE: 4–60 ft. high, 5–18 ft. wide

‘Green Giant’ arborvitae (Thuja ‘Green Giant’).

Arborvitae is a venerable evergreen whose name means “tree of life,” so it’s ironic that it’s abused nearly as often as it’s used: badly sheared into unsightly hedges, left unpruned to gobble up whole homes, pretty until the deer get the munchies. Don’t blame arborvitae—plant it smartly. Of its varied cultivars, a few standouts take to the role of hedge, screen, or even specimen plant with flying colors. All prove adaptable but prefer mostly sun and soil of medium moisture.

When it comes to beefy screen, Thuja ‘Green Giant’ is an A-1 evergreen. This arborvitae grows more quickly than most, and given the sun and space, forms an immense, inverted cone, perfect for a privacy hedge. Even better, ‘Green Giant’ gets two thumbs up in shade, and (unlike most) two thumbs down for deer on the hunt for a meal. For small spaces or as a repeated motif in larger landscapes, skinny T. occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ makes a striking, if soft, exclamation, at more than 20 ft. high and less than 6 ft. wide. Staggered along a fence line, this cultivar of native white cedar makes an excellent screen—tall but shallow.

Bored with these ho-hum evergreens? Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ (Zone 5) is an arborvitae with dreadlocks. ‘Whipcord’ starts life looking more grass-like than shrub-like, but in time grows into a mid-sized green mop of fine-textured foliage. If you’d rather a more colorful option, try fizzy needly T. occidentalis ‘Golden Tuffet’ (Zone 3), a bubbly mini-evergreen at 2 ft. tall.

Tilia cordata

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Littleleaf linden

HARDINESS: Zones 3–8

SIZE: 50–70 ft. high, 35–50 ft. wide

Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata).

Some time after summer really sets in, a sweet, soapy perfume mysteriously fills the air, even along gritty city sidewalks: lindens, blooming with small yellow flowers, all the better for people and bees. This mid-sized tree isn’t just great for fragrance—its leathery green leaves make a neat garden backdrop throughout the growing season, and turn bright gold in fall. Left alone, linden grows into a neat beehive shape, but it can even be trimmed into a hedge.

Tsuga canadensis

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Canadian hemlock

HARDINESS: Zones 3–7

SIZE: 40–70 ft. high, 25–35 ft. wide

Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).

A cold, damp hemlock is a happy hemlock. This majestic tree can be among the most valuable evergreens for screening, and for the inhospitable north side of a house, where moisture and chill prevail. Give it room to spread and plan to underplant sparely in maturity, as hemlock shade is notoriously dry. Since the 1950s, hemlock has been plagued by woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an exotic insect pest. Hemlocks planted on hot, droughty, windy sites are more likely to be infested, further endangering native populations.

Ulmus americana ‘Valley Forge’

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‘Valley Forge’ American elm

HARDINESS: Zones 5–9

SIZE: 60–70 ft. high, 50–60 ft. wide

‘Valley Forge’ American elm (Ulmus americana ‘Valley Forge’).

Since the 1930s, Dutch elm disease, an exotic pest, has decimated native American elm populations. Once one of our most beloved national trees, elms all but disappeared. Undaunted horticulturists selected the most disease-resistant among the surviving population, and ‘Valley Forge’ is the best of the bunch. Graceful giants, elms are the tall, cool drink of water among trees, prized for their vase-like structure—an asset to any garden’s bones. This tree is likely hardy to Zone 4, but tested to Zone 5.

Vaccinium angustifolium and cultivars, V. corymbosum cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 3–8

SIZE: 1–12 ft. high and wide

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum cultivar).

Plenty of people grow blueberry for fruit. Why not for framework and fab fall color, too? Two species of the versatile berry thrive in the Northeast, and their names speak to size: highbush (Vaccinium coryumbosum) and lowbush (V. angustifolium). The former makes the most common food crop, with a parade of cultivars in a variety of sizes. The latter, and smaller, boasts small edible berries too, and makes a great groundcover. All promise a fiery vision of fall, and all prefer acidic soil.

Viburnum species and cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 2/3/4/5–9

BLOOM PERIOD: Midspring, late spring, early summer

SIZE: 3–12 ft. high, 3–15 ft. wide

American cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum).

Snowball viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum).

Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii).

In the alphabet of the garden, it’s a happy accident that “V” is for “versatile” as well as “viburnum.” Few groups of shrubs do more or better. Plant one and see how your favorite feature changes through the seasons: flowers in spring or even winter, fruit late summer to fall, or fall foliage that dazzles most often in red-purple. Not convinced? How about crisp leaves throughout the growing season, and elegant form? It’s tough to choose, with so many fantastic types, but here’s a selection. Most viburnum grow 6–10 ft. tall and wide if left unpruned.

For berries, try Viburnum dilatatum ‘Michael Dodge’ (Zone 5) for yellow, American cranberry (V. opulus var. americanum, Zone 2) for red, or V. dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’ (Zone 3) for blue, a small shrub at 3–5 ft. For flower, it’s tough to beat V. sargentii ‘Onondaga’ (Zone 4) for its flattened, circular blooms of red ringed with white. Snowball viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum, Zone 4) is a close runner-up, with spheres of pure white among pleated leaves, as well as amazingly scented Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii, Zone 4). Speaking of leaves, viburnum’s more ornamental features often overshadow their fabulous foliage. Native cultivar V. nudum ‘Winterthur’ (Zone 5) is impeccably glossy, while big V. rhytidophyllum (Zone 5) is a semi-evergreen star with long leaves the texture of crocodile skin.

Weigela florida cultivars

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HARDINESS: Zones 4–8

BLOOM PERIOD: Midspring, late spring, early summer

SIZE: 1–5 ft. high, 1–6 ft. wide

‘Wine and Roses’ weigela (Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’).

Pronounced “wy-JEE-luh”, this shrub was once known for a seasonal show of spring flowers. Not so of modern weigela! Nowadays you’ll find cultivars in various sizes, all of which do bloom prettily, but as an afterthought to bold, colorful foliage all throughout the growing seasons. ‘Wine and Roses’ dazzles with leaves of smoldering violet, while ‘My Money’ has green foliage edged in pink and white.

Xanthorhiza simplicissima

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HARDINESS: Zones 3–9

SIZE: 2–3 ft. high, 6 ft. or more wide

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima).

An unsung groundcover begging for more use, yellowroot grows as a mat of glassy green, celery-like leaves, but there’s more to this spreading shrub than meets the eye. It’s an understated treasure with weird, wonderful purple chains of flowers in spring, and the purple returns in fall, with foliage that fades purple to gold. Plant this native in damp to moderately dry soil, even in shade.



Plant selection and garden style are deeply influenced by where we are gardening. To successfully grow a range of beautiful ornamental plants, every gardener has to know the specifics of the region’s climate, soil, and geography.

Gardeners in the northeast are lucky—the regular summer rain, gorgeous summer blooms, and stunning fall color make it an ideal place to garden. But there are drawbacks, like hot and humid summers, bitterly cold winters, and mosquitos. TThe practical and beautiful Growing the Northeast Garden starts with a comprehensive overview of the weather and geography of the area, along with regionally specific advice on zones, microclimates, soil, pests, and maintenance. Profiles of the best trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and bulbs offer hundreds of plant suggestions, along with complete information on growth and care.


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