Great Natives for Tough Places

Find native plants that thrive in challenging growing conditions! This comprehensive guide offers portraits of more than 120 gorgeous and low-maintenance plants, as well as strategies for selection and care.

  • Introduction, by Niall Dunne
  • Eight Tough Places to Garden, by Niall Dunne
  • Light, Moisture, Soil: A Diagnostic Tool Kit, by Ulrich Lorimer
  • When the Growing Gets Tough: Plant Adaptations to Extreme Environments, by Gerry Moore
  • Encyclopedia of Great Natives for Tough Places, by C. Colston Burrell
    • Trees
    • Shrubs
    • Vines
    • Perennials
  • Five Projects for Tough Sites, by Joan McDonald
  • Sourcing, Propagating, and Establishing Native Plants, Mariellé Anzelone
  • Native Plants at a Glance
  • Resources
  • Contributors
  • Index

Urban and suburban environments present many challenges to gardeners and landscapers. Buildings block sunlight, limiting the ability of plant leaves to produce food through photosynthesis; pavement and other impermeable surfaces channel rainwater runoff into low-lying areas, waterlogging the ground and depriving plant roots of oxygen; construction and other disturbances compact and degrade the soil, hindering the absorption of the nutrients needed to support healthy plant life.

Gardeners have developed a variety of techniques for tackling these challenges. The simplest and most resource-efficient technique—and the one espoused by this book—is to choose plants that are naturally adapted to tolerate or thrive in tough sites. This "right plant, right place" approach is a central tenet of sustainable garden design. It transforms so-called problem sites into opportunities to grow interesting and unusual species. Another core tenet of sustainable gardening is to use native plants as much as possible. There are a number of books on the market that champion resilient plants for difficult places. This is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on tough, adaptable, garden-worthy plants that are also indigenous to the continental United States and Canada.

When you grow plants native to your region, you are choosing plants that have evolved over thousands of years to handle the soils and seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall of your local climate. As a bonus, by growing natives, you also provide excellent habitat resources for native species of insects, birds, and other wildlife, many of which have developed close associations with indigenous flora.

The plants profiled in this book are no ordinary natives, however. They are denizens of challenging, harsh, and even hostile natural habitats such as floodplains, swamps, streambanks, dry prairies, and shallow rocky slopes. Though most of them perform well in average garden conditions, they are adapted to endure stresses like the inhospitable microclimates and poor soil conditions so common in today's urban and suburban backyards.

Asters and other native species thrive on a sunny, dry slope with minimal maintenance, holding the soil in place with their extensive root systems and providing habitat for local wildlife.

Gardeners face numerous obstacles to growing healthy plants in the built environment. This book identifies eight challenging environmental conditions: sunny and dry; sunny and wet; shady and wet; shady and dry; alternating wet and dry; alkaline soils; compacted soils; and nutrient-depleted soils. The first chapter of the book, "Eight Tough Places to Garden," outlines the conditions, describes their possible causes, and also looks at the constraints that these conditions put on many plants.

This chapter is followed by "Light, Moisture, Soil: A Diagnostic Tool Kit," which explains how to detect environmental extremes throughout your garden and discusses a variety of solutions for dealing with them, including growing adapted native plants. The third chapter, "When the Growing Gets Tough," provides a short natural history of plant adaptation and investigates the morphological and physiological strategies plants have developed for tolerating extremes of light, moisture, and fertility.

C. Colston Burrell's "Encyclopedia of Great Natives for Tough Places" forms the bulk of the book and profiles more than 120 native trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous perennials that are adapted to cope with one or more of the eight key environmental challenges. This is followed by five projects featuring illustrated designs, with advice on how to garden in tough spots and use the plants from the encyclopedia to create beautiful plantings in challenging situations.

The final chapter, "Sourcing, Propagating, and Establishing Native Plants," provides useful tips on purchasing native plants of local provenance, collecting seeds responsibly from the wild, planting and establishing natives, basic maintenance, and more.

The sustainable gardener need not resort to traditional tough-as-nails nonnatives when selecting plants for tough sites. Many of these "indestructible" plants—such as Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii)—are invasive weeds that escape the confines of the garden and end up altering and degrading our natural areas. As this handbook demonstrates, it's possible to grow beautiful native plants in challenging spots and create ecologically sound plantings that benefit local and regional ecosystems.

Mariellé Anzelone works throughout the New York City metropolitan area as a botanist and native plant landscape designer with her company, Drosera ( Her educational initiatives include NYC Wildflower Week and the Native Plant Display Garden in Union Square Park, in Manhattan.

C. Colston Burrell is a garden designer, photographer, naturalist, and award-winning author who gardens on ten wild acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a lecturer in the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia and principal of Native Landscape Design and Restoration. He has written many books on gardening and plants and contributes regularly to Horticulture and Fine Gardening. He has also edited or contributed to more than a dozen Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbooks, including Native Alternatives to Invasive Species.

Niall Dunne is a former editor of Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Plants & Gardens News and Urban Habitats; he also edited the BBG handbook Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens. He holds an MA in English from University College Dublin and an MS in ecology and evolution from Rutgers University. He lives in Seattle and manages publications for the Arboretum Foundation at Washington Park Arboretum.

Ulrich Lorimer is curator of the Native Flora Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and holds a degree in landscape horticulture from the University of Delaware. He teaches classes in gardening, native plants, integrated pest management, and botany at BBG and New York Botanical Garden and contributed to the BBG books Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens and Community Gardening.

Joan McDonald is a former manager of the Gardener's Resource Center at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She runs Gardens by Joan (, a garden-design business based in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to the "Divine Design" section of BBG's Plants & Gardens News.

Gerry Moore is the director of science at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He oversees the garden's New York Metropolitan Flora Project and is editor-in-chief of the garden's science journal, Urban Habitats. An adjunct faculty member at Rutgers University and the Pratt Institute, he holds a PhD in biology from Vanderbilt University.


October 22, 2012
Mary Uyeda

A Horticulture (Sept/Oct 2012) article on no-mow grasses cites Easy Lawns: Low Maintenance Native Grasses for Gardeners Everywhere from Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I can’t find this on your website. Can you help me? Thank you.

April 9, 2013
BBG Staff

Easy Lawns is a BBG handbook, available through our online shop.

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