10 Foolproof Perennial Plants for the Northeast U.S.

Colourful herbaceous flower borders in the summer sunshine
Jacky Parker Photography / Getty Images

Perennials are the heart of many ornamental gardens, adding color and texture. If you can make them happy, they will stick around for years and get larger and even more floriferous, so it is important to choose plants that are suited to your growing conditions. Those conditions will include soil, sun exposure, hardiness zone, and the amount of time you have to devote to their care. Beyond the temperature extremes of hardiness zones, some plants just do better in certain areas of the county. Delphiniums struggle through hot, dry summers. Guara can be capricious in frigid winters.

Here are 10 easy-to-care-for perennials that will grow just about anywhere in the Northeast.

Perennial Plants Are Not Immortal

Gardeners sometimes are disappointed when their perennial plants die after a few years, imagining that because they are labeled "perennial," this means they should live forever. But every plant species has an expected lifespan. Some perennial species are relatively short-lived, such as lupine, columbine, and coral bells, while others may live for many decades (peonies, hostas, and sedum). If your goal is a garden that never needs to be replanted, make sure to choose perennials with a reputation for a long lifespan.

  • 01 of 10

    Astilbe (Astilbe spp.)

    Astilbe Superba
    Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane / Getty Images

    Astilbe plants have tall flower plumes and attractive lacy foliage. There are varieties that bloom from mid-spring or well into summer. Although it only blooms once, the flowers stay attractive for weeks, even as they dry; no deadheading is required. The only required maintenance is to cut back the dead leaves in the fall or spring. Most astilbe plants grow more vigorously if divided about every three years. Although rated for full sun, in the hot, dry northeast summers, it fares better when given some afternoon shade. Otherwise, it will need supplemental water.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Variation: White, pink, or purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 02 of 10

    Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata)

    veronica longifolia with eryngium
    Georgia Glynn Smith / Getty Images

    Spiked speedwell grows into dense mounds of foliage with tall flower spikes that stand above the leaves. The plants grow to 1 to 3 feet in height. The flower stalks do need to be cut back to get a repeat bloom, but since it gradually flowers from the bottom of the spike upward, speedwell stays in bloom for weeks at a time. Speedwell tends to self-sow, but the volunteer seedlings are easy to manage. Speedwell should be divided every three years or so.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Variation: Purple, blue; pink and white cultivars also available
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained soil
  • 03 of 10

    Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea)

    Coral flower (Heuchera Peach Flambe)
    Photos Lamontagne / Getty Images

    Coral Bells are loved for their delicate coral-colored, bell-shaped flowers that wave above the foliage on long, thin stems. The plants typically grow to 12 to 18 inches in height. More recently, it has become the darlings of plant breeders who have created varieties with colorful foliage. Some gardeners even cut off the flower stalks so they does not distract from the leaves.

    The biggest challenge growing coral bells in the Northeast is its tendency to heave out of the ground in winter. Mulching it after the ground has frozen will help protect the crown from cold damage. The plants do best if divided every three to five years, but these are not long-lived plants.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Variation: Pink or coral red flowers; green, bronze, or yellow foliage
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade; heavy sun can wash out leaf color
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil; prefers neutral to slightly acidic pH
  • 04 of 10

    Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spp.)

    Dicentra spectabilis(Bleeding Heart)
    shene / Getty Images

    Both the old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) and the repeat flowering fern-leafed varieties qualify as lower-maintenance plants. Dicentra spectabilis and its cultivars only bloom once in mid-spring, but it remains in flower for weeks. Its major drawback is that it cannot handle hot summers. When the temperatures climb, bleeding heart either fades to yellow or disappears completely. Dicentra eximia and D. Formosa will repeat flower periodically throughout the summer, especially if you dead-head them. Their only flaw is that the old foliage can start to look faded as new growth comes in at the base. Bleeding heart should be divided every four to five years

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 9
    • Color Variation: Pink, red, white
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, well-drained soil
    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Cranesbill Geraniums (Geranium Spp. and Cultivars)

    Cranesbill Geraniums

     

    Rosmarie Wirz / Getty Images

    The perennial plants commonly called "hardy geraniums" are not related to the common annual geraniums that decorate window boxes and cemetery planters throughout the world. Those plants are actually members of the Pelargonium species. The true geraniums, known variously as "perennial geraniums," "hard geraniums," or "cranesbill geraniums," are true perennials that make wonderful garden plants. There are many dozens of cranesbill geranium cultivars available; one of the best is 'Rozanne', a blue variety that blooms non-stop throughout the summer. Common varieties range from 9 inches to about 2 feet in height. Cranesbill geraniums should be divided every six to eight years.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Variation: Pale to dark pink/purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average soil; prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil
  • 06 of 10

    Catmint (Nepeta Species and Hybrids)

    Nepeta x faassenii, Catmint, purple flowers
    Neil Holmes / Getty Images

    The term catmint is applied to several different species within the Nepeta genus, but while many of the species are rightly considered unruly weeds, those selected for garden cultivations are much more civilized. Some are sterile hybrids that have none of the rampant self-seeding habits of the species varieties. In particular, 'Walker's Low' (Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low') is an excellent, well-behaved garden plant. It grows to about 18 inches, with an attractive clumping growth habit. Catmint can be an excellent substitute for lavender, which does not grow well in much of the Northeast. Catmint may not have lavender's scent, but it makes a lovely cloud of blue, and it will repeat-bloom if sheared back after blooming.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Variation: Lilac to violet
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Average, dry to medium-moisture, well-drained soil
  • 07 of 10

    Columbine (Aquiligia Spp.)

    Close-up of columbine flower, red and yellow (Aquilegia formosa) green soft focus background
    Greg Vaughn / Getty Images

    The garden columbines comprise several different species within the Aquilegia genus, as well as dozens of cultivars (mostly based on A. vulgaris). The bi-colored Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is native to the northeast U.S. and is still prized as a wildflower. It has been joined by a series of colorful hybrids that fill the gap in the garden between early spring bloomers and peak season. Most will happily self-sow throughout the bed, and if you have more than one color, be prepared for some interesting offspring as the plants hybridize. Deadheading the plants will prevent them from self-seeding. Once established, columbine plants can be very drought-tolerant. Division is required only every 10 years or so.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Variation: Red, yellow, white, blue, pink, salmon, or purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, slightly acidic soil; adapts to any soil
  • 08 of 10

    Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

    Russian sage
    ilovebutter / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    The very name "Russian sage" hints at how hardy this plant is in colder climates. It is actually considered a sub-shrub—a woody-stemmed plant that dies back to ground level each winter. In addition to its tolerance of cold, this is an excellent plant for dry, drought-like conditions. The only maintenance Russian sage requires is a hard pruning in the spring, when the buds are just beginning to break. It blooms on new growth, so cutting it back to 6 to 8 inches allows the whole plant to fill back in and burst into bright blue bloom in late summer. Russian sage can send out runners, which should be removed early before they get a chance to take hold. The plants should be divided every four to six years; whole plants do not transplant well.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Variation: lavender, blue
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Average dry to medium-moisture soil
    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Daylily (Hemerocallis Spp.)

    Orange Day Lily
    Manfred Spengler / EyeEm / Getty Images

    Daylilies are ubiquitous in the Northeast. Thousands of cultivars based on a few dozen common species offer an abundance of choice that makes daylilies one of the most popular of all garden flowers. Daylilies tend to fill out quickly, which is a nice feature if you are just starting a garden. That means they require dividing every four to five years, but it's usually easy to find another gardener willing to take your excess. Although many of the older varieties are lovely, you will get more mileage out of newer repeat-blooming hybrids. 'Happy Returns' is a classic cultivar known for repeat blooming. Daylily leaves can get ugly in midseason, but shearing them back will create a flush of new foliage. Cutting back the flower stems will prompt quicker reblooms on the repeat-blooming varieties.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Variation: Cultivars available in nearly every color, including bi-colors
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, slightly acidic soil; tolerates virtually any soil
  • 10 of 10

    Peonies (Peonia spp.)

    Pink Hawaiian Coral Peony
    Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane / Getty Images

    The Peonia genus of plants includes 25 to 40 species of herbaceous plants and woody shrubs with compound leaves and very large flowers. Peonies love the chill of a northeastern winter, which provides the extended cold necessary to set the flower buds for the coming season. Unfortunately, the Northeast also has hot, humid summers which can cause gray mold, or botrytis, on the leaves. Be sure to place your plants where there is good air circulation, so the leaves do not remain wet for long periods. It is best to cut the plants back and dispose of them at the end of the season since spores can over-winter and reinfect the plants.

    Peonies are very long-lived plants—they will live for many decades once they are well established. But they do not like to be moved, so be careful to position peonies carefully when planting. Deadheading is not necessary unless you want to do it for appearance, and the plants do not require division.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Variation: White, pink, red, purple, bi-colors
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Average, well-draining soil

Plant Selection Tip

Soils in the Northeast tend to be somewhat acidic, thanks to the prevalent rainfall in the region. You may have trouble growing plants that prefer a more alkaline soil pH, such as clematis, forsythia, barberry, or lilac—unless you amend the soil to adjust the pH toward the acid side of the scale. On the other hand, gardeners in the Northeast may find that conditions are ideal for acid-loving plants, such as azeleas, hydrangeas, and iris. Conditions can vary, though, so it is best to check your soil pH with a soil test, then choose plant species well suited to the pH of your garden soil.