Cold-Hardy Plants for Northern Gardens

When growing in a cold climate, here are some unbeatable picks for the garden

Northern B.C. has a tough growing climate, with poor soils and ever more capricious weather

While it can be a challenge to create a beautiful garden under these conditions, there are a surprising number of plants that do well here. I admit to being fickle, loving each plant as it comes into bloom and enjoying the surprises as much as the reliable performers.

Still, there are a few that stand out from the crowd. With the increasing bitter winter winds and unpredictable cold snaps around the province, these could be excellent choices for gardeners anywhere looking for reliable plant choices. Asiatic lilies (Lilium hybrids usually sold as “Asiatic Lilies” shown in picture) have to be one of the best investments a northern gardener can make.

The Asiatics seem to be a bit hardier, or perhaps more tolerant of poor soil, than their Oriental cousins (Lilium hybrids usually sold as “Oriental Lilies”), which never last more than a season or two for me. A single Asiatic lily bulb, on the other hand, can develop into a good-sized clump in a couple of years, every summer delivering a bigger and better display of showy and colourful blooms.

Some of my Asiatic lilies have become spectacular clumps several feet across, and the mid-summer display is breathtaking. They require nothing more than decently drained soil (as with all bulbs, they don’t like standing in water-logged soil) and an annual application of compost and/or fertilizer. They can be planted as bulbs in the fall or as container-grown plants at any time of year.

Colours range from pure whites to nearly black reds, with many pinks, yellows, oranges and bi-colours in between. From compact 45-cm (18-in.) dwarfs to those towering to 1.3 m (4 ft.), there is a size and colour for every location in the flowerbed. I am growing increasingly fond of daylilies (Hemerocallis spp. and cultivars), which are proving to be the workhorses of the summer garden here.

Although each individual bloom may only last a day (hence the name), some of my mature clumps can have 50 or more stems and half a dozen blooms on each stem. Factor in early-, mid- and late-blooming varieties, as well as the newer repeat-blooming cultivars, and they can put on quite a show for a long period.

Daylily breeders seem to be an obsessive lot, and are apparently competing with each other to develop the largest, most ruffled, gaudiest blooms ever seen on a plant. These do, indeed, catch the eye, but the smaller, more graceful cultivars are easier to blend into the garden, especially in the naturalistic settings northern gardeners tend to favour.

Whatever your preference in size, colour or showiness, it’s sure there will be one or a dozen cultivars to suit. Although they prefer moist, perfectly drained soil (the Holy Grail of gardening that none of us actually have), they will also do well in heavier wet soils, and are quite drought-tolerant. The last of my “Top Three” is the graceful and surprisingly tough little Icelandic poppy (Papaver nudicaule).

Hardy to zone 2, it is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring and keeps blooming sporadically through the summer and right into late fall. There are some seed strains that offer clear bright yellows, oranges and reds, while others (such as ‘Champagne Bubbles’) tend more toward the pastel tones. They are all beautiful, drought-tolerant and not too fussy about soil.

These reliable little poppies, seldom reaching 30 cm (a foot) in height, are short-lived but will self-seed if happy. They provide endless joy, popping up here and there throughout beds where they have been introduced. They gladden my heart every time I see them. These three rate as perfect northern plants.

They all combine well with other plants and are tough, hardy, beautiful and trouble free. In an increasingly unpredictable world, we can’t ask for more. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Hemerocallis (daylily) – zone 3 • Lilium hybrids usually sold as “Asiatic Lilies” – zones 3 and up • Papaver nudicaule syn. P. croceum (Icelandic poppy) – zone 2 Additional photos by Barbara Rayment. Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.