If you're new to gardening, choosing outdoor plants for your home might feel overwhelming. With so many options, it's hard to know where to start.
Picking a few easy outdoor plants is a good way to green up your thumb if you're a beginner. Native plants tend to be the least finicky plants since they naturally thrive in your area, but they aren't always easy to find at big box garden centers.
There are lots of non-native plants that are low-maintenance and non-aggressive that work, too.
Always do a site walk before buying anything, and make notes of where the sun hits and for how long. This is important info when asking for help at local nurseries.
Locate where the full-sun, part-sun, part-shade, and full-shade spots are in your landscape, then choose plants that are recommended for those conditions - the plant should have a tag with this information.
There are lots of low-maintenance, easy outdoor plants to choose from, so we'll break it down into categories and highlight just a few of our favorites with a focus on the best native plants.
A Note on Native Plants
When someone asks what the easiest outdoor plants are, expert gardeners will say, "the ones that do well in your garden." Native plants are excellent choices for many reasons, but the biggest one for new gardeners is that they thrive with little maintenance, and don't need extra watering and fertilizer.
Native plants are specific to your region and have adapted to the natural climate, average rainfall, and seasonal changes. Each garden will have its own microclimate with some areas experiencing more or less sun/ shade, rainfall, wind, etcetera, so you still need to choose your plants according to the planting site.
That said, there are many non-native plants that are hardy and foolproof, as well, and as long as they aren't aggressive or invasive species, they can be beneficial to pollinators, ecosystems, and your garden, as well.
Hostas, boxwoods, tree lilacs, junipers, and smoke trees are some common non-native plants that aren't destructive because they don't out-compete native plants or affect local wildlife.
While you should try and plant natives when possible, a thriving garden will do more for the environment than not planting anything—as long as you aren't choosing invasive or overly aggressive species.
The problem is, many garden centers and nurseries sell invasive plants to an unsuspecting public: wisteria, English ivy, Japanese honeysuckle, barberry, knotweed, kudzu, privet, burning bush, periwinkle (vinca) are all sold as fast-growing and easy outdoor plants.
Don't be tempted to take the easy route with these species, as they will end up causing you more grief down the road, while wreaking environmental disaster on local flora and fauna. While this, too, can seem overwhelming, there are many lists of invasive species that you can go over before making a final purchase.
Perennial flowers are some of the most popular choices for gardens since they come back every year, are great for pollinators, and add beauty to any kind of landscape.
There's no lack of choices when it comes to easy-going, low-maintenance full-sun perennial flowers, but some popular native species are black-eyed Susan, coneflower, speedwell, tiger lilies, common yarrow, Joe Pye weed, tickseed, and wild bergamot.
Some non-native full-sun perennials that are low-maintenance and safe to plant are catmint, salvia, certain irises, and various kinds of sage.
Salvia and sage account for a large number of species, but most varieties sold at nurseries are perennial. Always check the tag to make sure plants are hardy in your growing region.
For hot and dry desert-like conditions consider drought-tolerant herbs like lavender and rosemary, or stonecrops like Autumn Joy and Frosty Morn; all thrive will little water and poor soils, AKA neglect!
Part-Shade and Shade Perennials
Aster, bleeding hearts, and hostas can tolerate part-shade, and there are native varieties of the first two, but hostas are non-native. They won't overtake gardens, and even if they do, you can easily split them up and give them to neighbors or plant them in a different spot. They're one of the easiest plants for beginners.
Still, there are native options to hostas that include skunk cabbage (more attractive than its name) and mayapple which spreads out nicely under shady areas and will even grow happily under walnut trees, which many plants can't survive.
There's no lack of shade perennials that boast beautiful foliage or interesting flowers: coral bells (or heuchera), blue lobelia, foamflower, and ferns are easy choices, all of which have native cultivars.
Poke milkweed is a beautiful native shade perennial that needs a year to establish, but after that, it's an easy-going plant that feeds the butterflies. Astilbe are non-native, but non-aggressive plants that only need moist, shady soils to bring about beautiful, feathery blooms in stunning pink, white, red, or purple.
Like perennial flowers, perennial shrubs are excellent choices for planting a low-maintenance garden, as most will only need some light pruning every few years.
Spirea are the hostas of the shrub world: there's a variety for any condition, and they are incredibly easy to grow. Goldflame, aka, "Firelight" Spirea is favored for its bright gold-green leaves and easy-going nature, but stay away from this invasive species also known as "Japanese spirea" as they are extremely problematic and take over disturbed areas quickly.
A better, native option, "New Jersey tea" is a spirea-like shrub that boasts lovely-scented, white flowers and yellow stems in the winter. It's a nitrogen-fixing plant, meaning it will thrive in poor soils, resolving any depleted nutrients (and thus helping your garden).
Ninebark is an easy-to-grow and hardy shrub that tolerates different soils and becomes drought-tolerant once established. It has similar characteristics to spirea and you can find varieties in various bold hues from green to gold to purple. Plus, it's a highly beneficial habitat for small animals and birds.
Forsythia, lilacs, and butterfly bush are other popular low-maintenance shrubs and while these ones are particularly prized for their brilliant colors, there may be better native options.
When forsythia blooms in late spring, their deep, golden yellow blooms radiate against a green landscape. If looking for a native option, consider spicebush or golden currant, which also have beautiful, yellow flowers.
Lilacs are prized for their gorgeous panicle-shaped flowers, ad their scent signals springtime. They aren't native, but aren't aggressive, either. Consider planting American elderberry instead for its lemon-scented, frilly, white flowers that turn into prized edible and medicinal blackberries.
Elderberry attracts 40 different species of native butterflies and moths, and reaches a similar size to lilac.
Butterfly bushes lure the pollinator namesake with their purple blooms, and are very adaptable to different soils - so much so that they are highly invasive and problematic shrubs, despite butterfly action.
Consider a shrub that gives nectar, as well as provides shelter (butterflies will not eat butterfly bush leaves) like sweet pepperbush. This upright shrub does well in dappled sun or part shade and prefers moist, well-draining soil. These adaptable plants offer fragrant white or pink flowers and brilliant color throughout the year.
Hydrangeas could be their own category as there are many different varieties and all of them are fairly easy to take care of. Most prefer part to full-shade and can be found in various sizes. Native species "oakleaf" or "Annabelle" are particularly hardy and adaptable, while showcasing lovely white flowers.
Evergreens offer all-season interest, and provide different textures and shapes to fill in around the garden. Some species are flowering or may even grow berries.
They're very reliable in general, needing only to be placed in the right condition based on light needs. Otherwise they are fairly adaptable to different soils and native species are moderately drought-tolerant.
Mountain Laurel is a beautiful, flowering shrub that's native to the eastern United States. It adapts to different light conditions easily, as long as it doesn't get extremely hot in the afternoon sun.
Boxwoods are very common, easy-to-grow evergreen shrubs, but consider replacing them with native inkberry bush instead. Euonymus are other popular evergreens that are invasive in the US, so plant native bearberry for a winter-hardy evergreen that will slowly creep along the ground and turn a brilliant red in the winter.
American arborvitae, aka "thuja occidentalis", aka Eastern white cedar is a native evergreen tree that you'll find in many residential gardens, mainly used as a privacy screen or fence for large properties and garden borders. They also fill in bare spots individually to add some contrast to gardens.
There are a few cultivars to choose from, but the cedar tree you'll find most often in garden centers prefers moist soil and full sun conditions. Other than that, it doesn't need any extra care and can reach up to 40 feet, offering shade and privacy to gardens that need it.
Flowering dogwood is a small, native tree that can replace invasive white poplars or disease-prone white birches. Flowering dogwood blooms earlier in the spring than other species, just in time for hungry pollinators that are starting to wake up.
This tree might be mistaken for other dogwoods, including some popular dogwood shrubs. Not all of them are native, though they share some similarities, including a fast-growing nature and interesting color throughout the year.
Another beautiful spring-flowering tree is the Eastern Redbud. It has a low-growing crown with spreading branches that send out beautiful pink flowers. The roots of this small tree are not aggressive spreaders, so it's safe to plant near homes, sidewalks, or streets.
They're considered very important native trees, as their beautiful pink flowers feed many pollinators when it's most needed. Plant instead of non-native Japanese maples which aren't considered invasive (and are gorgeous in their own right), but require a lot of maintenance.
American Hazelnut is another easy-to-grow tree that gifts you with delicious nuts in just a few years. Plant this native instead of common buckthorn which is listed as invasive and considered an ecological threat.
This fast-growing tree will grow 10 to 16-feet tall and can tolerate full sun or part shade, as well as boggy or well-draining soil. Highly adaptable, drought-tolerant, and beneficial to all forms of wildlife, including 124 native butterfly species.
Unfortunately, many low-maintenance groundcovers sold in stores like periwinkle (vinca), goutweed, mint, and ajuga are terribly invasive. Wild ginger, common violets, and wild strawberry are a few native groundcovers that you may already have growing in your backyard without knowing it!
These easy-to-grow (and free!) species may seem ordinary, or be mistaken for weeds, but they're incredibly valuable to wildlife and won't make any demands upon you as a gardener. Plus, many of them will grow under trees or shady areas where you need filling in.
Wild ginger is a low-growing, dense groundcover with velvety green, heart-shaped foliage that grows easily in part-shade or shady gardens. Plant to compete with invasive garlic mustard, which although more edible and nutritious to humans than wild ginger (which is not edible), is overtaking forest floors at a rapid rate.
Violas or common violets are another option that look similar, but boast tiny bold flowers, are huge supporters of native bee, butterfly, and moth populations; and all parts are edible!
Wild strawberry is another quick-spreading, low-growing groundcover that thrives in sun or shade. The small fruit is edible to humans and wildlife, alike, just make sure it isn't the common weed look-alike "mock strawberry". You can tell the difference in two ways: wild strawberry has white flowers, not yellow, and the fruit is juicy and sweet, not bitter and dry.
White wood aster is a tall, upright-growing groundcover that's extremely resilient and easy to grow. Best planted in woodland areas where it can grow up to three feet tall and show off its white, serrated flowers. Green-and-gold also works well in large woodland settings and adds some interest with their star-shaped yellow flowers.
Woodland or wild stonecrop does wonderfully along rocks and stone pathways, just like other stonecrops tend to do. This creeping groundcover is happy in shadier spots, however, and gives off tiny white flowers on small green, fleshy leaves. Leave it alone to do its thing, or transplant mature sections easily.
Creeping phlox and wild geranium are also great choices to replace invasive species.
Laid Back Vines
Vining plants are very versatile and cover vertical areas that other plants can't like trellises, exterior walls, and fences. Like groundcovers, there are many invasive vines that have been planted unknowingly, but luckily, there are some excellent native or non-aggressive replacements that are just as easy to tend to.
Chinese Wisteria is an absolutely gorgeous, fast-growing vine that unfortunately ends up destroying everything in its way, including exterior walls of homes and garages.
Vines become too heavy, or overtake other garden plants quickly, choking them of any sunlight or air. The good news is, native varieties of American wisteria and Kentucky wisteria are safe to plant, easy to grow, and just as beautiful. They will require training and decent support systems but are otherwise low-maintenance.
English ivy is another popular, invasive vine that would be better kept as a houseplant than let outside to destroy trees and overtake buildings. A much better native option to plant is groundnut which also has beautiful green leaves that twist around trellises and lattice, and showcase round pink flowers in midsummer.
Groundnut is what it sounds like—in the legume family, its edible root tuber was a staple amongst Native Americans and a popular food for foragers. It can handle sun and shade, as long as the soil is relatively moist.
Japanese honeysuckle is next on the list of invasive vines to stay clear of for the same reasons as the others. You will find this sold in garden centers, but look for trumpet honeysuckle, or wild clematis instead, as either will climb up fences and trellises and boast beautiful flowers.
Keep in mind that many fruit and vegetables grow on vines, as well, and there are native grape varieties that will gladly take over a pergola and reward you with their fruit; or, make stuffed grape leaves out of the foliage.
Southern states and milder climates can get away with planting fruits and vegetables more than colder regions, and some may overwinter depending on their hardiness.
The list of easy-to-grow plants gets a little bigger for these areas, but there are more than enough options for any climate.
Planting natives will always the best choice for easy outdoor plants, but don't worry if you want to stick to boxwoods and hostas for a bit, either. Do your best, and enjoy the process.