The Windy City is known for its amazing architecture. With all of its skyscrapers and man-made marvels, natural beauty might not be what you associate with Chicago, but think again!
With Chicago being on the edge of the Tall Grass Prairie Biome and in USDA zones 5 and 6, the area is host to all sorts of beautiful wild flowers invoking the rainbow colored meadows of the Midwest. For those living in the city, we have a few great ideas on how to bring some of that green into your urban space.
Which Plants Grow Well in Chicago?
Chicago is well known for its harsh winters and sizzling hot summers, and you will definitely want to take that into consideration when thinking about what plants to get. That said, with Chicago being one of America’s largest urban areas, chances are, you are looking at plants that will thrive in apartment living like you!
Ivies are always a great choice for indoor planting and can also do well on shaded patios. Ivies come in all sorts of varieties and help bring some dimension into a room. They also tend to be pretty low maintenance, enjoying drier soil and indirect sunlight. If you want to go traditional, you can go with English Ivy Green Ideal, or if you are looking for some more color, there is the California Ivy variety that produces small pink blooms in spring and cute red berries in summer. If you are looking to bring home some luck with your greenery, then Clover Leaf Ivy might be for you. Named after it’s rounded and equally sized leaves that resemble a shamrock when overlapped, this variety has won the American Ivy Association’s “Ivy of the Year” on multiple occasions.
Something to keep in mind when it comes to your furry roommates, most ivies are considered toxic for cats and dogs. If you do have some animals running around at home, there are plenty of pet friendly options to choose from such as a Money Tree. This mini tree only grows to a little over a foot tall, and with its multiple stems intertwining to resemble a single trunk, it is eye-catching and unique. Legend says it brings prosperity and good luck, an awesome bonus to it already being a great air purifier.
Guzmania Bromeliads are also another pet-friendly apartment plant but with a little more tropical flair. With a single inflorescence crowning this evergreen beauty, the blossom comes in shades of deep red, pink, yellow, and all the combinations in between. This friend is also very self sufficient, requiring very little water and indirect sunlight.
Best Landscaping Plants in Chicago
That said, if you are one of the few that have the space to do some urban gardening or live out in the suburbs, you have some cool options as well! Oakleaf Hydrangeas love the hot summers and can withstand the cold winters, making it a great choice for landscaping. This shrub is colorful to say the least. With white, pink, or purple blooms starting in summer and it’s oak-like leaves turning yellow, orange, and then red in the autumn, this plant will always be a star member of your garden or yard. Do keep in mind that they do prefer shade, so try to find a nice corner for it to hang out in.
Maidenhair Ferns add a wonderful pop of green to your outdoor spaces, even in the winter! Like most ferns, they are delicate and elegant. These ferns like moist soils, higher humidity, and lower light. Unlike most ferns, however, it can handle temperatures down to -10! Place it in a shaded area of your yard, or in a shady area on your porch to add some greenery to your space.
Elderberry bushes are another great option for shrubbery in your yard, and it has the added bonus of producing delicious berries in August that are great for baking and jam making. Unlike the Oakleaf Hydrangea, elderberry bushes can deal with direct sunlight, but do need more water. If it isn’t raining, make sure to water these bushes once a week.
Which Plants are Native to Chicago?
Perennials are the name of the game here! Many of the native plants are wildflowers that are used to the sun soaked plains or lightly shaded patches of forest. Asters are a great variety to explore in the Chicago area. Although the New England Aster comes in shades of purple, pink, and white and can be seen all over, it’s relatively new to the scene. It’s more native brother, the Aromatic Aster, withstands the environment much better but only comes in a sky blue. Mix them with Dense Blazing Star, Pale Purple Coneflower, and Wild Quinine to create a flower paradise that needs little maintenance as long as they get plenty of sun.
If you are looking for something a little more unique that will turn some heads, Prairie Smoke is for you! With it’s deep pink and fuzzy stems, this perennial blooms a seed head that looks like a sea anemone, wispy tendrils waving in the wind to say hello! These prefer full sun, but can do partial shade as well.
Not all of Chicago is prairie, either. There are plenty of little forested nooks that are home to some more sun shy flowers. Red Wild Columbine and Dutchman’s Breeches are great for shady corners that need a little color. Dutchman’s Breeches also bring some great variety and uniqueness to your garden with their ‘V’ shaped white flowers which resemble upside down pants, hence their namesake.
To find out more about which plants grow natively, talk to your local nursery to ensure that you pick up the right varieties! They are specialists on what is best for your area, and can help guide you towards the most crucial native plants to Chicago’s biodiversity and ecosystem.
Other Plants that Grow Best in Chicago
Chicago’s environment isn’t the easiest to grow in if you are looking at doing any exotic outdoor gardening. You need to make sure that it is something sturdy against extreme temperatures and can handle a lot of sun. That doesn’t mean it all has to be perennials and wildflowers, though!
There are some great evergreens that do great here, too. Blue Rug Juniper, with its green blue hue, is a low growing plant that is great for ground cover, although it can get pretty wide if you are not keeping an eye on it. It brings a great pop of color to your yard, adds some texture, and is tolerant to salt, a major factor to consider when living in an icy place like Chicago.
Mugo Pine is another evergreen option that brings a little more height and dimension. Growing in a somewhat pyramidal shape, this small tree grows to be a little less than two feet tall and about two feet wide at its base. It is a gorgeous, deep green and produces 1-2” pinecones. Mugo Pine would be great as a border to a green space, turning an open urban garden into more of a private natural oasis.
Chicago Gardening Tips
Gardeners in urban areas often run into similar problems: space. A great way to deal with this is thinking vertically. Along with the ivies mentioned above for shaded areas of the garden or patio spaces, other vines like climbing roses are great if you have a fence or trellis to let them grow on. Follow that with tall growing bulbs that take up little soil space surrounded by ground covering plants like Japanese Pachysandra, and you have a multi-leveled garden that will make a small bed feel green and full.
Chicago is known for its intense winters, bringing piles of snow and ice. Make sure to put down a few inches of mulch around trees and shrubs, as well as shredded leaf mulch on new perennial gardens as winter approaches. Wait until the ground has frozen and then make sure not to pile mulch around the trunks of trees and crowns of flowers to avoid fungal issues and attracting pests like bugs and rodents into your garden.
Something else to keep in mind in a city like Chicago is salt. Salt is a common de-icer and used often on sidewalks and streets. Try building snow walls or using burlap so that your plants don’t get hit with salt from shoveled treated snow or from spray off from cars and passing pedestrians. Sand would be a better alternative when near your garden, and if de-icer is needed, shovel as much snow from the area as possible and follow the instructions closely to avoid over salting the area and having large amounts of runoff salinating your soil. It is also a good practice to then flush your soil in times of thaw and early spring if your garden drains well.
Chicago isn’t known as the Windy City for nothing! Especially for young shrubs and trees, building burlap wind breaks could be a good way to prevent your taller plants from getting dessicated from the heavy winds.
Planting in Zone 5b and 6a
Chicago falls within USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone 5b and 6a. This means that we usually stop seeing frost around April 20th. As mentioned before, these zones are an amazing spot for pretty much any perennial. The key factor here is sunlight. Make sure to plant your perennials appropriately so that your little sunbathers get to soak up the rays all day and your shy friends can hang in the shade.
In terms of veggies, try to get them planted as soon as you can as the frost free growing season is rather short, ending in late October and averaging only about 187 days. This means for things like peppers and tomatoes, you want to start growing them inside as early as February and transplant them outside as soon as the frost stops appearing in forecasts, and for onions, peas, and potatoes, you want to get them in the ground as soon as the ground thaws.
These zones are also categorized as having long fall seasons. This means that you can grow some of your leafy greens like arugula, lettuce, swiss chard, and spinach up into November if you are careful. As nights get colder, make sure to water your plants as early in the day as possible as the low temperatures keep moisture around, leading to mold. That said, cool season gardening can be very successful, growing broccoli along with some lettuce into December, as long as you use the appropriate frost protection according to your local area.