My garden is the usual mix of plants for Zones 3 and 4, and occasional tempting of fates with Zone 5 plants. And then there are the sturdy little plants I buy for the Dead Zone, that long narrow strip of dirt between the alley and a large raised garden bed. The soil is a mix of sand and clay that resists my efforts to improve it, and the area suffers from alley runoff and visits by neighborhood dogs. It's not on our hodgepodge pseudo watering system, so any plants there have to rely on rain and us remembering to schlep back to the alley with a watering can to see if they're still alive after a day of baking sun.
No sensible person would have attempted to plant anything in an area so inhospitable to anything but weeds, but that last bit is the problem: Left alone, it becomes a weed haven. Yes, I could just pull the weeds, mulch and leave it empty, but realistically I know I'm much more likely to weed an area if there's something planted there that I have a vested interest in keeping alive.
I've tried a variety of plants there over the years: blue clips campanula, creeping thyme, dianthus and more. Perennials fared better than annuals, and none was a complete disaster, but nothing lasts forever in that spot. Even invasive spreaders won't invade. For a time, volunteer lamium that I transplanted from an unwelcome spot seemed to gain ground, but then it abruptly gave up the ghost after several years of nearly thriving. Getting plants through the summer there can take some vigilance, and the winters can finish them off, so each spring I assess the gaps and try to figure out what to put in next.
With hope springing eternal each spring, I once again ponder my options, wondering if some of those pink and white candy striped phlox would do the trick. Or those pretty Fire Witch dianthus, billed as heat tolerant and low maintenance... I'm in the market for something that can tolerate sandy or clay soil, uneven watering and is compact enough not to grow into the lane of travel.
What plants have you had success with in bleak spots? Should I just cut my losses and go back to the weed patch? (I'm sure the neighbors would love that.)