Low-Maintenance Gardens

By Jane von Trapp

Eight Easy Plants.

Adapt the suggested plants to your home and region as necessary. The plants are widely available; their recommended USDA Hardiness Zones are noted.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could enjoy an attractive, colorful garden without spending all of your free time working at it? It can be done, and all it takes is some knowledge about the right plants and techniques. Find out about easy-care trees, shrubs, and perennials before you plant--and you'll save time and money well into the future.

Five Cardinal Principles

The principles listed here -- in order of importance -- will help you plan low maintenance into your garden:

1. Choose plants that are known to be reliable and problem-free for your area and that won't outgrow the space you are working with.

2. Reduce the size of your lawn or eliminate it entirely.

3. Prepare the soil well before planting so plants get a strong start.

4. Mulch to reduce weeds and conserve soil moisture.

5. If you live where watering is a necessity, install an automatic system, possibly drip.

Right Plant, Right Place

Considering the bewildering array of plants available at nurseries, choosing the best will require a little research.

Start by making a list of plants you like, or look around your neighborhood for interesting options. Consult gardening books or magazine articles to learn about the plants on your list, and enlist the help of a nearby nursery to learn how well local conditions would suit them: whether they grow well where you live, what their mature size is and if it will fit your space, when they bloom, and if they have any problems or special needs.

A common mistake is to choose plants that look just right on planting day, then rapidly outgrow their space, creating a continual maintenance headache. Unlike an interior design that looks best the day it is installed, a landscape design should look best about five years later.

Look for compact varieties of well-known plants. For instance, many traditional favorites, such as spirea, spruce, and holly, are now available in compact forms that are much more likely to suit the scale of today's smaller gardens. Most often these plants have part of their name in single quotes. Examples of compact plants are 'Goldflame' spirea, dwarf Serbian spruce, and 'Red Sprite' winterberry.

Named varieties may offer resistance to pests and diseases that plague the common species. Examples include 'Prairifire' crabapple, which is resistant to both apple scab and fire blight, and 'Carefree Delight' rose, which is rarely troubled by black spot, a common rose disease. Choosing disease-resistant varieties will result in fewer pests, and ultimately this translates into lower maintenance.

Some dwarf conifers, such as bird's nest spruce, grow very slowly, as little as an inch per year. Such slow growers are more expensive initially because a plant that is only 4 to 6 feet tall may be 10 to 15 years old. Growers have invested as much time and materials in these as in ones that are much larger. But the extra initial cost pays off over time because such plants need minimal if any pruning.

Plants for A Low-Maintenance Design

Here's a list you might receive from a nursery professional if you asked them to suggest plants for a low-maintenance landscape. Two spruces- bird's nest and dwarf Serbian spruce --grow so slowly that they never need pruning. Japanese holly and Korean boxwood are upright, broad-leaved evergreens that grow to 9 feet and 3 feet respectively, and stay that way. The holly's convex, glossy leaves contrast nicely with the Korean boxwood's flat, oval, lighter green leaves.

Dwarf Japanese garden junipers will spread and grow together, forming a bright green mounding carpet. All of the evergreens on our list (see below) retain their color well during the winter months, and in summer they will appear as a quilt of many shades of green from the lightest and brightest to the very dark and glossy.

Deciduous cinquefoil has long been used for borders and ground covers in cold-climate gardens. It grows into a 1-1/2- to 2-foot-tall, 3-foot-diameter mound that flowers continuously from early summer to frost. Flowers are commonly cream, bright yellow, or white, but pink and red-flowered forms are also available. Gardeners in warmer zones can substitute an everblooming, compact plant such as Lantana camara 'Feston Rose' (zones 9 through 11), which produces mostly pink blooms with touches of yellow.

Finally, no fence is ever really perfect until it has a vine growing on it, and to me the perfect low-maintenance vine is climbing hydrangea. Not only does it bloom all summer, but it spreads quickly and vigorously, providing an excellent backdrop for the evergreens. Of all the plants listed here, it is the one you may need to prune, but until then, let it ramble and do its job of covering the fence.

Some Practicalities

There's no real trick to proper plant spacing. If a plant's mature width is 3 feet, it needs about half that distance all the way around. But if your plants are slow-growing, or if you want them to grow together and look as one eventually, space them slightly closer. (This also minimizes weeds in ground covers.)

When you prepare a new bed, make sure you pull weeds, roots and all, or they will return to haunt your plantings. A layer of woven fabric weed cloth can help in some situations. But weeds can still grow through the opening made for the plant. Unfortunately, the weeds that root into the cloth are much more difficult to pull.

Mulch is a very effective weed deterrent. If a weed seed sprouts, it is very easy to pull with roots intact. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded bark between the plants. Shredded bark, as opposed to nuggets or chips, provides the best coverage and, in my opinion, looks the best. Mulch adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down, and it also shades the soil in summer and insulates it in winter. Replenish mulch every few years. If you replace it annually, you may run the risk of making the mulch layer too deep, and it will smother the plants. It's better just to freshen it with a light top-dressing at the beginning of the season.

Even if plants require only minimal maintenance, water and fertilizer are still essential. A drip-irrigation system on a timer eliminates the need to stand with a hose or to move sprinklers around. A little water for a long time is healthier for plants than a lot of water over a short period, so invest in a drip or soaker hose, drip irrigation, or more elaborate system. Since most of the water goes underground, drip irrigation really cuts down on weed growth, particularly in dry-summer climates.

Amending the planting hole with a commercial planting mix or homemade compost will provide just the boost new plants need. To make fertilizing a snap, use controlled-release fertilizers; one application can last an entire season. Or apply water-soluble fertilizers automatically through your irrigation system.

For fencing and garden benches, use cedar or other rot-resistant wood--no paint, no stain, no fuss when you let it weather naturally.

So there you have it. You can ignore your garden and enjoy it, too.

Jane von Trapp is a landscape designer living in Connecticut.

Illustration by Janet Fredericks

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