Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
August, 2011
Regional Report

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The eye-catching form of October daphne (Sedum sieboldii) is a great addition to a low-maintenance flower garden. It looks lovely all season long with minimal care as long as its planted in full sun and well-drained soil.

How Low Maintenance Can You Go?

Recently I was asked to make some suggestions for landscape plants that "need no maintenance whatsoever." I was tempted to suggest plastic flowers, but even these would probably need the dust hosed off them occasionally! The only truly no-maintenance landscape is the view out the window of your high-rise apartment.

But for those who want a little more connection with the natural world, there are ways to design the landscape so that maintenance needs are minimized. It is possible to have an attractive yard and garden without having to spend hours of time taking care of it. Of course, this may be just what an avid gardener wants to be doing! But if you're balancing garden care with work, child care, and other responsibilities and activities, here are some suggestions for getting the most garden payoff for the least amount of time spent.

Rely on Well-chosen Trees and Shrubs
Use properly chosen trees and shrubs in mulched beds as the backbone of your garden design. They will provide long-term structure and seasonal interest for the least amount of effort over time. Once they are established, suitable trees and shrubs will perform well with a minimum amount of care. Grouping plants in mulched beds will help to keep weeds down, conserve moisture, and provide a cohesive look to the landscape.

How do you choose well? Start by evaluating the conditions in your yard -- soil conditions, light, and space. Consult gardening references, experienced gardeners, and knowledgeable garden store staff for advice on plants that are adapted to the conditions that exist in your garden. If your soil is poorly drained, for example, make sure you choose plants that can handle that type of soil, like red maples or river birch. But if your garden has dry, sandy soil, like mine, a red oak or a ginkgo may be good choices.

Don't plant sun lovers in a a shaded garden. When I was growing up, my next door neighbor filled his back garden with roses and lavished hours of care on them. But sadly, very few of them bloomed well. The yard was shaded by several massive old silver maples and those sun-loving roses didn't stand a chance. Had he chosen shade-tolerant rhododendrons instead he'd have had a much more rewarding garden.

In our region, winter hardiness is always a key factor in selecting plants. While it can be tempting to choose enticing plants that are on the edge of their hardiness, if you're looking for low-maintenance, be conservative. Where I live in Vermont, on the borderline between zones 4 and 5, nurseries sell and gardeners often plant Japanese maples, rated to Zone 5. Many make it through the winters, but quite a few don't. The hardier Korean maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum), Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), or a crabapple are more reliable small tree choices in my neck of the woods.

Checking out nearby native vegetation can give you an idea of what plants might do well in your garden. But don't assume that just because a plant is native to your general geographic region that it's a good bet for your yard. Only plants that are adapted to the specific conditions found in your garden are going to thrive, whether they are native or exotic.

Size Matters
If there is one piece of low-maintenance advice I'd stress, it's this: learn the ultimate height and spread of the trees and shrubs you choose, and plant them where they will have adequate room to develop. Don't plant anything that will eventually get too tall or wide for its location unless you are willing to remove the plant before it outgrows its space. When you look at that 3 foot tall Colorado blue spruce in a pot in the nursery, please, oh please, don't think that it would look great planted 3 feet away from your driveway! It's going to get 40 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide sooner than you think. If the windows of your house are 4 feet from the ground and you choose shrubs that mature at 3 to 4 feet for the foundation planting, you won't be out hacking away branches each spring so you can maintain a view.

Don't Plant Problems
No matter how much you may love the way they look, some plants are just not meant for easy care. How did you know I was thinking of roses? Even if you choose the hardy and more disease-resistant shrub roses, if Japanese beetles are active in your area, they are going to come and dine on the blossoms. If beetles are prevalent and you simply must have roses, grow some of the old-fashioned ones that only bloom once in early summer, before the beetles launch their attack.

Make an effort to select disease-resistant varieties if possible. Many newer varieties of crabapples shrug off the fungal diseases that mar the looks of older cultivars. And speaking of crabapples, think about what will fall from a plant when deciding where to set it in the garden. If you don't want to be sweeping up dropped fruits to keep from tracking in squashed apple on your shoes, don't plant a crabapple near a walkway or patio.

If you do plant something that turns out to have major problems on a regular basis, bite the bullet and pull it out. I once planted a 60 foot hedge of alpine currant, which I loved -- until the Japanese beetles descended. I have never encountered another plant that seemed to attract them more. After a few years of scooping off the bugs in handfuls daily, I reluctantly pulled out all the bushes and bade the beetles goodbye.

Go Easy on Flowers
Flowering perennials and annuals are lovely, but even ones that are often listed as "low-maintenance" require more regular effort than trees and shrubs. My advice is to limit the size of your flower gardens. Pick a couple of spots where a flower garden will have the most visual impact -- along your front walk or next to your patio, for example -- and concentrate your efforts there.

For the easiest care, don't choose plants that need staking, like delphiniums, or that are particularly disease-prone, like powdery mildew-prone garden phlox (or select mildew-resistant cultivars). Also pass over plants that need frequent division to thrive, like asters, bearded irises and yarrow. Opt instead for perennials like hostas, peonies and baptisia that can go for years, even decades, without division. And as eye-catching as they may be, steer clear of plants with large blossoms, like hardy hibiscus or large-flowered daylilies. While they may look spectacular in bloom, the spent flowers can also look spectacularly terrible as they fade, like dirty rags hanging on the plant, necessitating daily deadheading to keep the plants looking good. Smaller flowered plants tend to age more gracefully without help.

Cut Back on Containers
Container gardening is big these days and it's no wonder. Containers are great for combining interesting plants in exciting combinations. But they are also entirely dependent on you, the gardener, for food and water. I can't count the number of mornings I've found myself dragging the hose around in a mad dash to get my containers and hanging baskets watered before rushing off to work, knowing that if I skip this chore the plants will be parched by the time I get home in the evening.

If you can't resist the lure of a greenhouse full of gorgeous plants in the spring, choose only one or two containers as large as your space and pocketbook allow. (The larger volume of soil mix in the pot won't dry out as quickly as that in a smaller container.) Then place the container in a spot that is easy and convenient to reach with hose or watering can.

Low Maintenance Lawn Care?
This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is possible to streamline your lawn care and still enjoy your grass and your free time. The easiest way to cut back on the the time spent caring for your lawn is to cut back on its size. Start by deciding how much lawn you really need. There is nothing like grass for areas that see two and four-legged foot traffic. But if you reduce lawn in areas not used for recreation and plant trees, shrubs, and groundcovers instead, you'll cut down the time spent mowing.

One of my favorite easy-care groundcovers is the spreading bigroot hardy geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum). Pink or white flowers rise above large gray-green leaves in spring, and it doesn't need to be cut back in fall, just tidied up a bit in the spring. It tolerates dry shade and in our part of the country will take full sun as well.

Then follow some simple practices to keep the grass you do have growing strong. Mow high (3 inches), and mow frequently enough that you are cutting off no more than one-third the height of the grass at each mowing. Don't try to cut back on this chore by letting the grass grow long, then cutting it really short. Doing so will weaken the grass, making it more susceptible to insect and disease problems and letting weeds get a toehold as the turf thins, and you'll end up with a lot more maintenance problems in the long run. Let the clippings remain on the lawn to recycle their nutrients.

Don't give your lawn excess water and fertilizer. A too frequently watered lawn develops a shallow root system that suffers when heat and dry weather hits. Wait until you see your footprints remain in the grass when you walk across, then give it a good soaking. This will encourage the grass to form a deep and resilient root system. Feed your lawn in early fall (before September 15 in northern New England, October 15 in the southern parts of our region) when the lawn grasses can make the best use of the added nutrients. To make sure the fertilizer helps your lawn, rather than running off to cause problems in the watershed, use a fertilizer that has at least 50% of its nitrogen in slow release (water-insoluble) form and that doesn't contain phosphorus, unless a soil test has indicated a deficiency.

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