We’re busy; we’re aging; but we love gardening! Are you a gardener who doesn’t move at the same pace as you once did? Are you swamped with job and family commitments? Are you a city dweller with a passion for plants but little space with which to work? I bet you fall into one of these categories; I fit into two of the three, and I understand the need for low-maintenance gardens to accompany our lifestyles.
For years, I enthusiastically kept adding gardens to my landscape, but over time something changed. I felt as if I had become a slave to my gardens. Everyone loves flowers, but who can tend a garden that demands too much time and energy to look beautiful? And how do you incorporate environmentally responsible practices into this out-of-control picture?
Here are some of the steps I took to regain my sanity, shorten maintenance time, and renew my passion for gardening. Many more ideas are in my book, The Right-Size Flower Garden, where I detail even further how to create garden solutions that revolve around your needs and desires.
Say good-bye to needy plants. You can ditch plants that are too much trouble or have never performed well in the garden. Many of you reading this are women. We tend to be nurturers and caretakers — and that’s good — but we need to draw the line on needy plants. No more making excuses for troublemakers. Grab the shovel, pop them out, give them to friends or the compost pile (unless they’re an invasive species), and celebrate one less hassle to deal with.
Choose naturally native. Thankfully, native plants are becoming the norm in residential landscapes. Perhaps for some this is selfishly motivated, because natives require much less effort than foreign plants. Natives typically don’t need fertilizer, are drought-tolerant, are less bothered by deer and other munching critters, and are usually long-lived. Most importantly, natives play a vital role for regional wildlife and in protecting biodiversity. Many of the shrubs mentioned in this article are native to North America. For lists of natives regional to your part of the country, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and The National Wildlife Federation.
Contain yourself, please! Container gardening continues its upward popularity trend. Consumer demand for user-friendly containers has propelled the introduction of stylish vessels that are lightweight, can be left out year-round, and have revolutionary self-watering systems. I am a huge fan of Crescent Garden’s TruDrop System Self-Watering Planters. My flower-filled planter remains nicely watered for a full six weeks before I step in to refill the reservoir. Not only am I freed from the daily hassle of watering, but my plants actually look better — they are spared the stress of under- or overwatering. Just remember that a plant’s water needs will vary depending on container location.
Make friends with flowering shrubs. For years, I was a perennial flower collector. I loved creating gardens filled with tried-and-true beauties as well as funky, unusual, eyebrow-raising specimens. Unfortunately, the reality is that most perennial flowers are demanding about water, fertilizer, and routine maintenance. I instead favor shrubs that strut gorgeous flowers and flattering leaves with little preening on my part. Plus, one shrub can efficiently hold court in a space that would require numerous clusters of perennial flowers. In my garden, I replaced sweeps of perennial flowers with flowering shrubs. Some fussier or short-lived perennials swapped out were columbine, lupine, gaillardia, and scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue.’ See below for a list of my favorite seasonal shrubs to grow instead of fussy perennial flowers.
Of course, many hydrangeas are also on my list of favorites. But “right-sizing” strategies call for compact varieties that fit nicely into small spaces or containers. Some top performers include the panicled hydrangea ‘Little Quick Fire’® (Hydrangea paniculata), oakleaf hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’ (H. quercifolia), and smooth hydrangea ‘Invincibelle Mini Mauvette’® and ‘Invincibelle Wee White’® (H. arborescens). You might have noticed a popular group missing — mophead hydrangeas, also called bigleaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla). This was not a senior moment on my part. These are inconsistent bloomers in Zones 6 or lower, plus they’re water hogs and wilt in afternoon heat. Given my sustainable mindset, and my desire to conserve water and save money on water bills, they missed the superstar list.
Prioritize tireless perennials. I have raised the bar for perennial flowers seeking a spot in my “right-size” garden. No part-time workers or deadbeats. Candidates must bloom six weeks or more without deadheading and thrive with minimum water or fertilizer — and they must be drop-dead beautiful. The exceptions to this rule come if foliage is the plant’s primary attraction. Perennials with exceptional bloom endurance include black-eyed Susan ‘American Gold Rush’ (Rudbeckia x); threadleaf coreopsis ‘Zagreb’ (Coreopsis verticillata); coneflower ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (Echinacea x); cranesbill ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Azure Rush’ (Geranium spp.); and mountain fleece ‘Firetail’ and ‘Golden Arrow’ (Persicaria amplexicaulis).
Choose no-fuss annuals. I hate deadheading perennials. Make that double for annuals. At least perennials return the next season, which makes the time investment worthwhile, while annuals provide a beautiful flash before fading for the rest of the year. Despite this, I love the blasts of color they provide for months in my containers, window boxes, and gardens. See below for a list of enjoyable and self-cleaning (no deadheading) annual choices for your space.
Don’t forget the foliage. Jazzy foliage is one of the heroes of low-maintenance gardening. Flowers are important for pollinators, but most only bloom for 4 to 6 weeks. Flashy foliage provides color for a much longer length of time. When I design high-impact, low-maintenance compositions for landscapes or containers, typically two out of every three plants have captivating leaves in addition to beautiful flowers.
Keep your focus. Another “right-sizing” strategy resulted from a comment by an award-winning designer strolling my property: “You have created an astonishing riot of color from plants, but my eyes need a rest. Build some inanimate focal points that provide a break and allow my eyes to take in a different medium.” My translation? More outside beauty with fewer plants equals less work! I dug out some plants and put in decorative urns, birdbaths, metal sculptures, and other aesthetically pleasing objects, many of which had been recycled or repurposed.
Find inspiration for creating beautiful and planet-friendly gardens filled with instrumental plants that complement changing lifestyles and interests. Instead of feeling guilty or frustrated that you can’t maintain the same garden pace, I encourage you to rejoice as you journey down the garden path of life with all its changes. There are still plenty of roses ahead to stop and smell — they’re just varieties that need much less maintenance.
Below is my shortlist of beautiful and easy-to-manage shrubs to consider as you transition to a more hassle-free garden.
Spring-Blooming Shrubs with Gorgeous Fall Foliage:
- Bottlebrush (Fothergilla spp.)
- Carolina allspice ‘Aphrodite’ (Calycanthus floridus)
- Smooth witherod ‘Winterthur’ (Viburnum nudum)
- Abelia ‘Ruby Anniversary’ (Abelia chinensis)
- Butterfly Bush ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Miss Ruby’ (Buddleja x)
- Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
- Summersweet or sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
Grand Fall Finale:
- Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Bluebeard ‘Beyond Midnight’ (Caryopteris x clandonensis)
- Bush clover ‘Gibraltar’ (Lespedeza thunbergii)
- Snowberry ‘Proud Berry’ (Symphoricarpos albus)
Annuals to the Rescue
Allow me to introduce some no-deadheading annuals that tidy up after themselves and keep pumping out flowers.
1. Bush violets (Browallia speciosa) grow in full sun to full shade and reach between 10 inches to 2 feet tall. With blue, violet, or white flowers, this heat- and drought-tolerant plant attracts hummingbirds while repelling deer.
2. Petunia ‘Supertunia® Honey’™ (Petunia x) grows in full to partial sun and will reach between 6 and 12 inches tall. A heat- and drought-tolerant plant, it attracts hummingbirds and butterflies while providing excellent ground cover.
3. Sweet Alyssum ‘Snow Princess®’ Lobularia x) grows in full to partial sun and reaches between 4 and 8 inches tall with trails to 24 inches. Fragrant, billowy white flowers bloom right into fall. This lovely white flower is heat-tolerant and attracts butterflies.
4. Begonias (Begonia spp.) will grow in full sun or full shade and can reach more than 2 feet tall. They come in many colors; there are 1,400 named species and thousands of hybrids.
5. Verbena ‘Meteor Shower’® (Verbena bonariensis) grows in full to partial sun and reaches between 20 and 30 inches tall. Heat- and drought-tolerant, it doesn’t aggressively reseed. It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds while remaining deer-resistant.
6. Wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri) prefers partial sun to full shade and reaches between 6 and 16 inches tall with trails up to 35 inches. Yellow, violet, blue, white, pink, and bi-color flowers are heat- and drought-tolerant. This plant attracts hummingbirds and repels deer.
Kerry Ann Mendez is an award-winning speaker, garden designer, and author of four gardening books, including The Budget-Wise Gardener. For more about Kerry Ann, visit her website.