Low-Maintenance Plants

THE single most important thing you can do to create a low-maintenance garden is to choose the right plants, and here are some general guidelines.

  • Know the site and choose appropriate plants for it. That means how much sun or shade there is, if the “soil” is mostly clay, if it’s soggy or dry, and how much space there is for the plants when they grow up.
  • Choose sustainable plants that are drought- and pest-tolerant. If you see plants doing well in your neighborhood, ask the gardener if they’re easy.
  • Ask of every plant before buying it: Am I willing to do the work to take care of it?

Lowest-Maintenance Plants

Ornamental Grasses require no more care than cutting back to 6″ in early March. A month later they’re back and will contribute to your garden all season long and even through winter. Just give them enough space; a half-day of sun is plenty.

Trees and Shrubs are the best plants for creating full, gorgeous and low-maintenance gardens. At most, some require yearly pruning; others, not even that. More tips:

  • Shrubs, even in hedges, MUST be allowed to grow naturally, not sheared into perfect but unnatural shapes. Shearing is not only a lot of work but bad for plant health.
  • Check those labels. Buying the correct size for the site makes for happier plants and happier gardeners (spending less time pruning).
  • Buy from nurseries and garden centers, not big-box stores. Consolidate plants in borders, rather than dotting them around the lawn like little donuts.
  • Trees and shrubs planted in borders benefit from a one-time removal of the lowest branches to prevent overcrowding and allow easier access for the gardener.
  • Plant groundcover or mulch under the trees and shrubs, not turfgrass. We’ve all seen how well grass does in that situation — not at all. And mowing so often damages the tree.

These Plants – it Depends on How they’re Grown

Lawn is usually cited as high-maintenance, but I beg to differ. As I pointed out on my Lawn Care page, it’s easy to grow a lawn if you do it organically and let it be taller and maybe even a little weedy. Grown this way, lawn is certainly less work than borders of annuals and perennials and it does a good job of retaining rainwater and preventing erosion. (I’ve read that lawn doesn’t hold rainwater well but honestly, it’s done a great job on my own sloping property. However, when planted in very poor soils — often post-construction — lawn can indeed fail to hold water like it should.)

Perennials will last for at least a few years, but contrary to their reputation for low maintenance, they’re constantly in a state of flux and need adjustment every season. (Removing the failures, containing the spreaders, dividing the too-large.) The good news is that most gardeners enjoy this. It’s creative, and not especially back-breaking, so I encourage readers to grow perennials, especially the easier ones.

Ground covers are less work than turfgrass around trees or along fences where it’s hard to mow. Plants that spread (most groundcovers) should we planted alone or with large plants, not with annuals or perennials that can be smothered by aggressive groundcovers. It’s easiest to find one or two groundcovers that works well in your garden and use them extensively.

Bulbs — there are bulbs for every site, sun or shade, and the lowest-maintenance bulbs are those that naturalize, which means they spread on their own and come back for years. So select bulbs that feature words like “perennialize” or “naturalize”. Other good repeaters and spreaders are species crocus, chinodoxa, hyacinthoides, and certain daffodils. Darwin tulips are long-lasting when given good drainage. To make sure your bulbs have some impact in the garden, buy them in quantity and just tell the kids that planting bulbs is FUN.

More Tips on Growing Perennials

  • To avoid having to remove dead flowers, choose “self-cleaning” perennials whose flowers drop off, or just get used to the dead-flower look.
  • To avoid staking — a tedious task that produces an ugly result — choose shorter varieties, especially at the front of your borders, or plants that look good flopping over. If you have notorious floppers like aster and mums, hack them back to half their size twice — in May and June — to produce shorter, more compact plants.
  • Dividing is actually a great way to fill up your garden with plants that perform well for you and cost nothing. And filling your garden with these divisions is easier than caring for bare ground (a weed magnet) or trying new plants that may fail and need to be replaced. Division also revitalizes overgrown and crowded plants. And just think — your large hosta can be turned into 10-20 new plants worth $8 each.