It seems like I run into a lot of books these days promising a low-maintenance, no-maintenance, effortless garden.
Generally I view this promise the same way that I view free energy, perpetual motion machines, and anything that promises to increase my libido while delivering millions from a deposed Nigerian prince. A garden requires gardening. Somebody has to do it. If you don’t do it, then either you hire a gardener or gardening does not occur. (If you live in the Southeast, this means that one day you don’t show up for work and people arrive to discover that the house has vanished under kudzu.)
However, it did get me thinking the other day, as I stared across my somewhat weedy, enthusiastically overrun garden…if my goal was seriously low-maintenance gardening, what would I plant?
I am, at the moment, one of the younger gardeners I know—a whopping 35 years old, with tattoos and dyed hair and an iPod full of metal. Keeping up with the garden is only a problem in the hottest days of summer, which are fit for neither man nor beast, and when traveling. But the day will undoubtedly come when my rather large garden seems rather larger than it did when I was laying it out.
So what would I plant?
Not a rock garden, certainly. Rock gardens are one of the least-labor saving inventions known to man. Weeds love a rock garden as they love few other things on earth. Not raked gravel or lots of mulch. It would have to be densely planted, heavy on the shrubs, lots of ground covers to discourage weeds.
Actually, it’d ideally look a lot like this—the perennial border at my local botanical garden.
On the other hand, they have a massive team of volunteers and paid employees. It looks wild and natural and I wonder how much artifice is involved in achieving that look.
I roamed between raised beds and considered.
Well, Walker’s Low catmint is my go-to plant for sunny areas. It requires two major trims a year, three if you actually want to use the sidewalk, and provides a nearly eternal feast for pollinators. Not a native, though.
Salvia greggi, from the Southwest, is one of the great sunny plants. Tough as nails around here, semi-evergreen in mild years. I have at least a dozen in various colors. Admittedly, I should not have used the cultivar “Hot Lips” to edge the sidewalk. Three feet sounds a lot shorter than it actually is. Mind you, it’s a fabulous plant, and tolerates the quarterly hack-back that is required if you want to actually get to the house from the driveway.
Asters. “Fanny’s Favorite” is probably the best aster I’ve tried. They wander around a bit in spring and summer and I get grumpy, but then they’re fantastic in fall, and the small, dense leaves are quite nice throughout the year. Requires chopping down in spring and the occasional minor haircut later. Native.
You can hardly ever go wrong with black-eyed susans. I have nothing bad to say about black-eyed susans. Mine suffered under the influence of an over-enthusiastic swamp sunflower, but the offender has been removed, and I hope they will bounce back.
Lobed, or “mouse-ear” tickseed. For a sunny spot, this one will spread like the dickens and form a nice mat. No maintenance required at all, so far as I can tell. Native.
American spikenard. In a bit more shade, I love this plant. You put little native spring ephemerals under it and enjoy them, because it’s late getting above ground. Then it spreads out big fans of leaves and covers the ground marvelously until winter. Native.
Mountain mint, in all its forms. Bit floppy for a place that I wanted to look immaculate and well-groomed, but fortunately I don’t expect that from…well…anything. With a rougher area, I’d plant it all with mountain mint and call it good. There’s a bunch of forms, but I’m fondest of P. incanum and P. muticum.
Sedums. Every low-maintenance gardening book sings the praises of sedums. I got no beef with them, but my one big clump is planted where my boyfriend occasionally runs them over with the car, which does rather add to the maintenance. But there’s definitely room for some sedums in the rougher areas where few other plants will settle, and perhaps even a couple of yuccas or agaves, which do not require maintenance of the sort that humans can provide, other than quietly disposing of the bodies when it turns out you planted them somewhere much too wet. (Oh, well, if we’re on the topic, I’ll say that Adam’s Needle has proved extremely durable, and I’ve got no quarrel with any member of the native Manfreda clan.)
Thyme. Now, I love thyme as a groundcover. I love the smells. Rubbing a hand over a patch of woolly thyme is a great joy. I have at least a dozen varieties of thyme, generally planted under the roses or along the path where I can bruise the leaves and enjoy it. Oregano is also quite an…enthusiastic…groundcover. (And perennial. Was not quite so aware of that as I should have been. It ate my herb wheel and is making threatening gestures toward the tomatoes.)
Speaking of groundcovers, I am quite enamored of Hypericium buckleyii, a native groundcover form of St. John’s Wort, which forms a loose, vivid green mat that dissuades all but the most determined weeds. The tall shrubby St. John’s Wort can also be in any garden of mine, ever.
Shrub-wise, I regret having moved a perfectly good sweet pepperbush to make room for the now defunct sunflowers. It’s okay where it is, but not nearly as happy as it used to be. Have put in a ninebark. We’ll see my opinion of ninebark a few years from now. I may wind up tearing it out and planting another pepperbush if it doesn’t perform up to snuff.
American beautyberry is doing marvelously in dry part-sun under the pines, as is the native grass River Oats. Both of those would stay in my low-maintenance garden. All the river oats want is a nice chopping sometime in early spring. (Mind you, the oats can also re-seed quite enthusiastically, so I retain the right to tear it out later in dismay.) And you can’t beat a southern wax myrtle. (Sadly Virginia sweetspire has never performed worth a damn for me, and I’ve tried multiple times.)
Once we move into the shade, there must be coral bells. The Heucheras are as tough and uncomplaining a group as exist. And I am playing with ferns quite a lot, so we’ll see if any of those make the grade. Oakleaf hydrangeas also seem to do well, provided they are in a damp-ish area.
For shady groundcovers, native green-and-gold, the indomitable cultivar “Eco-Lacquered Spider,’ should do nicely. I’m also testing out the native Viola walteri, “Silver Gem” which is gorgeous to look at, and I really hope it endures. Given some moisture, Iris cristata is a fabulous little performer, and I will hear no ill said of the underused native yellow-root.
A few native viburnums—V. nudum, V. dentatum-–round out the low-maintenance shrubs in the part-shady areas, with some help from hearts-a-bursting, a low serviceberry, and the delightful (and hardy) hobblebush. And you can hardly beat Carolina all-spice for dry shade. I’ve got a few other bushes planted and we’ll see if any of them perform up to those standards. (Steeplebush, I am looking in your direction!)
For that chain-link fence that makes me grumble, the wild grape and Virginia creeper can go to town, and I’ll add in Carolina jessamine, native pipevine, and American bittersweet in various spots. (Mind you, I have never found a native full shade vine that covered a fence really well. Maybe wild yam. I should look into that.)
For those nasty spots that are neither one thing or another—the mostly-shady spot under the downspout that gets a couple hours of murderous sun in the wrong part of high summer, and runs either to standing water or deadly dry, say—all is not lost. Carex to the rescue! Cherokee sedge is possibly the single toughest plant I’ve ever met, and I plant it with great enthusiasm. It forms a neat, attractive, indestructible clump. The only difficulty is that you can’t divide it without a hacksaw. It works very nicely backed with Iris tectorum, Japanese roof iris, which is similarly unkillable and produces both elegant foliage and the occasional graceful flower stalk.
It seems to me that one could build a pretty solid garden out of such plants. Plug the holes with the fiercer sort of annual, and you’d have a garden that, if not no-maintenance (har) would require nothing more than the occasional savage pruning and perhaps an inch of compost tossed over it in the early spring every other year. You’d get flowers for the pollinators, seedheads, wildlife cover, berries for the birds…about the only thing lacking would be a few specific caterpillar host plants, which could easily be plugged it at a smidge more maintenance cost.
Of course, knowing these things, do I build the garden out of such? Naaah. Of course not. I want every native plant I’ve ever met or heard of. I want to cram in zinnias and rosebushes, put in gigantic rosinweeds that need staking, try to grow sixteen-foot Hollow-stem Joe Pye Weed despite the fact that the Joe Pye Weed does not really want to be grown. I want Agastaches that reseed all over creation and get eight feet tall and fall over.
I’m a gardener. Being sensible is no part of the equation.
But at least I know what would work pretty well. And who knows? Someday maybe I’ll even pay attention.
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