How to Choose a Low Maintenance Plant

Astilbes.jpg
Photo: © Marie Iannotti

If you've ever gardened at all, you know there is no such thing as a maintenance free garden. Even fake flowers need to be dusted. Many people enjoy the work that goes into creating and maintaining a garden. However if you are someone who would prefer to cut back on some of the gardening chores, there are perennial plants that can definitely be considered lower maintenance. Here are some tips for how to find them.

What Makes a Low Maintenance Plants

1.  Is It Suitable for Your Growing Conditions?

There are plenty of lists touting themselves as the easiest plants to grow, but the topic is more subjective than it might appear. Plant needs vary greatly and if your garden can't provide for those needs, it will quickly become a high maintenance plant. So the first step to finding lower maintenance plants is to take inventory of the growing conditions in your yard.

Sun Exposure: The number of hours of sunlight is crucial information. Most plants are labeled as either full sun, partial sun/shade or shade. A plant that needs full sun will not flower well and will be prone to weak growth and disease if it is planted in the shade. Shade loving plants will dry out and/or burn, if planted in full sun.

To complicate matters a bit more, afternoon sun is stronger and hotter than morning sun. In areas that are prone to extreme heat or dryness, full sun plants often do better with a little afternoon shade.

And the amount of sun exposure will change as the days lengthen and shorten, so a spring blooming plant that needs full sun will be fine planted under a deciduous tree that won't leaf out until that spring bloomer has finished blooming.

Drainage: The root system is a plants foundation and it is directly affected by the amount of water held in the soil.

Water will collect in poorly draining sites and in heavy clay soil. Some plants like being a little soggy. Other plants will develop root rot, in standing water. Conversely, Plants that need a lot of moisture, like ligularia and cardinal flower, will struggle to stay alive in dry, sandy soil.

2.  Is the Plant Itself Low Maintenance?

Life Span: Plants only have to be expected to live 3 years, to be considered perennial. No plant will live forever, but for a lower maintenance garden, you will want to look for plants that live at least 5 years and preferably longer. Peonies and bleeding heart will be happy to grow for decades, while rose campion and many coreopsis varieties will start to disappear a little more each year.

Actual Maintenance Required: All plants need some pruning and grooming to remain looking their best, but some need constant attention. Here are some features to check before selecting a prima dona for your garden:

Deadheading - Many repeat blooming flowers will only rebloom if the faded flowers are removed, or deadheaded. If you can steel yourself to shear back your veronica and roses, you will get more blooms. Otherwise you would be better off looking for plants that shed their own flowers, like the newer daylilies, or plants that bloom once but for a long time, like astilbe.

On a similar note, the leaves of some plants start to look tattered by mid-summer and need to be cleaned up. This is especially true of spring flowers, like lungwort and brunnera, but also applies to re-peat bloomers that need reinvigorating, like daylilies.

Dividing - Most perennials will need division at some point in time, but there's a big difference in the effort required to keep an ornamental grass divided every other year and dividing catmint every 8 - 10 years. Plants with long tap roots,,  do not like being disturbed, so if digging and dividing is something you dread, look for tap rooted plants like butterfly weed, bugbane and baptisia.

Staking - If you have enough plants in your garden, they can effectively stake or support each other. But some plants really like to flop and look best with some type of staking.

Tall plants, like dahlias and delphinium, can easily get knocked down with a strong wind or downpour. Putting the stakes in isn't hard to do, but then you need to train and tie that plants to the stakes, as they grow taller.

Problem Prone - Avoiding plants that are known to be prone to disease or are bug magnets should be a no brainer, but we always think we'll be able to stay ahead of the problem. How else to explain why so many people grow roses, even though black spot is a given? You don't have to limit yourself to only plants that have been bred with disease resistance, but you should avoid plants that are known to do poorly in your area. My hot, humid summers mean that delphiniums will die a slow, lingering death before the season's end.

Behavior Problems - This is a nice way of saying invasive or aggressive grower. Unless you love a plant so much that you can never have enough of it, avoid plants that grow by underground runners, like New England asters, and plants that tend to self seed thickly, like columbine.  For some gardeners, this is a welcome feature. However it does not make for lower maintenance.

Evaluating plants by these criteria will help lower the amount of work required to keep your garden looking great. If I've missed a key point, please feel free to email me and I'll add it to the list.