Is there such a thing as a low-maintenance garden?
Some landscapers and horticulturists will tell you no – every garden needs maintenance of some kind.
For the most part, they are right.
There are high-maintenance and lower-maintenance gardens. It’s all about plant choice – right plant for right space – and giving plants room to grow without crowding.
It’s also about the plant types you select. Plants that need constant pruning to keep them sized and shaped and plants that dislike temperature and soil changes have no place in a low-maintenance garden.
For more and more savvy gardeners, native plants are the way to grow and enjoy a garden with minimum care and maximum reward. Native plants are also your best bets for pollinator gardens that attract bees, butterflies, birds and beneficial insects.
Native plant landscape designer Denise Greene agrees.
“Low maintenance means a minimum amount of input is required to keep the plants in the garden healthy and growing,” says Greene. She grows 130-140 plants native to the Mid-Atlantic region at Sassafras Farm, a nursery she started in 1997 at her home in Gloucester, Va.; she sells plants at a farmers market many weekends.
“The reason natives can be low maintenance is because they are adapted to the specific growing conditions of the site. Of course, you have to know what the site conditions are and which plants are adapted to those conditions. Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it will do well in any conditions, but it will thrive if you plant it in the right place.”
To understand the basics of using native plants in your landscape, Greene recommends three books:
“Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy to understand why you should use natives.
“Redesigning the American Lawn” by Herbert Bormann to understand the history behind the love of lawns and the environmental and financial consequences of the chemical industries’ indoctrination advertising tactics — convincing us all to grow a “perfect” lawn.
“Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants” by Colston Burrell to understand how to rework an existing landscape to make it environmentally healthy.
Before you plant, plan: Decide what the function of the site will be, suggests Greene. For example, do you want to screen an area from a neighbor’s view to create privacy? Do you want to create a welcoming entry to your home? Or, do you want to invite pollinators to your yard?
Then, learn the conditions of the site, Greene recommends, including:
Is the soil mostly sandy, clay or loam? How well does it drain? What do the existing plants tell you about its fertility and moisture-holding capacity?
How many hours of sun does it get? What is the quality of the light or the shade — morning vs. afternoon sun or full vs. dappled shade?
Educate yourself and list plants that adapt to those site conditions.
For each of those plants, create a list of its attributes and seasonality. Go to nurseries or public gardens at different times of the year to check out what looks good when. Then, work from that list to create the aesthetics of the design using concepts such as scale, texture, repetition, line, color and fragrance.
“My philosophy is to use plants that will grow well in the existing conditions rather than trying to change them to get a certain plant to grow there,” says Greene.
“If soil is poorly drained, use plants adapted to wetland conditions. If soil is poor and dry, use plants that have the root systems that can cope with that.”
Plants are always a personal preference, and Greene has her favorites — native sunflowers, milkweeds, asters and goldenrods, which will thrive in most parts of the country.
Native sunflowers provide nectar and seeds for several species of insects and birds, she notes. In a shady garden Helianthus divaricatus (Woodland Sunflower) is a good choice. In a poorly drained or swampy area Helianthus angustifolia (Narrow-leaved Sunflower) thrives. In poor, dry soil Helianthus mollis (Ashy Sunflower) is ideal.
“All three of these species will spread to form a nice patch of color to attract birds and butterflies into the garden and should be given plenty of room,” she says.
Milkweeds, popular because they help provide food for the struggling monarch population, have species within the family that work best for different growing sites. Asclepias verticillata (Whorled Milkweed) likes dry woodland edges; Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed) tolerates sunny, dry sites; and Asclepias incarnate (Swamp Milkweed) grows in poorly drained to average soils. To cover a large area, use Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) because its rhizomatous root structure spreads to create more plants.
Asters and goldenrods are important late-season nectar sources for butterflies and other insects, and again there are species for different sites, according to Greene. Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Heart Leaf Aster) and Solidago caesia (Blue Stem Goldenrod) grow in moist to dry shaded gardens; Symphyotrichum novi-belgii (New York Aster) and Solidago sempervirens (Seaside Goldenrod) grow in flood-prone areas and tolerate salt water inundation. For sunny, drought prone gardens Symphyotrichum laeve (Smooth Aster) and Solidago nemoralis (Gray Goldenrod) give a wonderful fall show, says Greene.
Where to find these and more native plants? Beyond some area nurseries, Greene likes the spring and fall plant sales run by native plant societies and master gardeners.
The retail sector, however, is just beginning to get the message.
“Wholesale nurseries are starting to carry more native species and will continue to try to meet that demand,” she says.
“But they have to know the demand is there. Go to your retail nurseries and tell them what you’re looking for. The next time they place an order with the wholesaler, they’ll inquire about the plants you’ve asked about. The more we ask for natives the more the wholesalers will grow them.”
(Kathy Van Mullekom is the garden/home columnist for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. Follow her on Facebook@Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom, on Twitter @diggindirt and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Diggin@RoomandYard.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
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