This year, as shiny wrapping papers are being ripped off of boxes, and bows and ribbons are flying through the air, you should think about giving yourself a special gift, one of those gifts that really does keep on giving: a low-maintenance garden.
If you play your spades right, a low-maintenance garden will give you all the joys of an exciting and beautiful garden year after year without hedging you in to a lifetime of weeding and watering.
Don’t worry that a low-maintenance garden might be boring. Designed to incorporate a variety of colors, textures, heights and fragrances, a low-maintenance garden can reflect your taste and personality. It can be understated, playful, sophisticated—even artistic—like the one pictured here at the studio of an artist client. The Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens)
is my favorite juniper. Doesn’t it look like it belongs with the rocks?
There are two main characteristics that all low-maintenance gardens have in common. Once they’re established, they don’t need to be watered. And, except for an occasional nip or tuck, they don’t need to be pruned.
So, if it’ll grow in a parking lot or median, it’ll do great in a low-maintenance home garden. The plants pictured here would all be good choices here in Northeast Georgia: dwarf loropetalum, (Loropetalum chinense), also commonly called fringe flower, the purple mass planting; kaleidoscope abelia (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’), the gold shrubs; the wispy nasella grass (Nassella tenuissima); and the dwarf Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Globosa Nana’), which can grow to five or six feet tall, but keep their mounded shape without pruning.
Of course, there’s no free lunch. To reap the rewards of a low-maintenance garden, your end of the bargain will be to ensure well-drained soil. Very few low-maintenance garden plants will thrive in Georgia’s heavy-clay soil without some help. They can’t just sit in water every time it rains! The dense, clay soil will need to be amended with some sand, perlite or coarse bark. In some cases, it might be necessary to install some under-bed drainage lines or even raise the garden beds to add better soil.
Given good drainage, Kaleidoscope abelia, above, is an ideal plant for a low-maintenance garden in Northeast Georgia. It’s drought tolerant, loves heat, has year-round color and attracts birds, butterflies and lots of other pollinators. Growing up to two-and-a-half-feet tall, this compact, dwarf-variety shrub makes a bold statement in group plantings, hedges and low borders.
Any low-maintenance garden should look good year round, so evergreens and other plants that stay attractive through the winter are must-haves. Junipers are popular choices, and there are many, many varieties to choose from. Colors range from blue-greens to silver-gray tones, and there’s a size and shape for every design purpose, from low-spreading, ground cover varieties to medium-sized bushes to the grey owl juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’), which is low maintenance but can reach a height of five feet. Junipers hate pruning!
No one would ever call this low-maintenance plant boring! Muhli grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries) is a native grass that is very drought, heat and humidity tolerant. Growing to a height of two to three feet tall, it can function in many ways in the garden design. There are several ornamental grasses that can bring movement and excitement to the garden all year.
Boxwoods, which have been universal elements in gardens for centuries, have been struggling with disease in recent years, and even the healthy ones need perfect soil conditions and dislike our humidity, so I wouldn’t select them for the low-maintenance garden. The best alternative to the finicky boxwood is a dwarf yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’). It’s a tough, native plant that stays in a mounded shape without ever needing to be pruned.
Herbs can really spice up a garden, and it’s so satisfying to use fresh-cut herbs from your own garden when you’re cooking. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and oregano are good selections for low-maintenance gardens. I’ll bet the neighbors take extra walks down this sidewalk just to enjoy the fragrance of the rosemary when they pass by.
I know this is the holidays and you’re probably not thinking about your garden. But if you want to give yourself the gift of a low-maintenance garden next year, this is the time for planning and designing. With a bit of effort at the front end, preparing the beds and selecting the right plants, you’ll enjoy a botanical gift that will bring you years of enjoyment with minimal upkeep.
We’re here if you need some help unwrapping that.