Your yard is boring! Hey, don't look at us—You said it first. Probably just this morning, if not recently. Maybe you have a square patch of grass, some strips of bark dust, and a juniper bush or two. Perhaps you were able to coax your six-year-old to plant a few cheerful sunflowers against the back fence, but you draw the line at hiring a professional landscaper unless he accepts juice boxes as payment.
The thing is, you don't have time to spend maintaining your yard. You don't drool over plant catalogs, and you don't get into arguments over the best beer variety for attracting and drowning slugs. Your beer is your beer, and your idea of gardening is sitting in an outdoor lounge chair, admiring the beauty of plants that, like your kids, somehow manage to thrive with little intervention on your behalf.
These low-maintenance perennials are perfect for gardeners with better stuff to do. And if you're the type who doesn't get around to landscaping until it's time to put your house on the market (and you're not alone!), your listing agent will approve; easy-care plants are perfect for "staging" landscapes.
Shade-Loving, Luscious Lovelies
All of our "spotlight" perennials tolerate at least some afternoon shade, but these thrive under tree canopies, on the north side of buildings, and in woodland-inspired gardens. The three below require little else to maintain them during the season other than consistently-damp soil to replicate fertile woodland glades and riparian areas.
Hosta (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
We like to think of hosta as "Queens of the Shade." The early-growing, broad-leafed perennials aren't valued for their flowering spikes as much as they are for their gorgeous, diverse foliage patterns and textures. Most hosta leaves are heart-shaped and arranged in dense, ascending rosettes. While they prefer shade most of the day, they can hang out in brighter areas to camouflage spent spring bulb foliage when the weather's still cool. Give them sufficient consistent moisture, and there's not much else you need to do to look after your hosta plants.
Bleeding heart (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
If you want a softer silhouette to complement your bold hosta plants, we recommend bleeding hearts. There are several Dicentra species, but the most outstanding is Dicentra spectabilis. Choose your favorite among multiple colors including lilac, fuchsia, white, and red; the heart-shaped flowers dangle in rows from graceful, arching stems. Lush, fern-like foliage is typically rich green but sometimes tinged with red. "White Gold" is an exceptional variety with yellow foliage and snow-white blooms. Bleeding hearts go dormant in the heat of summer, but neighboring ferns and hosta will cover them in their absence.
Foxglove (USDA Zones 4 to 10)
While foxglove does appreciate a few hours of the morning sun, it's a short-lived (2 to 4 season) woodland perennial that requires afternoon sun in hot regions. Tall spikes of exotic, trumpet-shaped flowers rise above large-leafed basal rosettes which, in frost-free areas, stay green through the winter. Most experts recommend leaving the spikes alone if you intend to treat them as evergreens. Otherwise, you can clean up any frost-killed foliage to make way for spring regrowth. Foxglove is perfect for backgrounds, especially when they're grown against tall walls or fences.
Shrubby Flowering Perennials
Every landscape should have plants of varying height and texture. If you're like us, you don't have the time or patience to groom unruly hedges every other weekend. These are mid-sized to large varieties that mostly do their own thing during the growing season, requiring only the most basic care to keep them healthy and gorgeous. Use them as windbreaks near more delicate plants, or as privacy screens and sound dampeners if you like to entertain outside during the summer. They're also great for softening the edges of harshly geometric lawns and patios.
Smooth hydrangea (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
Large, bright green, spear-shaped leaves. Big puffy pom-poms of clustered four-petaled blooms, from creamy white to pink. Also called "wild hydrangea," these 4' by 6' shrubs are more laid-back than they look. Provide them with slightly acidic soil, afternoon shade, and consistent moisture, and all you have to do is cut off any spent blooms and, in late winter, prune them to within 2' of ground level for fresh regrowth—the flowers only bloom on new wood.
Smooth hydrangea is resilient to pests and disease, and their fresh-cut flowers and foliage make magnificent floral arrangements. Plant them as hedges, along foundations, or at the base of utility poles (they're supple enough to provide access in an emergency). Smooth hydrangea usually grow 4' tall and wide, but they might surprise you with an extra two feet.
Elderberry: American and European (USDA Zones 3 to 8; 5 to 9)
What's wrong with smelling like elderberries? Nothing at all. And neither is growing these attractive, berry-producing shrubs, whether or not you're hoping for a harvest of the nutrient-rich fruits. (If you are, you'll want to grow two or more compatible species for pollination). There are many sizes and variants of American (Sambucus canadensis) and European (Sambucus nigra) elderberry; all have graceful, "drifting" flower clusters giving away to prolific bunches of silvery blue to deep wine berries. Speaking of booze, you can make your own sambuca! The European species include several unusual but stunning "black" varieties.
Plant elderberries in full sun or partial shade in well-drained soil. Remove suckers in late winter, and every three years, hack them down to within 2' of ground level to encourage healthy, tidy new growth...or not. It's up to you. Elderberry shrubs are very forgiving, but if you don't keep them in check, they'll get quite large.
Manchurian lilac "Miss Kim" (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
Everyone wants a lilac bush in their yard, but few varieties grow well below zone 5. Manchurian lilac, particularly the "Miss Kim" hybrid, is often classified as hardy down to USDA Zone 3, but we think that might be fudging it a bit—especially where the new gardener is concerned. "Miss Kim" grows 6' to 8' tall and wide, and unlike high-maintenance lilacs, she doesn't send out pesky suckers, and she has a higher resistance to powdery mildew. She prefers light "maintenance" pruning as opposed to the heavy, time-intensive cutting-back required by other lilacs. This species is fun for gardeners who like "low stakes, no pressure" fun with pruners.
"Miss Kim" flowers are different shades of lilac or violet, arranged in looser clusters than the cone shapes you may associate with "traditional" lilacs... but the fragrance is just as lovely. Once the flowering period is complete, deadhead the flowers and get ready for an encore: When cooler weather arrives, the leaves turn a bright, showy burgundy. Give her good air circulation, ground-level watering, and some light afternoon shade.
Sun-Worshipping Herbaceous Perennials
Herbaceous easy perennials die back in the fall without leaving behind woody stems, and they regrow the following spring. By definition, they maintain this cycle for at least two years. As with annuals, we recommend cleaning up frost-killed stems and foliage for healthier, tidy beds. Otherwise, they're rapid growers with few pests and diseases.
Coneflower (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
In the world of herbal healing, the Echinacea genus is known for its immune-boosting properties. As hardy perennials, coneflowers need absolutely no nursing to flourish. Make sure they have well-drained soil with a little compost mixed in, water them daily until they're established, and ignore them in all but the hottest days of summer. They prefer full sun but tolerate light afternoon shade. Deadhead the spent flowers, or leave the attractive center cones for the birds.
Yarrow (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
Achillea millefolium is one of the easiest perennials to grow, blooming in flat clusters of white, yellow, red, or pink. They can get quite tall (36") and as long as you give them plenty of sun and well-drained substrate, they tolerate a bit of drought once they're established. Yarrow happily puts up with poor quality. Too much nitrogen is actually a bad thing for yarrow, causing it to become leggy or floppy. Cut the plants back by 2/3 when the midsummer heat ends the bloom period, and you might get a second round of growth and flowers in early fall.
Columbines (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
Columbines are North American native wildflowers with exotic-looking blooms and delicate, mounding foliage. Young plants require consistent moisture, but their second year, they can tolerate drought. In hot areas, plant them in dappled or afternoon shade. Cut your columbines back when the flowers are spent, and the foliage begins to die back unless you want them to reseed themselves. Provide moisture-retaining mulch, pet-safe snail pellets, and (if you wish) a monthly dose of an all-purpose fertilizer for the best blooms and growth. Low-hassle, all-purpose time-release pellets work fine, too.
Low-Growing Perennial Groundcovers
New gardeners, or those who have limited time to maintain their landscapes, benefit from easy-care, weed-suppressing groundcovers. As the description implies, they dress up more space than most individual ornamental plants, but they also reduce erosion and moisture loss, protecting larger species when hot weather sets in.
These species require sun, but they're drought-tolerant. Plant them in those barren strips between sidewalks and streets, or anyplace outside your automatic irrigation zone. As long as their crowns don't stay wet and the soil is well-drained, they're fine when watered on the same schedule as your tender bedding plants.
Selected sedums (USDA Zones 3 to 9)
We couldn't choose a single sedum variety for our showcase, since most are perfect low-maintenance plants for lining pathways, cascading over rock gardens, and populating living wall containers. Mixing different varieties creates the best effect. We decided to suggest those that do best in the most growing zones and tolerate a little abuse. These are full-sun-loving, late-summer bloomers unless noted otherwise:
- "Frosty Morn": Silvery, blue-green foliage and late-summer pink flowers; to 12" tall.
- S. kamtschaticum: Bright green foliage, profuse tiny, yellow, star-shaped flowers in late summer; to 4" tall.
- "Vera Jameson": Pink flowers over green-to-purple leaves; to 12" tall.
- White stonecrop: White flowers on evergreen foliage that turns reddish-purple in fall. Full sun to part shade; to 4" tall with an 18" spread.
Rockcress/Aubrieta (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
This alpine ground cover appreciates a little drought in between watering sessions and resists deer, insect pests, and disease. The spreading, cascading foliage grows 6" to 8" tall, though the 1/2" pink, purple, or indigo blue flowers may top out to 12" on long delicate stalks. Rockcress does very well in low-quality soil environments, including rock crags, concrete cracks, and undersized containers. They prefer full sun but can handle light afternoon shade.
Wild creeping thyme (USDA Zones 4 to 9)
Here's another species that handles poor-quality soil and sporadic watering practices. Wild creeping thyme sends down deep roots to access moisture, stabilize loose soil, and find dirt deep between rocks. It's a hugely popular groundcover, as it grows quickly to about 4" high with a 12" spread. Tiny, trumpet-shaped pink or lilac flowers attract beneficial pollinators, and you can substitute the leaves for culinary thyme when you like to spend more time in the kitchen than you do out in the yard. Wild creeping thyme handles roadside pollution and light foot traffic. Plant it between pavers and stepping stones, and in permeable paver designs.
A Diverse Garden Begins with Easy Perennials
Think of low-maintenance perennials as the backbone of your landscape design, around which you can "flesh out" your garden with tender annuals, vines, and even veggies. Select varieties that represent different textures and colors and that blend shaded zones with hot, sunny garden biomes. Use mulch and drip irrigation to reduce weeds and cut back on gardening chores, and set aside a couple of hours at the end of the season for yard cleanup.
And that's pretty much it.We might not carry all the varieties above (yet) but the perennials we do carry are from healthy, resilient stock with high germination rates, furthering your success as a casual gardener. Contact us to put in your request for new species, and bookmark our gardening blog for more tips and plant spotlights!