Now every Sunday, I give a lecture with my cohort Mike Kusick at Marders, on various gardening themes and issues and recently we discussed low maintenance gardening. “The best thing you can do is to plan,” I told the assembled crowd, “something I rarely, rarely do.” It is unfortunately true, that if you are going to garden the way I do, haphazardly, you are going to be in for a lot more work and rethinking. Low maintenance means planning for the eventual size of the plant, not just putting something in a space and three years later transplanting it when it outgrows the spot and has suffocated and killed it’s neighbor. It’s a lesson I have a hard time accepting even though you’d think that after gardening for over two decades I would have learned better.
Nope. I know the ‘Hayes Starburst’ Hydrangea I have my eye on is going to get 4-5’ tall and needs about 5’ of space, but the bare earth around it will call out to me to fill in. It’s only about 14” tall now and maybe 18” wide, but I’ll feel compelled to give it companions, it’ll just looks so lonely planted on its own. For a girl like me, mulch should be a basic accessory, but instead of carpeting the ground and giving the poor thing the air and space it needs to breathe, I’ll want to give it white iris ensata buddies, and since I’ll get them from the sale table and they’ll be little plants in one gallon pots, I’ll get four and jam them into the same amount of space one plant will need in about 4 years. It’s a problem.
I’m trying to resort to annuals to fill the spaces in between, as a way of giving me the lush, billowing look I adore without torturing the plants by digging them up every season to rearrange, but it’s kind of expensive at $5.95 a plant. My other solution is to scatter seeds willy nilly across the bare spots, but then I get a lovely mixture of weed seedlings and plant seedling that’s a big mess to try and sort out.
So I’m starting to buy fewer perennials, and to make borders out of flowering shrub instead. And rather then having the largest assortment of various and sundry new and collectible party, I’m trying to limit myself to fewer plants that are planted in masses so it’s easy for me to tell at a glance when I have a weed among them, instead of waiting until it gets three feet high and is flowering before I realize that I have been cultivating a coddling a bunch of weeds, thinking it’s one of last years unusual plants.
I can’t give up perennials, but I’m starting to focus bringing in more of the ones that really work for me. I love crocosmia and geranium ‘Rozanne’ – plants I would tell everyone to grow. And nothing beats nepeta and agastache and salvia as the one two three, triple punch of deer resistant blue for your garden, but in the new beds I’m creating, I’m using butterfly bush and spireas, clethera and kolkwitzia, hydrangeas and witch hazels, all to create mix masses of year long color with less weeding headaches. And I’m not saying that I don’t long for erynigium and yarrow and gentians whenever I see them, but since they’ve all failed me more times then I care to recall, I’m starting to appreciate the beauty of using either another alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) or another sedum as a way to fill a space. And I’ll never stop buying irises, echinaceas or peonies, it’s just ridiculous to even suggest such a thing, the equivalent of telling my husband he can never have cheese again, but flowering shrubs rule.
I used to think a girl couldn’t have too many types of plants, but let’s be honest, I couldn’t tell you the names of all the different hydrangeas I have nor could I really properly identify which was which without seeing them in flower and even then I’d mess some of them up. And some of my plants are so unusual I’ve mistaken them for weeds and pulled them out repeatedly. How high maintenance is that? Unable to identify the plant you put in last year, you pull it out the next year suspecting it’s a weed, only to realize it’s missing when it start blooming in the nurseries and you buy it again swearing that this year will be different and you replant it again, thus starting the whole cycle one more time. And sure it makes me happy to look at the list of all the various echinaceas I have, but on that same list are masses of plants I’ve put in only to “lose” within a season or two because I wasn’t planning or thinking but just let that little plant follow me home because he looked cute in his pot.
I’ve actually gotten better at narrowing my list of plants when it comes to the shaded parts of the garden, which is good since they’re growing by leaps and bounds as all my baby trees start to stretch and grow. I’m still swearing on my five favorites of hellebores, cimicifuga, aconitum (monkshood), hakenochloa ‘All Gold’ (Japanese forest grass) and leucosceptrum japonicum 'Gold Angel' (Gold Angel Japanese shrub mint) with ferns and lamium to fill in and hydrangeas as my main shade plant. I don’t care that the deer eat them and they have to be sprayed almost daily to keep the deer away, nor do I care that they’re water hogs. I love hydrangeas and I’m not giving them up, regardless of the room I have left for another in my garden.
Paige Patterson has planted 6 Salvia ‘Black and Blue’ directly in the ground right next to her Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’ as she’s obsessing over hummingbirds this week.