No more larking about in the comment zone for me—Susan Harris’s “Lowest-Maintenance Borders are All-Shrub” has called me out for a Guest Rant.
Although I appreciate high quality shrub plantings, I cannot agree with Susan’s view that all-shrub gardens are the lowest maintenance landscapes that most Americans either want or deserve.
In my experience, gardens that embrace a diverse selection of plants are more appealing, more resilient and easier to look after.
I’ve been a nerdy gardener for nearly 30 years. I volunteer in community gardens and participate in a related speakers bureau. I also help local non-profits and municipalities develop public garden space. I have three personal gardens to tinker with: two in Texas and one at our historic family home in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, just down the road from Allen Bush.
In my spare time I work with residential clients who want something more than a lowest-maintenance garden. My clients want beautiful, sustainable gardens with a good deal of life in them—ladybugs, butterflies, native bumblebees, hummingbirds, the occasional lizard. 70 percent of the plants I use are structural and about 30 percent are a blooming mix of annuals, bulbs and inexpensive easy-care perennials.
Understanding the popularity of perennials isn’t hard, when you consider the company they keep.
Well-chosen perennials are simple to look after. To learn how, begin by reading Susan’s “Eco-friendly, Low Maintenance Gardening with Roy Diblik.” In addition to being a GardenRant contributor, Roy is the author of a helpful book about coming to know and care for perennials. Get the digital version, so you can take him everywhere.
I think of Roy as the Mr. Rogers of horticulture, very wise and always kind. His YouTube Channel is delightful, but stay with me and read the first part of Roy’s own Guest Rant, where he says:
“Every planting situation creates diverse opportunities – not just for how it can be planted, but for how each of us can share our thoughts about it with each other. Whether it is a prairie, an urban vegetable or ornamental garden, a school developing outdoor classrooms, a city park being replanted, or a forest preserve: every open space should be planted thoughtfully, but not necessarily the same way for the same reasons.”
Perhaps there are other ways to achieve low-maintenance residential gardens than by pursuing all-shrub plantings? Is it any more difficult to cut back coneflowers than it is to trim a box ball?
Many other plants can do what shrubs do, they just don’t get the credit. A variety of structural plants can work together to unify a composition, make it legible or protect our privacy. I’m talking about plants like grasses, sedges, woody perennials, iris, cacti, agave, yucca, farfugium and other persisting architectural plants that give structure to a garden design.
I’m not anti-shrub. Like Susan, I love flowering shrubs, particularly those with excellent foliage.
Like Susan, I appreciate the contrasts in texture and color that can be achieved by combining evergreen shrubs.
But what really gets me up in the morning is the challenge of making gardens that can hit 30 percent bloom coverage for 10 months out of the year. That kind of design goal may seem aspirational, particularly in January, but the ongoing quest for glory propels gardens like mine in a people-pleasing direction.
Research backs this up. Dr. James Hitchmough and his colleagues at Sheffield University in the U.K. went in search of the ‘wow factor’ and discovered that plantings with about 27% flower coverage are more likely to wow people than plantings with fewer blooms.
Additional research done in the gardens at Great Dixter tells us that floriferous plantings give a boost to biodiversity.
Should GardenRant voices be telling typical Americans to include shrubs as the sole ingredient of a lowest-maintenance garden when most all-shrub gardens look awful?
Walk your neighborhood with a critical eye. Take note of the monotonous plant selection and combinations. How many shrubs are past their prime, blocking windows and swallowing entryways? How many are mangled by bad pruning practices? How many of the shrubs are actually dead?
In North Texas, even the best native and adapted shrubs require significant inputs to increase their tolerance for alkaline clay soils, drought and variable temperatures. The home builders left precious little topsoil and we are cursed with clay as thick as you’ll find in a pottery studio. To have any chance of success, we must lay on at least a 3-inch blanket of aged vegetative compost, which requires time, money and muscles.
Our weather is merciless, replete with wide temperature swings, hail, tornadoes and straight-line winds. Winters are no picnic. In January and February, penny-wise plant parents fall into an interminable loop of pinning and unpinning frost cloth lest they lose their little ‘Mojo’ pittosporum, yet again. Summer is synonymous for Hell. Most shrubs will fry without irrigation from June through September.
And, if you haven’t noticed, shrubs are expensive. A three-gallon plant retails for $40. Most HOAs requires larger sizes, which cost twice as much. You buy them, plant them and pray over them. They look great until they dip their toes into the native soil and recoil back from the wall clay that surrounds the root ball. Then chlorosis sets in and forces you to decide whether to fertilize for the next ten years or simply move away to where the shrubs are nicer.
Folks everywhere could spend more time admiring their landscapes than they do sweating over them if they could just remember where they live and plant accordingly. Perennial forbs and grasses once ruled our Blackland Prairie. They still do well here. They aren’t expensive or a lot of trouble, and they certainly improve the look of those boring evergreens.
Instead of feeding the lazy desires of the lowest-common denominator, shouldn’t we encourage people to think of their front yards as what they really are—valuable living spaces that deserve a reasonable amount of their time and care?
We have enough mow and blow landscapes. Can’t we aim higher?