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?
Bravo! A wise and wonderful garden rant.
Thank you, April. I’m glad it reached you!
Lots of excellent ‘food for thought here and what an accurate description of our North Texas soil and growing arena. I’m definitely buying the Diblick book. BTW Jenny – YOU should write a book!
Thanks so much, SuEllen. You will enjoy reading Roy. I don’t know about a gardening book, I still haven’t finished my novel.
Excellent article! I hope many, many gardeners at every level read it and take heart. So much is possible when we offer help and advice based on accredited knowledge and years of experience. The photos alone are so helpful, not to mention just gorgeous!
Thank you, Nancy, for your kind words. You are one of those clever people GardenRant does features on. The work you have done to develop the gardens at Archgate Montessori Academy is inspiring. I need to come over and do some weeding/plant rustling!
Agree with you 100% Jenny!
“Instead of feeding the lazy desires of the lowest-common denominator….” Wow. That’s quite a charge—against both Susan and the majority of homeowners.
Well, harsh but true!
I was trying to point to experienced gardeners as a whole, not meaning to single out dear Susan. In fact, you’ll see that I applauded her most recent post that discussed all the native plants that give her garden such character. I do want to push homeowners to try harder, because with a little research, a sustainable garden doesn’t have to be difficult. Thanks for reading and commenting. We’re all growing here!
Bravo Jenny!!! Your article is spot on and should be mandatory reading for every landscaper. Your Moms garden is spectacular- the kind you see in books and don’t think possible inTexas!! You need to write a book and share photos of your fabulous results!!!!
Thank you, Heidi! So glad to have hit the WOW factor with you!
Great rant. I heartedly agree!
Thank you, Norah. Happy to serve!
My only reservation is that your pictures show (and therefore promote) so many invasive species–Ligustrum, Asian Spirea, Asian Mahonia, Nandina (also poisonous to birds). Doesn’t matter if these plants are not invasive in your area, they are invasive in some states/regions, and should not be grown or publicized for this reason.
I can see how and why you feel that way. I spent yesterday morning walking through a prairie remnant covered in field scabious introduced by a well-meaning municipality in our area. Our planting choices can have unintended consequences. That said, the Ligustrum and Nandina that I use are sterile, so no worries about mine wandering. Spiraea is adapted, but not invasive in our setting, but I’ll certainly keep what you said in mind about presenting information to a wider audience. Wish that you could have seen the native mistflower and prairie phlox and spiderwort and violets all around the Spiraea, but perhaps I’ll post again. Thanks for the heads up!
I agree heartily, and what is it with those boxwood balls? They are boring and boxwood smells like cat pee. Bring on some perennials instead.
Thanks, Charlotte. I suppose in the right place, cat box would be grand, but now that you’ve shared this I’ll never look at them in the same way!
Well said. Now if I could just find plants that the deer and rabbits don’t eat, the squirrels and chipmunks don’t dig up and that can survive when the temps go to 10 below 0 F.
I feel your pain. On the bright side, what they eat this year, may not be what they eat next year. There is no accounting for the taste of rabbits, thus we have hope. I live in terror of another February freeze-apocalypse, not so much for the plants, but for me.
Well. Two things: location, location, location and, second, de gustibus non est disputandum. I do not think Susan or any of us ever leave out another saying; “your mileage may vary.” Majority shrub plantings may indeed work for many.
You are so right that all gardening is local and there is no accounting for taste. Well-designed and cared for shrub gardens/topiary can be attractive, but my quibble with Susan was the implication that Americans who are looking for lowest-maintenance gardens should look to shrubs as their salvation. These are the folks who want plastic grass. Somewhere along the way, perhaps a YouTube snippet, I heard the late great Christopher Lloyd equate low maintenance with low brain-tenance. I can’t help but agree with him, yet I also respect that others may have a different perspective. That’s what makes GardenRant so thought provoking. Thanks for weighing in!
Wanting shrubs to fill space equates to wanting plastic grass? —- oooof that’s a reach Jenny! But I’ll try and answer in more detail below. Definitely have some thoughts on this one. – MW
There are levels of maintenance & I see a big difference between low maintenance (reasonable to expect) and lowest maintenance (if not plastic grass, perhaps a permeable patio and metal flower sculptures).
Excellent post. I’m similar in that I provide gardening services to people (my customers) and together we create maintainable, sustainable ecosystems of perennials, reseeding annuals, flowering shrubs, etc. all together gardens that mostly look after themselves. I think in my own garden what I enjoy most is that all I really do is thin when needed. Plant thickly, thin quickly as they say. I plant for the insects, birds, LIFE. And boy is it enjoyable to behold. Great article. Also, someone needs to promote the use of more reseeding annuals and growing from seed in general. Talk about filling a garden quickly and beautifully for less money.
Amanda, I’m with you on this. Planting generously at the outset adds joy and decreases maintenance. Self sowers are terrific when managed with regular thinning out, and all you have to do is referee a bit with some pruners now and then. Plus, research shows thick plantings are more resilient than sparse plantings, and better for the wildlife, too. Thanks for reading!
I suspect this is very much a regional thing Jenny. I’m finding myself in an interesting position as I am not a defender of “no maintenance” by any stretch of the imagination, but I am also a realist who has a large garden in an area of the world where we get 43 inches of rain a year (much of it during the growing season) and where growth is rampant and unrelenting.
I am also a realist when it comes to the base level of upkeep that most people (not most gardeners) wish to undertake to beautify the front of their homes. And my experience, with few exceptions, is that a mix of [unusual and beautiful] shrubs & grasses is a good solution (‘solution’ used specifically) for those who want something more than the Mid-Atlantic or Midwest arborvitae/azalea/lawn trinity, and something much less than Great Dixter.
My preference is to pepper those pockets between with a few perennials, annuals, tropical annuals, etc…, but when I don’t have the energy or it’s a tough year – I know things will look okay with the base planting. I grew up in California, where the ‘meadow’ grass in our firebreaks needed to be cut once a year and the manzanita and toyon and oaks grew, but grew very slowly. That makes a difference to this conversation.
A couple other thoughts about shrubs – they fill space, suppress weed growth, and still can make a statement if used strategically. And that may not be the point for small-lot gardeners, but it makes a huge difference in an area that battles invasive and aggressive vegetation like the Mid-Atlantic. Many are very deer resistant, and can be grown high, where the browsing is not as bad. And some are simply stunning mixed with grasses that soften them and provide more movement.
One last thing. I know you know how much I adore/ed Christopher Lloyd’s acerbic comments and writing style, and the ‘Dixter Way’ in general; however, it can never be forgotten that he had a head gardener and scores of undergardeners and interns over the years, which makes it much easier to equate “low maintenance with low brain-tenance.” When it’s just you and 10 acres of Japanese stilt grass, a ‘Silver Lining’ pyracantha smothering 6 square feet of soil feels like a little gift from Heaven. – MW
Marianne, we are on the same page, I think. Shrubs can be wonderful and useful, but they can be spectacular when paired with those contrasting grasses, perennials and other goodies you mentioned. I appreciate their usefulness at our old Kentucky home, where the main component of the front garden is in fact a shrubbery. The structure looks good even when I can’t be there, but it isn’t the shrubs that the neighbors tell me they love seeing when they walk past the house. What gets their attention and puts a smile on their face are the successional layers of next to no maintenance bulbs and day lilies and Heuchera and even the Liriope, which I generally abhor. Everyone has areas that are best covered by large plants, whether shrubs or grasses, and that makes perfect sense. My quibble is that by steering the suburban non-gardening homeowner toward all-shrubs, the results may not be desirable for anyone. If we encourage these all-shrub homeowners to add manageable pockets of color by the front door or the mailbox or even in containers, our neighborhoods would be much the better for it.
Jenny, your Rant is wonderful! Made my day. BUT, liriope, you don’t like liriope? Glad the coneflowers made the rant! Great photos, too.
Cheryl, your coneflower are spectacular! Liriope, massed and contained in a concrete-edged area can be an elegant ground cover, but if you let it loose it will overwhelm and tangle itself up in the adjacent plants. Native and adapted sedges are simpler to control in our area.
Great article. I too despise the ordinary landscape plants such as nandina and ligustrum which are ugly and also invade or greenspaces not to mention neighbors yards who would prefer other choices. Thank you for spreading the good word about perennials that are more environmentally friendly.
Thank you, Robin. It is frustrating to walk through the greenbelt near our home and see the invasive nandina and privet you are talking about. It would help if retailers would stop carrying the invasive selections. The dwarf non-fruiting sterile forms have many positive attributes, particularly in areas where the palette of native evergreens is limited. They have a role, but are best in combination with the perennials we love.
Hmm, I’m disappointed that your rebuttal doesn’t flesh out this comment you made on my post: “How can all-shrub gardens really be the lowest-maintenance gardens, when they need so much more water, chemicals and trimming to keep them looking smart than perennials that need a single cut back at Valentines Day and division once in a while, if only to share with friends?”
Huh???? What the heck shrubs are you referring to that need so much water and chemicals? I’ve never applied a chemical to any shrub myself – or perennial, for that matter. The shrubs I grow – except for hydrangeas – need no supplemental watering after their first season. Are there really no shrubs that do well in North Texas without that kind of pampering?
In your post you do explain that “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… we must lay on at least a 3-inch blanket of aged vegetative compost, which requires time, money and muscles.” So by “significant inputs” you mean the compost? And perennials DON’T need amendments to heavy clay – is that right? Again I’m surprised, but you’re the Texas gardener, not me.
I agree with and won’t repeat comments by Elizabeth and Marianne about the importance of location, of people having different tastes and also different desire or abilities to create and care for the more complex gardens you advocate for and create for your clients.
My post began with the statement that about 95 percent of my garden-coaching clients asked for “low-maintenance” and that for people in their situation I’d usually suggest shrubs. That’s the reality of people’s lives and I don’t understand the desire to shame them for that.
To your statement that “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?” I say that I’m not one to shame or lecture people about how much time and care (and money) they SHOULD devote to their yard. Who am I to say?
I’m also not one to lecture garden bloggers about what they should and shouldn’t write. (Referring to your “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?”)
And when you equate shrubs with plastic grass – seriously?
Just one more. When you write that “We have enough mow and blow landscapes. Can’t we aim higher?” I wonder what GardenRant post you’re actually responding to, if any.
Sorry but I can’t make sense of either the horticultural details or the condescending tone of your post, especially in response to such an anodyne one about the shrubs I grow being less work than perennials. Cue the outrage?
Outrage? Nope, not from me, Susan. I’m just an idealistic volunteer trying to make suburbia a better place. I do regret disappointing you. When you posted a Rant back in February regarding advertising, I expressed appreciation for what each GardenRanter does to keep the great content flowing. I am thankful for all you have done to make GardenRant what it is today, a forum for the exchange of ideas.
I’m not a professional writer, such as yourself, thus the list you gave me of my inadequacies is so long that it would be better I answer many of them in a separate email.
Meanwhile, I’ll ask you to remember for a moment what it was like learning to drive a car, figuring out how much to press on the gas pedal and how often or how hard to put on the brakes. That’s what writing a first Rant was like for me. Back when I was learning to drive, I got a few speeding tickets. Sounds like I’ve done the same here.
My Rant was not meant to be condescending, just lively and provocative enough to spark a robust discussion, which it seems to have accomplished.
I had hoped to promote messaging that inspires people, whether gardeners or not, to increase their attention toward improving standards of environmental stewardship, rather than settle for the easiest regimes of lawn and garden care.
My Rant was directed at all experienced gardeners, which is why I asked, “Can’t we aim higher?” If we can appeal to the core desire of people to make life better for each other, somehow touch the better angels of their nature-perhaps through the pleasure of making a few more flowers bloom around our neighborhoods-then there may be hope for more than the status quo.
You have 467 posts to your name, so I’ll defer to your judgement as to how wildly I may have swerved off the road. All I can do now is seek forgiveness for driving with a lead foot on the pedal.
Thank you, Susan Harris! You so eloquently said exactly all the issues I had with this rant.
Cynthia, All opinions are welcome. I’m sorry to have disappointed another Harris. Thank you for reading and weighing in.
Another North Texas gardener/garden designer here! It’s not so much shrubs vs. perennials, rather it’s more about thorough research, planning and execution of the plan. (Whether said plan is a formal one drawn out on paper, or in one’s head.) Research is the first step. No matter where you live, research what grows best in your area. Talk to local nursery people. Read gardening books written for your area. Learn about the soil and rainfall in your area. Drive or walk around your neighborhood and see what others have done with their yards and gardens that you like or don’t like. Take pictures to jog your memory when you go to your local nursery. Study your space so you know how much sunlight and shade you have. One of my biggest pet peeves in the landscaping world is when people complain about a shrub “over-growing” the space. To me, there is no such thing. The shrub knows what it’s doing. The landscaper/homeowner apparently didn’t when they put the Chinese privet in a space better suited for a dwarf pittosporum. Reseeding annuals that need constant pulling, or perennials that need constant deadheading or pulling because they reseed aggressively or their roots tunnel for miles, are not the low maintenance option either. The right perennial or annual that loves the conditions you put it in, grows to the size best suited for its space, is the best choice for low maintenance color. Any soil that I’ve encountered, (and that’s most soils in the housing developments here in North Texas, (as Jenny pointed out) that requires amending for shrubs will, in fact, require amending for perennials and annuals also. I’ve taught my clients that good soil prep is number one in having a successful, lower maintenance garden. That includes removal of all Bermuda grass (okay, I know that’s actually impossible!) and other weeds BEFORE tilling, (Understanding that weed seeds will be stirred up and germinate, and can’t be 100% avoided) working in at least 3 inches of organic matter, (but not peat!) Once that’s done, the steps to a low maintenance garden, whether planting shrubs, perennials, or any combination of the above, is planting the RIGHT plant in the RIGHT place, (Did I say research?) and then mulching liberally once everything is planted.
So to me, the best lower maintenance garden/yard is one that has been carefully planned and properly planted and mulched.
Preach it, Sister Sally! Right plant, right place! RESEARCH! God love you! Prep the soil for the plants you want to grow that will grow in your area! Thanks for chiming in & stay cool!