Let’s be honest; few of us want to spend all our free time working in the garden no matter how much we enjoy being outside. I’m never asked to design a ‘high maintenance garden’, nor asked for recommendations of plants that need endless pampering or pruning. Most homeowners request a low maintenance, easy care and drought tolerant palette that looks good year round; a tall order but not impossible.
My starting point is to focus on building a framework of shrubs that have outstanding foliage, are suited to the soil, water and light conditions and need minimal trimming, feeding or fussing. I will typically use a ratio of 2:1 evergreen:deciduous to get a balance of seasonal interest, color and texture and I will often seek out dwarf cultivars of traditional favorites such as Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) as they are less likely to outgrow their allotted space in smaller gardens.
Traits to look for
- Fabulous foliage
- Disease resistance
- Little or no pruning needed
- Doesn’t outgrow its allotted space
- Suited to your light, water and soil conditions
I recently shared with you some of my favorite ‘go to’ conifers so this post will focus on broadleaf shrubs.
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica varieties)
Unlike the better known canes of true bamboo, this evergreen shrub is well behaved and is of no interest to your pet panda.
With outstanding foliage in shades of green, red, coral, orange, lime and/or gold, white summer flowers and clusters of red winter berries plus the ability to grow in full sun or partial shade this immediately meets my criteria for seasonal interest and bold color.
However, not all named varieties are equally beautiful or easy care in my experience. The species (i.e. not a named variety but just listed as Nandina domestica) tends to be leggy, with unattractive bare knees and spindly top growth that needs pruning in an attempt to create a fuller, bushier shrub. Far better to choose a named variety such as Gulf Stream whose reliable 3′ x 3′ cushion-type shape never exposes its ankles let alone knees. Moon Bay is also excellent in this regard if slightly larger.
If you prefer a slightly bolder leaf consider FirePower which still has more of a ground hugging habit. Where a more upright form is needed I have found Moyer’s Red to be one of the best and use it in container designs for height, layering lower plants in front. For the more color adventurous among you check out the exciting varieties of Nandina in the Sunset Western Garden Collection including Lemon Lime which is perfect for those who prefer not to have red foliage.
No pruning necessary, drought tolerant once established and easy care.
Little Henry Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’)
This unassuming deciduous shrub deserves a place in your garden in partial shade or full sun. Far from being fussy, Virginia sweetspire will thrive in sticky wet clay yet is drought tolerant once established, needs no pruning and is typically ignored by deer (although they may do a quick taste test).
Little Henry grows just 2-3′ tall and wide, spreading by suckering but not to the point of being invasive. In spring the mound of bright green foliage is transformed by the abundant racemes of pendulous white flowers. These are lightly fragrant and attract bees and butterflies.
The fall color is a fiery red and the leaves may stay on the shrub for much of the winter if the weather is mild.
I have used this as a low hedge flanking a path, as an alternative to hydrangeas for foundation planting where deer are a problem or in my own garden on seasonal stream banks to help stabilize the slope. Here they thrive in the terrible clay soil that is alternately seasonally saturated or dry as a bone.
Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)
Super busy and thrifty? Then you’ll like these!
Wintercreeper offers a colorful, evergreen option for full sun or partial shade. Give it an occasional chop to keep it low or allow it to scramble and meander informally for additional height. Wintercreeper can usually be found both in a gallon (6″) and 4″ pot and is one of the cheapest shrubs you’ll find, often costing as little as $3 for the 4″ size.
Emerald ‘n’ Gold shown above is a cheap substitute for Kaleidoscope abelia and is more reliably evergreen in my garden.
Try the green and white variegated Emerald Gaiety to edge a border of your favorite PG hydrangeas such as Quick Fire or Firelight. The large white panicles of these hydrangeas take on a rosy blush as the season progresses making this a really stunning and easy combination for the garden or large container.
Tough, cheap, healthy and easy to find in the nurseries.
Fine Line buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’)
A feathery, vertical accent that is easy care and deer resistant. Buckthorn is incredibly versatile and will take full sun or part shade, wet soil or dry.
In autumn the rich green leaves of Fine Line turn golden yellow, falling to reveal the spotted stems that continue to add winter interest to the garden or container.
This non-invasive deciduous shrub can be used as an exclamation point in the border, as a hedge or for seasonal screening as it will grow to 5′ tall but just 2-3′ wide. If an errant branch flops just chop it off; no fancy pruning needed.
Northern Bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)
I discovered this quite by accident when the bronze foliage caught may eye as I scanned the nursery displays one spring. On closer inspection I realized that I had had one of these bushes in my garden all along but didn’t know what it was! The northern bush honeysuckle is native to most of the NE United States and Canada but appears to be a relative newcomer to western gardens. The best foliage color is in full sun but this will also take part shade (where my original shrub was lurking).
With fragrant yellow flowers that attract birds, butterflies and birds, amazing red fall color and an ability to thrive in poor soil this deserves a closer look. With its rather lax habit and 3′ x 3′ size I feel it works best in woodland gardens or as a filler for larger borders.
A few more to consider
Spirea certainly make the cut as easy care. You can read more about this group here. Likewise I personally love barberries for their many colors and supreme deer resistance. However they are invasive in some states so not suitable for everyone. I’ve shown you a few of my favorites before. (Just do a search for barberries if you’d like to re-read a few posts).
Then there are shrubs that I love but can’t consider them suitable for the really busy gardener as they do require some upkeep. However, ‘work’ means different things to different people so if you don’t mind chopping down a shrub in spring or cutting out some dead bits then you may well feel these merit the time and effort. I certainly do in my own garden!
Smoke bushes; they need coppicing in spring to look their best
Ninebarks; they need thinning to keep in bounds although the dwarf variety Little Devil may be better in that regard
Weigela; stunning foliage and flowers but typically have some dieback after winter which has to be cut out. Or maybe it is just me?!
Abelia; I have a hedge of the tall glossy abelia as well as several shorter Kaleidoscope shrubs but all have winter dieback to some degree that needs to be pruned out in spring
What is your favorite shrub for the busy gardener?
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