The lure of the long-blooming, low-maintenance garden is perennial in the gardener’s heart. After the rush of early spring has subsided and we are no longer smothered in an eruption of dogwoods, azaleas, peonies, iris and daffodils, thoughts inevitably turn to riding that wave of flowers on to first frost. But we don’t want to have to work too hard for it.
Paving everything in asphalt, bluestone, artificial turf or mulch is the ultimate in low-maintenance, yet we yearn for the variety and color of living plants. The tried and true mixed border—combining perennials and shrubs with room for seasonal bedding plants and bulbs—remains the best strategy for abundant color through the year in the most efficient fashion, though it does involve some planning and planting. If you want to avoid trouble in the long run, take a little in the beginning to find the right plants for the labor-saving garden.
Some, like black-eyed-Susan, butterfly bush, garden phlox, salvia, veronica and zinnia require regular deadheading to continue producing blooms. If you like fresh flowers for the house, they can serve double duty for indoor arrangements as well as outside display and you can wander about the garden like Vita Sackville-West with her secateurs and wooden basket. Plant in separate cutting beds along with vegetables and culinary herbs or work them into mixed borders.
If you really don’t want to have to fuss for your flowers, avoid the deadheaders and concentrate on longlasting color for the landscape, like abelia, crape myrtle, hydrangea, Russian sage and vitex. Leadwort or dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaganoides) is a favorite, spreading groundcover with bright blue flowers in late summer and burgundy-splashed leaves through fall—it only needs a good rake out each spring. Green and white is a cool solution to low-care effective borders: Goat’s beard (Aruncus diocus), Astilbe, black kohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), ferns and hostas give a long-lived perennial structure that make a background for annuals like cleome and nicotiana in a white night garden near a patio, walk or porch swing.
For consistent blooms with minimal care, the Knock-Out Rose series is at the top of the list. Though they would certainly be refused admittance to a nativist’s pollenator garden filled with indigenous plants like Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) or false indigo (Baptisia australis), Knock-Outs do provide nutritious bright red hips in winter and shelter for birds and small animals. After years of development they fulfill their promise of disease and insect-resistance which means they do not rely on spray regimes and are a better choice on that front than disease-prone hybrid roses. The original strong red, which has been variously described as “candy apple,” “cherry” and “hot pink” has been joined mercifully with a variety of white, creamy yellow (some fragrant) and pink, which are best not mingled.
Left unpruned, they reach 4-6′ all around, pushing out blooms all summer long, whether deadheaded or not. Cutting back one-third in early spring before new growth will maintain their size, though this is not necessary if they have proper space. At minimum, dead wood should be cut out yearly. For variety, skirt them with crocus, silver-blue catmint or a hardy pinkish geranium like Biokovo with its scarlet fall foliage.
Annual begonias, blue fan flower (Scaevola), lantana and petunias make bright baskets in hot sunny spots, but beware of containers if you’re trying to cut maintenance. During the inescapable droughts of late Virginia summers they require regular and copious amounts of water and seasonal care—cleaning, changing potting soil, drainage, winterizing, hauling in, hauling out, etc.
Flowers make a garden. They embower the universal image of the ideal retreat. Say what we will for foliar texture, good bones and winter structure, the seduction of summer is the most lasting bloom of all.
Your summer plant guide
Butterfly bush, black-eyed-Susan, coneflower, garden phlox, salvia, scabiosa, veronica, yarrow, zinnia
Shrubs: Abelia, buddleia, dwarf crape myrtle, hydrangea, roses, spirea, vitex
Perennials: Astilbe, black kohosh, goat’s beard, dwarf plumbago, perovskia, verbena
Annuals: Begonia, fan flower, globe amaranth, lantana, petunia
- Set sundial at noon on June 15 so the shadow falls directly on XII.
- Prune azaleas and other spring-flowering shrubs for size and shape by end of June; cut back to outer branch and open up the middle.
- Transplant daffodils and other bulbs with a garden fork to avoid cuts. Replant immediately and water well once or store dry for fall planting.
- Feed flowering perennials and annuals twice a month with compost tea, liquid seaweed or other organic fertilizer.