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Design Solutions for (almost) Auto-Pilot Gardens

    Design Solutions for (almost) Auto-Pilot Gardens

    WWe’re busy, we’re aging, but we love gardening! Are you swamped with a job and family; or an over-50 gardener that doesn’t move at the same pace; Or a city dweller with a passion for plants but little space to work with?

    Kerry Ann Mendez

    This isn’t as much fun anymore

    I bet you fall into one of the above scenarios. I fit two of the three. Everyone loves flowers, but who can tend to a garden that demands too much time and energy to keep looking beautiful? And how does one incorporate environmentally responsible gardening in this out-of-control picture?

    I had always thought of myself as a low-maintenance gardener. My first two books focused on tough-love plants and practices. I was doing fine until August 27, 2011, when my husband had an accident and broke his neck. By God’s grace, he was not paralyzed, but his ability to help me with the gardens and lawn was dramatically impacted. He had to retire and I needed to get a full time job with benefits for the family, while also trying to run my gardening business. That abrupt bump in the garden path forced me to take a whole new look at what I considered to be low-maintenance landscapes.

    Below are some of the steps I took to regain my sanitation, cut maintenance time by 50%, and renew my passion for gardening. Many more, including time-saving design solutions and exceptional plants are in my new book, The Right-Size Flower Garden: Simplify Your Outdoor Space with Smart Design Solutions and Plant Choices (St. Lynn’s Press, February 2015) (above).

    First, repeat after me: Plants are not your children or pets.

    Black labs in garden

    Plants are not your pets

    You can ditch those that are too much trouble or never performed well in the garden. Many of you reading this are women. We tend to be nurturers and caretakers. And that’s good, but we need to draw the line on needy plants! No more making excuses for troublemakers that cause frowns – this only creates more wrinkles. Grab the shovel, pop ’em out, give ’em to friends or the compost pile, and celebrate one less hassle to deal with.

    Replace mixed perennial beds with flowering shrubs.

    Fothergilla gardenii

    Bottlebrush (Fothergilla gardenii) Photo (c) Bailey Nurseries

    For years I’ve been a perennial collector. I loved creating gardens massed with tried and true beauties as well as funky, unusual, eye-brow raising specimens. Unfortunately the reality is that most perennials are more demanding than shrubs. Perennials typically need more water, fertilizer and routine maintenance. A single shrub that struts gorgeous flowers and flattering leaves, with little preening on my part, wins the beauty pageant! Plus one shrub can efficiently hold court in a space that would require numerous perennials. I had a head thumping, “I could have had a V-8” moment and started replacing sweeps of perennials with flowering shrubs. Oh what a relief it was!

    lilac bloomerang

    ‘Bloomerang’ lilac. Photo (c) Proven Winners

    A few of my favorite spring blooming picks include fothergilla (Bottlebrush); Azalea ‘Northern Hi-Lights’, syringe ‘Bloomerang’ (a repeat blooming lilac), Cornus ‘Golden Shadows’ and Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’.

    Little Quickfire hydrangea

    Little Quickfire hydrangea Photo (c) Proven Winners

    Summer champions include almost any hydrangea in the paniculata or arborescens groups. If my arm was twisted for specific cultivars I would name p. ‘Quickfire’, p. ‘Little Quickfire’, p. ‘Limelight’, p. ‘Fool’, p. ‘Tardiva’ as well as to. ‘Incrediball’ and to. ‘Annabelle’.

    'Incrediball' hydrangea

    ‘Incrediball’ hydrangea Photo (c) Proven Winners

    Before I mentioned a few other summer blooming sensations, I wanted to point out that leaving out bigleaf (mophead) hydrangeas was not a typo or a senior moment. I am fed up with their blooming inconsistency in colder climate regions, plus they’re water hogs, (wilting in afternoon heat) and I’m into water conservation and saving money on my water bills. Sayonara! [Editor’s note: Me, too!]

    Lo & Behold Blue Chip buddleia

    Lo & Behold Blue Chip buddleia (c) Proven Winners

    'Sugar Tip' rose of Sharon

    ‘Sugar Tip’ rose of Sharon Photo (c) Proven Winners

    A few other charming picks to grace the summer landscape include buddleia ‘Lo & Behold Blue Chip’ (a sterile, low-growing butterfly blush that starts blooming earlier in the summer), Clethra (Summersweet), Physocarpus (Ninebark, early summer flowers followed by berries), Knockout Roses (especially the double red ones); Rose of Sharon ‘Sugar Tip’ (variegated leaves and soft pink flowers that don’t seed); and selected spirea such as ‘Double Play Red’ and ‘Double Play Gold’.

    bush clover

    Bush clover Photo (c)Bluestone Perennials

    And for the fall finale, flowering superstars are lespedeza (Bushclover), Caryopteris (Blue Mist Shrub), and Heptacodium myconioides, commonly called seven-son flower. Seven-son flower can grow into tree-like proportions (15′-20′) but can be pruned hard to maintain a more compact plant. Others valued for their showy fall berries: Symphoricarpus (Snowberry), callicarpa (Beautyberry), viburnum nudum ‘Pink Beauty’, and evergreen and deciduous hollies.

    Foliage rules.

    'Electra' coral bell Photo

    ‘Electra’ coral bell Photo (c)Terra Nova nurseries

    It’s all about the leaves. Flowers are the icing on the cake. Nothing contributes longer color than foliage. Leaves come in so many colors, shapes, sizes and textures. The combinations are endless. And when you toss in contributions from stems and bark, you’ve got a psychedelic feast on your hands. In an interview with Garden Gate magazine, I was asked how I was able to get so much brilliance from a small garden. Easy peasy…leavesies. They asked if I had a ratio for plants used primarily for their foliage impact versus flowers. I hadn’t thought about it before. My answer: almost two out of every three plants used had captivating leaves, in addition to their flowers. Some outstanding perennials for eye-popping foliage include Heucherella (foamy bells), Heuchera (coral bells), Brunnera (Siberian bugloss), hakonechloa (hakone grass), Sedum and of course, Hosta.

    'Brass Lantern' heucherella

    ‘Brass Lantern’ heucherella

    Focus please!

    Another right-sizing strategy was actually the result of a garden design correction. A landscape designer was strolling the property and commented “You have created an astonishing riot of color from plants but my eyes need a rest. Build in some inanimate focal points that provide a break from plants and allow my eyes to take in a different medium.” My translation? More beauty, less plants, less work! I’m all over it! I dug out plants and put in decorative urns, water fountains, birdbaths, metal sculptures and other knick knacks. I love recycling and repurposing objects. I tried to sneak in a pink flamingo but my husband put his foot down.

    statue with heart

    Add objects of beauty and personal meaning to complement your plants.

    If this post has hit a nerve, and you feel like I used to–that gardening isn’t as much fun anymore–then start now to right-size your gardens. Remember, plants are not children or pets; you can get rid of some. Move at your own pace, but move. Remember, the turtle won the race!

    Book giveaway! One lucky commenter will receive an autographed copy of Kerry’s latest book. Comment below, making sure to include a valid email address. Winner will be chosen randomly using the random number generator. You must be 18 years old or older and a resident of the US Giveaway ends Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at 11:59pm Pacific Time. We have a winner! Suzanne’s comment was chosen by the random number generator. Congratulations Suzanne!

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