Now that the catalogs are arriving and we are starting to dream, it’s time to think about the relationship between garden design and the amount of maintenance that will be necessary. I’m trying to cut down on maintenance time because there never seems to be enough. We all know that the most beautifully designed and installed garden can become the garden from hell if not properly maintained.
One of the first considerations is the nature of the perennial you have or wish to use. Is it a clumper, a runner, or a seeder? If it’s a runner, how fast does it run? Epimedium, for instance, is a lovely, drought tolerant groundcover for shady areas. Although rhizomatous, it spreads very slowly. On the other hand, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, a tall, stately perennial for the back of the border, will quickly overtake everything in its path.
I love many seeders but the most important question is whether the seedlings are easy to pull. This is known as editing. Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is widely grown because it will grow almost anywhere but the seedlings will inundate a garden. Aquilegia, however, is a moderate seeder and the seedlings are most welcome because the parent plant is often besieged with leaf miner, leaving behind unsightly plants.
In order to space plants appropriately, one must also know the habit of the perennial. Is it an upright plant that will not need staking or is it a flopper that will take up more space than you had imagined. Digitalis has strong stems but Centranthus, if grown in part shade instead of sun, will flop as it leans toward the sun and will also be only twelve inches high instead of twenty-four. (The catalogs never tell you that.)
Although Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s book, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, was written over twenty years ago, it is still the best guide on this subject. In addition to the specifics for each perennial, the appendices are extremely helpful. They include lists, among others, of Lower Maintenance Perennials, Perennials That May Require Division Every 6-10 Years, and Perennials with Self-Cleaning Flowers.
Perennials such as Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye), Aster novae-angliae, and Cimicifuga (Actaea) make an impact but need virtually no attention. At most, they need to be cut to the ground in early spring if the stalks have not already fallen to the ground. One of my favorite perennials is Baptisia. I love the leguminous foliage, its June bloom, and its green, then black pods that last through the winter. Because it has a deep tap root, it does not take kindly to division or transplanting. Just cut the stalks down in spring.
If a perennial has self-cleaning flowers, no deadheading will be required, a chore that entails time and repetitive motion that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. The hardy geraniums have self-cleaning flowers, a boon to all gardeners. Most are relatively short so this also means that we don’t have to bend over.
Newly installed gardens often look sparse. Take advantage of annuals to fill the empty spaces. If you use seeding annuals, the garden will benefit from additional color and structure.
There is no such thing as no maintenance but this might be the year you decide to remove a perennial that requires too much maintenance and replace it with one that doesn’t need as much of your time.