Showy without the fuss
For gardeners who prefer low-maintenance gardening, that’s the ultimate goal: a showy display of flowers and foliage without the fuss of summer-long watering, weeding, pinching, pruning, and spraying. “Plant them and forget them.”
Low-maintenance perennial gardens may require you to slightly change your standards of formality or showiness. But, if you select the right perennials—those adapted to your climate and specific garden setting—and then follow a few low-maintenance strategies, you won’t need to be a slave to your gardens to enjoy fabulous season-long splendor.
To find the toughest perennial performers, for six consecutive years I conducted research on the performance of North American native perennials in low-maintenance landscapes at the University of Missouri’s Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon, Missouri (Zone 6), and at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Zone 5). The criteria we developed for the study weeded out all but the top performers: After a year of establishment, the plants had to survive on their own. The only care they received was a late-winter cut back and an occasional weeding.
What puts a perennial in the low-maintenance category? Seven things: 1) They must have no significant disease or pest problems. 2) You won’t need to divide them to keep them blooming profusely. 3) They’ll survive the climatic extremes of summer and winter in the garden. 4) Even when not in bloom, the plants’ foliage is attractive. 5) The flowers and foliage hold up well all season with minimal supplemental fertilization and watering. 6) Their stems are strong enough to hold up the entire season with no staking, pinching, or pruning. 7) The plants are not weedy: They don’t self-seed freely or require frequent division to keep them from overstepping their bounds.
20 Perennial Winners
Many perennials are spectacular for only a few weeks each year. In our research trials, season-long, attractive appearance was important. We tested more than 90 species of native plants, giving them an appearance rating from 1 (poor) to 4 (excellent) every two to three weeks during the growing season. Only those that averaged at least 3.5 throughout the entire season are listed below. We also considered such plant characteristics as height, width, growth habit, flower effectiveness, flower coverage, color of blooms and foliage, attractiveness of seed pods, autumn color, and freedom from pest problems. Here are our top choices, in order of bloom time.
In late April, Texas blue star (Amsonia ciliata, Zones 5 to 9 graces the garden with steel-blue, star-shaped blooms on a 3-foot-tall plant. A close relative, Amsonia illustris, Zones 5 to 9, is larger, coarser, and blooms a couple of weeks later. Both have foliage that is attractive all season, especially when it turns gold in autumn.
New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus, Zones 4 to 8) is a shrub rather than an herbaceous perennial, but its 3- to 4-foot height mixes well with perennials in the border. Clusters of white blooms from late April into June are followed by red fruits that eventually turn black, creating an everchanging, attractive display.
Don’t let the common name of horsemint keep you away from Monarda russeliana, Zones 4 to 8. It shares none of the aggressive characteristics associated with mint-family thugs. It is also free of powdery mildew, the bane of its relatives, common garden bee balm. Horsemint blooms in May and early June, producing lavender flower clusters on compact 15-inch-tall plants. After blooming, it forms attractive rounded seed heads. Throughout the growing season, new foliage has a maroon cast, and in autumn the plant may develop this rich hue.
A pair of penstemons, prairie penstemon (Penstemon tubiflorus, Zones 5 to 8) and smooth penstemon (P. digitalis, Zones 2 to 8), send up 4-foot-tall spikes of white, bell-shaped flowers from late May through June. When done blooming, attractive mahogany seed pods form. Fall foliage for both often develops red tinges.
Purple prairie clover (Dalea pur-purea, Zones 4 to 11) makes a feathery, shrub-like plant with purple or white blossoms from early June to mid-July. Flowers remind me of little ballerinas with short fluffy skirts projecting from the central core.
One of the longest bloomers in the trial was dancing butterflies (Gaura lindheimeri, Zones 6 to 9). The common name refers to the pink and white bracts below the creamy white flowers, creating the appearance of delicate butterflies fluttering on 3- to 4-foot-tall stems. Blooms are present from early June into November.
Two outstanding bloomers are Ten-nessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis, Zones 3 to 9) and yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa, Zones 5 to 9). Tennessee coneflower has deeply rose-pink blooms from mid-June into September on 2- to 3-foot-tall plants; yellow coneflower has yellow blooms in June and July on 3- to 5-foot-tall plants.
Lead plant (Amorpha canascens, Zones 2 to 6) derives its common name from feathery leaden-gray foliage, the plant’s most attractive feature throughout most of the year. From mid-June into early July, rich-purple blooms form at the tips of 4-foot-tall stems. Rabbits may graze the foliage early in the season, but results only in more compact plants that bloom slightly later in the season.
Make a striking architectural statement with rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium, Zones 4 to 8). Its leaves are sharply pointed, straplike, and blue-green, similar to yucca. By mid-June the plant stretches to 4 to 5 feet in height and forms 1-inch-diameter balls of greenish-white flowers that are attractive to butterflies. In fall and winter, interesting orb-like brown fruits develop.
Most ornamental onions flower in the spring. Nodding pink onion (Allium cernuum, Zones 4 to 10) is an exception. Yellow-green foliage is topped with umbels of delicate pink blooms in early July to August, beginning with a slight crook at the end of the stem, creating the “nodding” effect.
Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum, Zones 4 to 8) is a noninvasive 3-foot-tall clump-former with gray-green scented foliage. From early July through August it bears white flowers with purple flecks. Gray seed clusters persist through the winter.
Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya, Zones 4 to 9) and small-headed blazing star (L. microcephala, Zones 4 to 8) develop spikes of lavender blooms in July and August on plants with attractive grass-like foliage. Blooms are attractive to butterflies and bees.
True-blue flowers from late August into October are the highlight of blue sage (Salvia azurea, Zones 7 to 9). Combined with the silvery-gray foliage, it makes a stunning late-season garden display. The blooms are a hit with migrating monarch butterflies. While the 5-foot-tall plant has a tendency to flop, it will remain upright if combined with other tall perennials.
Letterman ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii, Zones 5 to 8) has feathery-textured green leaves that retain their excellent color even through searing heat and drought. From late August into October, sprays of magenta-purple blooms adorn the tips of the 3-foot-tall stems. As nights get cooler, stems take on a purplish cast.
Gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis, Zones 4 to 8) and blue-stemmed goldenrod (S. caesia, Zones 4 to 8) round out the gardening season. Both form 3- to 4-foot-tall clumps and panicles of yellow blooms. Gray goldenrod begins blooming in late August and continues into October. Blue-stemmed goldenrod starts in mid-September. The common names derive from the gray-green foliage of the former and the bluish cast to the stems of the latter.
• Choose the right plant for the right place. Consider sun or shade tolerance, soil type, wind exposure, drainage, and temperature extremes. Native plants are a good starting point, but plants from other regions with similar climates are also a good bet.
• Eliminate perennial weeds. Spray planting beds with with a broad-spectrum herbicide, such as glyphosate (Roundup), at least 10 days before planting. For a non-chemical approach, cover the area with black plastic the season before planting to smother weeds.
• Till soil deeply. Many low-maintenance perennials survive on little water because their roots penetrate deeply, tapping moisture reserves in lower levels of the soil.
• Amend planting beds if necessary. Ideally, you’ll find plants adapted to the type of soil found in your yard. But if you’re “blessed” with heavy clay or pure sand, growth of most plants will benefit from addition of organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure. Caution: Some native plants put on excessive growth if the soil is too rich.
• Mulch, mulch, mulch. A 2- to 4-inch layer of your favorite organic mulch will keep weed competition to a minimum, preserve and trap soil moisture, prevent soil erosion, and moderate temperature extremes.
• Water appropriately. Even the best-adapted species will need some water to get them off to a good start. For the first growing season, water thoroughly but infrequently. Wet the full root-zone depth when watering, but allow the top inch or so of soil to dry out between waterings.
Friday, August 20, 2010 3:58 AM
This is my first year as a member & my first visit to your website. I have severe back problems but love my gardens. Your information for a low maintenance garden is awesome!! Thank you for all your hard work to compile this information for us. I love learning about plants and you have helped alot. I really believe I am going to enjoy this club for my more years to come!
Tuesday, August 24, 2010 12:19 PM
I also just joined the garden club and I also have health problems. Severe breathing problems. I've never heard of most of these perennials. Does walmart carry them, or where do i get seeds
Wednesday, September 01, 2010 8:33 AM
Where do you get the seeds or plants?
Saturday, September 04, 2010 5:07 PM
We recently bought two shrubs called "Minuet".They are a small shrub and start flowering in the spring. We would like to know more about them. We live at 6700 ft. in zone 3. Would appreciate more information.
Thursday, September 30, 2010 7:01 PM
This is my first year in the club i like the low -maintenance perennieals would like more info on were to get these plants and what they like sun or shade? Thanks
Tuesday, October 05, 2010 11:22 AM
Blue Mist Shrubs attract bees and butterflies in mass amounts each year. But the plant besides butterfly shrub that butterflies LOVE, are the sedum.
I have sedum plants that my mother-in-law gave us when we moved into our home 23 years ago and without fail every year the butterflies come in large amounts as well as the bees to feast on their blossoms end of summer into early fall. I have pink sedum and they grow fast and need dividing, but I have given several friends a start up quantity for their new homes.
As far as maintenance, you wait till the branches get brown and then pull them out of the ground easily. You can try in late fall but if not then early spring.
Thursday, October 07, 2010 9:50 AM
As a new Master Gardener Volunteer, I find this site club very helpful. My NHGC tools are the envy of all who see them!
Tuesday, October 12, 2010 10:57 AM
Getting seeds for your garden is fairly easy. Park's and Burpee have a good selection, but you might also try wildseedfarms.com or americanmeadows.com. I also belong to Davesgarden.com which has an extensive library of plants and where to get them. Happy Gardening everyone!
Friday, November 05, 2010 10:19 PM
I live in Northern Maine and sure could use any suggestions on the type of perennials for this zone 3 area.
Also I want to plant climbing roses that doesn't require alot of care, any information would be greatly appreciated.
Monday, November 22, 2010 7:08 PM
There is an on-line nursery EBurgess.com and that is where I purchased my Blue Mist Shrubs and grated they were small when I received them but they grow very fast. I also purchased my Rose of Sharon Hedges from them and they also grow fast and they are full of blossoms. Care free if you plant them in the correct place. Veronica is a beautiful and low maintenance perennial.
Sunday, January 09, 2011 11:31 PM
Don't know if anyone will see this but here goes: to learn about a wide range of plants, get a Thompson & Morgan catalog! Once you learn how to read the symbols it's really helpful about seed-starting & the plants! The other catalog is for plants already started but has super info. about when the plants flower & their sun/shade preference --Bluestoneperennials.com
Tuesday, March 08, 2011 4:03 PM
How can I find the "zone" regions for when to plant in my area
it is mentioned on all the plants but I cannot locate the zone map
Sunday, March 20, 2011 10:43 AM
Zone maps can be found at Park seed or Burpee, & may I suggest you get a copy of Bluestone perennials catalog. It's my quick info. source for how tall, when they flower, sun/shade needs, etc.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 2:31 PM
I joined the gardening club a little over a year ago hoping I would get some help getting started with my flower gardens. However, I did not get on this site until a few months ago. I love all the info that is available here. My problem was that no matter what I planted in my yard it would not grow very well. Last year my husband bought me a load of dirt that has lime and other nutrients added in. So far the few plants and flowers that I have planted in that dirt is doing well. I just need to know how to keep cats out of my dirt. I planned out the bed area, bordered it with stone border and even put small river rocks in the bed for looks and hopes of keeping the cats out. At first the cats used a small area that was not covered in rocks but over the winter they are even pooping on top of the rocks (even though a large part of my yard is sand) What can I do to keep them out? No pesticides though.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 12:12 AM
I found my neighbor's cats in my garden, so I came into the kitchen and grabbed a couple cloves(sections) of garlic. Then I cleaned the spot to plant 4 cloves and left 3 right on top of soil....no disturbance since(about 1.5 yrs)
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 8:11 PM
I love the tip about the garlic repelling the cat. Cats are nasty and love to use flower beds for litter boxes.