Home & Garden

What makes a plant low-maintenance?

Hollies are valuable plants for home landscapes and come in a wide range of heights and widths at maturity. Take care to choose the right one for the space you have for it.
Hollies are valuable plants for home landscapes and come in a wide range of heights and widths at maturity. Take care to choose the right one for the space you have for it. Observer file photo

As another very hot and humid summer nears its end, a well-used phrase is often heard from the lips of gardeners: low maintenance. It’s a phrase that some people view as the ultimate solution to their gardening woes, and even the occasional crisis that comes their way.

Many plants in the low-maintenance category get the title because they resist diseases, don’t grow too fast and are so well-suited to our climate they stand up to hot summers and the occasionally frigid winter and don’t create a lot of litter to pick up.

Some are rather utilitarian. Mondo grass, for example, serves admirably as a ground covers where grass won’t grow. But many shrubs that are labeled low-maintenance are only so if given the proper amount of space. Forsythia, for example, is a lovely and useful shrub that will perform admirably if given space to grow to maturity. The same is true of azaleas and many other shrubs valued for their overall performance, including seasonal flowers.

Most holly, osmanthus and mahonia plants are considered low-maintenance. But put a Burford holly in the wrong place and you will be out there pruning it every year to keep it out of the windows or away from the sidewalk or driveway. That is when a plant falls out of the low-maintenance category.

So when you choose, find out how big the plant will get. This should be on the tag that comes with it. Look for mature height and width. Know the space where it will go.

Camellias and azaleas for example, are some of the most valuable evergreens for a home landscape and come in a large range of sizes. They perform beautifully in a low-maintenance landscape. But the beauty and performance of both can be ruined by annual pruning to keep plants within a space that is simply too small. A plant that requires annual pruning to keep it in the alotted space is not low-maintenance.

So as you shop for new shrubs this fall, don’t just the plant by the size it is in a 3-gallon or 5-gallon nursery pot. That is only the beginning of their life.

Correct choice of the site, such as sunny or shady, goes a long way toward making a shrub healthy. So does good soil preparation with the addition of organic matter that allows excellent root development. This encourages robust health, another key to making a plant truly low-maintenance.

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Nancy Brachey: nbrachey@charlotteobserver.com

Ask Nancy

Q. Potted chrysanthemums will be sold soon for the fall. Do these plants require a whole lot of sun or will my partly shady front steps be OK for them?

A. Yes, as long as they get some sun or at least good light, the buds should continue to open. Just as important is regular watering to keep the plants from wilting as the pot is full of roots.

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