Perennial Gardening with Less Effort

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Are you spending more time working in your perennial garden this hot, dry summer than enjoying it?  You may want to consider some of these low maintenance tips for fall renovations and next year’s plans.

What does low maintenance mean? Low maintenance does not mean no maintenance and low maintenance is not for lazy gardeners. Low maintenance means making wise plant decisions and doing your homework up front, so you don’t end up with a flower garden that requires tons of work to look good.

Getting to the point of ‘lower maintenance’, however, will be tough.  Prepping a new garden is pure slogging, involving wheelbarrowing compost and mulch, digging & then digging some more.  If your current reality involves plants that were plentiful at your neighbour’s house or at a recent plant sale, it could involve even more digging to get rid of persistent roots.

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Well behaved full sun perennials in the author’s garden

However, you will love the end result of an easy to care for garden if you follow some of the following suggestions.

The first rule of thumb in creating a low maintenance flower garden is to keep it small. Don’t go crazy when you’re picking out plants; stick with 3 or 4 groupings of 3 of the same perennial, and then fill in with annuals if you wish.

The most important tip of all in creating a low maintenance flower bed is mulch. Mulch is a gardener’s best friend. After planting your flower garden and watering it well, always apply a 2 – 3 inch layer of a good, shredded mulch. If you can’t afford mulch right away, shredded leaves and untreated grass clippings will do the trick. Mulch is your #1 defense against weeds and it helps the soil retain moisture so that your plants don’t dry out. Skipping mulch in a low maintenance flower garden is not an option.

Another important step to keeping your flower garden low maintenance is to install an edging of some type. Allowing the grass to creep into the garden, or allowing the garden to creep into the grass are both problem situations that will require a lot of work to deal with.

Choose and plant flowers that:

  • aren’t vigorous, invasive or self-seeding spreaders (avoid “creeping” anything!
  • aren’t too picky about the soil
  • will survive a wee bit of neglect
  • are relatively drought tolerant
  • don’t require deadheading or minimal deadheading (removal of spent flowers)
  • don’t require staking
  • are not prone to pest problems or diseases.

A good nursery or garden centre with knowledgeable staff is a great place to start — and we are blessed with some great ones in the Peterborough area!

The best easy-care perennials for sun or part sun: Clumping ornamental grasses, Coneflower, Salvia, Daylilies, Black-eyed Susan, Shasta Daisies, Veronica, Lavender, Peony, Blanket Flower, Perennial Geranium (cranesbill), Russian Sage, Penstemon, Sedum Stonecrop (there are some new cultivars out that are amazing, like Firecracker or Lime Zinger), Autumn Joy Sedum, Hens & chicks (Sempervivum).

Low maintenance perennials for shade: Hosta, Ferns (not ostrich), Coral bells, Barrenwort (epimedium), Astilbe, Hellebore, Brunnera, Primula.

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Well behaved shade perennials in the author’s garden

The goal is to get to the point where you only need to set aside 15 or 20 minutes every couple of days to weed and deadhead your plants. Deadheading also reduces the number of “volunteer” plants that you will get as the seeds will also be removed. You can combine weeding with deadheading and get the chores done at the same time. This will keep your flower garden looking beautiful and will help the plants produce more blooms.

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