This is the sort of question I get asked the most as a garden landscape professional. It is not my favorite question because it feels limiting in scope for me as a designer. The “I don’t want to do any maintenance” sentiment means that I will be fairly limited in the range of plants I can recommend, but I am always sympathetic to the need and desire of a home owner or renter to improve the appearance of a property. Many of us simply can not make time for yard work in our demanding lives. Some are perhaps dealing with rental or investment properties and low maintenance is key.
In response to the significant number of friends and clients who have come to me with this question recently I am devoting my next few posts to some of my favorite ‘low maintenance’ plants. I try to stay away from the run-of-the-mill plants and attempt to perhaps introduce some obtainable and yet somewhat unusual plants. This first post will focus on dwarf conifers since I view them as needing the least amount of maintenance and having the best staying power in the landscape. Future posts will focus on other low maintenance evergreens such as certain boxwoods, flowering shrubs, perennials, shade plats etc.
I must first stress that there is no such thing as no maintenance. Plants are living breathing things. Many of their needs are similar to our own. They need nurturing in the beginning or they simply will never strive. They must have food, water, and air available to their roots or they can not live so some effort MUST be put into the soil. See my post: First Things First: Get Your Soil In Shape if you need some tips on how to do this. An acorn from a native oak tree may be able to take root in the Ohio clay shown below, but I guarantee a one gallon plant purchased from your local nursery or a place like LOWE’s will not!
Plants have a preferred environment that they are adapted to live in. Some like wet conditions, some like dry conditions. Some like full sun, others prefer shade. Most plants are sold with a tag that will indicate it’s preferred growing conditions. If you do not find a detailed tag you need to do a little research to be sure you are placing them in the right location for them to thrive.
Almost all plants are going to need extra attention the first year while they get rooted into the soil. They will need regular watering until the roots have grown deep enough to stay somewhat damp in between rainfalls. Watering is a bit of an art form particularly during this rooting phase. You want to provide ample water but not too much. Most of the plants I will discuss, whether for sunny or shady locations, like to get somewhat dry in between waterings or rainfalls. You want them to dry out, but not to the point of wilting or of the leaves starting to turn pale and yellow which are both signs of stress. However, too much of a good thing can cause trouble. On occasion I have had a client call me and say: “I have been watering my new tree everyday and it is still wilting. What is wrong with it?”
If you place a plant that likes the soil to dry out a bit in an area that is persistently wet it will wilt just as if it were too dry. Here is a picture of a tree form Hydrangea paniculata ‘Fire and Ice’ that has been in soggy soil due to a leaking water feature nearby. Once a plant wilts like this from too much water it is almost impossible to save the plant. In comparison plants that wilt from becoming too dry may look terrible for a while but almost always you can nurse them back of they weren’t neglected for too long.
Dwarf conifers are becoming more and more a part of my designs and I highly recommend them to people wanting year-round interest in their gardens with very little care needed. Their slow growth habit, generally 1″-6″ inches a year, means they are easy to place in the landscape with little concern that they will out grow their location and no shearing is necessary.
All conifers prefer soil that has good drainage, some more than others. I don’t recommend planting them in solid clay. If you have an average soil it is a good idea to add some pine fines, which can be purchased by the bag, to the planting hole. Fertilize with Espoma Plantone which is a slow release, natural, blended fertilizer and you should be in good shape. I don’t recommend fertilizing slow growing shrubs with a hi-test fertilizer such as 10-10-10 even if you already have it sitting in your garage or gardening shed.
There are many great specimens to choose from with endless colors, shapes, and textures but I will keep the scope of this some what narrow. My goal is to suggest some things that the average person may be able to locate without too much trouble. One look at Iseli’s website, a wholesale nursery specializing in conifers and Japanese maples, will show you just how many selections are out there for the true plant hunter.
I purchased this load consisting mostly of slow growing conifers last November for an installation at a lovely little nursing home here in Zanesville, Ohio. November is not a month a lot of people think of for gardening but fall is my favorite time of year to install at least the core of a garden. Great deals can be found at this time of year. Since the plants are already in the ground as soon as the soil starts to warm in early spring they get a chance to grow their roots much deeper than if I bought and planted them during the peak gardening season and they won’t need to be constantly watered in the heat of the summer.
Here are some of my favorite dwarf conifers
Chamaecyperis obtusa or Hinoki Cypress
This is one of my all time favorite evergreens. Chamaecyperis obtusa can grow up to 30 feet or more but there are many slower growing cultivars to choose from. They all prefer moist, fertile soil with good drainage. I have found a little shade is helpful especially with the golden selections mentioned below. These tend to scorch a bit if they are in blazing hot afternoon sun. Protection from winter wind is necessary, otherwise they are low maintenance once they are rooted in to an appropriate location.
Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Nana gracilis’ shown below is a very slow growing variety. Notice the very compact habit of the branches and needles. This shrub generally does not grow more that 4-6 feet. Be aware of some confusion you may encounter when shopping for this plant. If you see Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Nana’ on the label, the word ‘Nana’ refers to the dwarf, rounded habit and you are buying a very dwarf shrub that only grows to 2-3 feet. If you see Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Gracilis’ on the label, the word ‘Gracilis’ refers to a slender and graceful habit and you are buying a taller more narrow shrub that is more tree like and grows as tall as 15 feet. Purchasing a plant with a label that contains both ‘Gracilis’ and ‘Nana’ in the name will give you a plant that is the size and shape pictured below.
Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Lutea’ is a beautiful very slow growing selection with eye-catching yellow hi-lights. This is not an easy to find variety but I couldn’t resist listing it. This does best with afternoon shade.
Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Confucious’ is a golden selection with a more loose form and obtaining a more intermediate size of about 10 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide.
Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Kosteri’ has a more rounded shape than ‘Nana gracilis’
Here is a cute little guy called Chamaecyperis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’
Pines or Pinus
One of my favorite plants to add to a landscape lately has been the Japanese Black Pine ‘Thunderhead’ or Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’. I have to thank Tom Taylor at Old Stone House Nursery for introducing me to this shrub. It is not truly a dwarf but can be treated as one to some degree. The key to this plant is to buy one that has been encouraged to grow in a horizontal habit. These can grow to 15 feet tall or more if grown in an upright habit.
Here is an established specimen. They do need space to wander but I love that they each take on their own form and kind of slowly creep along. Prune lightly in summer just after the candles, or new growth, have formed on the branches.
Mugo Pine is often seen in commercial and urban landscapes due to it’s ability to live in fairly poor soils. I prefer the slower growing Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ or ‘Teenie’.. They are considerably smaller and grow in a nice neat mound.
Pinus strobus ‘Nana’ is an attractive group of pines that come in various sizes and shapes. The name Pinus strobus ‘Nana’, though it sounds very specific, is in fact a loose term for Dwarf Eastern White Pine. If you buy a plant with a label that reads Pinus strobus ‘Nana’ most likely you are getting a very attractive pine that can get quite large, in the range of 5-8 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide. If you truly want to stay small go with a cultivar like Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’.
Japanese White Pine or Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca’ is a medium sized tree that can actually fit into a somewhat small landscape rather easily. They do grow close to 30 feet tall and 10 feet wide but their branching is very loose and airy. They can be easily be pruned to keep them somewhat under control.
This is a picture of Pinus parviflora’Glauca Brevifolia’ I just planted in my garden last fall. It has been pruned by the growers to keep it somewhat tight and bushier than normal. Over time the branches will grow in a more horizontal and loose habit. This plant is graced with gorgeous bluish green needles and does get attractive cones.
Close-up of Pinus parviflora
Dwarf Blue Spruce or Picea pungens
I absolutely love the grey blue color of blue spruce and incorporate them into a landscape plan whenever I can however, one could devote an entire post to some of the issues we encounter as gardeners with certain expectations not being met with this genus. Many of the cultivars that claim to be upright do not successfully grow upright. Some of the cultivars sold as small, globe shaped plants do not stay small and globe shaped.
If you want to add the beauty of blue spruce but need to be sure it will stay relatively small the following two varieties do so fairly reliably:
Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’
Picea pungens ‘Waldbrunn’
I must confess I have not used many of the dwarf firs, but I do like Dwarf Korean Compact Fir or Abies koreana. Below is Abies koreana “Cis’
Creeping Juniper or Juniperus horizintalis is a plant many are familiar, maybe too familiar. It has its very useful applications as a ground cover in full sun areas with poor soil. I manly want to mention a somewhat newer member to the family called Juniperus horizontalis ‘Motherlode’. This has a gorgeous lime/yellow color and looks it’s best if it is not in scorching afternoon sun but will grow in mostly sunny to full sun locations. It supposedly grows to cover an 8 foot spread.
This picture shows pots of ‘Motherlode’ having taken on a lovely fall color of pumpkin orange that I was very pleased with.