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Shrubs That Thrive with Minimal Effort

By Natalie Carmolli, Proven Winners® ColorChoice®
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®

For landscaping professionals and homeowners alike, the allure of a lush and vibrant outdoor space often comes with concerns about time-consuming maintenance. However, achieving a stunning landscape doesn't have to be synonymous with constant upkeep.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of our favorite evergreen and drought-tolerant woody ornamentals, along with design strategies that reduce the need for constant attention, allowing for beautiful, stress-free outdoor environments.

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For landscapes that require year-round color without seasonal pruning, evergreens are the go-to choice. Evergreens come in all shapes and sizes, but compact and dwarf varieties work well in almost any design, whether used in groupings, low hedges, edging or even containers. Evergreens like boxwood, holly, and juniper offer year-round interest, maintaining their foliage even in harsh climates, and require virtually no upkeep.

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Boxwood is a classic landscaping staple. Yes, they can be sheared or trimmed to shape, but left to grow naturally they maintain a tight, compact shape on their own. Sprinter® Buxus microphylla is an improved, fast-growing form of 'Winter Gem'. It holds up well to winter weather and its upright habit is suited to formal or informal landscapes. At USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5, it’s hardier than English boxwood, and doesn’t have the characteristic odor. Sprinter boxwood grows 2-4’ tall/wide, is blight resistant, and will quickly grow into a handsome low hedge.

For those who love the look of English holly but need a shrub that is more compact and cold hardy, Castle Keep® Ilex x meserveae is hardy down to zone 5. It has the classic appeal of traditional holly but is softer to the touch, and only grows to 3-5’ tall/3-4’ wide. This is a female variety that will develop red fruit if a male pollinator like Castle Wall® holly is planted nearby.

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Juniper is another perfect evergreen plant for low maintenance landscaping. They are heat and cold resistant and require little water, so they do very well in dry, arid climates. The blue-green foliage of Montana Moss® Juniperus withstands deer, drought, heat, and sun, making it a go-to choice for those who need tough evergreen groundcovers. It grows wider than tall, at 3-5’ wide and 2-4’ tall and is hardy down to zone 4. Juniper is, in fact, the perfect segue into the next topic, plants that thrive where there is little water.

Drought-Tolerant Native Species

Shrubs that are naturally adapted to arid conditions reduce the need for frequent watering, something that has gained importance as water has become scarce in many regions of the United States. One thing to keep in mind, though, when installing any drought tolerant plant: It will need regular water for about the first year, as its roots establish. Only after that time can it perform its best.

Native cultivars tend to be naturally drought tolerant as they have adapted to the region's specific weather patterns, and are able to withstand fluctuations in temperature and soil conditions, requiring less intervention.

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One of the easiest cold-climate native species to grow is a shrub formerly known as Potentilla fruticosa, which has recently been renamed Dasiphora fruticosa. You may still see the name potentilla used in the nursery trade, but it’s useful to be aware of the change.

The Happy Face® series of Dasiphora fruticosa features everything we love about this hardy native species: extreme cold tolerance (down to zone 2), non-stop blooms, extra-large flowers, deer resistance, and essentially effortless care. There are four shrubs in the series with blooms that range from white to pink. Every plant in the Happy Face® Potentilla series is heavy blooming and compact, making them the perfect addition to unfussy, cold climate landscapes.

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Sunny Boulevard® Hypericum, or St. John’s wort, is another top performer for drought tolerance. In the UC Landscape Plant Irrigation Trials in Davis, CA, this cultivar was awarded a Blue Ribbon™ designation. To earn the blue ribbon, the plant must stand out in the garden and require minimal pruning in their low water field trials.

Sunny Boulevard® St. John’s wort is a tightly-branched shrub noted for its long bloom time, which begins in July and continues through September. It maintains a tidy 2-3’ rounded habit. Its hardiness is zone 4-7, but as the Blue Ribbon Trials can attest, it has the capacity to perform well in hotter regions.

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Design Strategies for Minimal Upkeep

Group by Water Needs: Cluster shrubs with similar water requirements together to simplify irrigation. Place drought-tolerant shrubs, especially species like Buddleia that don’t like wet feet, farther away from the pattern of automatic sprinklers or soaker hoses. This zoning approach ensures efficient watering practices and reduces the risk of overwatering or under watering.

Strategic Mulching: Apply a layer of organic mulch around shrubs to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. Mulching also regulates soil temperature, promoting a stable environment for plant roots.

Natural Shapes and Growth Habits: Select shrubs with natural shapes and growth habits that require minimal pruning. Using compact or dwarf shrubs that have been bred for tight, tidy habits allows them to grow in their intended form, reducing the need for constant shaping and maintenance.

Low-Growing Ground Covers: Ground covers not only reduce weed growth but also contribute to a finished look. Think about incorporating low-maintenance ground covers around shrubs to minimize bare soil.

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Many shrubs themselves perform this task as well. Ground Hug® aronia (above), Perfecto Mundo Pink Carpet® reblooming azalea (first photo), and the super-tough Tortuga® juniper are great examples of low growing shrubs that perform double duty as groundcovers.

Embracing Natural Beauty: Think about working with the existing topography and natural landforms to minimize earth moving and alteration. This approach not only reduces labor but also enhances the integration of the landscape with its surroundings.

Low-maintenance landscaping is not about sacrificing beauty for ease but rather about making thoughtful choices that enhance the natural resilience of outdoor spaces. By selecting low-maintenance shrubs and incorporating design strategies that reduce the need for constant attention, landscaping professionals and homeowners can create landscapes that thrive with minimal effort. By embracing the beauty of simplicity and working with nature rather than against it, these strategies lead to landscapes that not only require less maintenance but also provide enduring visual appeal and enjoyment.

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GardenSMART Featured Article

By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers

Now is the time to shop for annuals that will go the distance all summer. Suntory Flowers has a portfolio of gorgeous varieties that thrive in the heat. To learn more, click here for an interesting article.

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