Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Renovations and Low Maintenance Plants

With a bad lower back, an arthritic left knee and right ankle, gardening has become a bit more of a challenge these past few years. I find I don’t have the stamina I once did and all-day gardening marathons are out of the question. This has led to my current project of renovating the entire garden to minimize pain and suffering of joints and generally lead to a more laid back gardening experience.
Last time, I focused on the high-maintenance plants I am getting rid of or at least relocating to wilder areas. This post, I want to tell you about the plants I am introducing that won’t require the constant care and fussing that many of my existing plants did. We’ll start with trees and shrubs this month and discuss perennials and annuals in a later post.
Here is where I get to tell you about my biggest, and favorite, garden mistake; biggest in that it will be the hardest to correct and favorite because I keep making it. One of the things you must do when planning a new garden is figure out where to put the trees and shrubs first. They are, or will be, the largest features in your little patch of Eden and special care should be taken with their placement. Unless you’re like me when I first started and think you don’t need trees and the only shrubs you need are roses.
With time comes wisdom they say, and I’ve seen that trees and shrubs do indeed make a huge difference in the garden. These plants contribute winter-interest to the view, condos and fast-food for birds, and comfortable shade for you, depending on the varieties you choose. They also make wonderful accents and focal points to your garden, helping to draw the viewer’s eye to special areas. If you have a scene that is better unseen, these plants can help you hide it. Lastly, certain shrubs, with their dense branches and leaves, often reduce your weeding chores.
One tree to be added to my menagerie is the paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Originating from China, the paperbark maple is a slow-growing tree that only reaches 20 to 30 feet and approximately 15 to 20 feet in width. It is hardy to zone 4 (-30 degrees) and likes average garden soil. It will not tolerate drought, however, and is best grown in well-drained, moist soil.
What makes this tree special are its leaves and bark. The leaves are trifoliate, looking a bit like poison ivy (“leaves of three, let it be”), and turn a rich red in the fall. The bark is a lovely cinnamon color and peels off as it grows older, similar to a white birch. The only care this tree will require is protecting it from critters until it is big enough to fend for itself and raking the leaves for the compost pile once a year. My kind of plant!
To create a unique vertical accent, I am also adding 2 different columnar trees. The first is called ‘Sky Pencil’ holly and can be found in some local nurseries. This holly has small, smooth edged leaves, not the jagged edges usually associated with holly bushes. It is said to grow up to 10 feet tall and no more than 3 feet wide. I’ve had a small one for several years and my experience is that it is a slow grower and can be damaged by winter burn. If you grow this, you may want to buy an anti-transpirant to protect it from drying winter winds.
The second columnar tree is ‘Fine Line’ rhamnus (aka rhamnus ‘Ron Williams’). This one is harder to find – I ordered mine from Lazy S’s Farm in Virginia ( and was very pleased with my plants. This tree grows faster than the hollies so I didn’t mind getting smaller plants. Also, unlike some in this family, ‘Fine Line’ does not set seed and so will not become a nuisance and the ferny foliage is rarely bothered by insects or disease. The picture shows a five year old tree in my garden.

Rhamnus 'Fine Line'

Moving down the scale to smaller shrubs, I’m adding several spiraeas and weigelas to the mix. Both these shrubs come in sizes ranging from petite to monsters – I’m aiming for the small to medium range, up to 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Both stay shapely and will take the occasional hard pruning if they get too big. They are some of the toughest plants out there and are not bothered by either extreme cold or insects in my experience.
Weigela and spiraea both have many varieties with colorful leaves. I love plants with odd colored leaves; they break up the monotony of green and add a little spice to the panorama. For a splash of yellow, spiraea ‘Golden Elf’ fits the bill with a mound of chartreuse leaves and delicate pink flowers in the spring. It only gets 2 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. Weigela ‘Minor Black’ is similar in scale but has dark purple leaves and pink flowers.

Weigela 'Minor Black' with Owliver


Sunray Gardens said...

I'm considering a Paperbark right now also. The main thing is the decision is whether I want to deal with more maple seeds. :) I am your new follower, come on by and follow when you can.
Cher Sunray Gardens

Sharie said...

Hi, Cher! Thanks for following!

I don't think the paperbarks seed like other maples, more like Japanese maples. They're so pretty, though, I wouldn't care if I had to use a bushel basket to clean them up!