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Gardens For Non-gardeners

In April, when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, it is hard to imagine that there are people who don’t really like working in the garden.

The economic experts say that the gardening trend is shifting from “do it yourself” to “do it for me.” My observation is that the “do it yourself” gardeners are still gardening. We just have a whole new group of garden appreciators who now want a garden of their own, but they want or need someone to take care of it for them.

Recently when I was discussing renovating my sister’s front garden, I asked her, “Do you want me to draw something up for you to look at before we start?” I was very pleased with her answer, “No, just plant it.” She is a garden appreciator and she trusts me as her gardener.

I take the trust that clients place in my hands seriously. Gardening has changed over the last 20 years. Some of the things I learned at home on the farm and in college, especially about soils, have changed dramatically. So I must continue to change as well. Reading, researching, and experiencing gardening firsthand are a very necessary part of my evolution as a gardener, both at home and at work.

Hydrangeas and roses
So how would I design a garden for the “do it for me” gardener? Low-maintenance is a given. In 20 years, no one has ever asked me to design a high-maintenance landscape. Just because it’s low-maintenance, though, doesn’t mean low color. In fact, for the appreciator, color is very important.

Hydrangeas and roses are at the top of our list for shrubs with high color.

We stick to the tried-and-true plants in this type of garden. Our goal is top performance, so for hydrangeas we like to use Hydrangea quercifolia—oakleaf hydrangea; Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’—smooth hydrangea; Hydrangea paniculata ‘Unique’ or ‘Tardiva’—panicle hydrangea; and Hydrangea anomala petiolaris—climbing hydrangea. All of these hydrangeas are tough and easy to care for, and you are all but guaranteed they will bloom every year.

Roses are another plant we like to use in our appreciator’s garden, but not just any rose because so many of them are high-maintenance. We like to use Knockout and Double Knockout roses, and roses in the Flower Carpet series like Red Carpet and Carpet Coral roses. All of these roses are shrubby or old-fashioned roses. They flower from late spring to fall in the garden with the added bonus of disease resistance, so the foliage always looks good.

When choosing a few basic smaller evergreens it’s a bit easier. Boxwood and inkberry holly are our favorites.

Buxus microphylla var. koreana crossed with Buxus sempervirens produced several great hybrid boxwoods, ‘Green Mountain,’ ‘Green Velvet,’ and ‘Green Gem.’ These hybrids keep their dark green color throughout the winter, and are listed in order by size with ‘Green Mountain’ at 5 feet, ‘Green Velvet’ at 4 feet, and ‘Green Gem’ at 3 feet.

Ilex glabra—inkberry holly ‘Compacta,’ ‘Densa,’ ‘Nigra,’ and ‘Nordic’—are tops on our list for their compact size and habit. ‘Nordic’ is the smallest and most compact and requires no pruning. The other three require light annual pruning to maintain their compact habit. Without pruning, they become a little open at the bottom and a little taller than we would like with age. ‘Nigra’ is our favorite for overall color and appearance year-round.

One signature plant
We also like to choose at least one of what we call a signature, or different, plant for our appreciator’s garden. This plant has to be tough and have a different look or color to set it apart from the rest of the garden, and preferably have at least one or two beautiful characteristics that are evident in at least two seasons. This group of plants can vary widely by location and personal taste, but a few of my favorite signature plants include: Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’—contorted filbert; Lagerstroemia indica—crape myrtle; Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’—bloodtwig dogwood; and Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Glowing Embers,’ ‘Ever Red,’ ‘Viridis’—cutleaf Japanese maple.

It is important to round out the design with a few large sweeps of color. Try adding a few tough and long-blooming perennial flowers and ornamental grasses. Having larger sweeps of plants and simplifying the design with fewer varieties, but with strong characteristics, ensures a beautiful yet unique garden while reducing maintenance and potential for problems. Sometimes a simpler garden is more beautiful.

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