Recipe for a Low Maintenance Garden

Itea 'Henry's Garnet w/ stachys in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Itea ‘Henry’s Garnet’ w/ stachys (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

You’ve all heard the term “Low Maintenance Garden”, but in actuality many so called low maintenance gardens are way more work than anyone anticipated. I consider most of my gardens to be low maintenance; thanks to the shrub to plant ratio, but this particular garden really exemplifies the term low maintenance.

The garden started simply enough.  We had a mass of dead elm trees removed from the corner of our property, which then provided this gaping hole in the landscape.  And you know me well enough that I can’t leave any areas unplanted.  However, I did try …  Initially, we had a friend deliver truckloads of mulch to keep the area from becoming weed infested.  We added a rustic split rail fence for division and then let it be while my creative juices simmered.

Diervilla lonicera in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Diervilla lonicera & friends (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

Choosing the first plant was the most important step; considering a complementary form and stature because everything else would spin off from that.  I went to my favorite Broken Arrow Nursery with list in hand and came home with a delectable weeping katsura, Cercidiphyilum japonicum ‘Tidal Wave’.  The tree had a soft, embracing, meandering form that I fell in love with, and I knew it would harmonize perfectly with the rest of the gang.   From that point, I wanted a heavy native influence with lots of character and fall color, so the katsura was lonely for a year while I conjured up just the right formulation. (During this time, the mulch was decomposing nicely and no soil amending needed to be done, not to mention how easy the digging was without roots and rocks to contend with).

Low Maintenance Garden in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Low Maintenance Combination (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

The group of plants I selected the following spring were all reliable, dependable, good looking and native Itea virginica Henry’s Garnet, Diervilla lonicera, Viburnum plicatum, ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’, a Clethra alnifolia ‘Sixteen Candles’, a few honeysuckle (Lonicera) vines for the fence, amsonia, Stachys officinalis, one grass, a daylily (of course) and Fothergilla gardenii.

Here’s how the group works: the katsura is queen in the back center (this bed is on a slope so the katura is set up a bit higher), to the left are the ninebark and viburnum holding up the rear, a lonicera on the rail, with two diervillas in the front.  O.k., I can hear you freaking out already.  Only two, what about the LAW of three?  Let’s just say, I design visually-not by rules, and so should you.  Along the front of the katsura are the amsonia, daylily (to peek out later) and some stachys.  To the right are a clethra (inner) and grass (outer) holding up the rear, two virginia sweetspire (itea) front, with space in between for fothergilla, more stachys, and a few low growing geraniums, heathers and one bird nest spruce to soften the corner.

Itea's Fall Colors in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

The Garden’s Fall Colors (photo credit: Kathy Diemer)

This plant combination has been surprisingly easy, which is good because it’s the furthest garden from the house and sometimes I forget about it.  In the early spring I have groups of daffodils popping up all over, then the fothergilla blooms with its bottlebrush flowers, next the itea’s frothy display, then the amsonia’s tiny pale blue stars, followed by the viburnum’s lacy white caps and ninebark’s rosy clusters.  The daylily comes up in between katsura’s cascading branches with bold orange buds, the diervilla produces delicate yellow flowers, the honeysuckle produces coral and honey gold florets continuing for most of the summer and the upright mauve clusters of stachys actually display until fall, especially if you cut off the dead blooms periodically.  The monarch katsura maintains semblance with graceful grayish-blue fountains of leaves gently draping over the other plants in a soothing caress.  The finale is the fall explosion of exquisite colors from the cherry red iteas, the burgundy viburnum, the crimson fothergilla and the scarlet diervillas.  Even the grass has hues of red blended in.  It’s all gorgeous, and the best thing about it is this all comes to fruition with little attention from me.

Select a few of these plants and combine some from your own list, mix and match and let your creativity go wild.  In zones 5 up, some even 4, and with a good amount of sun, these plants will provide seasons of interest without fertilizing, concern for pests, deadheading or watering.  Just sit back and enjoy the show!


  1. What a beautiful mix!

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