By Glenn DiNella
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times from homeowners wanting to jazz up their landscapes: “I want to add color, but I want low-maintenance plants.” Well, after 20-plus years of advising people how to go about this task, I have found a few go-to perennials that get the job done every time.
Sure, I always encourage people to go out on a limb and throw in one or two new perennials. But when it comes to filling in beds where you need volume, color, and low maintenance (little watering, pruning, and fertilizing), it’s fine to use the old reliables.
For most of these you can deadhead the spent blooms throughout summer to make them look tidy and bloom more, but you don’t have to. Fertilize them in spring with a slow-release formula for perennials. Water them occasionally to get them established their first year and during drought. Prune them to the ground in winter, and they start anew in early spring.
Phlox range in size from short groundcovers (Phlox subulata) to medium-size 1-foot stalks of woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), to tall, 2- to 4-foot stalks of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), shown here. There are nearly 70 species, so read the plant tag to make certain you get the right size and flower color for your location. Flower colors range from white to pale blue, pink, lavender, and purple. Some, like P. subulata, can handle drought and sun. Others, like the woodland type, prefer organic soil and dappled shade.
In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan asks, “Don’t you think daisies are the friendliest flower?” I might have to agree. It’s just nice to be greeted in the summer garden by these perky, white-petal flowers radiating from yellow centers perched on tall stalks. Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) are drought tolerant, sun-loving, and spread rapidly, but never seem aggressive or invasive. They also make easy cut flowers. Stick a bunch in a vase, and you’re done. So easy, even Tom Hanks can do it.
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are similar to daisies in shape, habit, and preference for sun and good drainage. How can you not love the bright-golden-yellow petals and brown centers? (I have no idea why they got the name “black-eyed” when they are clearly brown.) Black-eyed Susans also are drought tolerant, hardy but not invasive, and make good cut flowers.
If you have an area of dry shade, hostas can come to your rescue. Thousands of cultivars come in all shades of green, chartreuse, blue-green, and of course wonderful variegations. Stalks of small flowers range from white to lavender to purple. Some hostas also are lightly fragrant. You can mix and match them to create an interesting collection, or plant a mass of the same variety for an elegant effect. Chartreuse and variegated types are great for brightening up a shady spot.
There are about 400 species of sedum, and even more cultivars available. I think all are great. Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ is a favorite large cultivar (about 2 feet tall). ‘Neon’ is a kissing cousin to ‘Autumn Joy’, but the blooms are brighter pink. Both types start out pale green, turn pink in midsummer, fade to rusty red in fall, and finally turn brown for the winter.