No-muss, No-fuss Gardening

April 10, 1994|By Mike Klingaman

Plants that defy drought. Shrubs that resist disease. Trees that never need trimming.

"Smart" gardens are here, by public demand.

Gardens impervious to heat, blight and things that go chomp in the night. Gardens that vex Mother Nature on her worst days.

Gardens that can fend for themselves.

Imagine that.

Such gardens are the people's choice in the 1990s, say landscape professionals. Homeowners want pretty vistas, but not the chores that come with them. Weekends are family days; who needs shears and sprays?

"No-muss, no-fuss gardening, that's what people want," says Steve Klein of River Hill Garden Center in Clarksville. "With two-income families, and so many children's activities going on, there just isn't the time [to garden] as in the past."

At Maxalea Nurseries Inc. near Stoneleigh in Baltimore County, landscaper Jim McWilliams is repeatedly asked the same question: What can I grow that I won't have to hoe?

"More and more customers really don't want to worry about bugs watering," says Mr. McWilliams. "They want plants that are resistant to just about everything."

Nurseries and landscapers say they are up to the task.

"Low-maintenance gardening is 'in' for the '90s," says Rick Watson of Exterior Design Inc. in Glen Arm in Baltimore County. Plant choices are many, he says: "There is something out there for everyone, whether the garden is in the sun, the shade or on a slope."

The following designs, submitted to Distinction by three area nurseries, suggest easy-care plants for different types of low-maintenance gardens.

A SHADY GARDEN

Ostrich ferns, azaleas, ornamental grasses and a Japanese red maple are featured in this woodland garden, which receives about three hours of sun a day.

"It's always more difficult to have a low-maintenance shade garden, because there are fewer plants to choose from," says Mr. Klein of River Hill Garden Center.

Recommendations include astilbe, a perennial with lacy green foliage and feather-duster plumes of red, pink and white; kalmia mountain laurel, a slow-growing shrub without the gangliness of its kin; and sweet box, "a real gardener's plant" with fragrant white flowers. Unlike other ground covers, sweet box won't take over the garden.

Mr. Klein's design, used for a garden he landscaped recently in Howard County, includes a fish pond. A do-it-yourselfer could substitute a fountain or even a piece of statuary without losing the overall effect, he says.

Ferns are a mainstay here, broad sweeps of lacy greenery that thrive on inattention. Also mondo grass, a ground-hugging, silver-green ornamental grass that grows quickly to maturity (6 inches) but stops short of creeping out of bounds.

Acuba -- a bold, eye-catching evergreen shrub -- favors shady locales. Its green foliage is speckled yellow and white; the bush grows 3 feet tall.

"Very little in this garden needs pruning, except for the Japanese maple," says Mr. Klein. "Even it grows slowly, perhaps several inches a year."

The maple, showpiece of the garden, weeps over the pond, its red leaves a striking contrast to the contemporary house behind it. Nearby is another tree, a laceleaf maple with fine serrated leaves. No maintenance problems here: The laceleaf grows even more slowly than its cousin. Neither tree is offended by lack of sun.

Not coincidentally, several shrubs chosen for the sunny garden are favored here as well. Both the PJM rhododendron and heavenly bamboo adapt to either environment.

What is there for a gardener to do?

"Just throw down some fertilizer at the appropriate time," says Mr. Klein.

A HILLSIDE GARDEN

For less than $1,000, homeowners can turn a wicked slope into a verdant paradise -- and never have to mow it again, says Mr. Watson of Exterior Design Inc.

The trick is in using plants that will withstand drought, soil erosion and choke weeds.

Planted in large drifts, perennials such as sedums, ornamental grasses and black-eyed Susans, give the hillside definitive splashes of color from spring until fall. "These plants will handle terrible conditions with good results," says Mr. Watson. "And they compete very well against weeds. A weed is going to have to make a special effort to get up in there."

Its tough, heavy leaves and hardy exterior, reminiscent of desert landscapes, earns autumn joy sedum a spot in the hillside garden. The plants bloom continuously from July to September, producing flowers of white, pink and red on cauliflower-type heads.

Black-eyed Susans, the state flower, bloom even longer, producing swatches of gold on carefree, knee-high plants from late June until fall.

The ornamental grasses are tall but delicate plants with gauzy green foliage. But don't let that fool you, says Mr. Watson. Both the maidenhair and feather reed grasses form hearty clumps that strangle weeds without invading the rest of the garden.

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