My elderberry flowering white over my left shoulder.
It’s pretty tricky to make a list of low maintenance plants when your readers live all around the world.
But I wanted to have a go at it anyway because it’s winter and I miss my garden!
What makes this list more interesting than other low maintenance plant lists I’ve seen is that each plant is not only relatively easy to grow, but also highly beneficial to have in your garden.
So here’s what I did. I worked with a former student of mine named Libby who’s also an organic gardener and more of a plant person than I am (I’m the soil guy), and we put together a list of our favorite low maintenance garden plants, most of which have a fairly broad range and so can be grown in a lot of places.
And all but one of the plants are native to North America, which is pretty cool (if you live in North America, that is).
Then I emailed some people I had come across online who are also plant people and I asked each of them for their favorite low maintenance yet highly beneficial plant, which I’ve included down below under the ‘Guest Contributions’ headings.
Many of them had a hard time choosing one, and several wanted to know more about where in the world this plant would be growing because a plant that’s low maintenance in one place may be high maintenance or even non-growable in another place.
For example, Adrian Ayres Fisher from Chicago who runs the website EcologicalGardening.net gave this thoughtful response:
“Before I spoke about favorites, I’d have to know the planting situation, geographic place, soil, light, other plants being considered, goals for the garden, who would be taking care of the garden or landscape and so on. Low maintenance in one situation may not be in another in another. And, of course, many plants are only low maintenance because they are living in a certain ecological or biotic community.”
She’s absolutely right. There’s really no such thing as a universally-applicable low maintenance plant list, so although many of the plants we chose are widely adaptable, be sure to make sure they’re right for your garden before you choose them.
Before you start looking at which low maintenance garden plants would be right for you, it’s important to learn a little about your site.
Observe the soil, light, moisture and wildlife in your area. And on top of that, I always encourage soil testing and subsequent organic fertilizing in order to make the soil as healthy as possible for your plants. Even if they’re natives, they still want appropriate soil.
Starting off with the right plants in the right places means less time spent watering, weeding, pruning and fertilizing in the long run.
And I encourage you to plant in guilds. If you haven’t heard of a plant guild before, it’s basically another way of saying a mini-community of plants.
As you’ve seen in nature, plants tend to grow together with different plants at various levels from the upper tree canopy down to the low ground covers.
Plants naturally form relationships and they can help or hinder each other. Some plants are great companions, while others may compete for nutrients or even release substances into the soil that are toxic to their neighbors.
I’m focusing on species that are native to North America, and the better local nurseries will have the specific cultivars and varieties that are right for your area.
Taking some time to find the right low maintenance plants for your site will pay off down the road.
For example, if you only have a small garden bed to work with you’d be wise to choose a dwarf variety or naturally small tree to feature. Otherwise you’ll have many hours of pruning ahead of you to tame a tree too big for its bed.
It takes some trial and error, but try to choose a combination of low maintenance landscaping plants that will complement each other and fill various roles, whether to provide food for you, attract pollinators, improve the soil quality, create bird habitat or provide beauty and colour.
Low Maintenance Trees
This list of trees with edible and/or medicinal fruit is a great place to start planning your high function, low maintenance garden.
Trees are great for ecosystem health, in addition to the many functions I’ve listed below. Not only do they help to reduce the impacts of climate change by storing carbon, they also purify air and water, regulate moisture levels, prevent erosion and act as windbreaks.
Depending on the size of the bed you’re planning, you may want to choose one feature tree and then a couple of shrubs from the list that comes after that.
Origins: A number of plum species originated in North America, such as Black Plum, Chickasaw Plum and American Plum. There are also many popular cultivated varieties available with a wide range of fruit colors and flavors, and tree sizes and shapes.
Functions: Tasty fruit eaten raw or cooked (or dried, which we call prunes) and make a good laxative, important food source for wildlife, provides shade, nesting cover for birds, habitat for native insect populations, beautiful flowers and foliage.
Site Requirements: Full sun, well-drained soil, adequate space depending on the species and variety selected.
Notes: May require other trees in the same genus nearby for pollination – ask at your nursery. Some nurseries may carry multi-graft trees with more than one variety on one tree. Fruit trees can be a lot of work if you choose, especially when you get into pruning, but my experience has been that plums, if left alone, don’t need pruning and don’t get nearly as much disease as other fruits.
Origins: The Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is native and common throughout most of the eastern half of North America. There are also many cultivated varieties of both sweet and sour cherries in a range of sizes from compact dwarf trees to those reaching over 100 feet in height.
Functions: Food for humans, insects, birds and other wildlife, cherry can be a lovely flowering tree, shade, habitat, wide range of culinary uses in food and beverages, important Native American plant for food and medicine.
Site Requirements: Specific requirements depend on variety but all require full sun and well-drained soil. I have one cherry in a bit of shade and wetter soil and it isn’t as happy as my other that’s in full sun.
Notes: Sour cherries are self-fertile while sweet cherries require compatible varieties for pollination. If you don’t want the birds to get them all, you can buy bird nets. Like plums above, they’re quite hands off when compared to other common fruit trees.
Origins: The many varieties of mulberries originate from around the globe as far as Asia, Africa and the Americas. The Red Mulberry or Morus rubra is a species native to east and central North America.
Functions: Great fresh and in jams, pies and preserves, food and habitat for native wildlife, shade, beauty.
Site Requirements: Plant in full sun in a deep well-drained soil, away from sidewalks to avoid staining from fallen berries.
Notes: Make your harvesting easier by laying a tarp and shaking the tree, as the fruit drops easily when it’s ripe. Mulberry trees are long lived, quick growing when young and often reach 30 to 50 feet in height. I encourage everyone to get one if they have the site for it.
Origins: A number of varieties are native to North America. The Saskatoon Serviceberry is common in the northern states, Canada and Alaska. Some varieties are shrubby while others form larger trees.
Functions: Ornamental value with lovely white blossoms in early spring and attractive orange to red foliage in fall, edible berries similar to blueberries, high in antioxidants, attracts pollinating insects, food and habitat for birds, mammals and insects, very low maintenance.
Site Requirements: Prefers full sun but will tolerate some shade, some varieties will tolerate poor, dry soil.
Notes: Strong wood withstands storms well. There are serviceberry trees and shrubs. My dad has hundreds of the shrubs growing in his nursery – a really beautiful plant when it’s flowering and you never have to touch it. Just give it enough space – I see a lot of serviceberry shrubs planted too close to the house.
When I asked people for their favorite low maintenance plants, I didn’t specify tree, shrub, herbaceous, etc. – I just used the word ‘plant,’ which is probably why I received only one tree recommendation:
Todd Heft, Big Blog Of Gardening: “The smartest move I ever made was planting a River Birch tree in my backyard. It is a single stem variety with exfoliating bark and a weeping habit to the foliage, which like every birch, turns bright yellow in fall. It’s absolutely beautiful all 4 seasons and requires no pruning. It’s a native tree here in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. and supports literally thousands of species of insect larva, which also happen to be the favorite meal of hundreds of species of small native birds. As a result, I’ve attracted more birds than I can count to my yard for nesting and feeding, which has helped with pest control like you wouldn’t believe. And listening to them sing early on a summer morning is a wonderful thing.”
Low Maintenance Shrubs
Origins: The North American native Sambucus canadensis or American Elderberry is a deciduous shrub with a loose habit reaching 5 to 12 feet in height. The European Black Elderberry is a close relative and will reach both a height and spread of about 20 feet.
Functions: Many aesthetic, ecological, culinary and medicinal benefits, attracts butterflies and song birds, American Elderberry displays clusters of small white flowers in the summer, developing to dark purplish to black berries in the fall, the ripe berries are edible when cooked and are commonly used for cordials, jellies and wines.
Site Requirements: Moist well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
Notes: The leaves, roots and unripe berries of the elderberry plant contain toxic substances and should be avoided, ripe berries are high in antioxidants, vitamins C and A, iron and potassium. My elderberry is one of my favorite shrubs in my garden – it’s big and beautiful (currently taller than the fruit trees nearby) and the harvest is bountiful.
Origins: Blueberries are native to North America and many species originate from various regions of the continent. The Northern Highbush Blueberry is most commonly cultivated for commercial use and is native to the eastern and southern states and eastern Canada.
Functions: Highly nutritious, delicious and popular fruit, food source for wildlife, attractive shrub with white flowers in spring and brilliant leaf color in fall, medicinal uses.
Site Requirements: It’s often suggested that blueberries prefer very acidic soil, but as I explain in my pH testing article, plants don’t really prefer any type of pH. What they usually love are certain nutrients (in the case of blueberries, that’s iron and sulfur) that they can more easily get in an acidic soil. The recommendation is often to use a lot of sulfur in order to increase soil acidity, whereas I recommend using a little sulfur only if a soil test says your soil needs it. On top of that, use lots and lots of compost because they want a highly organic soil. Many people use peat moss for this because it can also help increase acidity, but I prefer compost. People have grown incredible blueberries on high pH soils by using plenty of organic matter.
Notes: Take care to select a variety that will do well in your climate. The nursery should have the right ones. Bunny rabbits like to eat mine down to the ground every spring, so some protection may be in order if you have them in your neighborhood.
Origins: Both the Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and Green Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) are native to western North America, while the Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) is native to a wide range of eastern North America.
Functions: Tasty berries, an important plant in many Indigenous cultures in North America for food and medicine, some varieties are cultivated for ornamental use, food source for many wild creatures.
Site Requirements: Most huckleberries like to grow near decaying wood and, like blueberries, often seem to due better in acidic soil because of the nutrient balance there (but they’ll also do fine in higher pH soil if they have lots of organic matter).
Notes: Often used in habitat restoration projects and native plant gardens. They take a long time to reach maturity.
I received a few shrub recommendations when I asked around:
Low Maintenance Flowers And Understory Plants
Once you’ve picked some trees and shrubs to feature in your low maintenance garden design, it’s time to look at some suitable understory plants to fill in the gaps.
Flowering plants provide colour and beauty while attracting pollinating insects. Nitrogen fixers will improve soil nutrients and make excellent “chop and drop” mulch plants.
Black Eyed Susan
Origins: Rudbekia hirta is a native wildflower across eastern and central North America and naturalized through the rest of the continent.
Functions: Popular ornamental with gorgeous bright blooms in late summer and early fall, attractive foliage, heat and drought tolerant, attracts butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects, makes lovely cut flowers, food and habitat for wildlife, used in traditional medicine of several Native American tribes.
Site Requirements: Easy to start and maintain, prefers full sun to light shade and neutral pH soil, deadheading can encourage more blooms, can be self-seeding annual or short-lived perennial.
Notes: The state flower of Maryland, often used in butterfly gardens.
Origins: The Monarda genus is in the mint family and includes a number of wildflowers native to North America and varieties cultivated for ornamental use.
Functions: Attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other insects, long history of medicinal use, aromatic leaves can be used in herbal teas and as culinary seasoning, edible flowers – use petals to garnish salads, use for fresh cut or dried flowers.
Site Requirements: Full sun, prefers moist well-drained soil, some varieties will tolerate wet boggy soil.
Notes: Over fifty commercial cultivars are available in a range of colors, however native varieties may produce hardier, more low maintenance plants.
Origins: Although most lupines originated from the Mediterranean, a few species are native to North America such as the Nootka Lupine, Texas Bluebonnet and Yellow Bush Lupine.
Functions: Accumulates nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, host for native insects, ornamental varieties are cultivated for attractive blooms and foliage, some varieties have edible and nutritious seeds similar to soy beans, long history of agricultural use to improve soil and feed livestock.
Site Requirements: Varies depending on the species however lupines in general are tolerant of poor soil, most prefer full sun and well-drained soil, some will tolerate shade.
Notes: The genus Lupinus includes many species with a diverse range of properties and functions, so do some research to find the right variety to suit your needs. Some varieties have been considered invasive in certain conditions. Most are low maintenance perennials, but some are annuals and some are edible while others are toxic.
Origins: All species are native to eastern and central North America.
Functions: Widely used medicinally, attractive ornamental with showy flowers in the summer and attractive year-round foliage, attracts pollinators, butterflies and other insects.
Site Requirements: A prairie wildflower that is highly drought and heat tolerant with a deep taproot, prefers sun or light shade, may not survive a damp winter.
Notes: Although perennial, they are short-lived and may require replanting from time to time depending on conditions.
Origins: Native to North America and temperate regions of Europe and Asia.
Functions: Good ground cover, accumulates nutrients in the soil, traditional medicinal uses, attracts bees and butterflies, some ornamental varieties have colored blooms, unique fern-like foliage, prevents soil erosion, used in herbal teas.
Site Requirements: Prefers full sun and well-drained soil but will grow in conditions that are not ideal.
Notes: Yarrow helps stop bleeding from wounds. Often when I pass my own yarrow, I think of this interesting passage from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s fantastic book ‘The Lost Language Of Plants’ where he contends that people used to have knowledge of how to use plants not by trial and error, but my communicating with them:
“Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a pervasive plant throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Historically, nearly everywhere yarrow grows, it has been used as a hemostatic herb: to stop bleeding, especially bleeding caused by wounds. A great many of its traditional names indicate this property: The ancient Roman name herba militaris (soldier’s grass) and the North American Teton Dakota tribal designation tao-pi pezu’ta (medicine for the wounded) being two. The Latin name itself, Achillea millefolium, means “the thousand-leaved plant of Achilles” – who used it to heal men hurt in battle. Even its common name, yarrow, is old English for “spear well” – to make well from spears.
This knowledge of the use of the plant is assumed by scientists to have occurred through trial and error. From a superficial examination this assertion seems to make sense. Each of us has learned through trial and error: Never cut toward yourself with a sharp knife, for instance. But let’s imagine how this might have occurred with yarrow. Imagine a man a very long time ago in a forest (the first man ever to do this, in fact), and he cuts himself and begins to bleed. The cut is a bad one – lots of blood. He decides to put a plant on the wound. I have often wondered at this; it seems a radical decision. Still, he begins to place plants on the wound. He tries some grass. Nothing. Marsh mallow leaves. Nothing. The bleeding is getting worse so he is moving through the forest with greater speed trying this and that. Finally he grabs some yarrow and places it on the wound (first, of course, bruising it so that the juice of the plant liberally enters the wound). The bleeding stops. Yarrow stops bleeding. He tells everyone in his immediate area and knowledge of this plant medicine enters his cultural lore. By a similar process a member of every other culture on Earth makes a similar determination and yarrow enters their cultural lore as well. As far as this goes it can seem to make sense…”
Origins: Fragaria virginiana is a small wild strawberry that’s native to North America, but modern cultivated strawberries are actually hybrids of the North American native that were crossed with a larger Chilean variety in Europe in the 1700s.
Functions: Very popular fruit worldwide, delicious red berries for human and animal consumption, excellent ground cover, attracts pollinating insects, leaves can be used for tea, some traditional medicinal uses.
Site Requirements: Need full sun for fruit to ripen, well-drained soil, start from plants, Junebearers will take a year to get established and produce one large crop each spring, Dayneutrals will fruit all season and tend to produce fewer runners.
Notes: Spreads by runners and can get overcrowded, but you can pot up your extra seedlings to sell or give away to friends.
Origins: The only plant on this list that does not have a North American native variety, comfrey originated in Europe and is common in England and Ireland.
Functions: Accumulates nutrients in the soil, excellent mulch plant, fast growing, chop and drop or add to compost, grown for 2000+ years for medicine, attracts pollinators, beautiful flowers and foliage.
Site Requirements: Tolerates a wide range of conditions but prefers sun to partial shade and moist clay soil. Once established it is very difficult to remove, so take care in choosing an appropriate site.
Notes: A highly multifunctional garden plant and excellent addition to a fruit tree guild to improve nutrient quality of the soil and suppress weed growth. Its long taproot mines nutrients from deep in the soil. Mine tries to spread throughout my garden, but I chop it back every month to use as an exceptionally nutritious mulch, and I use it when I’m making herbal teas as well (after the urine section).
Most of the people I asked went right to the understory plants, which is good, because you need more of them:
Video courtesy of Catherine Zimmerman who’s currently working on a documentary called Hometown Habitat
Low Maintenance Plants + High Function = Happy Gardener
If you’re like me, your garden is more than just a pretty place to pass by on your way out the door.
It feeds you delicious fruits and vegetables, improves the soil and provides habitat for birds, bees and other critters in your neighborhood.
Our goal here is to find low maintenance plants that fill all of these needs without demanding a lot of time and energy.
Locally-propagated native varieties will be adapted to your bioregion and appealing to native wildlife.