Super-Low-Maintenance Native Plant Landscaping
All gardens require some maintenance, but if you want to keep it to a minimum while providing wildlife habitat that looks neat and tidy, here are some suggestions.
Native trees require almost no work and host huge numbers of the insects that songbirds need to feed their young. Native trees come in a wide range of sizes, from 20 foot dogwoods to 100 foot oak trees. See our page on native trees and find more details on our companion website, Plant NOVA Trees. Ideally, plant a grove of three or more trees, 15 feet apart, underplanted with native shrubs. Mow only to the drip line and leave the dead leaves underneath to cover the ground.
Plant shrubs and vines
Native shrubs also fill the space with a minimum of effort on your part and host a lot of wildlife. They pose no trouble for inexperienced gardeners as they try to figure out what is a weed and what is a desirable plant. Cover fences or other empty vertical spots with native vines and enjoy a hummingbird show (but make sure you have room and a strong support – some vines can grow very large.)
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Plant a limited number of well-behaved perennials in blocks
It is much easier to decide what is a weed and what is not if you plant just a few species in well-defined blocks, using plants that have strong and distinctive architecture and which spread only slowly if at all and do not flop.
Use dense groundcover
Groundcovers that spread sideways to form tight mats are effective at suppressing weeds, especially in shade areas. You’ll still need to weed, but far less with these planted in mass:
Green-and-Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)
Woodland Phlox (Phlox maculata)
Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia) (need rich soil)
Wild Ginger (shown) (Asarum canadense)
Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) makes a great groundcover for sun. (In full sun, though, weeds are a lot more vigorous.)
Using 2 inch landscape plugs can save money on plants, but do you have time (or are you willing to pay someone) to do the extra weeding involved until the plants get large enough to help shade out weeds?
In general, it is wise to start with small areas when installing groundcovers and other perennials, so you can get a feel for how much weeding is involved. This is particularly important in areas that have Japanese stiltgrass, which thrives in sun and shade.
Let’s talk about shade!
Ferns are a good example of carefree plants that are handsome when massed. Read up on their care, as some need moister conditions than do others. Examples include:
Clumping evergreen or semi-evergreen ferns
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) - this plant is like iron!
Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)
Toothed Wood Fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)
Wood Fern (shown) (Dryopteris marginalis)
Clumping deciduous ferns (these need a little more moisture in the soil)
Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Fragile Fern (Cystopteris protrusa)
Goldie’s Wood Fern (Dryopteris goldiana)
Royal Fern (Osmunda spectabilis)
Other neat and tidy perennials include:
Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
Goatsbeard (shown) (Aruncus diocus)
Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) (takes sun as well)
Spreading Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans)
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
What about sun?
Grasses love sunshine and provide both architecture and textural interest. Use tall ornamental grasses such as Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) or lower ones such as Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis). If you like, you can mulch around clumps of grass to suppress weeds.
Some neat-and-tidy perennials
Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis)
Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)
Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
Turk’s-cap Lily (Lilium superbum)
Eastern Prickly-pear (Opuntia humifusa)
Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) - mildew resistant cultivars are available.
New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii)
Common Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)
Do not use fertilizer
Native plants do not need fertilizer, which may cause them to become lanky.
Be careful with big-time spreaders:
Some plants such as certain kinds of asters and goldenrod may give you more than you bargained for. These plants could be great if you want to cover a lot of territory and don’t care if they get all mixed together, but they quickly spread and can take over in the right conditions. See below, and use our plant search app to find detailed gardening tips for each plant.
Watch out for floppers:
These plants hold each other up in a meadow but may flop over in your garden.
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Rose-Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Goldenrod (Solidago species)
To minimize flopping and lanky looks:
Fall or very late-summer bloomers that tend to get tall can be cutback repeatedly up till July 4 or so. Doing this will result in a bushier, more compact plant, generally more flowers, and a less floppy appearance.
Make sure that plants that require full sun get at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Anything less than full direct sun for fewer hours will cause these plants to be leggy and less full than they would otherwise be.
Know your plant's water requirements. If it likes dry, hot sites, planting it in a wet location will cause it be floppy (if it doesn't die of root rot.) Lawn sprinklers may inadvertently deliver more water to your garden plants than they need. If it likes wet sites, and you plant it in a dry one, it will not thrive and will look sparse and thin.
Do you have enough sun?
As a general rule, if a plant is described at the nursery as “sun/part shade” it will not flower well in part shade! It is going to grow taller, reaching for the sunshine. Go for shade-loving species for part shade conditions.
These plants are great if you don't mind them spreading and possibly dominating. Not everyone will have that experience - it just depends on whether the site conditions happen to be ideal for the species - but once they are there, some of them may be hard to get rid of. If you do have room, some of them have high value for the ecosystem. Assertive native plants may be referred to as "aggressive," but to avoid confusion, we do not use the term "invasive," which refers specifically to non-native plants that cause environmental or economic harm.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)
Jerusulem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)
Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Mint species (Pycnanthemum)
Lyre-leaf Sage (Salvia lyrata)
Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica)
Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima)
Heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Common Violet (Viola sororia)
Winged or Staghorn Sumac (Rhus copallinum, typhina)
Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina)
Common Elderbery (Sambucus canadensis)
Northern Oat Grass (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struphtiopteris)
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quincquefolia)
Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)
Late Boneset is wonderful for bees but seeds exuberently
Mountain Mint spreads sideways by rhizomes