You will never see me advocating enthusiastically for low maintenance gardening. It is not our style. But I do think some plants need to know their place in life. Some clamour for way more attention than they deserve. We have been thinking about plants that are unjustifiably high maintenance. First to go here were almost all plants that require chemical intervention (spraying) to keep them looking good – or even alive. Goodbye underperforming roses and badly thrip-infested rhododendrons. These might be great in other climates, but here? No. Next in the spotlight are some of the other high maintenance plant options.
Who doesn’t love wisteria? But unless you are willing to give them the attention they require, they are best admired in somebody else’s garden. More than any other plant I can think of, they cannot just be planted and left. Miss a prune and it only takes one season for them to crack the spouting – I know this from experience. They also put out runners that R U N considerable distances. What is more, if you prune them incorrectly, they don’t flower which really defeats the purpose of growing them.
We dug three wisteria out this winter. Two were not flowering well enough to justify keeping them (not enough light, I think). The third was running amok in a wild area and threatening world domination. We have still kept about seven plants, including two on our bridge which are great performers but I am meticulous about pruning them both in summer and winter. Even so, they can join hands in the middle, trying to block passage through.
Climbing roses are another plant that I personally think are best admired in somebody else’s garden. I once planted ‘Albertine’ over an arch in the vegetable garden. It looked lovely in flower but then it produced many long whips covered in fierce thorns. Not only were they waving away waiting to ensnare anyone who walked down the path, pruning was a Major Mission. When it took me the better part of a day to prune it and tie it in, I decided that the rewards did not justify the effort. The advice often seen in English media about letting climbing roses scramble through trees and not worrying about pruning them at all does not translate to our gardening conditions. Any rose that strong is more likely to collapse the host tree, or swamp it at least. We are trialling some semi-thornless pillar roses but rampant, thorny climbers – no thanks.
Any potentially large tree planted in the wrong place is going to be high maintenance. Vegetable time bombs, we call them. I see it with Magnolia grandiflora “Little Gem” in urban gardens more than any other plant I can think of. Aforementioned “Little Gem” is only little by comparison with something that might equally be called “Extremely Giant Gem”. It is not a dwarf tree. Plant it in a confined space – I know of a twin row of five or six aside lining a very narrow driveway in town – and it will either be high maintenance on an ongoing basis to keep it confined or an expensive removal job when it becomes a major problem.
Clipped hedges can give great definition in a garden – green walls, really. But I rate any hedge that needs trimming more than once or twice a year as high maintenance. While some people are quite happy to trim hedges frequently to keep sharp-edged definition, I see that activity as being like vacuuming the house. There is nothing creative about such a repetitious activity. To me, hedges are utility tools, a background, not the centre of attention so they shouldn’t be demanding as much or more attention as the foreground stars of the garden. I would not plant any in teucrium or lonicera for these reasons.
Buxus used to be infinitely useful and undemanding hedging plant. But with the advent of buxus blight in many areas, that status has changed. I know of gardeners who are spraying their buxus hedges every few weeks, just to keep them leafy and to hold blight at bay. Woah there! Aside from environmental considerations (even if it is just a copper spray, the long term use of that is not good), it turns a handy, low maintenance plant into a high maintenance option.
Give me our small leafed camellia hedges any day. A hard prune in early spring followed by a light tidy-up in autumn is all they need. Also they light up a winter’s day while feeding the birds and over-wintering monarch butterflies. Camellias ‘Fairy Blush’, transnokoensis and microphylla are our preferred options.
We can and do fuss over some plants but utility plants? No. They need to know their place in life and that means not being so demanding.
First published in the September issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.