A friend contacted me last week with an interesting gardening challenge: she has a garden bed that runs along the front of her house and wants to fill it with low-maintenance plants before she rents her house out for two years whilst she is overseas. One end of the bed is in sun; the other end is more shady. The idea is that the tenants wouldn't have to do anything at all to it but that it would make an attractive feature for the house during my friend's absence.
I decided to wander round my own garden and examine what plants could fit the bill. It was a different way of thinking about plants, as I am usually seduced by flowers (which in this case are not really suitable as they generally need to be cut off after blooming or else will look nasty in their death throes). Colour, I decided, would have to come from foliage unless a plant's flower stalks could subside slowly and unobtrusively. Looking solely at form that is maintained throughout the year without need for pruning, as well as an ability to tolerate neglect, turns up some real Trojans of the plant world.
I came up with two possible schemes: one based more on hot colours, the other on cooler silvers. For a hot-coloured theme, I would probably start with an advanced specimen of a small evergreen shrub to anchor the planting at the sunny end - maybe a dwarf lilly pilly such as Acmena smithii 'Hedgemaster' (ht 1 ), which has a compact, dense, rounded habit and coppery coloured new growth, and is resistant to attack by the lilly pilly psyllid. Nearby, I might put a group of dwarf Nandina domestica 'Nana' - horribly overused as a landscaping tool, I know, but an incredible plant. It is tough and can put up with very hot, dry situations as well as shady spots. It maintains its neat, rounded form (ht 45 cm) all year round and has attractive, vaguely bamboo-like foliage, although it is no relation to the real bamboo. The best feature to my mind is that these leaves take on pretty red, orange and even purple tints in autumn, and because it doesn't lose its leaves, these remain decorative all through winter. In spring, it has very attractive lime green new growth.
For the shadier section, I'd next suggest some green foliage plants with a contrasting structure - perhaps an evergreen ornamental ginger. I have one that I have grown for years that I have never known the name of, which I think came from my parents' garden. It forms a good clump of elliptical evergreen leaves to about 1.2 m tall, which have a nice spicy fragrance. It may be of Hedychium coronarium. It has never flowered. Eventually, the clump needs to be divided but not for a few years. Next to that I'd envisage another coloured-leaved plant - perhaps a yellow-variegated Ctenanthe lubbersiana (ht 1 m), which has similar-shaped leaves to the ginger and form good, low-maintenance clumps. I'd add some Philodendron 'Xanadu' in front for some foliage contrast - this is a great plant with very attractive lobed leaves that are richly green and lush. It grows to around 75 cm in height and eventually makes a 1m-wide clump. It needs no attention whatsoever.
At the shadier end, I would also add in a clump of giant Liriope muscari (ht 80 cm)- a fantastic foliage plant, forming a fountain of slim, arching leaves. Its flower stalks are not obtrusive and die off naturally. I would add in some Clivia for their cheery orange or yellow flowers in late winter/early spring; again the flowering stalks aren't too unsightly and die down eventually. I'd also add in some Neoregelia bromeliads with bright red centres, as these don't have flower stalks that need to be removed. I'd tuck in some yellow-striped, grassy Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' around in any spaces - another no-maintenance plant that thrives in sun or shade.
For a cooler-coloured alternative, I'd start at the sunny end with an advanced specimen of one of the compact Paradise Camellia sasanqua cultivars: perhaps 'Paradise Petite' (ht 1 m), with dainty, pale pink informal flowers during autumn and winter. They need no maintenance. To accompany it, I'd choose a couple of the lovely white-edged foliage plant Euonymus japonicus 'Albomarginatus' (ht 1 m), which forms a naturally rounded shape. It is not commonly seen: I obtained mine from the Secret Garden & Nursery at Richmond. I'd underplant these with a silvery lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) that I have that doesn't flower - it provides a velvet carpet all year round. I'd probably still use the ginger and Philodendron as the border goes into shade, but would replace the yellow-variegated Ctenanthe with the lovely silvery Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' (ht 1.2 m), which forms an impressive clump and looks good year-round. I'd still suggest the giant Liriope as a foliage contrast, and some of the excellent mounding Pilea cadierei (green leaves flecked with white; ht 45 cm), or a clump of Aspidistra elatior (ht 50 cm or more), instead of the Clivia. I'd add in a silvery groundcover of Plectranthus 'Nicoletta' at this shaded end too. It does have a slim spire of violet flowers in autumn but these don?t form obtrusive deadheads. I'd tuck in Liriope spicata 'Silver Dragon' into any gaps.
The bed would need to be thickly mulched with cane mulch after planting to minimise weeds. It will be interesting to see how the bed turns out! I'd love to hear of any other ideas people may have!
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