Tough Plants for Sustainable Gardening

It doesn’t matter where you live—if you’re deciding what to plant based on weather forecasting, you may as well buy monthly lottery tickets and expect them to pay the rent. While one coast is being warned of a drier summer, the other is being given a heads-up that it’s going to be soggier than normal—and the places in between are being told that things for them could go either way. If we can’t predict and control the weather, we can at least apply our secret superpower—informed plant choices for a sustainable landscape. That’s right, we can assemble our own A-Team of tough plants that will survive and thrive, whatever happens. Here are some tips for choosing the best tough plants for sustainable gardening—using drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants that offer season-long interest while requiring fewer chemicals and less water.

The first step in selecting plants that will be able to look after themselves in your landscape, garden, or even patio is to simply take a walk around the neighborhood. When you see plants you like that are obviously thriving, take a quick photo to help identify them if you don’t already recognize them. Do a bit more research, either online or by checking with your local garden center, to learn which plants have a reputation for strong performance in your area.

Going beyond the usual suspects

This sustainable but incredibly attractive landscape includes easy-care Flower Carpet Pink roses, ornamental grasses, and an array of low-maintenance shrubs.

Sustainable landscapes don’t have to just look like cactus or desert scrub, though. If you think roses are out, for instance, think again. Easy-care, drought-tolerant Flower Carpet® ground cover roses can be a great choice for low-maintenance, season-long color in beds or containers. With their two-tier root system, Flower Carpet roses are extremely drought tolerant and will continue to bloom even under very difficult circumstances.

When planted en masse, carpet roses (which spread more horizontally than vertically and become covered with blooms) are also a great way to quickly fill in a large bed you’d like to turn into a more low-maintenance, sustainable landscape. They’re also ideal on slopes to help reduce erosion, as seen below in the mass planting of Flower Carpet® Coral in a California hillside planting.

In a garden setting, Flower Carpet® roses—either the original Flower Carpet ground cover roses or the new Flower Carpet fragrant shrub roses—can be interplanted with other low-maintenance perennials such as long-blooming varieties of purple-blue sages and salvias, lavender, cranesbill, daylilies, lambs’ ears, coreopsis, euphorbia, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, Volcano garden phlox, and echinacea. In most climates, this combination of plants, coupled with a good layer of mulch, will require minimal watering and effort for a great display. And as a bonus, all of these plants are pollinator friendly.

To add a dramatic touch to your sustainable landscape, plant a gentle sweep of one or two varieties of ornamental grasses or Festival™ cordyline. Plus, beyond the visual advantages, the sound of grasses swaying in the wind adds another sense—hearing—to the garden experience. Other low-maintenance plants that are ideal for mass planting include achillea, rhododendrons, chelone, azaleas, Russian sage, and ligularia.

Cordyline Festival™ Raspberry interplanted with ornamental grasses adds interest and texture to a sustainable landscape.

There are also plenty of sustainable plants offering architectural interest and texture. For instance, the Storm™ agapanthus series is good for mass planting because of its sturdy, multiple flower stalks, uniform height and multiple flushes of blooms, each lasting six to seven weeks. Between blooms, Storm™ agapanthus still make a statement with their freestanding cluster of strap-like leaves. As a bonus, Blue Storm™ is one of the few agapanthus that survived the Dallas Arboretum’s intense trials in the heat.

However, mass plantings can be a two-edged sword, since a monoculture of plants is subject to being wiped out by a pest or disease. So if you do use one plant, make sure it’s a time-tested disease- and pest-resistant variety or perhaps a native or adapted plant that has proven itself in your area.

Snow Storm agapanthus require little maintenance while still providing great color and texture, even when not in bloom.

And don’t forget the larger plants. Low-maintenance hedges added to your landscape not only add interest but can help to protect other plants from blustery winds. For instance, with its dependable, compact growth habit and fragrant blooms, Fairy Magnolia® ‘White’ magnolia (below) would be a solid addition to your A-Team tough plant list. Plus, even when it is not in bloom, its foliage stays bright and attractive.

Choosing the right plant for the right place

Plantings—both large and small—are only sustainable if you choose the right plant for the right place. For instance, plants that require partial shade for maximum performance should not be planted in a sunny spot where additional watering would be needed. Combining plants with the same light and water requirements is key to a successful sustainable garden. So when planning a new garden area, it’s most important to start with a site analysis, taking the time to determine what areas of your property are sunny or shady, dry or wet, or perhaps both—wet in the spring and dry in the summer.

If you are a DIYer, think about first drawing out a plan with new plants at their mature width, so you can calculate how much you’ll need in materials. If the idea of mass planting seems too risky or expensive, try planting a mix of three or four varieties—again, plants that all have the same watering, soil, and other requirements. If the area is dry and sunny, for instance, try lavenders, coreopsis, daisies, and black-eyed Susans. Wet and shaded? Try dependable options like Viburnum nudum, ferns, hostas, elephant’s ear, and sedges.

Sustainable shade gardens don’t have to be limited to foliage only. Here, bright pink azaleas line the front border, with a variety of perennials and caladiums filling in the shadier areas.
In hot, dry desert climates, follow Mother Nature’s pattern, spacing plants out a bit to allow their roots to take up available moisture.

After a while, we learn which of our garden plants are the tough performers. We also find out which ones are more delicate. Under a scenario where extreme weather is likely to be more frequent, it’s time to do a bit of culling and grow more reliable plants—like those Flower Carpet roses, butterfly weed, coneflowers, and milkweed—that soldier on in heat and cold. Where dry stretches are likely, think about replacing struggling boxwood edging with Pacific™ coprosmas (below). Plants that demand sprays (fungicides or insecticides) should probably be let go too.

The sustainable garden relies heavily on tough-yet-beautiful plants that need less care and are naturally able to resist disease without the need for loads of chemical sprays. The elimination of chemicals from our gardens makes them safer for children and pets, and certainly more pollinator-friendly. Native and adapted plants are also essential to pollinators. Drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants make gardening easier, less time-consuming, and more gratifying, and they result in a more sustainable and natural-looking landscape.

This sustainable mass planting of moisture-lovers includes exotic Tropicanna® canna and black-leaved colocasia.

Whatever you choose, we hope the idea of sustainable gardening sticks, and that you think of sustainability like color in the garden: a must-have.

Use resilient plants like lavender and roses (this is Flower Carpet® Amber) and you’ll have covered your bases when extreme conditions push the boundaries.

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