The Right-size Garden

Changing lifestyles call for scaled-down gardens

FG Jack Barnwell Mackinac Island MichiganA summer border showcases white panicle hydrangea and pink Cleome Senorita Rosalita (Jack Barnwell photo).

Even longtime garden enthusiasts may finally hit the garden wall. After years of planting one garden here and another there, the mounting maintenance can be exhausting, if not impossible. Gardeners have always been perennial optimists who believe that expanding garden edges will be manageable over the years with the old heave-ho, muster-through attitude, especially in the cold Northeast. Yet reality says otherwise. Many exasperated baby boomers, thinking that all good things must come to an end, are simply throwing in the garden trowel.

Nonsense. It is simply time to rightsize the landscape. By choosing the right plants and employing smart design practices, you can have a garden that works harder for you than you do for it. Not only will it be more colorful and fascinating year-round, it will cost less to maintain and be ecologically responsible.

 FG Lobularia Snow Princess Pink Begonia Purple Fountain Grass PWAnnuals Lobularia Snow Princess, Begonia benariensis Surefire Rose, and Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ make a magnificent display
(Proven Winners photo).

Start by taking a fresh look at existing plants. This is not the time to become emotional. If a plant has never bloomed well, is prone to disease or insect damage, has a nasty habit of overrunning its neighbors, or is a prima donna that constantly needs attention, it is time to dig up the troublemaker and give it to a friend or introduce it to the compost pile. Remember, the plant is not a child or a pet. Stop making excuses for it. There are many other choices that offer pleasure without the angst.

Next, welcome in effortless multitaskers—plants that provide extraordinary, long-lasting color from flowers, foliage, berries, stems, or seedpods. Many of these beauties are natives, despite the misconception that these do not offer the same splendor as cultivated varieties. In addition to looking good, right-size plants should also be drought tolerant, require little or no fertilizer, and support pollinators and wildlife. Many fantastic perennials, flowering shrubs, trees, conifers, annuals, and bulbs rise to these expectations.

FG Hakonechloa macraAureola WaltersGardensHakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ make breathtaking companions for Hosta
and Astilbe (Walters Gardens photo).
Perennials continue to rise in popularity as gardeners rethink the time and cost of planting endless flats of annuals. But not all perennials are good choices for right-size gardens. For one, deadheading requirements need to be carefully assessed. Only those contenders that require no (or very little) deadheading are viable, and blooms should continue over a minimum of six weeks. Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Coreopsis ‘Mercury Rising’, Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’, and Callirhoe involucrata are some top performers that easily satisfy these prerequisites. Stunning foliage is as valuable, if not more so, than flowers. Many of the showiest perennials with this attribute enjoy shady locations. In addition to Hosta, consider Heucherella, Tiarella, Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’, Symphytum ‘Axminster Gold’, and Hakonechloa. More marathon-flowering and flashy foliage perennials are listed in the sidebar.



Annuals are prized for nonstop color and are valuable additions to the landscape and containers, but a few can go a long way, especially if right-size criteria are followed. Plants must be drought tolerant and self-cleaning (no deadheading required). Dazzling beauty is a given. Sun-loving choices include Lantana, Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire’, Bacopa, and Supertunia. Browallia, Torenia, Begonia benariensis, and Alternanthera shine in shade.

Flowering shrubs have become the new superstars for high-impact, low-maintenance landscapes. Shrubs typically require less water, fertilizer, and routine maintenance than other ornamentals. Nevertheless flowering shrubs suitable for right-sized beds must also demand little or no pruning. No exceptions. Let no needy plants through the garden gate. Once you give in to one, more will follow and you will be back in the same overwhelming situation you were in at the start. Check out the sidebar for some spectacular choices.

FG Echinacea Tiki Torch TerraNovaNurseriesEchinacea ‘Tiki Torch’ (Terra Nova Nurseries photo).

Flowering bulbs add another layer of color to the right-size garden, but they must meet some strict qualifications. They need to be long-lived, naturalize, and be resistant to gnawing critters. Those that fizzle out after a few years are disqualified, including the much-adored tulip. Save yourself a lot of time, backache, and money by planting Allium, Camasia, checker lilies, daffodils, and bluebells. If tulips are irresistible, then opt for those in the species category, also called wild or botanical tulips, which demonstrate greater endurance and are less tasty to marauders. Some reliable bulb resources are Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (, John Scheepers (, and Colorblends (

Being choosy about which plants you invite into the garden is one way to slash maintenance and elevate beauty, but design strategies also play a role. One practical approach is to limit the number of plant varieties. Instead of using 30 different plants, for example, elect far fewer but make sure they are right-size overachievers. Then repeat groupings of each plant throughout the design. The end result will require far less maintenance. Not only will you be using right-size plants, but if you need to work with a garden tool, you can apply it to numerous plants at the same time.

FG Hydrangea Bobo PWHydrangea Bobo (Proven Winners photo).

Incorporating architecturally interesting objects is ideal for creating long-lasting, trouble-free beauty in the landscape. Choose an item that fits your style as well as that of the site. Not only will an intriguing piece draw the gaze and provide visual respite before moving on to enjoy more plants, it can also function as a striking feature in the winter vista. For example, a giant four-season vessel by Stephen Procter ( or Lunaform (, can make a stunning garden focal point.

The mental and emotional exercise of reevaluating tiresome gardens may seem daunting at first, but the rewards outweigh any temporary discomfort. For more suggestions on downsizing gardens, consult The Right-Size Flower Garden (St. Lynn’s Press, 2015), which discusses outstanding plants and sensible design solutions.


Marathon-Blooming Perennials

Achillea (Yarrow) ‘Pomegranate’ and those in the Seduction series

Agastache (Hyssop) ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Black Adder’

Echinacea (Coneflower) ‘Fatal Attraction’, ‘Milkshake’, and ‘Cheyenne Spirit’

Hemerocallis (Daylily) Earlybird Cardinal and ‘Going Bananas’

Lavandula (Lavender) ‘Phenomenal’

Stachys officinalis (Giant Betony) ‘Hummelo’ and ‘Pink Cotton Candy’

Flashy Foliage Perennials

Brunnera (Siberian Bugloss)

Carex (Sedge)

Euphorbia (Spurge)

Heuchera (Coral Bells)


• Ornamental grasses


Low-Prune Flowering Shrubs


Deutzia Yuki Snowflake, Yuki Cherry Blossom, and ‘Nikko’

Fothergilla (Bottlebrush)

Hydrangea paniculata (Panicle Hydrangea), dwarf varieties such as Bobo and Little Quick Fire

Weigela My Monet, Midnight Wine, and Fine Wine


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