Low-growing, low-maintenance perennials for your landscape
Story and Photos by Richelle Stafne
“First you spread your limbo feet, Then you move to limbo beat, Limbo ankolimboneee, Bend back like a limbo tree … Limbo lower now, Limbo lower now, How low can you [GROW]?”
Selecting low-growing, low-maintenance perennials for your landscape may be easier than doing the limbo dance.
A perennial is any plant that continues to live and produce new growth year after year, for more than three years. For the purpose of this article we will focus on herbaceous perennials, with a few evergreen for good measure.
There are many reasons for choosing low-growing perennials, such as height restrictions regarding plant material growing near streets and intersections. Another reason is safety for pedestrians: visibility for walking the dog, jogging, or pushing baby strollers. Creating vistas for specimen plants, a well-groomed home, or an evening sunset are other reasons for planting low-growing perennials. Taller plant material growing along sidewalks not only creates a claustrophobic feeling, but also can lead to vegetation-brushed legs and elbows as people pass. Other uses include plantings around garden benches, garden ponds or fountains, and around stepping-stones.
Selecting low-growing perennials is the first step of creating a layered landscape: ground cover, followed by dwarf shrubs or grasses, followed by large shrubs or small trees, and finally large shade trees or evergreens. In other words, if you were as light as a garden fairy, you might be able to “step” up from the lowest layer to the tallest.
When considering low-maintenance and low-growing perennials, choose plants that require little to no pruning. Ground cover vines such as Vinca, Hedera, and Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) will likely need pruning once established. Some plants that reproduce by rhizomes or seeds – Liriope, mondo grass (Ophiopogon spp.), Ajuga, and golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) – may need to be divided. On the other hand, if you are filling a large area with these plants and gardening on a budget, this is a great way to meet your needs without purchasing additional plants. Further considerations for low-maintenance perennials are those plants with minimal pest problems, such as disease and insect resistance or those that are not as tasty to deer and rabbits. Native plants are generally considered low-maintenance because of their adaptability to regional climate conditions and native insect and disease pressures. Reduce lawn mowing and establish low-growing perennials as a low-maintenance replacement for turf in landscape areas with limited foot traffic – a great idea for those narrow and oddly placed strips of turf planted between parking lots, driveways and sidewalks.
Many of the examples below are also available with variegated leaves and other interesting attributes beyond the normal expectations of the species. I did my master’s thesis on using perennial ground cover plants in the landscape. I fell in love with their many uses and I hope you will too.
Maximum height typically 12-16 inches or less
Ferns, such as native Southern maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and Japanese silver painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) tend to provide vertical lines along with creeping liriope (L. spicata) and lilyturf (L. muscari). Mondo grass is available in colors from green to deep blue to variegated. Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) is a native reaching a height of 1½-2 feet. About half of the state is Zone 8 or 8b, making a nice home for gerbera daisies (Gerbera jamesonii). Miniature species of perennials such as dwarf crested iris (I. cristata) can be planted among low-growing ground cover.
If you like to tickle your senses, try fragrant plants, such as Artemisia ‘Silver Mound’, a wonderful compact grayish blue foliage plant reaching 6-10 inches tall; culinary garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris); and sweet woodruff (Gallium odoratum).
The native wildflower ‘Peachie’s Pick’ Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis ‘Peachie’s Pick’) is a Mississippi-discovered dwarf cultivar. Natives evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa), dwarf Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum humile), Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), and Coreopsis auriculata ‘Nana’, as well as Epimedium are excellent choices. Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora) dwarf hybrids such as ‘Goblin’ and ‘Sunset Flash’ add floral color, whereas coral bells (Heuchera) are a fun group of low-growing perennials with hybrids and varieties of chartreuse and deep purple foliage. Like daylilies (Hemerocallis), hostas can be a gateway into serious plant collecting. H. plantaginea hybrids (best for Southern gardens) such as American Hosta Growers’ Plant of the Year 1996 ‘So Sweet’ have a mature height of 8 inches. Because the leaves die back in winter, plant alongside evergreen perennials such as Ajuga or hardy, evergreen ferns. Along the Gulf Coast, try ‘Blackie’ sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Blackie’) as a tender perennial.
Maximum Height Typically 6 Inches or Less
Hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp.) such as S. tectorum are great for adding evergreen texture and pair well with dwarf Sedum species such as S. acre and euphorbias such as Euphorbia cyparissias. Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) is a soft, grayish white, hairy-leaved perennial that is very low growing except for the flower spikes. Native to the eastern U.S., creeping phlox (P. stolonifera) cheers with flowers of blue and lavender, or consider the early spring-flowering moss phlox (P. subulata), a popular flowering perennial that gently creeps over rock walls and makes a big visual impact in spring. Native wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and Lamium maculatum ‘Beacon Silver’ or ‘White Nancy’ have also proven themselves.
Maximum Height Typically Under 3 Inches
Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), Ajuga, ornamental creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), and dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicas ‘Nanus’) are all very low-growing, low-maintenance perennials. However, I do love my native mosses. If you have mosses growing in any part of your garden, you can transplant and encourage them to grow, allowing them to be the lowest-growing, low-maintenance perennials in your landscape. In the end, they are the winners in the landscape limbo contest. How low can YOU grow?
Plant Locater Tip!
Find garden centers nearest you carrying Proven Winners (provenwinners.com) and the Southern Living Plant Collection (southernlivingplants.com) by visiting the “find retailer” section of their website. Once you have located a retailer, call them to verify their stock. If they are out of a particular plant, ask if they are able to place special orders or if they have a recommended substitute for your desired plant. Both sites offer ways to purchase their plants online.
‘Peachie’s Pick’ Stokes’ aster – If your local nursery doesn’t have it, try reputable Plant Delights (www.plantdelights.com).