Dial up the beauty with these fresh ideas for low-maintenance shrubs, perennials, and grasses
Written byKathleen N. BrenzelFebruary 10, 2015
Share this story
As Sunset garden editors, we love getting in the dirt—the planting and digging, even the pruning and weeding. But sometimes we want to take a set-it-and-forget-it approach. That was the impetus behind our newest book, the Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings. It’s full of projects and tips for landscaping with water-wise plants that practically take care of themselves. Here are some of our favorite ideas from the book—try plantings that suit your region, then enjoy (and ignore) them all year long.
Thomas J. Story
2 of12Thomas J. Story
Use star-power shrubs
Tough shrubs bring color to this border in Sunset’s Test Garden in Menlo Park, California. The plants, which thrive on little summer water and require no irrigation in winter, include variegated Cistus corbariensis ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, flecked with white blooms; bronze-tinged Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’; and red-tinged Nandina domes-tica ‘Obsession’, fringed with cool blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Beyond Blue’). Across the path, a plum-hued Loropetalum chinense ‘Purple Pixie’ grows beside lime Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’ and potted ‘Lemon-Lime’ nandinas.
3 of12Caitlin Atkinson
Low-water plants with strong silhouettes often look their best in multiples. Here, fanlike Mexican tree ocotillos (Fouquieria macdougalii) serve as a backdrop for equally spaced agaves (Agave ‘Blue Glow’) and low chartreuse Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’. Design: Daniel Nolan; floragrubb.com.
Thomas J. Story
4 of12Thomas J. Story
Create a desert in a bowl
For a patio table centerpiece, fill a straight-sided ceramic bowl—this one is about 11 inches in diameter and 4 1⁄2 inches deep—with fast-draining cactus mix, then loosely arrange little barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and tuck clusters of tiny white-spined thimble cactus (Mammillaria gracilis) around them. Finish with a mulch of black pebbles. Design: Lauren Dunec Hoang.
5 of12Terry Donnelly
Build a stumpery
With its mossy tree stumps and fern-covered logs, this Vashon Island, Washington, garden looks like it was lifted intact from a Northwest rain forest. But it’s a stumpery—similar to a rock garden, but built with tree parts. Owners Pat and Walt Riehl brought in madrone and Douglas fir stumps from construction sites on the island, which fern expert Martin Rickard placed among existing trees. Then they added tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), spotted may apple (Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’), and Tolmiea menziesii. Call it recycling, nature-style.
6 of12Michael Woodall
Set the stage with color
Paint a wall in a bright color, then select plants bold enough to stand up to it. In this Phoenix garden, tall Cereus peruvianus fans out against a tomato red wall. Blue agaves (Agave ovatifolia), feathery grasses, and a mound of Dalea capitata round out the planting. Design: Chad Robert, landscape architect;exteriors-cr.com.
Saxon Holt / Photobotanic
7 of12Saxon Holt / Photobotanic
Get graphic with herbs
To create living geometry in your garden, combine several kinds of edible groundcovers, then let them ramble together. Here, a triangle of woolly thyme (Thymus serpyllum) angles up to a pink-flowered thyme and a golden oregano.
Joshua McCullough / Phytophoto
8 of12Joshua McCullough / Phytophoto
It’s a foolproof approach to border design: Pair plants—one tall, one short—in contrasting colors. Here, a purple fountain grass (Pennisetum x advena ‘Rubrum’) rises behind chartreuse Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).
9 of12Jerry Pava
Hang air plants
Don’t let tillandsias just linger on your desk. Attached to the tails of Spanish moss (another kind of air plant) and draped over a branch, they become art. Design:Dustin Gimbel; secondnaturegardendesign.com.
Eric Brandon Gomez
10 of12Eric Brandon Gomez
Grow a room divider
A border of drought-tolerant plants visually separates a paved patio from a firepit area in this West Hollywood garden. In the center, a blue-green Weber agave (Agave weberi) mimics a cooling fountain above blue Senecio mandraliscae; smaller fox tail agaves (Agave attenuata) grow at left, along with kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Orange Cross’) and Echeveria ‘Afterglow’. Design: Eric Brandon Gomez;ericbrandongomez.com.
11 of12Lisa Romerein
Giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) looks dramatic enough to stand alone in this planting in Montecito, California. But add a collar of rosy Echeveria agavoides and black Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’, plus a drape of fishhook senecio (S. radicans), and the result is downright glamorous. Design: Zac Williams.
Saxon Holt / Photobotanic
12 of12Saxon Holt / Photobotanic
Plant a meadow
European meadow sage (Carex remota) ripples in the sea breeze on a Malibu blufftop garden, echoing the Pacific’s waves and swirls beyond. A row of taller grass edges the sage. Design: Richard Turner.