This year's hot garden trend? Eco-friendly, water-wise, sustainable gardens and containers.

Landscapes and containers go sustainable

This year’s hot garden trend? Eco-friendly, water-wise, sustainable gardens and containers.

We can thank a variety of factors, like a slow economy and water restrictions that are making folks more conscious of their water use and water bills. Then there are our increasingly busy lifestyles, which make treating for pests and diseases or replacing dead plants an unmanageable time drain. Add to that Americans’ growing desire to do their small part to help the environment, and the result is a skyrocketing demand for “eco-scaping” plants. The 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Residential Trends Survey, for instance, stated that drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants are among this year’s top trends.

“We’ve been using – and advocating the use of – sustainable plantings for years, but this has now become the gold standard for how we design landscapes,” said Sharon Coates, co-owner of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/build firm in Rochester, NY. “Water conservation and environmental issues are at the top of everyone’s minds these days, and sustainable plantings can do a lot to reduce the amount of water needed.”

Gardeners also want the same easy-care, eco-friendly plants in their containers, according to the Garden Media Group’s 2011 garden trends survey.

“We definitely see a big movement toward sustainable container gardening, which means using drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plants that offer season-long interest while requiring fewer chemicals and less water,” said Anthony Tesselaar, cofounder and president of Australia-based Tesselaar Plants. “As we continue our mission of ‘making gardening easy’ for everyone, that has come to mean not only developing plants that are low-maintenance and environmentally friendly in the garden, but also in containers.”


Beyond the usual suspects

Sustainable landscapes don’t have to just look like cactus or desert scrub, either. If you think roses are out, for instance, think again. Tesselaar’s easy-care, extremely drought-tolerant Flower Carpet® groundcover roses, can be a great choice for low-maintenance, season-long color in beds or containers. Susan Harris (of the popular Garden Rant and Homestead Gardens blogs), for instance, wrote a post last year about how she used Flower Carpet roses to quickly fill in a newly enlarged border before a famous garden photographer stopped by for a shoot.

“I’ve admired my neighbors’ Flower Carpets for their spring-to-frost blooms and their utter lack of disease,” she wrote in her May 3, 2010 post on Homestead Gardens. “No spraying needed at all … it is also drought tolerant (once established), and requires no fancy fuss or pruning.”

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.

“There is nothing more dramatic than a sweep of one or two varieties,” said Bruce Zaretsky, Coates’ husband and co-owner of Zaretsky and Associates. He particularly likes to use ornamental grasses, because the sound of them swaying in the wind adds another sense – hearing – to the garden experience. He also likes mass-planting rhododendrons, azaleas, astilbe and hydrangea.

“But mass plantings can be a two-edged sword,” said Zaretsky, “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.

The Flower Carpet range of roses has won the most awards for disease-resistance (most notably, Germany’s coveted All Deutschland Rose (ADR) designation, the world’s top honor for disease-resistant roses). And if you want roses in containers (which succumb to drought even quicker), Flower Carpet’s Next Generation line (which earned high marks in the Dallas Arboretum’s famous plant trials in extreme heat) also offers an additional 15 years of breeding for improved heat and humidity tolerance.

Flower Carpet roses fact sheet

Flower Carpet Next Generation line fact sheet

High-resolution image of Flower Carpet roses in the landscape

High-resolution image of Next Generation Flower Carpet roses in container

There are also plenty of sustainable plants offering architectural interest and texture. Jimmy Turner, the Dallas Arboretum’s Senior Director of Gardens, likes mass-planting agapanthus (also known as Lily of the Nile) in tight squares or triangles within a formal garden bed. And the only agapanthus that’s survived the arboretum’s intense trials in the heat is Blue Storm™ agapanthus. Blue Storm, said Turner, is especially 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, Blue Storm still makes a statement with its freestanding cluster of straplike leaves.

“For us, however, Blue Storm is a first and foremost a container plant,” said Turner. “Agapanthus is a diva. It really shines when it’s by itself in a pot.”

Blue Storm agapanthus fact sheet

High-resolution image of Blue Storm agapanthus in the landscape

High-resolution image of Blue Storm agapanthus in container

Or why not try blocks of colorful or textured foliage? Perhaps you could try a tropically hued block of the red, glossy, straplike foliage of Festival™ Burgundy cordyline. Not only is this cordyline extremely drought-tolerant and pest-resistant, but its basal branching, low- growing structure allows for fuller, more compact

clumps and a gently fountaining effect (it also overwinters beautifully as a houseplant for anyone in Zones 7 or lower, so you can replant it year after year).

Festival Burgundy cordyline fact sheet

High-resolution image of Festival Burgundy cordyline in the landscape

High-resolution image of Festival Burgundy cordyline in container

For many of us with above-average rainfalls this year, however, a “low-maintenance” mass planting might actually be something that can handle too much water. Garden phlox, with its full masses of fragrant flower clusters, is a treat for the senses when planted in masses, but has traditionally been plagued by powdery mildew in humid or wet areas. Volcano® phlox, a mildew-resistant variety, comes in six colors and is sturdy and compact – perfect for massing.

Volcano phlox fact sheet

High-resolution image of Volcano phlox in the landscape

Volcano phlox (Purple) in container


Tips from the pros

If you want a sustainable landscape, you’re going to need some tips from the pros. If you prefer the drama of planting en masse, you’ll need to remember that it requires buying and planting multiple plants at once, so it’s an investment of time and money.

“When planning a new garden area, it’s most important to start with a site analysis, where you take 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,” she said. “Mass plantings are only sustainable if you choose the right plant for the right place.”

It might also be wise, when dealing with a larger planting area, to hire – or at least consult with – a professional landscape designer. They can draw you a beautifully designed, well-scaled plan and properly specify quantities of compost, plants and mulch.

For DIYers, Coates advises first drawing out a plan with new plants at their mature width, so you can calculate how much you’ll need in materials.

To help save money on plants, Zaretsky advises buying at season’s end: “Many retail nurseries don’t want to overwinter plants and therefore sell them off fairly cheap.”

If the idea of mass planting seems too risky, Zaretsky recommends a mix of three or four varieties 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 viburnum nudum, cinnamon or royal fern, sambucus or sedges.

Whatever you choose, said Coates, “we hope the idea of sustainable gardening sticks, and that everyone out there thinks of sustainability like color in the garden: a must-have.”