When you think of shrubs, you likely think of gardening chores—pruning, mulching, and fertilizing. Then there are the pests—scale on euonymus, blight on boxwoods, and ever-present hungry deer. And you may also think back, with a shudder, to the time there was a sudden cold snap that froze the flower buds.
No way around it: Shrubs require maintenance and cannot be completely ignored. If you want proof, drive around any first-ring suburb with homes over a century old. You will see yews, hemlocks, and hollies that block ground-floor windows and a few that tower over the house.
However, there are some low-maintenance shrubs that are very forgiving of neglect. They will allow you to have time on your weekends to grill, go to the beach, hike in the woods (and see native shrubs!), read a book, go away for the weekend. All that they need from you is a little attention here and there in the spring and fall.
There are, of course, no pest- and disease-free plants. And you’ll still have to water these shrubs during droughts and heat waves; prune out dead, damaged, and diseased branches; and make an effort to protect them from deer (remember, there are no deer-proof shrubs, just varying degrees of resistance). What sets these apart from other shrubs is their ability to thrive with minimal human intervention.
Holly, all kinds, are pretty easy to grow. They can do well in all sorts of soils, from sand to clay. They grow in sun and part shade. It’s evergreen. Once established, they are drought-tolerant. Their berries are food for birds. Their leaves make them very deer-resistant. All they ask of you is some fertilizer and a light pruning in the spring. Fun fact: If hollies are not browsed by deer for a significant amount of time, their signature leaves lose their spikiness and revert to ovate and smooth.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
Rose of Sharon is a right-plant-in-the-right-place kind of shrub. It can be opportunistic, which can be great if you’re searching for a good privacy hedge. It’s even easier than holly. It tolerates heavy clay, loam, and sandy soils. It likes sun and part shade. It can tolerate full shade but will have limited flowering. You don’t have to prune it unless you want to. It is in the hibiscus family and has beautiful flowers in pinks, purples and whites. Deer don’t like it. It has few pests or diseases. It needs some fertilizer in the spring. Maybe. Or you can skip it entirely.
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri)
Cotoneaster tolerates the same conditions as holly and rose of Sharon. It is even more drought-tolerant, though, needing very little water. It is as much at home in your front yard as it is on the side of a cliff. It’s evergreen, comes in various leaf colors, and has bright red berries. It is low-growing, up to one foot tall, and makes a good ground cover for rocky, dry areas. (See Gardening 101: Ground Covers for Every Landscape for more on cotoneaster as a ground cover.)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Yes, lilac belongs on this list. Their scent alone is worth any effort on your part, but lucky for you, the effort required is minimal. Like the shrubs above, it is tolerant of various soil conditions and can grow in full sun to part shade. It is mostly disease-resistant. It can get mildew later in the summer, but it doesn’t hurt the plant. It isn’t preferred by deer. It grows fast. It comes in a variety of heights, flower types, and flower colors. And the only pruning it needs is rejuvenation pruning when it gets leggy. (For more on lilacs, see Gardening 101: Lilacs.)
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
Ninebark is an interesting native shrub with a weird name. It gets its moniker from its peeling bark, a feature that imparts winter interest. On older plants, the bark peels off in layers. I haven’t counted the layers, but it looks like it matches its name. Ninebark is in the rose family and a relative of spirea (its flowers are a reminder of that connection). It’s tolerant of various soil and light needs. The straight native is pest- and disease-resistant. They need little pruning but can benefit from a hard prune if it gets too big. (For more on ninebark, see 6 Favorites: Must-Have Flowering Shrubs.)
These five shrubs ask little of you—and give so much in return: watering them until established, giving them a trim now and then, maybe a rejuvenation prune every four or five years, fertilizer (when you remember). They don’t mind the neglect. In fact, they reward it with with privacy, flowers, and winter interest.
- 5 Favorites: Easy-Going Vegetables that Thrive on Benign Neglect
- 5 Favorites: Low-Maintenance Flowers that Thrive on Benign Neglect
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