A garden designer recommends eight plants that provide reliable good looks without a lot of work

I've always called any low-maintenance, high-impact plant a “plant that pays the rent.” To me, that means a plant that earns its keep in the garden by reliably contributing year-round interest. If a plant looks good for only two or three weeks, I don’t use it. As a result, I have come to rely more and more on shrubs—especially these eight—as the main players in my borders. Every gardener wants a garden that is easy to take care of, and shrubs provide long-term impact without all the work of perennials. In fact, you could use just these plants in a border and have an interesting, beautiful planting all year long.


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1. An extraordinary hydrangea

‘Snowflake’ oakleaf hydrangea

Don Garren
Daryl Beyers

I love all hydrangeas, but oakleaf hydrangea is one of my favorites because its large leaves look great on their own and in combination with other plants. Large, oakleaf-shaped leaves contrast well with smaller-leaved plants, but it’s the white flowers on large panicles, which change to pink as they age, that makes ‘Snowflake’ oakleaf hydrangea a winner. Its blooms are double, hose-in-hose, which means that, as the new white petals come out of the middle of the flower, the older petals hold on and fade to pink, producing complexity and depth to the flower. The show continues through fall, as the foliage turns red, attaining deeper hues on plants located in full sun. The flowers persist through winter to complement the shrub’s exfoliating bark. ‘Snowflake’ grows up to 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide—but it doesn’t get as large if grown in the shade, which it prefers in hot climates.

• Name: ‘Snowflake’ oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snowflake’)
• Zones: 5 to 9
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, fertile, well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: In summer, the white blooms turn to pink.

2. Stunning season-long color

Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’

Daryl Beyers

Some shrubs that I rely on almost as much as hydrangeas are spireas. Most spireas stay relatively small, which makes them useful. They can look formal if clipped, or appear wild and rambling if allowed to grow unpruned. ‘Ogon’ spirea grows 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, with a tighter form in full sun. Small white flowers open first, followed by narrow, apple green leaves that become vibrant yellow-green and light up the summer border. Its narrow leaves contrast beautifully with oakleaf hydrangea, and the golden hue complements the red foliage of shrubs like purple smoke bush.

• Name: ‘Ogon’ spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’)
• Zones: 5 to 8
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, fertile, well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: In fall, the foliage turns yellow-orange with a delicate red edge on each leaf.


3. Smoldering shades of purple

Cotinus coggygria cvs.

Jerry Pavia

Placed in spots where the sun shines through them, purple smoke bushes ignite the border. Their stems grow straight up like pipe cleaners, a habit which makes them useful additions to any border in need of diverse forms. Growing up to 15 feet tall and wide, you can keep purple smoke bushes in check by cutting them back hard each spring after the first leaves break out. They will send up all new growth, year after year. Older plants grown in full sun will “smoke” (flower) if left unpruned, and even the youngest specimens turn a striking burnished orange-purple in fall.

• Name: Purple smoke bushes (Cotinus coggygria cvs.)
• Zones: 5 to 9
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; average soil
• Seasonal bonus: The new foliage glows as it emerges and ripens into a deep burgundy.

4. The never-ending rose

Rosa Knock Out®

Courtesy of Lauren Byrne

I’ve never been a rose fan, but I have to admit that Knock Out® series roses are practically perfect plants. The blooms of these shrubs, which are 2 to 4 feet tall and wide, keep coming from midspring until well into fall. In Zones 6 and warmer, they can bloom well into December, which means they contribute to the garden nearly nine months of the year. Knock Out® roses require no pruning to rebloom and are disease and pest resistant, so their value is assured. The new stems and leaves are purple, especially on the red-flowered cultivar ‘Radrazz’.

• Name: Knock Out® series roses (Rosa Knock Out®)
• Zones: 5 to 9
• Conditions: Full sun to light shade; well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: The shrub keeps on blooming often throughout fall and into winter.

5. A green-and-white charmer

Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’

Jerry Pavia
W. John Hayden

When it comes to foliage, variegated plants always top my list. A great foliage plant is ‘Emerald Gaiety’ wintercreeper, a 3-foot-tall and 5-foot-wide ground cover that looks wonderful when grown in front of taller woody plants. Its green-and-white foliage lasts through the winter, when it sports an attractive pink edge. ‘Emerald Gaiety’ has a compact, bushy form that makes it especially useful as a ground cover or an accent at the front of the border.

• Name: ‘Emerald Gaiety’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’)
• Zones: 5 to 9
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; average, well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: Its white variegation turns to pink in winter for an attractive effect.


6. A dogwood with elegance

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’

Stephanie Fagan

‘Elegantissima’ redtwig dogwood is also a wonderful variegated selection. The combination of its interesting red stems in winter and variegated foliage in spring, summer, and fall makes it useful and attractive all year. I wait until the shrub leafs out at the nursery in spring before I buy mine to be sure it’s the true ‘Elegantissima’ cultivar. Without its unique foliage, it’s just another dogwood. It will grow up to 10 feet tall and wide, but you can prune back the old stems in early spring to encourage more red growth for winter. ‘Elegantissima’ redtwig dogwood’s green-and-white leaves are a great foil for purple-leaved neighbors.

• Name: ‘Elegantissima’ redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’)
• Zones: 2 to 8
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; consistently moist soil
• Seasonal bonus: The red twigs stand out in fall after the temperatures cool and the leaves drop.

7. Blooms, berries, and evergreen foliage

Skimmia japonica and cvs.

Jerry Pavia

Japanese skimmias are another group of shrubs with attractive foliage. Their evergreen, aromatic, glossy leaves make skimmias well worth growing. The genus is dioecious, meaning the plants are either male or female. Both sport fragrant white, pink, or red blooms, but only the females produce berries. Use Japanese skimmias in threes: a male and two females; this grouping looks great and ensures pollination of the females. They typically grow 3 to 6 feet tall and wide and require little to no pruning.

• Name: Japanese skimmias (Skimmia japonica and cvs.)
• Zones: 7 to 9
• Conditions: Partial to full shade; humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: Their berries and glossy foliage are a winter highlight.

8. A juniper worth looking at

Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’

Jerry Pavia

‘Blue Star’ juniper may cost a bit more than ordi­nary junipers, but its beautiful, consistently blue needles and refined appearance truly pay the rent. Colder temperatures bring out a silvery gray to the sleek blue hue, which holds up well into winter and looks especially lovely on frosty mornings. The spreading habit of ‘Blue Star’ is the perfect choice for the front of a border: It stays low (only 16 inches tall), grows very slowly, and stands out in a crowd. Because it takes ‘Blue Star’ a long time to reach its full spread of 3 feet, I use three or five plants together for greater immediate impact.

• Name: ‘Blue Star’ juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’)
• Zones: 4 to 9
• Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil
• Seasonal bonus: Its blue needles serve as a textural foil throughout the year.


Of course, you don’t have to use all of these shrubs, but any one of them will earn its keep with good foliage, interesting form, and low maintenance.

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