Care-Free Plants

Care-Free Plants

by Reader's Digest Editors
Transform any location into a carefree garden oasis with this musthave resource for gardening in any locale. Time and moneysaving tips and tricks show you how to have the most stressfree, nohassle garden. The 200 easiest and most versatile problemfree plants are showcased in this ideapacked book.


Transform any location into a carefree garden oasis with this musthave resource for gardening in any locale. Time and moneysaving tips and tricks show you how to have the most stressfree, nohassle garden. The 200 easiest and most versatile problemfree plants are showcased in this ideapacked book.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Plant lovers who don't have the time (or the green thumb) to do much gardening will appreciate this guide to easy-growing flora. The book features encyclopedia-style entries on no-fuss annuals, perennials, vines, bulbs, shrubs and trees. Each entry includes photographs, growing tips and vital statistics like preferred soil type and "critter resistance" level. The contributors recommend plant combinations for sunny or shady sites, for specific seasons, for acidic or alkaline soil, and for those whose gardens are in windy, rocky or hilly locations. There's also a section on lawn-care and ground cover. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Reader's Digest has come through with another straightforward, nicely illustrated guide for the gardener. Every gardener knows that selecting the right plants for the right places is crucial to success, but many need help determining what kind of site they have, selecting the appropriate plants, and grouping them in pleasing combinations. The most notable portion of this book is the six chapters devoted to unique or difficult sites. Here, readers learn about coping with tricky settings like dense, dry shade and are given suggestions for possible plants to use. The text is mainly a convenient directory of 200 care-free plants (annuals, perennials, vines, bulbs, shrubs, and trees) that, like most plant encyclopedias, offers one-page entries with standard growing information and comments about outstanding features, best uses, and a handy chart of fundamental facts. This chart covers attributes, season of interest, quirks, good neighbors, where a plant grows best, potential problems, pruning, critter resistance, source, and dimensions. The obligatory chapters on maintenance and a short glossary are also included. Though numerous books cover this subject, the focus here on challenging sites and a range of old-fashioned and trendy low-maintenance plants makes this a sound purchase for updating a collection. Highly recommended for all public libraries. Bonnie Poquette, Shorewood P.L., WI Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Reader's Digest Association, Incorporated, The
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


All plants operate on solar power because of their unique talent for converting light into energy through a process called photosynthesis. So rejoice if you have a garden site with plenty of sun, because you're well on the way to having a garden that can support many kinds of foliage and flowering plants.

    In gardening, full sun is usually defined as 10 to 12 hours of direct sun each day, and many of the most colorful flowering plants that you can grow, thrive in full sun. To measure how much sun an area receives, visit the spot in the morning, at noon, mid afternoon and late afternoon. On each visit, mark the portion of soil that receives sunlight with spray paint or a sprinkling of baking flour. This way you can total up the hours of sunlight an area receives each day in various seasons, making it easier to select plants that will thrive there.

    But you must take into consideration that full sun can vary in intensity. Full sun in northern latitudes is less intense than full sun in the southern ones, which are closer to the equator. Cloud cover, which is usually heaviest in lower altitudes and in the East, also diminishes the intensity of the sun. For this reason, gardeners in the Southeast and Southwest in Zones 7 to 9 often can, and should, grow plants described as needing full sun in sites that receive an average of only 6 to 7 hours of full sun per day. Other factors also hold sway. For example, soil type and moisture, as well as daytime and evening temperatures also influence a plant's sun tolerance. We have considered all options.Throughout this chapter as well as the rest of the book, we've specified which plants thrive when grown in full sun in northern gardens, yet appreciate partial shade in hot, sunny regions, and under special environmental conditions.

    This chapter features garden ideas for six different sun-and-soil combinations for year-round performance and beauty. No matter what your situation has to offer, you'll find care-free ideas for design and color combinations, and you'll discover many plants that will suit your garden's needs.


For most plants, a garden site that offers rich, loamy soil and full sun is the best of all possible worlds. Nearly everything you plant will thrive in this situation with little additional care, but to capitalize on the situation, consider growing care-free plants that have multiple endearing traits. For example, lavender and dianthus boast beautiful flowers and intoxicating fragrance. And their soothing gray-green foliage lets them and other silver-leaved plants, such as artemisia and dusty miller, combine well with any other plants. Silver-leaved plants can be paired with bright blooming perennials and shrubs, employed as a quiet, cooling presence along a sunny sidewalk, or cut and woven into indoor container bouquets.

    Snapdragons, hollyhocks, larkspur, fragrant sweet peas, and other upright-growing flowering plants, which are sometimes called spire plants, bring excitement to the garden with their vertical shapes and are best used to create a colorful backdrop for small bulbs or any shorter, dainty plants. If red is your passion, you can indulge in Oriental lilies, red-leaved Japanese maples, or all types of roses. If you want a green, velveteen lawn to showcase your collection of garden plants, this sunny situation will support your ambitions there, too. With full sun and good soil, you really can have it all.


Garden soil can have a character or texture that is somewhat sandy or basically like clay, or it can be ideal: a fertile, well-drained combination of sand, day, and silt known as loam. Sandy soil is made up of large mineral particles. The loose, crumbly texture of sandy soil is easy to dig. so it drains quickly, discouraging fungal root rot, but plant nutrients are quickly leached from the soil with each rain. Whereas clay particles are much smaller, giving the soil a heavier, water-holding texture. Clay soil retains nutrients, but drains poorly and is hard to till. Either type of soil can be transformed into fertile loam with generous additions of organic matter. Compost is the finest form of organic matter to work into soil to improve its texture and fertility, but any material derived from decomposed plants, such as rotted hay, grass clippings, shredded leaves, peat moss, or rotted sawdust, will improve soil by boosting its organic content.

    Because the transformation from less-than-perfect soil to fertile loam involves billions of microscopic soft-borne life forms, which slowly break down organic material into water-soluble nutrients that plants can absorb through their roots, this process takes time. You can make vast improvements in your soil by digging in a 4 in (10.2 cm) thick layer of compost in one fell swoop, but it's better to allow 2 years for this miracle to take place. Before starting a new bed, dig and amend your soil. The first season, plant it with annuals, which will be pulled up at the end of the season. Dig it again in fall, incorporating more organic matter, and by the second spring you will have soil that is the envy of gardeners everywhere.

    If you, like most gardeners, already have established beds, or if you can't devote the time to digging in amendments, applying a layer of compost annually as a mulch on the soil's surface is the truly care-free way of keeping your soil healthy. Rain and earthworms do the work of incorporating the organic matter into the soil over a season or two, which is exactly what you might expect from a simple strategy that follows nature's blueprint.


Unplanted earth is an invitation to weeds, so pay close attention to spacing plants in the garden. Space large plants by 1 and 1/2 times their mature width. Fill the gaps between young upright plants with smaller, spreading companions like hardy geraniums or creeping veronica. In spring, the spaces between late-blooming perennials, such as coreopsis and rudbeckia, can be filled with early-flowering bulbs like snowdrops and daffodils. At the front of the bed, use low, spreading annuals like ageratum or bugleweed to visually tie clumps of plants together and shade out weeds. As the big plants mature and spread, you can easily dig up the filler plants and move them to a sunnier home.


Maximizing Color

Where summers are short, grow an abundance of perennials. They have a head start from previous growing seasons and are poised to grow when spring begins. Where the growing season lasts longer, depend on heat-tolerant flowering annuals for mid- to late-summer color.


Eternal Evergreens

Dwarf boxwoods and other small evergreens keep the garden colorful through winter and shelter their dormant companions from drying winds. Small junipers and mugo pines handle this job with finesse in cold climates, or you might use Japanese hollies or evergreen azaleas where winters are milder.


Cool summers are a joy for people and plants alike. Some of the advantages of gardening in northern latitudes or at higher elevations in mountainous regions include low humidity and delightfully cool summer days that seldom exceed 80° F (27° C). Additionally, many coastal areas benefit from cooling lake or ocean breezes.

    In these locales, if you have a sunny garden site and you crave a sumptuous traditional flower garden, you're in luck. Color balance is a crucial factor of garden design, and many people quickly discover that they have favorite colors when it comes to foliage and flowers. In sunny sites bright, saturated colors usually show up best, whereas white and light pastels are easily lost in the sun's glare. Towering mauve-flowered foxgloves, deep pink and red hollyhocks, and the huge, fragrant magenta or deep pink flowers of peonies are the pride of sunny gardens in early summer. High summer belongs to colorful annuals, combined with pink phlox, warm-hued daylilies, and lavender-blue catmint. Late-summer color is often even stronger, with the deep blue flowers of monkshood, the golden flowers of rudbeckia, and the vivid pink flowers of turtlehead blooming just ahead of those of bright yellow sneezeweed. In autumn, cool blue and purple asters bring the blue of the sky down to earth and unite it with warm-hued gold and burgundy chrysanthemums and trees ablaze in brilliant seasonal red and gold.


Though temperatures in the cool-summer areas of the country are perfect for summer gardening, because plants are less likely to wilt under the sun's glare and the soil is more likely to retain sufficient moisture for plant roots, the season often seems painfully short. Frosty nights may persist well into spring, delaying planting until summer is nearly under way. Invest in perennials, shrubs, and hardy bulbs. These plants, which are in the ground and ready and waiting for spring are a reassuring presence, making it easier to wait for warm planting weather before setting out summer annuals.

    Fortunately, there are a number of cold-tolerant annuals that can be planted before the last frost has passed. Some of these are calendula, dusty miller, lobelia, pansy, snapdragon, and sweet alyssum. Yet because bedding plants are often grown in heated greenhouses, they fare best in the garden when they become accustomed to outdoor conditions gradually, over a period of 2 weeks. This process, called hardening off, initially involves setting potted plants outdoors in a sunny, protected spot for a few hours each day for a week. Then, the week prior to planting, allow them modest exposure to chilly winds and cool nights, but bring them indoors if hard freezes threaten. By this time, their stems will have become sturdy and new leaves will be a bit thicker and more frost-tolerant. The move into cold soil and chilly air will only cause a modest shock to the plants' roots.


Sometimes plants in cold-winter climates are ready to go into the garden in spring, but the soil remains too clammy and wet for planting. So gardeners face frustrating delays. Building raised beds or berms may give you a head start on the planting season, because they warm up and dry out faster than lower-lying garden areas. Raising the soil level even a few inches can offer the additional advantage of superior drainage for plant roots. Indeed, the combination of great drainage and cool-summer weather brings out the best in several stellar perennials, such as artemisia, catmint, and veronica, which require excellent drainage to reach their full care-free potential.


Though cool summers are splendid, winters in northern latitudes and high altitudes are often long and cold, so plants grown there must have exceptional hardiness. Use the hardiness ratings (see the Zone maps on pages 350 and 351) for your locale as a guide when shopping for plants. Also look for protected areas in your yard, called microclimates. Microclimates exist in spaces protected from freezing winds by walls, fences, or dense evergreen planting, and also are places where a masonry wall or rock outcropping may absorb and hold the sun's heat, elevating the surrounding temperatures. You can use these warm spots to grow plants rated one or two Zones warmer than your area's Zone.

    To help garden plants get through freezing winters, use mulches. The insulation provided by a generous layer of mulch placed over the root zones will protect perennials and shrubs from cycles of soil freezing and thawing, which can heave the plants out of the ground, leaving the roots exposed and vulnerable to freezing and dehydration. Mulching is especially helpful in mild-winter areas where there is no consistent snow cover. The best winter mulches are fluffy organic ones like leaves, hay, straw, and evergreen boughs. If you use leaves chop them with a shredder or lawn mower. The chopped leaves will offer good insulation and are less likely to blow around.


Autumnal Digging

To avoid spring planting delays due to soggy soil, prepare new beds in the fall. Mix in organic matter and mineral soil amendments as needed, such as lime (in acidic soil) or garden sulfur (where soil is alkaline). Wait until just before the soil is dry enough for planting in spring to add fertilizer.

Look to the Future

Peonies and shrubs persist for decades, and their roots should not be disturbed. Leave room between these permanent plantings for growing annuals. In spring, the vacant spaces allotted to summer annuals will give you room to carefully move about, pruning shrubs and removing debris.

for Hot

Gardening in the searing summer sun is always a challenge. Not only do plants wilt in the heat, but gardeners also suffer! But hot summers don't mean that you can't have a colorful garden. Numerous care-free plants with tropical temperaments crave high temperatures and strong sunlight.

    The wisest approach is planning in advance to make sure that neither you nor your garden stumbles into the scorching season unprepared. Most climates with hot summers also have long spring and fall seasons, which offer the ideal conditions for working outdoors. Instead of waiting until summer's hot breath is just around the corner, get as much digging and planting done as you can fit into the shorter, cooler days of spring and fall. And when the dog days do arrive, enjoy gardening in the cool hours of the morning or evening.

    You won't be the only one to benefit from shifting your schedule to suit the seasons. Your plants will also appreciate your advance planning. Plants set out in fall or early spring are spared the stress of starting out in a hot summer with skimpy roots that cannot take up moisture as fast as it evaporates through their leaves. When perennials and shrubs show new green growth in spring, rapid root growth is also taking place below ground. So, every spring day that a plant can spend in the garden contributes to the growth of a deep, extensive root system that it will need to pull moisture from the soil in the hot days ahead.


Flowers that are white or pastel colored are much harder to see in the glare of strong summer sunlight than those that are rollicking shades of red, bright yellow, orange, bright pink, or purple. Flowers that are easy to spot in intense sunlight include those of sulfur cosmos, four-o'clocks, and hot-colored zinnias. Don't be afraid of putting plants like these into a sunny, garden, but do limit your color scheme to a few coordinating colors, because the brighter the colors are, the more noticeable they will be if they clash. When working with orange, combine it with its complementary color, which is deep purple. Use flowering and foliage plants in yellow shades, such as butter daisies, 'New Gold' lantana and 'Marguerite' ornamental sweet potato vine to help blend together bright flowers. Tone down the intense magenta of flowers, such as rose campion and some hardy geraniums, by combining them with plants that have neutral, silvery gray leaves, such as dusty miller and artemisia. Care-free evergreens, such as juniper and mugo pine, also have a calming influence on bright bloomers, and they not only make great companions and provide a neutral background for setting off flower colors, but they also maintain their fresh greenery through winter, when they become the main attraction of the border.

    If your winters are mild, you have the opportunity to grow cool-season annuals from fall to spring. Annual dianthus, dusty miller, pansies, and snapdragons are widely sold as fall bedding plants in warm climates, and planting them can keep your garden colorful nearly year-round. In cold-winter areas, look for flowering cabbage and kale, which can survive mild freezes. You'll find the cold-hardy annuals mentioned above in early spring. Adding a few of them to planters and window boxes can add one or two months of color to the growing season.


A number of care-free plants, including buddleia, purple coneflower, and yucca, which grow well in hot-summer areas, have the added talent of being drought tolerant. Because hot summer sun saps moisture from plants, seek these and others, such as ornamental grasses, portulaca, and stonecrop, which are rarely thirsty at the end of a summer day. These natural water misers all share a few traits. When shopping for them, look for plants with succulent leaves, which store water; plants with small leaves or finely dissected leaves, which have less surface area exposed to evaporation; and plants with silver or gray leaves, which reflect excess light. Plants with abundant thorns, or fuzzy leaves shade themselves, reducing evaporation from the leaves.

    Before buying, read descriptions of plants on nursery tags and in mail-order catalogs carefully to learn their origins. Those from areas with soil and climate that are similar to yours should adapt. Deep-rooted prairie plants, such as purple coneflower, are incredibly drought tolerant. Salvias and yuccas, which are native to the Southwest, are equally able to thrive in hot, dry situations, as are artemesias and other herbs from Mediterranean countries. Summer-flowering bulbs from South America and South Africa, as well as Australian plants like phormiums are also superb performers for hot-summer gardens.

    Watering your garden will be necessary sometimes, even if you grow plants that can take the heat. So make use of strategies to limit the time and water your garden requires. Place plants close together, including tall plants or trellised vines, so that they will cast some welcome shade on shorter neighbors. Concentrating your summer garden in a compact space also makes it easier to reach it with a hose. Or use soaker hoses, which are the most efficient and economical way to get water into the soil with minimal loss to evaporation. But remember that using mulch alone can conserve a great deal of soil moisture by slowing evaporation and keeping the soil cool.


When to Water

In arid climates, water in the evening to increase nighttime humidity around your plants, which helps them recover from wilting days. In humid climates, irrigate first thing in the morning, and avoid watering leaves, so that the garden and plants will be dry by night. Dry nighttime conditions deter fungal leaf diseases.

Dry Soil

Every garden is dry sometimes, but in some climates and with some soil types, moisture is always at a premium. Scant rainfall typical of many places in the West, as well as in areas where late-summer droughts create temporary desert conditions, sets the stage for a garden created with dry soil in mind. The same gardening techniques that serve desert gardeners apply to areas with sandy soft, which dries out quickly no matter how much rain falls, and they can also be used to good effect on a slope that is difficult to water because of runoff. In these and other types of dry, sunny sites, you can still have a colorful garden by using plants that are adapted to these conditions and by using the special planting techniques described here.


Summer is always the most stressful season in a dry garden, but you may be amazed at how easy it is to succeed at growing "off-season" plants, which are quenched by winter rains. Even in high deserts, spring-flowering bulbs like crocuses, daffodils, and tulips will blissfully bloom in spring with little or no supplemental water during their most active period of growth, which is from late fall to late spring. Later, when Mother Nature turns up the heat and turns off the water, these plants quietly go dormant before the hot summer season. In dry climates with mild winters, take advantage of cold-tolerant annuals that can be grown from seed sown outdoors in fall, such as larkspur, poppies, and even cosmos. They'll need supplemental watering until they germinate, unless the season is wet, but any soil holds water longer at the end of the year than during summer.


All gardens need supplemental water once in a while, but growing plants that are natural water misers, such as cotoneaster, stonecrop, and yucca, keeps this need within practical limits. Look to nature for clues to help you find promising plants. Prairies and mountainsides as well as arid parts of the world have contributed a wealth of beautiful plants that will thrive in a garden like yours.

    And they are not all cacti! Garden-worthy plants with succulent, water-holding leaves like portulaca and stonecrop are specially adapted to dry environments because their thick leaves work like small water reservoirs. Silver-leaved plants, such as artemisia, Russian sage, and sun rose, reflect excess light, and the downy hairs on the leaves and stems of these and other plants shade and insulate them from the evaporative power of the sun. Deeply rooted perennials and grasses are good choices. Choose shrubs with small, waxy leaves, such as cotoneaster. Among annuals, those with papery "petals," which are really modified leaves called bracts, such as globe amaranth and zinnia, keep their fresh appearance through days of baking heat (for additional drought-tolerant plants, see page 17).


Excerpted from Care free Plants by Delilah Smittle. Copyright © 2002 by The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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