As we creep closer to summer, a question I often get is, “What low-maintenance plants will survive our heat?”
First, anything considered low-maintenance or no-maintenance still must be babied for at least the first two or three months. You should do everything you can to help the root system get established,
You can also give them a better chance of surviving and thriving by planting them in a balanced medium. Remember that all gardening success along the Gulf Coast starts with high-quality soil. My simple way is to use rose soil, but these days, many companies offer specialty blends that go even beyond that.
Next, be sure they’re watered properly.If Mother Nature provides an inch or more weekly (as we have had for the past eight months), there is likely no need for additional water. However, even after your low- or no-maintenance plants are established, they will require at least a weekly 10-15 minutes of irrigation if we don’t get significant rain.
For me, a “low-to-no” plant doesn’t require constant pest protection. One that won’t make my list is lantana. Native lantana is a great low-maintenance plant, but it can never be no-maintenance because of its susceptibility to insect infestations. I would also not include any plants that require persistent pruning, so no Texas wax myrtle.
A “low-to-no” plant shouldn’t require continuous feedings, either. Almost every plant I recommend requires only one basic feeding annually. You can feed twice a year if you want, but that’s up to you. And in almost every case, all that’s needed is a balanced slow-release perennial food such as Nelson’s Color Star or Nitro-Phos Color X-Press.
Finally, plants in this category should come back no matter how bad our winter is. I have never lost any of the four below, even in the January 2018 twin freezes, when we got temperatures in the teens.
So here are some suggestions. I have worked successfully with them for years, and they can honestly be called low- to no-maintenance plants once established. If you want to add one to the list, I would love to have you call the GardenLine show this weekend. Be prepared for a debate, though, because your tip will really need to meet my “low-to-no” definition.
Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. Drummondii) – This is a true Texas native, and actually considered a shrub - not just a perennial, as some people believe. It can also be found in nurseries from Texas to Mexico as a Drummond wax mallow. While the Turk’s cap is considered a “spreading” shrub, don’t panic - it will not overwhelm an area, since its growth pattern is sort of self-controlled. And it will likely never get taller than 2-3 feet. Turk’s cap prefers partial shade, but can handle early morning full sun. And you will love the bright red hibiscus-like flowers’ overlapping petals that never fully open and form a cool-looking column from which the stamen protrudes. This beauty got its name from its flower, which resembles a Turkish turban.
Dwarf Mexican petunia (Katy Ruellia / Ruellia brittonia) - This is the plant you want if you don’t care how much area it takes over. While the parent plant – the Mexican petunia - is more of a true native, this plant is designed to be more compact, never exceeding a foot in height. In my opinion, it spreads like no other flowering ground cover, and it likes sandier soils than any others. And when you clean it up once a year, it’s amazing how easy it is to dig out in overgrown spots. Most people simply cut back these perennials to the base each year. When it first hit the market years ago, it was pretty much only available with deep-purple flowers, but now you can find pink and white variations.
Gulf Coast muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) - Personally, I think this is the toughest of the tough native perennial grasses. I love its large, airy seed heads that grow about half as tall as the entire plant. The spikelets (flowers) are purple, and they take on a feathery, deep-pink hue in the fall, which is why you’ll also find them listed as red crystals. They only grow in clumps, with the plant 2-3 feet tall, and the wispy, feathery spikelets reaching up another 1-2 feet. When planted en masse, nothing else adds such a graceful, soft movement in the wind, which is why they are often planted in grand numbers in open meadows. Nevertheless, they are a perfect addition to an island landscape or perennial bed, planted singularly or in groups.
Cape blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) - Most people in southeast Texas have seen this plant - it’s a soft-blue flowering shrub that can be used in just about any landscape. I think it’s best as a mid-sized shrub that can be draped over the edge of a raised bed. It contrasts well with many other plants because of its lighter green foliage, mixed with its soft-blue flowers. It seems that no matter what you mix it with, it gives off a “cooling” vibe. While blue plumbago will flower seemingly year-round, they can look a bit gnarly after hard freezes. Then, they can be cut back to the base from which they will rebound like a hardy perennial.