Gardening expert Mark Cullen calls them "gardens for golfers" – good-looking spaces that don't cost a fortune and are easy to maintain, perfect for people who'd rather golf or do anything but prune, weed and water. And now that the last freak frosts and snowfalls are behind us (with the unfortunate exception of Calgary – sorry Calgary), hordes of eager green thumbs will be descending on garden stores this long weekend. Before digging, however, it pays to do some research. The Globe asked the experts how to get more bang for the buck, while keeping your knees as dirt-free as possible.
Get rid of your grass
The fact that people still have manicured lawns baffles Bill Andrews, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Keeping it green and pristine uses up resources – water and fertilizer – not to mention considerable work.
Dr. Andrews recalls having to explain North American lawns to visiting Chinese professors. He outlined the process: fertilize, grow, cut, throw it away; then fertilize again, grow, cut and throw it away. "It's just wrong to waste like that," he says.
In his Toronto garden, Dr. Andrews, who gives talks across Ontario on low-maintenance gardening, has Carolinian trees, shrubs and hostas that require little or no upkeep and provide habitat and food for butterflies, bees and birds.
Space is a key consideration for Sarah Battersby of Toronto, who writes torontogardens.blogspot.ca. Ms. Battersby says getting rid of grass in many city gardens can be a shrewd move because yards tend to be tiny. "You have to go out there every week or every week and a half and edge it and cut it, whereas if you get rid of your grass, and have a low-maintenance mix of shrubs and perennials, you're never going to have to do cutting or edging again."
The road to a low-maintenance garden begins with native plants. That's why, Mr. Cullen says, demand for these plants has been growing over the past decade. Native plants in Canada, he says, were here before the Europeans settled 500 years ago, which means they thrive with no fertilizer and require little watering. They are also considered resistant to insect and disease problems.
The payoff for going native is in ease, not in price – Mr. Cullen says you don't pay a premium for the plants but they aren't cheaper either. In Vancouver, native plants include western redcedar trees, Pacific dogwood, tiger lilies and skunk cabbage. In southern Ontario, some popular native flowers are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, butterfly milkweed and New England Aster; in Nova Scotia, consider Canada lilies, purple coneflowers, sunflowers and violets. Native prairie wildflowers include crocuses, prairie roses, yarrow and blue-eyed grass.
Ms. Battersby says that while she supports the impulse to plant natives, gardeners have to remember "the urban garden is an altered ecosystem" – so sometimes a plant that grows well in a field won't thrive in a small city garden.
Perennials vs. annuals
Dr. Andrews is an advocate of perennials (plants that live for two or more years), rather than annuals (which complete their reproductive cycle in one year.) Annuals waste resources, he says, by requiring fertilizer and a lot of watering. Unlike grass, he allows a few in his garden "to add some beauty and diversity," but says "it's a mistake to plant too many."
Mr. Cullen says that annuals have a reputation for dying at the first sign of frost, but many are relatively frost resistant – like snapdragons, dusty miller and geraniums. And while perennials have a reputation for not blooming for a long period of time, several actually do. Take black-eyed Susans – they begin to bloom in late July in Ontario and continue until early October.
This year the Perennial Plant Association picked the Brunnera 'Jack Frost' as the perennial of the year. "It's amazing," Mr. Cullen says. "It's got a variegated leaf – that's the main attraction, not the flower."
He prefers mostly perennials: black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, daffodils, Ivory Silk Japanese tree lilacs, serviceberry, butterfly bush, sugar maple and hydrangea 'Annabelle.'
Brian Minter runs Minter Gardens, 32 acres of elaborate show gardens in Chilliwack, B.C., but he recognizes the urban reality in Canada – most people have very small gardens or are living in "a container reality." He believes, however, that gardeners should not be afraid to be bold and "create stunning focal points," no matter how small the space.
His first piece of advice: Use vertical space, especially when you have a balcony or a small patio. "Who says you can't put a tree in a container?" He suggests, for example, planting a tree on a patio. The industry, he adds, is adapting trees to make them narrower. For example, there are now compact forms of red maples that grow to about eight feet wide.
Or, he says, you can create interesting frames – using a tripod or bamboo stakes – to grow beans, peas or cucumbers. Ms. Battersby suggests scarlet runner beans – "they're an edible bean but they have a beautiful, full red flower."
Make a statement
Garden design, Ms. Battersby says, comes down to this: "You want to always have things a little bit slightly off centre." That means not lining up plants in a straight row "like little soldiers."
Her advice: Always buy in groups of odd numbers rather than even numbers. If you have money to buy five things, buy five of one thing rather than one each of five things – "it just looks better."
Also have one big focal point. "If you're going to buy a planter for your front garden, buy the biggest one." Then use that planter to create something of visual interest for each season.
Ms. Battersby says a little bit of paint can go a long way in a garden. Her sister recently took a cedar obelisk in her garden and had it painted purple.
"It was a $12 can of paint and that obelisk went from being really noticeable in the garden to wow!"