JoAnne Skelly: A design challenge

The bed in question and we can use it.

The bed in question and we can use it.

My friend Cathy asked me for some low-maintenance plant ideas for a north-facing planter up against a garage wall, next to a walkway. She doesn’t want to have to prune wayward branches or deadhead too many flowers. With the bed’s proximity to the building, whatever she plants should be fire-resistant, which means low-growing, with little debris and something with a high moisture content. Additional design constraints include something without thorns or prickly leaves that won’t grow into the walkway or have invasive roots.

My first thought was lavender. Lavender stays fairly contained. But facing north, it won’t get enough sun and she would have to cut the dead flower stalks back every year, a tedious task. Besides, lavender is a relatively short-lived shrub, needing to be replaced every five years or so. Finally, the oils in the plant mean it is not fire resistant. Thyme was another possibility, but it too needs sun.

Junipers, of course, are out. Although they are drought-tolerant and low maintenance and come in many prostrate or small forms, they are “little green gas cans.” In landscape design for wildfire defense, we don’t plant flammable plants within 30 feet or more of the house, particularly not junipers. This includes ornamental grasses.

One of the lowest maintenance plants I know is ice plant, Delosperma cooperi, but it, too, needs sun. Hardy geranium needs little care, except for a quick mowing of the spent flower stalks with a string cutter once per year. It tolerates shade and eventually would fill in the entire bed. It’s magenta- to violet-colored flowers are quite attractive without being too showy.

Some of my favorite well-behaved shade plants are hostas, particularly the variegated varieties. The generally heart-shaped leaves are large and might be light to dark green, blue, variegated with white or gold or any combination of all of these. The flowers can be white, blue or lavender and attract hummingbirds. They grow 14 to 24 inches in height. These mainstays of the summer shade garden need regular water but little other care because they die out every year. Cleanup simply means removing the dead leaves after a freeze. The downside is that rabbits and deer love these plants, too.

This design challenge is a good example of the many considerations that go into selecting the appropriate plants for a site. Not only water and sun influence plant selection, but also fire defense, maintenance and animal predation.

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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