Easy Garden Guide: 6 Low-Maintenance Yet Show-Stopping Shrubs

Easy Garden Guide: 6 Low-Maintenance Yet Show-Stopping Shrubs

Tess Wilson
May 25, 2015

We just did a massive shrub planting in our yard— and by "we," I mean I picked the spots and my partner did all the work— and now I want everyone to have sweet little shrubs to shower with affection— or basically ignore, as most of these require little-to-now care. That's my kind of gardening!

(Image credit: The Honey Tree Nursery)

Witch Hazel
Pros: Let's start with the big guns, courtesy of Garden Design Magazine: "Because the American species bloom in November and December, and the Asian species and hybrids in January and February, it is possible to engineer one's way entirely out of a winter depression through a diverse planting." Yes, please, where do I sign up? As if that weren't good enough, the article goes on to describe witch hazel as "unfussy, fairly drought tolerant, willing to put up with full sun or part shade, and largely unbothered by diseases or insects." The flowers are weird and and bright, some varieties have a fragrance while others do not, you can use branches as dowsing rods, and the whole plant is wild and witchy.
Cons: None, unless you hate witches, in which case we have nothing left to say to one another.
Zones: 3-9

(Image credit: Prairie Moon Nursery)

Pros: My partner always points out wild hazelnuts to me because he knows I think the little baby nuts are the cutest thing ever, all ruffly and wild and just made for fairies. If you have more practical concerns, know that hazelnut shrubs stay under 20-feet tall, can easily configure themselves as hedges if you prefer, and are partial-shade friendly. Most importantly, according to Mother Earth News, hazelnuts are "a beautiful shrub or small tree with year-round interest. Pendu­lous catkins—the blooms—hang like golden chains from the bare branches in late winter. During summer the rounded, many-pleated leaves provide islands of shade as the nuts develop. In fall the leaves glow red and gold." Golden chains for fairies!
Cons: Hazelnuts seem to have a bit of a delicate constitution, as they require cross-pollination and "prefer a light, edge-of-the-forest soil with good drainage and not too much nutrient content"- don't we all? They are also known to need a warmer climate, and to "thrive where peaches also grow. That is, they like some warmth but can succeed in a colder climate if well sheltered from wind and damp frost." However, we live in northern Illinois, far from peach country, and many hazelnuts grow wild here, with no coddling at all. In fact, we just planted 6 baby shrubs in our yard, so in 2-5 years I'll be making vegan Nutella!
Zones: 4-9

(Image credit: Lowe's)

Burning Bush
Pros: We had a burning bush right outside our front windows, and it was so lovely in the winter. The red and burgundy leaves glowed when everything else was white and brown, and the teeny red-orange berries provided a further pop of color. Ours was about 12-feet tall, and they don't get much taller than that, and there are even dwarf varieties that stay under 5-feet. The best part? According to Gardening Know-How, "There is little to know about caring for burning bush, as this plant is versatile and hardy. In fact, no special care of burning bush is required for a splendid color display." Done and done.
Cons: You might need to prune damaged branches, you'll need to keep an eye out for scale insects, and remember that all those pretty little berries might end up growing all over your yard. Also, I found the look of the shrub to be just the slightest bit sloppy, but that's just my taste.
Zones: 4-8

Pros: "Few shrubs are easier to grow than ninebark." You've intrigued me, Better Homes & Gardens- tell me more: "Ninebark is a fast grower" and "tolerates an array of weather conditions and is largely left alone by animal pests". Plus, it comes in a few different colors and has that cool peeling bark that adds winter interest (i.e., when you've been trapped in the house so long that peeling bark seems interesting). Once again: "virtually carefree". I'm so glad to know that I can now confidently ignore all our new baby ninebark shrubs.
Cons: The bark thing is really it during the winter, wet weather might cause powdery mildew, and it definitely requires some sun.
Zones: 3-7

(Image credit: Bear Creek Nursery)

Pros: Whenever I visit my grandparents in April, one of my favorite aspects is going from still-wintery northern Illinois to full-on spring in southern Missouri. The forsythia and daffodils are ablaze everywhere, like sunshine you can pick and put in a vase for your grandma. Forsythia are the yellowest yellow can be without being too yellow, if that makes any sense. They're known for being fast-growing, so you could have a ball of sunshine in your yard before you know it. According to Love To Know, "They're easily planted, hard to kill, form excellent fences, and grow rapidly. Forsythia will grow one to two feet per year and easily spread out that much or more." They only grow up to 10 feet tall, can be grown from cuttings, flower when everything else is still brown, accept full sun or partial shade, and "are even very tolerant of city pollution". Fascinating!
Cons: Forsythias require rather serious pruning- The Garden Helper can walk you through it- but that's really all I can think of. Maybe you don't like yellow?
Zones: 4-9

(Image credit: Amazon)

Oakleaf Hydrangea
Pros: First of all, I could not find a single photo that does justice to this lovely plant. It's so subtle and wild and ever-changing, and the fall colors are like the world's most sophisticated version of fall colors. And in the winter? More bark to watch peel! Better Homes & Gardens refers to oakleaf as "one of the easiest types [of hydrangea] to grow", doesn't require pruning, and is happy in the shade or partial shade.
Cons: None, I love it, it's the best. Go get one!
Zones: 5-9

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