I like to shine the spotlight on undemanding gardens that make life easy for the gardener.

So with autumn color getting into full swing here in my corner of New England, I thought it would be fun to share a low-maintenance trio that’s lighting up one nook of my own garden just now.

The red maple stretching out over the goldenrod and blue wood aster is just beginning to color up now. (I ran out in the rain to snap this and it’s not the greatest picture, but hopefully gives you the idea. I’ll try to get a better photo when the sun’s back out. 😊)

Below is take two, photographed on a sunny day. I’m still not really happy with the picture – the colors all look faded, whereas they don’t (at all) in real life, but c’est la vie! It will have to do. I’ve just had a real devil of a time getting the lighting right.

Moving on, I love it when the maples are in the process of turning red. You get this random pattern of red (or sometimes orange or gold) and green, even on individual leaves, like below.

The maple (Acer rubrum) was there when we bought our little white house over twenty years ago. Maybe eight or so years ago I grew some showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) from seed and planted them along the edge of woods and lawn.

And it was just last year that I transplanted in some blue wood asters (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), thanks to volunteer seedlings that had sprung up in another part of the garden.

I had a feeling the asters and goldenrod would look pretty together, but I hadn’t even factored the red maple into the equation.

It was only seeing the three in concert this week that made me realize the potential that exists.

What’s Working

Now, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I consider myself maintenance-challenged. I like looking at the garden. Walking around in it, smelling flowers, watching birds and other wildlife enjoy the plantings – these are all things that I like.

I find pleasure in designing and planting a new garden.

I just don’t much care for maintenance.

That’s why this corner of the garden suits me to a tee.

I don’t water it. I don’t rake it. And I don’t cut it back in fall or spring.

All I have to do is keep an eye out for invasive weeds (there are always a few Oriental bittersweet seedlings that pop up each spring) and dispatch them.

It thrives on what some gardeners would surely consider neglect. And I. Love. That.

Possible Variations

Of course, for low-maintenance, you always have to think about matching plant to site. (That’s way, way easier than trying to make your site match your plants!)

With that in mind, here are a couple of possible variations that occur to me.

For a similar look in medium to moist soil, you might create a low-maintenance garden with a red maple and a few winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata), with smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) along the edge, where they can enjoy full or partial sun.

And in a medium-dry soil, you could consider a scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), a few sassafras (Sassafras albidum) to serve as an understory, and a mass of showy goldenrod and blue wood aster to carpet the floor. (Eventually, the asters and goldenrod will concentrate themselves along the edge.)

If you don’t have room for a tree to provide that element of red, consider a shrub instead. In medium to moist soil, possumhaw (Viburnum nudum) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) are both very showy. In a medium-dry soil, consider blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) for a beautiful display of blue berries set off by Turkey red autumn leaves.

(Just please – please, please, please do not go with burning bush (Euonymus alatus). It does live up to its name with vivid red autumn color, but it’s also a really pernicious invasive in many states.)

Plant Notes

All of the plants recommended above are well-suited to soil on the more acidic end of the spectrum. (That’s what I have experience gardening in, so that’s what I share.)

The asters and goldenrod I mentioned are easily grown from seed – as is the oak, for that matter.

Both goldenrods mentioned will self-seed, providing you with plenty of seedlings to expand your planting or to share. If having goldenrod babies pop up randomly isn’t something that would add pleasure to your life, just clip the seed heads before the seed ripens.

Some goldenrod species are aggressively rhizomatous, meaning they colonize via their roots. However, I’ve found both the showy and stiff goldenrod to behave nicely in my garden, playing well with their neighbors.

Regarding winterberry, if you want to attract birds to your garden (robins and bluebirds love the berries!), either plant the straight species or go with ‘Winter Red’. Many (if not most) of the more recent cultivars have been rendered unpalatable to our feathered friends.

Note that winterberry is dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female. You need one male to every five or six female plants. ‘Winter Red’ is a female cultivar and ‘Southern Gentleman’ is a good pollinator for her.

Or, if you want to go with the straight species, you can find a quick guide for identifying male and female flowers here.

Plans for Next Year

I’ll definitely expand the amount of goldenrod and asters in the corner of the garden pictured earlier in the post, which is located across from the bird hedge. But I don’t plan to stop there. A swath of lawn about the width of a small side street lies in between hedge and woods.

In the bird hedge, I have winterberry and flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida) providing elements of red at this time of year.

I’m thinking that a billowing mass of showy goldenrod and blue wood asters flowing out from the hedge to meet the lawn will be just the thing. The colors will look nice together, whether you’re looking up, down, or across the hill.

And the repetition will help to visually tie the two areas – woods and hedge – together.

Bonus tip: Ever gone plant shopping and purchased a whole bunch of different plants because they were all beautiful? But then when you planted them, the garden looked “spotty” because it was composed of too many different, unrelated elements?

Repetition is the solution. Choose one or two signature plants that really thrive in your garden and repeat them often.

Check out the pictures here and here, noting the orange butterflyweed, in particular. Repetition is the element that unifies my front gardens.

Plus, more goldenrods and asters will add that much more value to pollinators. Goldenrods are one of the best herbaceous (meaning non-woody) plants out there for supporting pollinators. In my area, they host the larvae of 125 moths and butterflies. And bees absolutely flock to the flowers!

In closing, if you’re like me and prefer that your gardens largely take care of themselves, I hope this post gives you a few ideas for autumn color combinations to try in your own garden.

Before we say ‘bye for now, though, I’d love to hear from you!

As you look around your own garden, what do you want to add, subtract, or tweak next year?