Growing vegetables is a great way to improve your access to healthy, fresh food while enjoying time outdoors with your hands in the soil. But vegetables aren’t the only option for home gardeners. In fact, growing ornamental plants can be great for your health, wellbeing and the ecosystem around you.
“Attractive plants promote a general sense of wellbeing,” said Matthew Wallhead, extension ornamental horticulture specialist and assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Aside from having an aesthetic purpose to be beautiful for us to look at, there are ecosystem services that are provided by plants such as habitat for animals, erosion control, shade [and] food.”
If you are new to growing ornamental plants, some varieties are easier to get started with than others. Whether you are a vegetable gardener looking to dip your toes into growing flowers or a completely new gardener with a penchant for petals, easing into the art of ornamental gardening will help you to sustain it for years to come.
Easy ornamental plants for beginner gardeners
The number one thing to consider when choosing between ornamental plants is the site where you plan to grow.
“Is it full sun, is it partial shade? Would it be dry soil, wet soil, sandy soil,” Wallhead said. “Making sure to pick a plant for the proper location is probably one of the most important things.”
In general, though, Wallhead recommended perennial ornamental plants for gardeners looking to add some color to their yards or plots.
“Perennials are a very approachable class of plants,” Wallhead said. “They are typically relatively easy to handle size-wise [and] they are generally some of the more affordable plant material to purchase. Things like large trees and woody shrubs and plants can be a little expensive. If you’re new to gardening, those bigger price tags might be a deterrent.”
Wallhead said that the care for these plants is fairly minimal, but if you follow good planting and maintenance practices like regular watering, perennial plants will come back for many years to come.
“It’s sort of rewarding for gardeners for something they plant this year to come back next year,” he said.
Wallhead recommended choosing perennial plants that are native to Maine.He recommended planting coneflowers like rudbeckia, cosmos, zinnias, asters and delphinium.
“Milkweed would be a good one,” he added. “It’s a great one for butterflies and caterpillars, especially monarch butterfly caterpillars.”
Best ornamental plants for container gardening
For gardeners confined to containers, Wallhead said that most perennial plants will grow well, but may be a hassle once the growing season is over.
“If you don’t have a lot of space and you do want a container garden with a perennial plant you’re either going to have to bring that plant inside or somehow protect the roots from freezing in there,” he explained.
For that reason, he recommended easy annual ornamentals for container gardeners: petunias, impatiens, pansies, begonias and fuschia.
“Annual plants are very easy to take care of, they don’t need much fertilizer generally [and] they’re readily available,” Wallhead said. “After the last frost and those plants have been killed off, you can either just leave them over the winter or dump them out and put them away.”
Make sure you have the right soil for your container-grown ornamental plants, too. He recommended either an enriched soil or something with a coarser mix rather than traditional potting soil.
“That’s a very light mix that dries out very fast,” Wallhead said. “A lot of ornamental plants will perform better if they are in a more specific mix.”
To make sure you are adequately watering your container garden, Wallhead said to lift the pots to gauge how well watered it is.
“Once water’s coming out of the pot, you know you’ve thoroughly watered,” he said. “Water again when the pot is 50 percent of the saturated weight.
Ornamental plant care 101
When it comes to tools for gardening ornamental plants, Wallhead said basic hand tools — a shovel, rake and hoe — are the most essential.
“You can do most things with those three tools,” he said.
He said that ornamental gardeners may also want a flat-bladed edging shovel or tool, a hand tiller and a line trimmer for garden maintenance. As with any gardening endeavor, proper watering tools are important, too, as is protective gear for the gardener, like a kneeling mat or foam pad if you are working with ground-level plots, a hat with a brim and gardening gloves.
For gardeners who are transitioning from vegetables to ornamentals, Wallhead said that there are some differences when it comes to establishing and maintaining the plants.
“If we’re planting ornamental plants you want to get it right the first time so you’re not removing plants digging things up,” Wallhead said. “I think it takes a little more planning.”
Wallhead also said that mulching is especially essential in ornamental gardens. However, the materials you choose to mulch with for ornamental plants are different than those best suited for vegetable gardens, for both aesthetic and practical reasons.
“You would probably use wood chips or treated mulch rather than something like straw, newspaper or plastic,” Wallhead said. “With the vegetable garden, you aren’t oftentimes using wood as a mulch because it’s harder to remove from the soil.”
If gardeners have any questions about choosing ornamental plants or maintaining their new ornamental plants, Wallhead said to reach out to your local cooperative extension or garden center. The most important thing, Wallhead said, is to have fun and not get bogged down in the details and to have fun with it.
“Relax and enjoy it,” Wallhead said. “I think sometimes people can get very sort of stuck in trying to do the right thing. I don’t think people should get too bogged down with any sort of set of beliefs to where it keeps them from wanting to go out in the garden. It’s important to consider yourself a part of your garden and enjoy it.”