Caitlin Devore (left) and Ali Jacobs do some landscaping work at the University of Maine in Orono in 2010. Credit: BDN file photo

Ornamental plants are a great way to liven up your yard, attract pollinators and enjoy the most beautiful parts of the gardening season. If you have never gardened before, or if you’ve only grown crops for eating, there are ornamental plants that are easy to start with.

“Green spaces are shown to have positive effects on our mental well being,” said Lacey Sinclair, founder of Solid Roots Flower Farm and Gardening. “Adding ornamentals to your property can boost your mood and the appeal of your space. When you have plants in your yard you can also take trimmings and cut flowers to bring inside and improve your interior green space as well.”

Ornamental plants can beautify outdoor spaces as well.

“At different times of year, you can add a tremendous amount of color, texture and nature to your yard, so you can attract birds, you can attract bees [and] you can also attract a better mood,” said Tom Estabrook, vice president of Estabrook’s Garden Center which has locations in Yarmouth and Kennebunk. “It just gives you that sense of home comfort and joy.”

Plus, ornamental plants can benefit your land and local ecosystem.

“Having a variety of growth on your land can also improve your soil,” Sinclair said. “In spring the first signs of plants coming through the ground are uplifting. Adding ornamentals to our gardens is also so important for bugs, birds and other native wildlife. You’re adding homes and sources of food for others.”

Ornamental plants versus crops

There are a few key differences between growing ornamental plants and growing crops. Some ornamental plants will require regular pruning in order to keep them healthy and contained. Sinclair also said that while most crops are annuals, meaning they are harvested and die back every year, many ornamental crops are perennial, so they will return year after year.

“Because ornamental crops will continue growing for a longer period of time, a little more thought and intention needs to go into their placement and environment,” Sinclair said.

As such, you need to be more conscious about the placement of your ornamental plants. Sinclair said to consider how it will appear at its mature size.

“Will it block a window you enjoy the view of?” she said. “Will it block light that another plant needs? Will it rub against your house, potentially causing damage in the winter?”

Ornamental plants may also attract different pests and diseases than crops.

“Be more mindful of things that may be attracted to colors like aphids, white flies [and] disease like gray mold and detritus because the plants are thicker than a vegetable,” Estabrook said.

The care will also be slightly different because your goals are different. For instance, Estabrook said that with ornamental plants — particularly perennial ones that will come back year after year — you do not want to encourage too much growth or overfeed them. Unlike annual crops (or even annual flowers, for that matter) where you are trying to maximize their growth until they die off, you want to take a more measured approach to plants you want to thrive year after year.

Easy ornamental plants for beginners

In general when choosing easy ornamental plants, you want to look at the hardiness zone that the plant is known to thrive best at. Ornamental plants rated for slightly colder hardiness zones than the area where they are planted will be especially hardy.

“Our zones are typically from zones 5 to zone 8,” Estabrook said. “For a typical middle of the state, a [plant rated for] zone 4 is a very hardy plant. There are many zone 3 plants that we plant even more to the north, and down in southern Maine, there are various zone 5 plants that do very well.”

Sinclair said that growing ornamental plants generally requires the same tools as growing crops, but when it comes to maintaining ornamentals, there may be additional tools you’ll need.

“If you decide to have garden beds with a grass edge, a hand edger will give you those clean, crisp edges and keep your lawn from invading your beds,” Sinclair said. “If you plan on adding mulch or compost to your garden beds and shrubs, a five-tine manure fork is my favorite for sprinkling materials onto beds. For pruning trees and shrubs you can make most cuts with hand pruners, but loppers, hedge shears and pole saws may be helpful as they mature.”

There are a number of different types of ornamental plants. For easy shrubs, Sinclair suggested forsythia and lilac.

“Both of these shrubs tend to be planted and totally forgotten about and they still seem to do well,” Sinclair said. “Forsythia grow super fast, they are a spring bloomer that provides great cover for birds and an early food source for pollinators. Lilacs are awesome because they seem to survive almost anything. They like to be pruned so it’s advantageous to cut back their lovely smelling blooms and put them inside in a vase. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can suit almost any space.”

However, she warned that forsythia and other shrubs can get messy if they are left untamed.

“If the branches are on the ground they can create roots which allows them to patch around and spread in the garden,” Sinclair said. “For best results we prune them in a ‘vase’ shape, which means that we’re cutting away any low or horizontal branches and keeping an upright habit.”

Estabrook recommended hydrangeas, particularly Panicle hydrangeas. For perennial flowers, he recommended echinacea (which can be grown as a medicinal herb, but is sometimes grown for ornamental purposes only), or coneflowers, while Sinclair suggested daylilies.

“They’re actually not a true lily, which means they’re not toxic like other lilies, making them safe for animals,” Sinclair said. “There are some really neat varieties available now and they can tolerate most growing conditions. These will bloom for a good part of the summer. Another easy perennial is hostas, these have the disadvantage of being deer bait, but if planted close to your home or in a fence they can be avoided. They’re foliage is beautiful and they will flower when established. There are some varieties of hostas that have fragrant blooms which is always a bonus.”

No matter what you are planting, Sinclair said to always get a soil test and improve your soil before you establish your plants.

“Every year you should be adding compost to your plants and beds,” she explained.

For ornamental plants, you want to be extra sure that you choose the right place to plant them, especially if they are perennials you want to come back year after year. Estabrook said that talking to your local garden center is one of the best ways to figure out what will work for your yard.

Sinclair said you should not let ornamental plants intimidate you.

“In general, I’d say just try it,” Sinclair said. “Most of us great gardeners are self taught. A quick Google search can help you identify plants, learn about pests and learn how to manage them.”