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How to Create a Low-Maintenance Garden

“Low Maintenance” has been a popular phrase in the gardening media for ages now, long enough to create plenty of confusion on the subject. So let’s start with the question: What is maintenance? The answer depends on the task and the person accomplishing it.

To many non-gardeners, all gardening or yard work is considered maintenance and is to be avoided. And when it comes to such duties as applying chemicals, hassling with sprinklers, mowing and blowing, even avid gardeners are trying to avoid them. In fact, we sometimes call those duties “yardening,” not gardening.

Real gardeners generally want to spend time in their gardens tending the plants and dreaming up new design schemes and plant combos. So while we agree with non-gardeners in wanting to avoid the drudgework duties (and duties they are), we actually enjoy tasks like pruning, deadheading old blossoms, hand-watering, weeding, and checking on our plants daily — anything to be in the garden.

I offer as Exhibit A my dear old gardening mom who, after moving into a townhouse with almost no land to tend, would offer to drive 100 miles to weed my garden — she missed it that much. And I myself have been known to weed the gardens of bed and breakfasts where I’m a guest. So yes, it’s an addiction and there’s no 12-Step Program for it.

But sometimes even diehard gardeners need low-maintenance gardens, due to physical limitations or too many demands on their time. And we all want to limit garden maintenance to tasks that are creative or relaxing, so these principles of low-maintenance (or more accurately, low-drudgery) garden design are for everyone.

Clearly the least work of any landscape solution is to pave or deck over your entire property, but if you liked those ideas you wouldn’t be reading this site, now would you? So let’s assume you enjoy things that grow — plants! — and appreciate their contributions to air and water quality, not to mention your own quality of life.

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Masses are your friend

Planting in sweeps and masses of just a few plants is a popular recommendation for reducing maintenance — the larger the mass the better. (For large plants, groups of 5 to 10; for smaller ones, 10 to 30.) This limited plant selection makes it easier to keep up with their care and prevent their intrusion on each other.

Also, the fewer the species, the easier it is to limit yourself to those that are well suited to your site. And aesthetically, massing of plants usually results in a better looking garden, one that’s restful to the eye, not chaotic. On the other hand, wildlife is better served by a diversity of plants, so eco-friendly gardeners keep that in mind, too.

Lawn v. its Alternatives

The delawning movement is in full swing, but if low maintenance is important to you, think very carefully before joining. For sunny spots the meadow look is often suggested but seen up-close around your home, meadows are unsightly most of the year, and much more work than you’d imagine. (There’s also concern about the unwanted wildlife they attract, like ticks that carry Lyme’s Disease.) Replacing lawn with flower beds certainly creates more maintenance work for the gardener – though if you like to garden then by all means go for it!

But if low-maintenance is your top priority, I suggest keeping the lawn unless A, you can get rid of ALL of it (simply reducing the area that’s mowed, watered, and fed doesn’t help much) and B, you’re replacing the turfgrass with trees and shrubs.

For shady spots where turfgrasses don’t grow well anyway, woodland gardens with paths meandering through them are very practical and good-looking, too. They take advantage of the low-maintenance qualities of trees and shrubs, and shade gardens have fewer weeds and need less watering. In urban and older suburban areas I often suggest eliminating the small front lawn but keeping some lawn in the back for family fun. (See the Lawn Reform Coalition’s website for great-looking lawnless yards and suggestions for taking the plunge.)

Lawn, which is definitely a lot of work to grow to golf-course perfection, isn’t particularly high-maintenance for most homeowners, who grow good-enough lawns with some weeds in it. Then especially if it’s allowed to go dormant in high summer, it’s easy to care for and does a good job of retaining rainwater and preventing erosion. (I’ve read that lawn doesn’t hold rainwater well but honestly, it’s done a great job on my own sloping property. However, when planted in very poor soils — often post-construction — lawn can indeed fail to hold water like it should.) Here’s what the Lawn Reform Coalition recommends for lawn care that’s both low-maintenance and eco-friendly.

Gorgeous, easy borders

Most homeowners in Maryland will continue to have some lawn, partly because it’s the best surface for play and but also because design-wise, larger plants look so great arrayed around it in borders. And the type of border that looks most natural, is easy to care for and is best for wildlife, too, is what’s called the American Mixed Border, as popularized by Ann Lovejoy in her book by that name and others that followed.

The basic design principle in these borders is copying nature, especially the way forests transition into meadows. Think about it. In the background are the tallest trees — the forest. In front of them are understory trees like dogwoods. In front of them are the shrubs, then shorter plants and finally, groundcover. And remember, the least-maintenance borders contain only small trees and shrubs.

Low-maintenance border techniques:

  • Use large curving lines that are easy to mow along. Edge the lawn with a brick or other hard mowing strip that’s flush with lawn to eliminate the need to trim after mowing OR use the all-natural technique called Victorian edges.
  • Make borders and islands (freestanding plant areas) large, the larger the better.
  • Limit the number of islands and avoid free-standing trees in the middle of your lawn. Trees look better and are generally happier when incorporated into borders. If you have a tree that can’t be included in a border, at least remove the sod around it because mowing close to trees is difficult and can damages the tree. Instead, ring the tree with an easy, no-mow groundcover, like liriope or pachysandra, or just mulch.
  • Limit high-maintenance plants to one area that’s easily reachable by you and your water supply.
  • Plant groundcover close together so it will fill in quickly and prevent weeds.
  • Include stepping stones or pavers through wide borders, for easy access without causing soil compaction.

More Design Tips for Reducing Work

  • High-traffic paths should be pavers or stepping stones, set flush with the ground, never lawn.
  • Containers are popular in the gardening media but qualify as high-maintenance by any account, especially in the sun where they dry out quickly. We’re talking daily watering. Plants in containers also require more frequent feeding.
  • One or two high-impact plants in prominent sites can dramatize an otherwise simple garden using a very limited palette of plants.
  • Avoid ponds! Go ahead and try an easy plug-in water fountain, but ponds are a lot of work. You’ve been warned.

CHOOSING LOW-MAINTENANCE PLANTS

THE single most important thing you can do to create a low-maintenance garden is to choose the right plants, and here are some general guidelines.

  • Know the site and choose appropriate plants for it. That means really knowing how many hours of sun the spot gets – and almost universally we overestimate the hours of sun, so take notes the next time you’re home all day so you’ll find out for sure. Other information you need in order to choose the right plants are whether the “soil” is mostly clay, if it’s soggy or dry, and how much space there is for the plants when they grow up.
  • Choose more sustainable plants that are drought- and pest-tolerant. If you see plants doing well in your neighborhood, ask the gardener if they’re easy.
  • Ask of every plant before buying it: Am I willing to do the work to take care of it?

Caveat from Behnkes’ Garden Advisor: No Plant is Low-Maintenance in its First Year!
Way too many people don’t understand that our climate no longer delivers regular rainfall and new plants must be watered every week at least and often more when we have periods with no rain for 3-4 weeks and 100 degree temps.

I also suggest to most everyone planting stuff that they get a rain gauge to know exactly what falls on their plants. Thunderstorms are way too spotty and many a downpour only delivers a tenth of an inch. (See “How to Water your Garden” to learn how to water plants in their first season.)

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Lowest-maintenance plants

Ornamental Grasses require no more care than cutting back to 6″ in early March. A month later they’re back and will contribute to your garden all season long and even through winter. Just give them enough space; a half-day of sun is plenty.

Trees and Shrubs are the best plants for creating full, gorgeous and low-maintenance gardens. At most, some require yearly pruning; others, not even that. More tips:

  • Shrubs, even in hedges, MUST be allowed to grow naturally, not sheared into perfect but unnatural shapes. Shearing is not only a lot of work but bad for plant health.
  • Most conifers require no pruning at all. Other evergreens (e.g., cherry laurels, yews) and most deciduous flowering shrubs need a yearly pruning, which for large shrubs can take as much time as an hour per shrub.
  • Check those labels. Buying the correct size for the site makes for happier plants and happier gardeners (spending less time pruning).
  • Buy from nurseries and garden centers, not big-box stores – they’re more likely to live.
  • Consolidate plants in borders, rather than dotting them around the lawn like little donuts.
  • Trees and shrubs planted in borders benefit from a one-time removal of the lowest branches (called “limbing up”) to prevent overcrowding and allow easier access for the gardener.
  • Plant groundcover or mulch under the trees and shrubs, not turfgrass. We’ve all seen how well grass does in that situation — not at all. And mowing so often damages the tree.

Plants that can be low maintenance

Ground covers are less work than turfgrass around trees or along fences where it’s hard to mow. Plants that spread (most groundcovers) should we planted alone or with large plants, not with annuals or perennials that can be smothered by aggressive groundcovers. It’s easiest to find one or two groundcovers that works well in your garden and use them extensively.

Bulbs
– there are bulbs for every site, sun or shade, and the lowest-maintenance bulbs are those that naturalize, which means they spread on their own and come back for years. Good repeaters and spreaders are species crocus, chinodoxa, hyacinthoides, and certain daffodils – the ones described as perennializing or naturalizing. Darwin tulips are long-lasting when given good drainage. To make sure your bulbs have some impact in the garden, buy them in quantity and just tell the kids that planting bulbs is FUN.

Perennials will last for at least a few years, but contrary to their reputation for low maintenance, they’re constantly in a state of flux and need adjustment every season. (Removing the failures, containing the spreaders, dividing the too-large.) The good news is that most gardeners enjoy this. It’s creative, and not especially back-breaking, so I encourage readers to grow perennials, especially the easier ones.

More Tips on Growing Perennials

  • To avoid having to remove dead flowers, choose “self-cleaning” perennials whose flowers drop off, or just get used to the dead-flower look.
  • To avoid staking — a tedious task that produces an ugly result — choose shorter varieties, especially at the front of your borders, or plants that look good flopping over. If you have notorious floppers like aster and mums, hack them back to half their size twice — in May and June — to produce shorter, more compact plants.
  • Dividing is actually a great way to fill up your garden with plants that perform well for you and cost nothing. And filling your garden with these divisions is easier than caring for bare ground (a weed magnet) or trying new plants that may fail and need to be replaced. Division also revitalizes overgrown and crowded plants. And just think — your large hosta can be turned into 10-20 new plants worth $8 each.

Higher-Maintenance Plants

Annuals not only have to be bought and planted every year but most of them need frequent watering and fertilizing. This is especially true in pots, where they dry out quickly and can require daily watering and weekly feeding.Seeds – starting anything from seed is labor-intensive.Vegetables are generally a lot of work, though I’m told that using the principles of permaculture, or lots of mulch, they’re less so.

Fruit trees typically require lots of pruning and spraying. Certain varieties of pawpaw, persimmon, and cherry may perform better but do the research before buying. Look for information about fruit or pod droppings that may require cleaning up after.

Vines are the most work of all, in my experience. My three hardy kiwi vines require a time-consuming hacking back every month to keep them from eating my house, and ivy requires similar vigilance. Just training vines to go where you want them to go is slow, detailed work.

Hybrid tea roses typically need not just regular feeding but regular spraying with fungicide. Plus pruning, of courses. Fortunately for low-maintenance gardeners, there are dozens of great rose alternatives to fussy hybrid teas.

For More Information in Print

  • Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School — by my favorite organic designer.
  • A Year Along the Garden Pathby Ann Lovejoy
  • The American Mixed Border by Ann Lovejoy
  • Naturalistic Gardening by Ann Lovejoy

Not recommended: Any “low-maintenance gardening” book that include ponds, or unqualified endorsements of lawn replacement.

Written by gardening coach and writer Susan Harris, with input from the experts at Behnkes.

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