Low maintenance Landscape Design
Prepared by Karen Russ, HGIC Information Specialist, and Bob Polomski, Extension Consumer Horticulturist, Clemson University. (New 12/99.)
Although there is no such thing as a maintenance-free landscape, it is possible to have an attractive landscape that is easy to care for. Good planning, design, plant selection and timely maintenance will reduce the amount of care that a landscape needs to look its best.
Planning is essential to the development of a low-maintenance landscape. Extra time spent in planning will be repaid many times over in later leisure time.
Analyze Site: Begin with a thorough study of the features of your garden site. This will include site conditions, problem areas, desirable areas and views. Plot these factors on a sketch of your garden site for future reference.
Determine sun and shade patterns for all areas. Does the area receive different light at different times of day or in different seasons? Some plants do well with full morning sun but cannot handle the hotter afternoon sun. Other plants that can handle full sun in summer are subject to sunburn in winter. You will also want to locate patios, shade trees and arbors according to sun patterns.
Evaluate the maintenance needs of existing plants and structures. Identify the existing plants and determine their condition and future growth. A tree that will tremendously outgrow its present location may be easier and less expensive to remove and replace now than later. On the other hand, you may have features that are of unexpected benefit. A solid bed of moss under trees can mean that you will never need to mow that area.
Check soil drainage and storm runoff. Areas that stay wet can be lethal to many plants, and damaging to structures. Either regrade or install drain tiles to improve drainage, or plant that area only with water-tolerant plants.
The type of soil in your yard will also affect drainage rates and the types of plants that will thrive. A soil test will determine if soil amendments or fertilizers are needed.
Identify areas such as steep slopes that may cause maintenance difficulties. Lawns on steep slopes can be both high-maintenance and unsafe. Plan to replace the grass with groundcover or use terraces and retaining walls to reduce severe slope problems.
Analyze Your Needs: Determine what your needs and desires are for your yard. Families with young children will need play areas that are safe and easily watched. Plan your landscape around the kind of activities that you and your family engage in. Outdoor sports and yard games require a lot of lawn space and sturdy plantings. Large paved areas are desirable for outside entertaining. Remember the needs of outdoor pets. Dogs can severely damage gardens unless they are confined to a separate area.
Consider the amount of time that you can afford or want to spend in yard maintenance. New gardeners should start with easier plantings than an experienced gardener would put in. Start small and simple until you know how much you like gardening.
Many people enjoy some aspects of garden care and dislike others. If you dislike spending time watering, choose only drought-tolerant plants or install an irrigation system. Those who hate to rake can choose trees with fine leaves that disappear into a lawn.
Take into account the physical abilities of the users and their ability to perform different maintenance jobs. Wheelchair access requires wide paths without overlapping plants. Raised beds are helpful for gardeners who have difficulty kneeling.
You will also need to allow room for such practical purposes as clotheslines, trash can storage, compost and pet runs.
Design For Low Maintenance
Many of the maintenance needs of a garden are determined by the design. By following a few simple guidelines, you can build in ease of care from the start.
Simplicity: Keep the planting design simple. Make certain each plant in the plan serves a purpose. Elaborate plantings require a great deal of attention. Simple plantings, using only a few plant species, can be both attractive and easy to manage.
Materials Selection: Some elements of a landscape need more care than others. Generally, paving such as patios and walks require the least care. They are followed by structures such as sheds and arbors, then trees, shrubs, ground covers, and lawns. Bulbs, annual and perennial flowers, and plants that need special care such as roses need the most maintenance. Since few of us would want a garden without any seasonal flowering plants, the maintenance impact can be reduced by planting high-care plants in limited numbers and where they will have the most impact.
Beds: Planting beds are easier to maintain than many isolated plantings. It is easier to mow around a bed with a continuous edge rather than around individual plants. Gentle curves or straight lines are both easier to care for and more pleasing than complicated curves and shapes. Avoid sharp corners or narrow strips that mowers cannot reach. Beds should be narrow enough for easy access, or be designed with steppingstones or paths through them.
Edging: Edging saves maintenance by keeping mulch in and lawn out. Steel, aluminum and plastic edgings are readily available. A very attractive edging can be constructed of pavers or brick laid flush with the lawn. This kind of edging will reduce the need for hand trimming. While a spade cut edging will need to be recut seasonally, it will keep bed edges defined and neat.
Hardscaping: Patios and decks are low-maintenance choices for high traffic areas that will not allow the successful growth of grass or other groundcover. Sidewalks, patios and edging around beds should be low and flat, permitting a power mower to ride up over the surface and eliminating the need for hand edging.
Walks, patios, steps, walls, fences or shelters will need periodic maintenance that will vary in frequency based on the materials used. When considering various landscape and construction materials, compare the initial cost and maintenance to long term cost and durability.
Natural Areas: Some areas, especially on properties with large trees, can be allowed to return to their natural state. Woodlands are the natural condition for most areas of the state. This option will require periodic care to remove undesirable weed species.
Wildflower meadows require little supplemental irrigation once established, and generally do not require fertilization. They are an attractive alternative to the traditional lawn since they need mowing only once a year. This operation controls the growth of tree and shrub seedlings, and if done in the fall, helps to spread the wildflower seeds throughout the area.
Establishing a meadow garden will require effort initially to control weeds until the young plants or seeds are well-established. While a meadow garden need not be weed-free to be attractive, it will require occasional maintenance to control vigorous or invasive weeds.
The success of a wildflower species or mixture depends on the adaptability of the species to a given area. Be sure to choose mixes that are suited to your area.
Xeriscaping: The use of drought-tolerant plants in watering zones will help to lower water use and reduce maintenance. All the plants within a zone should have the same water requirements and can be watered as a group. High-moisture plants should be limited and located where they can be reached easily with a hose. Plants that rarely need supplemental moisture can be used where a water source is not convenient. Lawns usually use the most water in a landscape. By using decks and patios, groundcovers and shrub beds, you can limit lawn size and still have an attractive yard.