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Low-maintenance backyards

Ideas to achieve a visually appealing outdoor space that requires little upkeep

By Clayton Ditzler

One of the most common requests of homeowners is for a backyard that is ‘low maintenance,’ a rather subjective term, which requires further discussion to understand their goals. For some, the priority is to reduce or eliminate the shorter-term repetitive tasks such as weekly mowing, weeding, and watering. Others are willing to include items in their construction budget that will benefit them in the long term. Perhaps puttering in a perennial border is something you enjoy? When designing a backyard, it is a good idea to establish a realistic picture of how much time you have at the outset, what maintenance tasks you enjoy doing, your budget for someone to do these jobs for you, or if you would like to invest into alternative design items that will help you lower backyard upkeep. There are many low-maintenance ideas you can consider when planning your landscape design.

  1. To lawn or not to lawn

For some homeowners, a lush green lawn freshly striped from recent mowing is a source of pride. For others, it is a weekly errand they can live without. This, of course, is a personal preference and circles back to your goals regarding maintenance—one person’s chore is another individual’s meditation time. For many people, a lawn is a must-have, regardless of their maintenance preferences. Natural lawns are generally one of the lower-cost items to initially install and offer a place for kids and pets to play, provide overflow from patios and other areas for gatherings, and act as negative visual space in the garden layout. If you plan to spend only a few years in the house, you may not realize enough return on investment (ROI) for more elaborate options. That said, a few maintenance tips apply to all lawns.

Install only on flat or gentle slopes

Fall weather turns the green leaves of Bergenia to burgundy, and they persist through the winter and green up again in the spring.

Lawns on slopes are difficult to keep irrigated, do not function well as play spaces, and are more difficult—even dangerous—to mow. You should avoid the following: having any obstacles to trim around, using natural turf in odd, narrow spaces, and putting grass right up to buildings where the rain, shadow, and sun will make it difficult to grow.

Put down enough good quality soil during construction

Failure of a lawn can often be traced to insufficient loam for nutrients and water retention. A good rule of thumb is to use at least 150 mm (6 in.) of soil during construction.

Use some form of edging to reduce or eliminate string trimming

There are many low-maintenance options including metal, plastic, or poured-in-place decorative concrete borders you can consider for edging to reduce the need for string trimming.

Keep edges with straight or gently flowing lines

Keeping edges with straight or gently flowing lines makes mowing easier and esthetically pleasing. In the case of concrete curbing borders, this can also add a sophisticated look to your lawn as it is considered an upscale feature.

Consider an underground automatic irrigation system

An underground automatic irrigation system will save you time and aggravation dragging hoses around, offer more consistent and controlled results, and reduce water bills in the long run.

2. The right plant in the right place

The latest technology is making artificial turf even more realistic in appearance so you are not compromising on esthetics.

‘The right plant in the right place’ is a popular expression used in landscape design. Hiring a professional landscape designer can be beneficial as they have vast knowledge about plants and will be able to guide you with making the appropriate choices for your garden. If you do not wish to spend hours maintaining your backyard, you should select plants that will fit the space at maturity, be generally free from pest and disease problems, and not demand too much work, such as staking, pruning, or a finicky watering routine. Xeriscaping, for example, is a landscaping method that involves grouping plants according to site conditions and water needs. The technique may require using drought-tolerant plants, but in a damper spot, it may mean moisture-loving plants. The objective is not to fight natural forces and choose plants that, if left to their own devices, will do fine. That said, unless you want a very natural-looking garden, all plants benefit from extra water in a hot spell. While woody plants will require annual pruning, herbaceous perennials need some cleanup in the fall or spring to tidy up dead foliage. Compost and fertilizer can help overall plant health, but with most low-maintenance vegetation, it may be needed only once per growing season. Some popular options appropriate across Canada (except the far north) include:

  • Favourite tree: Spring Snow flowering crabapple (Malus x.Spring Snow’)

This variety of flowering crabapple produces light-pink buds in the spring followed by a profusion of white blossoms, turning the whole tree white. It has a tidy oval form, with green leaves turning gold in the fall. What sets this tree apart from many other flowering crabapples is it produces no fruit.

  • Favourite evergreen: Globe spruce (Picea pungensGlobosa’)

This tidy evergreen has a compact, dense form that naturally forms into a globe shape. The needles are silver blue and, once established, it requires little care. An annual task that keeps it even tighter and allows it to grow in a shape of your choice is to pinch back the new grown in early summer when it is still soft, a process known as ‘candling.’ This procedure does not take long and is a small maintenance task given the overall trouble-free nature of the plant.

  • Favourite sun-loving perennial: Stella de Oro day lily (Hemerocallis x.Stella D’Oro’)
Containers with brightly coloured annuals and tropical textures can be used as focal points in the lawn and grouped where they are visible from inside the home and the main outdoor entertaining area.

The green foliage of this perennial is tidy and looks great even when out of bloom, which is not long, because this plant will bloom almost all season long with cheery yellow flowers. Each blossom only lasts a day, hence the common name ‘day lily.’ A minor upkeep task—that is not necessary but will increase blooms—is to periodically remove the small ovary that forms after the flower is spent. These can be pinched off just with your fingers as you walk around with a drink in the other hand. Removing the ovary keeps the plant concentrated on putting energy into blooms rather than seed. There are hundreds of varieties of day lily, but it is hard to beat Stella de Oro in a low-maintenance garden.

  • Favourite shade-tolerant perennial: Heartleaf Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia)

This plant is among the most bulletproof of perennials and is appropriate for the front of the border. It is not fussy about sun or shade and will tolerate both dry and damp conditions. In the spring, it shoots up a 450-mm (18-in.) flower stalk of pink flowers. Fall weather turns the green leaves to burgundy, and they persist through the winter and green up again in the spring. Removing the spent flowers and tatty leaves is all this perennial needs to thrive and look great throughout the year.

  • Favourite ornamental grass: Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora)

This hardy ornamental grass, with a height of 150 mm (6 in.), starts growing early in the season, quickly establishing a base of bright green leaves. Vertical, blonde sterile seedheads follow and can be left up in the fall and through the winter for seasonal interest. Cutting them down in early spring when the snow melts is the only maintenance these grasses require. These plants are a good fit for contemporary themed gardens and can even be used where a measure of privacy is desired and, once established, require little supplemental watering.

 3. Enjoy your deck

The green foliage of the Stella de Oro day lily looks great even when out of bloom, which is not long, because this plant will bloom almost all season long with cheery yellow flowers.

Eliminating maintenance such as painting and staining of outdoor features is high on the wish list for a low-maintenance lawn, especially your deck. Some options you can consider include:

Western Red Cedar

This is a good choice as it is naturally resistant to decay and can be allowed to weather to a natural silvery grey colour. Cedar is a versatile construction material and can be used for fences, screens, sheds, raised beds, and other lawn features for a unified, low-maintenance appearance.

Composite decking

Composite decking is now available in a variety of colours and textures. It also comes with comprehensive warranties and requires little maintenance, aside from occasional cleaning. As with all decks, proper construction of the footings and framing will ensure it lasts a long time. More products are entering the market that are made from composite materials, which include options for privacy screens and fences, so look for these products when you are choosing materials for your garden.

Powder-coated aluminum railing systems

Regardless of what decking material you choose, using powder-coated aluminum railing systems is a good option for your deck.

4. Cover the ground

No conversation about a low-maintenance lawn is complete without a discussion about mulch. There are many benefits of adding this protective covering to your garden, almost all of which apply to lowering overall care. Mulch retains moisture in the soil, thereby reducing irrigation. It also covers any exposed earth, making it harder for weeds to grow as many weed seeds require light to germinate. The two most common categories of mulch are organic and inorganic. Organic mulch, like wood or bark chips, will need to be refreshed every few years as it slowly breaks down and becomes soil. For this reason, you should never use landscape fabric under organic mulch. Inorganic mulch, like rock, aggregates over a landscape fabric and is more permanent in the landscape, but it requires diligence to keep free of debris. If fallen leaves or fruits are allowed to decompose in the aggregate, it will turn to soil, and eventually offer a place for weeds to grow. On the whole, these maintenance tasks are negligible compared to the many benefits of mulch.

5. Use technology

There are a few items of interest where some newer technology can come to your aid. This includes:

Wi-Fi irrigation controllers

Composite decking is now available in a variety of colours and textures. It also comes with comprehensive warranties and requires little maintenance, aside from occasional cleaning.

Wi-Fi irrigation controllers can be paired with smartphones, giving you the freedom to customize your programming from anywhere. This is not going to reduce a lot of maintenance time, but it will save you money by being able to defer irrigation easily after a rain shower and, depending on where your controller is, a trip to the garden or garage to make those changes.

Robotic lawn mowers

Automated devices have reached a point where they can perform several functions. We have had them in our homes in the form of vacuum cleaners for a while now, so we can appreciate how reliable they can be. Aside from alleviating you from the task of weekly mowing, they also do their job by trimming a little at a time throughout the week so your lawn always has that just-mowed look.

Smartphones

Pondless features using a recirculating pump offer the sound and motion of water in the garden but have much lower maintenance requirements.

Apps that help you diagnose problems or learn new things abound, but the best and most readily available device is your smartphone camera. You can use it to document your garden on a regular basis, including specific things like a potential disease or insect problems, so when it comes time to engage someone for help, you have that information on hand. The trick to staying on top of problems is regular observation, and it is also fun to look back and see how your garden develops over time. This can be key when identifying ways to lower maintenance as you observe what is working and what is not.

6. Artificial turf: have your cake and eat it too

Compared to natural grass, artificial turf removes tasks such as watering, mowing, and fertilizing from your maintenance list. The latest technology is making artificial turf even more realistic in appearance so you are not compromising on esthetics. Artificial grass can also be used in spaces where natural turf is not a great fit such as a dog run, side yard, or a challenging area like a shady or exceptionally hot area. Aside from occasional cleanup of debris, artificial turf requires little upkeep.

7. Advancements in hardscape

Paving stones have been around for a long time and are a great addition to any low-maintenance garden. A common challenge in the past was weeds and ants exploiting the joints between the pavers, but polymeric sand products have reduced the problem and significantly increased the hardscaping appeal. These jointing mixtures have been available for more than two decades and keep improving as manufacturers explore new technologies. Further advancements in paver construction technology are making them even more low maintenance with upgraded product lines now featuring denser concrete mixes and surface treatments, making them less absorbent. This results in a more stain-resistant paver that can withstand the effects of freeze-thaw cycles over their lifetime. If a new patio space is something you are considering, a little research on some of these new features could help you achieve your goals.

8. The ‘wow’ factor

Spring Snow flowering crabapple produces light-pink buds in the spring followed by a profusion of white blossoms, turning the whole tree white.

One of the perceived downfalls of a backyard that requires little care is that it is boring, lacks colour, and is devoid of the ‘wow’ factor? One of the ways you can create a visually appealing garden is by introducing some special features such as:

Containers with brightly coloured annuals and tropical textures

These are a good addition to offset the clean lines and simple finishes of a low-maintenance landscape. They can be used as focal points in the lawn and grouped where they are visible from inside the home and the main outdoor entertaining area. These planters require little upkeep, but you must consider the following:

• Bigger is better, both from a visual standpoint, but also so they have more soil mass, thereby reducing the frequency of irrigation. Of course, the scale of the container or grouping must be taken into account for the composition of the whole space.

• Installing drip tube irrigation is a good idea so the containers will look their best even when you are away.

• Some planter designs are ‘self-watering’ via reservoirs and are worth looking into.

• Plant choices that do not require much care and have similar water and light requirements will be the most trouble-free. Thankfully the choices available are almost endless.

Water features

Hiring a professional landscape designer can be beneficial as they have vast knowledge about plants and will be able to guide you with making the appropriate choices for your garden.

Water features require some care but, with the right design, they can be quite low maintenance and provide a lot of value to the garden. Pondless features using a recirculating pump offer the sound and motion of water in the garden but have much lower maintenance requirements. Occasional cleaning and winterization is all that is needed, aside from adding water periodically due to evaporation. If you have invested in an irrigation system, consider adding a line to the water feature with either an automated or manual top-up valve so you do not need to drag out a hose when it is time to add more water.

9. Add some heat

Apart from the desire for low maintenance, more people are choosing to invest in their homes as retreats and outdoor living spaces. Part of the reason is getting more use out of space in the evening. Consider the addition of a gas fireplace or firepit as a gathering place. Using gas rather than traditional methods means no mess or fuss with firewood, and the instant on-and-off nature makes these features convenient to use. Constructed out of stone or concrete with long-lasting burners, these structures require minimal care and will last for years to come.

10. Enlist some professionals

Most of us do not change our own oil or do our own taxes. Do not be afraid, even if you are doing your own maintenance for the most part, to enlist the services of a professional to help you with your lawn. A landscape designer or consultant can get you off to a great start if you are starting a new project with a comprehensive plan for the whole space. If you are making changes to an existing area, they can help you lower maintenance requirements by identifying alternative opportunities such as different plants or other minor changes. A good arborist can help maintain your trees, an often-overlooked part of the landscape but definitely one of the most important features when selling the house. Rather than trying to formulate your own lawn-fertilizing program, find a company in your area that provides a service that suits your style. Many of these services will not only help you manage your time, but also give you advice that will save you money and frustration in the long term.

Clayton Ditzler is a certified landscape designer (CLD) with The Landscape Artist Inc., in Calgary, Alta., and has been designing residential landscapes since 1989. He can be reached via email at clayton@landartist.com or by visiting www.landartist.com.

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