Low Maintenance Landscape Tips

May 23, 2012

Resized[1]By Clayton Ditzler

When most people dream of a low-maintenance landscape, they imagine doing away with the tasks that take up most of their time and money—weeding, edging, mowing, watering, raking and painting. These are all tasks you likely want to replace with more fun activities: golfing, hiking, swimming, lounging and reading. That said, how do you go about lessening or even eliminating these seemingly necessary chores? The following 10 design tips and considerations can help make maintenance of any new or existing landscape less of a chore.

Tip 1: Tend to the ‘Hidden’ Landscape

The hidden landscape refers to the grading of the lot, the base beneath the patio, drainage systems and loam used under the turf and in planting beds. How does this influence whether your property is low-maintenance? Good loam in sufficient depth will result in plants that are healthier, stronger and more pest- and disease-resistant, with better colouration, more flowers and deeper roots, which will make them more drought-resistant.

A patio that settles or shifts due to a poorly constructed base will surely cause trouble over time, as will a poorly drained property. Poor drainage can cause water to pool, which can weaken or kill plants or encourage moss to grow. Soil that is saturated with water will heave when winter comes and the ground freezes, resulting in shifted landscape elements or even damage to your home’s foundation. Even in an established landscape, it is well worth your time to correct some flaws in the hidden landscape before moving on to the next steps.

Tip 2: Highlight with Hardscaping

Hardscaping comprises any patios, walks, decks, railings and fences in your landscape. These items are actually relatively easy to find and are typically constructed to be durable and long lasting, with a limited amount of maintenance, painting or staining required. Manufacturers want their products to look good for a long time, to ensure the long-term happiness of their customers.

For decking and fencing, there are some natural woods on the market that weather well and are naturally resistant to decay. Western red cedar, for example, weathers to a silvery grey colour. If that doesn’t suit you, there are also many man-made alternatives to wood on the market (e.g. polyvinyl chloride [PVC] materials, composite decking, vinyl sheet products, etc.).

For patios and walks, concrete or pavers require little care after the initial install and typically provide years of worry-free service. Historically, one potential drawback of pavers has been their joints, which required regular sanding (depending on exposure to rain, washing or traffic) to keep the spaces between the pavers filled. If this maintenance were ignored, weeds or insects would begin to exploit the spaces. Thankfully, this problem can be remedied through the use of polymeric sand, which serves as a solid but flexible joint filler. It resembles normal sand, but resists exposure and lasts for years, making it very popular among modern homeowners.

In addition, many hardscape items that were traditionally painted (e.g. metal railings, fences or light fixtures) can now be powder-coated. This process gives the item an attractive, maintenance-free finish.

Of course, no matter what hardscaping option you choose, always be sure to invest in the best quality materials you can afford and enlist the services of a professional installer. This will ensure lasting results over the long term.

Tip 3: Choose Trees Carefully

Most homeowners have had tree-related troubles from time to time. Perhaps it was a fruit tree that dropped a messy layer of fruit all over your patio every fall at your previous home, or a variety that shed countless bits of organic material into your carefully chosen water feature. No matter the specific issue, poorly selected or sited trees can require quite a bit of maintenance.

Trees are a big investment and take time to become established. Tree choices come down to establishing what function you want from said tree (e.g. shade, screening,

flowering, etc.) and then picking a variety that will fill that role without adding too many negative side effects. Then, it must be sited where it has enough room to mature and benefit from the proper soil and lighting conditions. A stressed tree will be a sick tree, so take the time to make these selections carefully.

The ideal low-maintenance tree is hardy, fairly clean (i.e. doesn’t produce too much trash, such as messy fruit) and free of significant pest or disease problems. Ideal specimens also have good natural structure and tidy growth habits, reducing the need for excessive pruning. Consider some of the newer cultivars of old standby tree varieties, as they have been bred with superior characteristics to make them better suited to a low-maintenance landscape (e.g. Malus ‘Spring Snow,’ a white flowering ornamental crabapple that produces no fruit).

Again, consider enlisting the help of a professional for selection and installation to ensure optimum success; once planted, you may even want to hire a professional arborist to maintain your trees for you. They have the equipment and knowledge to do the job safely and properly.

005_low maint_CRW_8941[2]Tip 4: Stop Maintaining ‘Dead’ Areas

Think of the space between the side of your garage and your fence—do you only go there to maintain it? How about that steep slope toward the back of your lot? You could try to grow something there, but when will anybody ever see it? It’s best to save your efforts for the more prominent parts of your landscape.

For these ‘dead’ areas, consider putting down landscape fabric topped with washed gravel or a layer of organic wood chip mulch. This will suppress weeds, stabilize the soil and look good without breaking the bank. Best of all, the areas will only need occasional visits, to clean up loose leaves or other small debris.

Tip 5: Reduce Turf Use (or Abuse)

When it comes to low-maintenance landscaping, turf is a touchy subject. Traditionally, lawns are considered resource-heavy and maintenance-intensive; however, they can also serve an important function. Consider using turf on relatively flat parts of the landscape (up to approximately five per cent slope) in a location that can be used for entertaining, such as overflow from a patio or a place for kids or pets to play. In addition to being functional, turf used in this application adds valuable negative space to the landscape. In other words, the turf works as a design element, not just a default ground cover.

For new turf areas, seed or sod with a good quality product that includes a variety of turf species; over time, the strongest species will prevail, giving you the best adapted lawn for your site.

In many instances, replacing turf with another product makes good sense from a maintenance perspective. Steeper slopes are prone to drying out and aren’t functional for entertaining or play. These areas can be mulched and planted with appropriate plants or even terraced to make them easier to maintain.

You may even wish to eliminate turf altogether. Patios or decks are a good alternative to turf in a flat area where you may wish to entertain. They are significantly more expensive to install but by achieving a balance of hardscape and planting beds, the ‘missing’ lawn will hardly be noticed.

Tip 6: Put Your String Trimmer Away

You might occasionally find someone who claims they like mowing grass or weeding, but I have yet to meet someone who likes edging. Installing man-made edging along the transitions between turf and beds, with good quality polyethylene, concrete or metal, keeps grass from creeping into the beds. It also virtually eliminates the need for string trimming or mechanical edging, as it allows your lawnmower to overlap, giving a clean edge. Construct edging with straight lines or gently flowing curves, as this will be most pleasing to the eye. Avoid tight curves. They are more complicated and will increase the amount of edging required to get the job done. Curved edges are also difficult and time-consuming to overlap with a mower.

Tip 7: Plant Selection and Placement

What exactly makes a good low-maintenance plant? For starters, it must be hardy and look good. It must also be appropriate for the allotted space. Will the plant have the right soil, proper moisture and adequate light to grow to its mature size? Low-maintenance plants should also be minimally invasive, relatively pest- and disease-resistant and should not require staking, deadheading or excessive amounts of pruning. That’s not asking for too much, is it?

Fortunately, even in more extreme climates, there are suitable plants to be found. Instead of resorting to trial and error, consider acquiring the services of a professional landscape designer for plant selection, as their expertise will likely save you a lot of time and money. A good designer will even be able to work around your colour preferences and specific likes and dislikes to come up with a planting scheme that will look great with minimal maintenance.

Where possible, consider native plant species, which are naturally adapted to your local environment and well established in the ecosystem, making them less susceptible to pests or disease. While native plants are gaining popularity, beware—just because a plant is native doesn’t necessarily make it suitable for a low-maintenance garden. Some of these plants are extremely invasive; others are hardy and low-maintenance, but not overly attractive. In many cases, there are suitable choices that have been bred from native plants with superior traits. Plant breeders are constantly trying to improve on nature, and in many cases, non-native species are the most suitable plants for a low-maintenance garden.


Tip 8: Consider Adding Mulch to Reduce Weeding

Nature abhors a vacuum; in your landscape, that vacuum is bare soil. When a garden is young, before the plants have had a chance to fill in, you will inevitably have some weeding to do. However, to keep maintenance down, consider mulch as a long-term solution.

Mulch has many advantages, from looking good to conserving moisture, but from a maintenance perspective, its primary function is reducing weeding by covering bare soil. As mentioned previously (see Tip 4), mulch can also be used in dead spaces. Consider this trick: blend your planting beds into those dead spaces using the same mulch. If done properly, the dead areas look more natural.

When choosing mulch, look for options that are locally available in large quantities. Mulch tends to be bulky and/or heavy, so shipping it in from other areas means added cost. The components of local mulch will depend on where you live.

Inorganic materials, such as washed rock, must be used over a layer of landscape fabric. The fabric helps keep the rock clean and physically suppresses weeds while allowing air and moisture through. Organic mulch, such as wood chips, can be used without fabric, as it will break down over time and become incorporated into the soil.

Tip 9: Use Irrigation to Your Advantage

Perhaps someday water will become too valuable to use on ornamental spaces. Until then, irrigation can be used to your advantage in a low-maintenance landscape. Investing in a professionally designed and installed automatic underground irrigation system will yield considerable savings, whether it’s the time you save dragging around hoses and sprinklers or reduced water consumption. By using zones, specialized heads or drip techniques, irrigation systems can be programmed to apply appropriate amounts of water exactly where and when it is needed. Automatic systems can also be run at the optimum time of day to maximize effectiveness and reduce wasted water, thus saving you money.

Properly irrigated turf is stronger and healthier, and therefore better able to sustain traffic and suppress weeds. Irrigation on ornamental plants (e.g. shrubs, perennials beds) helps establish these areas quicker, which also reduces weeding.

Tip 10: Adding Focal Points

Beauty and visual interest need not be sacrificed to create a low-maintenance landscape. Sometimes a higher-maintenance item can be included; the key is achieving the right balance. Instead of a big bed of annuals, consider a grouping of containers positioned where you will see and appreciate them the most. In fact, instead of resource-heavy annuals, try filling the containers with succulent (water-retaining) plants, such as sedums or ornamental grasses.

Bigger-ticket focal points can also be suited to fit a low maintenance landscape. For example, a water feature need not take a lot of time to maintain. Consider a ‘pondless’ water feature, which utilizes a buried reservoir rather than a pond to recirculate water from a smaller, self-contained unit. This will provide you with the sound of water and attract some wildlife, without significant upkeep. Sculptures or garden art are also great low-maintenance ways to provide a focal point to the landscape.

Enjoy Your Space

Esthetics are important, but so is taking the time to appreciate your backyard. By following some of these guidelines, you can reduce the time you spend maintaining your oasis and spend more time enjoying it.


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