The Low Maintenance Garden

Lee ArmilleiField Notes

If there is one landscape design request I receive more than any other, it’s, “… and I want it to be low maintenance.”

Why not? Most people don’t want to spend their evenings and weekends weeding. So here’s how I respond and how I plan my designs.

First, there’s no such thing as a “no maintenance garden”. There will always be things to do in the garden, including weeding, pruning, and mulching. However, the extent to which those tasks need to be done can be influenced by the design.

Designate the Lawn to Garden Ratio

Personally, I can’t think of a more dreaded task than mowing the lawn. Not only is it boring, but it’s also loud and stinky. By minimizing how much lawn is in the landscape, we can minimize that task. That said, large beds can be time consuming with maintenance too if they aren’t designed properly. The proper ratio for lawn to garden is different for each homeowner. Do you have kids that play soccer? Maybe you want more lawn. Do you have a small front yard? Maybe the whole thing becomes a bed.

Plant Densely

The more mulch space in the garden, the more obvious it is when something is out of place. It’s clear that the garden needs to be weeded when the mulch has dandelions and onion grass sprouting up in between desirable plants. Planting a garden densely with desirable plants not only shades out weed seeds, but the weeds that do emerge will often go unnoticed. Who cares if there’s chickweed under the leaves of your coral bells? If you can’t see it, neither can your neighbors!

Select Appropriate Sized Plants

This tends to be more of an issue in the DIY landscape. You see something pretty at the garden center, bring it home, only to find out that in 10-15 years that “King’s Gold” False Cypress reaches 10 feet tall and wide. Research plants before selecting them so that, for instance, the shrubs going under windows actually stay 3-4’ tall.

Change Your Aesthetic

If you like your shrubs pruned into little balls, be prepared to keep up with that several times over the summer. The shrub doesn’t know to grow each branch and leaf at the same rate, so after you get that perfect sphere or box, one little branch that grew faster than the rest is going to look out of place.

If you’re used to big beds of mulch, try filling in more – see if you can live with that. Or try not edging your beds. Whether you’ve shoveled the edge or installed some kind of edging material, those are edges that now need to be maintained.

Fill Beds With Shrubs

Beds along property lines can be filled with shrubs that take up a lot of space and require almost no weeding.

Plant Perennials in the Front

Perennials will help add color and soften the front of the garden, but they will also help hide the lower portion of shrubs whose branches don’t touch the ground. Why is this important? To help shade out potential weed seeds and hide weeds that may emerge.

Mow Over Autumn Leaves & Put Them Into Beds

This method saves time, money, and is actually GREAT for your gardens!

Mow Over Perennials in the Spring

With the mower on the highest setting, perennials in the front can be mowed over as a quick “cut-back” in early spring.

Pull Weeds & Leave Them in the Bed

It’s easy, and in a densely planted garden, no one will ever know! Keep in mind, this works for most weeds, but if there are seed heads on the weeds or if it’s a weed that roots easily, you will want to remove it from the bed completely. Better yet, don’t pull, but snap them off. Depending on the weed it may be easier to break them off than pull them. This is also beneficial because less soil is disturbed so new weeds are less likely to germinate.

Keep Up With the Garden

Rather than checking in once or twice a year, check in with your garden weekly. A quick walk through will enable you to pull small weeds rather than dig out mature weeds.

Hire Our Gardeners

If you really don’t want to maintain the garden, hire our gardeners to do it for you! They can keep up with the weeds, prune as needed, cut back perennials and shrubs when the time is right, add and maintain annuals, and let you know if something isn’t right.

DON’T Design Big Beds of Mulch

For all of the reasons mentioned above, avoid beds with spaced out shrubs and no perennial layer.

DON’T Install Areas of Excessive Small Stone

You don’t need stone against the house, or along the edge of a bed. You don’t need to use large groups of pea gravel, colored stone, or river rock anywhere in your basic landscape (except maybe in drainage scenarios). If you WANT to use large groups of stone, keep in mind that you will need to remove all of the stones every year, to pull out the debris and weeds that settle in.

DON’T Plant Zoysia Grass in Your Lawn

If you do, you’ll need to maintain an edge around beds on a very regular basis. Working with a designer can help plan for a successful low maintenance garden. Working with a gardener can take it from low maintenance to no-maintenance!