Tips for Designing a Low Maintenance Landscape

As the store’s garden coach, the number one request I receive from clients is a low maintenance landscape. They want beautiful but effortless yards. While no landscape is completely maintenance free there a things homeowners can do to create a less demanding one. As spring approaches and before we start planting every pretty plant we can find (guilty), let’s do some planning.

First, let’s clear up a typical misconception. What is low maintenance in the landscape?

Many of us assume it’s buying plants that are:

  • Drought tolerant (believed to never need water at all)

  • Native (therefore it can adapt regardless of its situation)

  • Fits any light setting (full shade to full sun)

  • No pruning ever needed (some do require less than others)

  • Zero pests and diseases (I wish)

  • Zone hardy in literally all climates and weather (day lilies are fairly indestructible)

Yes, some plants are less hands-on than others, but none fit the above description as all living organisms need some care and attention. Low maintenance is less about picking plants that can survive the nuclear apocalypse and more about preparation.

Preparation is key to low maintenance because it places the right plants in the right settings for optimal growth and health, thus reducing the amount of time spent on maintenance.

Don’t forget the conifers. They provide evergreen (screening, winter interest), come in a variety of shapes, sizes and color. They can be weeping, upright, blue, red, chartreuse, wide, tight, tall, and short. Pruning isn’t necessary except occasionally and they are drought tolerant.

Don’t forget the conifers. They provide evergreen (screening, winter interest), come in a variety of shapes, sizes and color. They can be weeping, upright, blue, red, chartreuse, wide, tight, tall, and short. Pruning isn’t necessary except occasionally and they are drought tolerant.

1. Sun or Shade

By far, the biggest error made in developing low maintenance landscapes is wanting that peony (or fill in the blank with your plant of choice) to grow where it isn’t happy. Plants don’t bloom where they’re planted. They bloom where their cultural requirements (sun, shade, wet, dry) are met. Full shade isn’t going to produce those big, fragrant peony blooms. Full sun will. Knowing your sunlight/shade situation is the first and biggest step to determining what to plant in your landscape. Accepting that sunlight/shade situation is the second biggest step to achieving a low maintenance landscape.

How to Know?

Take a day during the growing season and note the hours of direct sunlight, filtered light and full shade. Plants need light to grow so be honest with yourself. If you live in a dense canopied forest that rarely sees sunlight, note that. Often people will say that their landscape is full sun in winter, and that is helpful for growing spring bulbs, hellebores, and other woodland plants, but with a few exceptions, most plants are dormant during winter, and blooming in spring, summer or fall. Knowing your light situation and the requirements of the plants you want will help save time, effort and money.

Viburnums can be evergreen or deciduous, they bloom in early spring, have fall berries, some are fragrant, and most tolerate shadier conditions (not full shade). And bonus, their mature sizes can range from 20’ tall to 5’, making viburnums multi-use shrubs that are beautiful and relatively low maintenance.

Viburnums can be evergreen or deciduous, they bloom in early spring, have fall berries, some are fragrant, and most tolerate shadier conditions (not full shade). And bonus, their mature sizes can range from 20’ tall to 5’, making viburnums multi-use shrubs that are beautiful and relatively low maintenance.

The longer you live in your home the shadier your landscape will become. Look up. Are you surrounded by small oaks that will one day be very large oaks? Or maples? The smaller the trees the better when culling. If you need to make changes to your landscape to allow for more light infiltration, do that first.

If your landscape is primarily shady, don’t despair, there are a wealth of plants for shade gardens. Staff can help you pick out appropriate plants for your site. Start here if you’d like to research some choices on your own.

2. Plants That Fit

When shopping for plants read the tags or ask staff about mature sizes of plants. Homeowners want instant happy in the landscape, but plants aren’t couches. They grow bigger. Read the plant tags for the mature size of the plant (and it’s cultural requirements, i.e. sun/shade, wet/dry) to ensure that Japanese maple by the front door won’t be hanging over the sidewalk in three years.

One favorite shrub for homeowners is Cyrptomeria japonica ‘Globosa Nana’.’ An evergreen, low maintenance shrub, it has finely textured foliage, turns reddish bronze in winter and is perfect for foundations, borders, and containers. These plants are like puppies, they’re adorable when little and in their nursery pots. So cute, in fact, that homeowners and builders will plant them as close as 1’ apart, creating a pretty foundation planting now, but in 3-5 years they’re unintentionally creating a mess because the mature size is 3’-4’ x 4.’ And, remember plants don’t read our tags (read here for more on that) and they don’t stop growing, meaning these sizes are based on a ten year average, and some may grow larger.

Hellebores prefer dry shade, bloom in winter, are evergreen, act as a groundcover and rarely need division. They are relatively pest and disease free making them an essential low maintenance perennial.

Hellebores prefer dry shade, bloom in winter, are evergreen, act as a groundcover and rarely need division. They are relatively pest and disease free making them an essential low maintenance perennial.

What to do?

  • Remember it is easier to add than delete (and less costly) so pace yourself when planting.

  • Measure your space and calculate the square footage to determine the size and number of plants you need.

  • Do you want a hedge (tighter plantings) or to see the plants individually? Keep in mind that tighter plantings means more competition for the plant’s roots, air flow and sunlight. Allow for enough space between the plants for all plants to thrive.

  • Fill in between shrubs and trees with perennials and ground covers while trees and shrubs grow.

  • Be flexible. Plants are living organisms that don’t always perform exactly as you planned. Allow for surprises in the garden.

3. Top Quality Plant Choices

Plant choices have never been better. Disease resistant, bigger blooms, longer-blooming, doesn’t flop, and smaller sizes help when making a choices for your landscape.

Those favorite mophead hydrangeas are now repeat bloomers (Endless Summer). The standby favorite ‘Annabelle’ smooth hydrangea is available but there is the beautiful new cultivar ‘Incrediball’ that has larger blooms with stronger stems, and a longer bloom time.

Again, no plant is perfect or without care, but make your choices with some of these characteristics in mind.

What to look for?

  • Cold hardy

  • Disease resistant

  • Drought tolerant

  • Repeat blooms

  • Strong stems

4. Four Season Plants

Dogwoods are stunning in spring, but don’t forget their fall display. An understory tree it is the right size for small landscapes, blooms mid-spring, has berries in fall and is first to turn color in fall while holding it’s leaves late into fall. A workhorse of a plant in the landscape.

Dogwoods are stunning in spring, but don’t forget their fall display. An understory tree it is the right size for small landscapes, blooms mid-spring, has berries in fall and is first to turn color in fall while holding it’s leaves late into fall. A workhorse of a plant in the landscape.

Choose plants that give the most visual interest all year long. Such plants are referred to as four season plants. Dogwoods fit the bill. Beautiful spring blossoms (bracts), gorgeous fall color, vibrant red berries, and a strong, interesting architectural structure.

Breeders are developing repeat blooming plants that extend the interest of the plant. Encore azaleas are an example of this, blooming in spring and then again in fall. Their spring bloom is late season and their fall bloom lasts well into early November. Allow one plant to do the work of four.

What to Look For?

  • Architectural interest

  • Blooming and repeat blooming

  • Berries, seed pods, flower heads

  • Evergreen

  • Exfoliating bark

  • Fall color

  • Winter color

5. Start with Proper Maintenance

How many of us are guilty of planting our new tree and then remembering to prune it when it’s 25’ tall and full of interior branching? Look outside. Does that describe you? Often the next time a homeowner really examines a tree or shrub after installation is when it’s overgrown it’s spot or limbs start falling out of it. Proper maintenance, which leads to less maintenance, is a yearly undertaking. Schedule for routine maintenance.

How to proceed?

  • Create a map of the plants you’ve installed (include common and botanical names), when they were planted and where they were purchased. This helps if you ever need to replace plants and it allows you to follow the growth of each plant.

  • Know how to maintain your plants. Rhododendrons are pruned after blooming and best before July 4 for optimal spring bloom. Note cultural information for each plant on your map.

  • Fertilize yearly with proper fertilization and follow the instructions on the bag. A second fertilizing is recommended for the upcoming winter months but should be applied prior to July 31.

  • Establishing plants is crucial to their longevity and drought tolerance. After installation know your watering plan to help plants get fully settled.

  • During extreme drought, set up a watering schedule especially for shallow rooted plants and plants that form hedges and screens since the competition for water is greater here.

  • Pruning is done in mid-Feb to early March and should be done yearly. Waiting several years in-between creates a big job and is stressful on the plants. Remove all dead, damaged and diseased wood from plants regularly to avoid habitat for pests and disease.

This may sound like anything but low maintenance, but taking the time upfront to make proper choices based on your specific landscape equals less maintenance in the long run.

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.

B.B.Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.