As one of the company’s landscape designers, the number one request I receive from clients is a low-maintenance landscape. They want beautiful but effortless yards. While no landscape is entirely maintenance-free, there a things homeowners can do to create a less demanding one. As spring finally arrives, and before we start planting every pretty plant we can find (guilty), let’s plan.
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 never to need water at all)
- Native (therefore, it can adapt regardless of its situation)
- Fits any light setting (full shade to full sun)
- No pruning is ever needed (some do require less than others)
- Zero pests and diseases (I wish)
- Zone hardy in literally all climates and weather (daylilies 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. A low-maintenance landscape 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 proper settings for optimal growth and health, thus reducing the amount of time spent on care.
Don’t forget the conifers. They provide evergreen (screening, winter interest) and come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. They can be weeping, upright, blue, red, chartreuse, broad, tight, tall, and short. Pruning isn’t necessary except occasionally, and they are drought tolerant.
1. Determine your sun or shade to ensure a low-maintenance landscape.
The most common error 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. The axiom “Bloom where you’re planted” doesn’t apply to plants. If peonies are in the shade, they won’t bloom. If rhododendrons are in full sun, they will be choloritc. Plants thrive 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 most significant step to determining what to plant in your landscape—accepting that the sunlight/shade situation is the second step to achieving a low-maintenance landscape.
HOW TO KNOW?
Plants need light to grow, so be honest with yourself. Take a day during the growing season and note the hours of direct sunlight, filtered light, and full shade. Look up. Are you in a dense canopied forest? Is it primarily deciduous trees or evergreen? What about your neighbor’s trees or house? What shade does that create? I often hear that the landscape is full sun in winter, which helps to grow spring bulbs, hellebores, and other woodland plants, but with a few exceptions, most plants are dormant during winter and blooming in the spring, summer, or fall. Knowing your light situation and the requirements of the plants you want will help save time, effort, and money.
The longer you live in your home, your landscape will be shadier. If you need to change your landscape to allow more light infiltration for your dream sun-filled garden, do that first.
If your landscape is primarily shady, don’t despair, there are many plants for shade gardens.
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. Staff can help you pick out appropriate plants for your site.
2. Choose plants that fit your landscape.
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 plant’s mature size (and its cultural requirements, i.e., sun/shade, wet/dry) to ensure that the 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 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 making 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.
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? Remember that tighter plantings mean more competition for the plant’s roots, airflow, 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 as you planned. Allow for surprises in the garden.
3. Choose top-quality plants to help create a low-maintenance landscape.
Plant choices have never been better. Disease-resistant, more prominent blooms, longer-blooming, doesn’t flop, and smaller sizes help when making choices for your landscape.
Those favorite mophead hydrangeas are now repeating 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. Think four-season plants. Let one plant do more work for the landscape.
Dogwoods are an understory tree that is suitable for small landscapes. Its spring blooms are stunning in spring but don’t forget their fall display–berries and fabulous fall color in the fall. It f is the first to turn color in fall while holding its leaves late, and its winter architecture is lovely. It’s 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.
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 a 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
- Exfoliating bark
- Fall color
- Winter color
5. Good maintenance equals a low-maintenance landscape.
Look outside. 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? Does that describe you? Often the next time a homeowner examines a tree or shrub after installation is when it’s overgrown, 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 your landscape plants (include common and botanical names). Note the planting date and where it was 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 before 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.
- Remove all dead, damaged, and diseased wood from plants regularly to avoid habitats for pests and disease. Pruning is done from mid-Feb to early March and is a yearly task. yearly. Waiting several years in-between creates a big job and is stressful on the plants.
This may sound like anything but a low-maintenance landscape, 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, landscape designer and blog writer.
B.B.Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.