What is low maintenance landscaping? Every year, I hear about new and old clients who complain about their landscapes. “Its too much work to maintain.” “Do you do landscape maintenance?” And more. A lot of the problems associated with landscaping can be avoided by correct planning up front, to design a low maintenance landscape. But how?
Low maintenance does not mean NO maintenance. It means knowing when and how to do the minimalist amount of work and yet still have a beautiful area. The biggest mistake I see when someone puts in a new landscape is that they forgot to take in the natural landscape around them, using its features in mimicry. You can either match or mimic the existing natural features, or you can work with them in a harmonious design.
When you work against nature, you will lose in the long run. Either you will spend too much time maintaining (weeding, spraying, replanting, pruning) or you will give up entirely and have to replan a whole new landscape.
Landscaping Practices Which Go Against Nature
There are a lot of practices which inhibit a healthy relationship with nature, and in turn, cause more maintenance and stress for the homeowner. Designers need to be aware of these components and strive to produce a landscape which becomes and ecosystem in tune with the surrounding landscape. If homeowners balk at the idea, or insist upon manicured spaces, then they need to also be aware of the high cost of maintenance. Both in their time and their money.
Type of Practices Which Are Against Low Maintenance
Using Rock as Mulch
One of my biggest pet peeves in landscaping is the practice of using rock as mulch. First of all, let’s stop calling rock mulch. Because it is not. When we use rock in place of an organic mulch we go against the natural order of the landscape. Where do we find rock in nature? In streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes, primarily. Where do you see rock as mulch in the natural world? I cannot think of any such place.
Rock itself is nice to look at and can break up the landscape, but should not be used as mulch. You have to use an underlayment with it, such as landscape fabric or weed barrier, which does not degrade and prevents debris from breaking down properly. Rock also is a heat sink, holding heat from the day and slowly releasing it over the night. This does not allow plants to cool down correctly, leading to stress and moisture loss.
What always happens is that pieces of leaves, soil, and other organic particles build up between the rocks in the landscape, and do not deteriorate with the help of micro-organisms. This buildup of organic materials leads to the next problem, pesticide usage.
Most of the usage of pesticides in the landscape stems from lack of knowledge. Either it is a lack of knowing what the pest is that you are spraying, or lack of good landscaping practices leading to herbicide usage. This is my number 1 dislike. Despite growing up in a farming family in North Central Kansas, I have never liked pesticides. I love the life that God has created around us, so killing that seemed wrong to me. And it still does.
I have advocated against the use of pesticides in all the work that I do. Unfortunately, I have had to resort to using them at work, because of poor landscaping practices. But they are always a last resort.
Pesticides do not just kill the thing you are trying to kill, but much more. Spraying insecticides always kills more than the target. If you spray to kill Japanese beetles, you will get them, but you will also kill predators like wheel bugs, assassin bugs, corsair bugs, spiders, and more. The same holds true for herbicides. There are always unknown results. For example, the use of glyphosate has led to a buildup of this poison in our food supply and soils, leading to problems in our health. My wife had a supposed gluten intolerance, which we discovered was actually a glyphosate intolerance in wheat and other flour grains. She can eat organic flours with no side affects, but not any other kind which has been sprayed with glyphosate.
Where in nature do you see a monoculture? I know, its been said before. But, with landscaping and lawns, the problem still goes untreated. Lawns, like monocultures of wheat, corn, soybeans, and other field crops are dead zones to life. Yes, the plant is alive, but there is rarely anything else. The soils are constantly bombarded with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and more, and do not develop healthy ecosystems.
By growing monocultures we risk losing everything. A single pest can wipe out a monoculture in just a few weeks. Look at an example.
Dutch Elm Disease. Although not a crop of lawn, the overplanting of American elms in the landscapes of the 1800s and early 1900s lead to the death of nearly every one of them in the mid 20th century by Dutch elm disease. Only a few resistant trees are still in the landscape, and most of those are far from clustered centers of trees.
We are getting dangerously close to another disaster in our landscapes. Already we have our monocultured lawns. And with the overplanting of Autumn Blaze Maples, plus a lot of certain types of perennials and knockout roses, we could see extreme damage.
Another thing I dislike is the look of manicured or sheared shrubs. If given a chance to grow and do their thing, most shrubs will behave in a controlled manner. I am not saying to let your hydrangea ‘Limelight’ to grow each season without pruning, it would get huge! Rather, the one time per year pruning needed is all that is needed. With evergreen shrubs, the damage done by shearing is quite noticeable. If you mess up and cut too much off, then the plant has holes or dead spots which can take a decade to regrow.
I prefer to only hand prune as needed, not shearing the plants back into balls, boxes, or other shapes, none of which match the rest of the landscape. We have fallen too much in love with a world that does not exist for us. In England, France, and other areas of Europe there are great manors and castle gardens which have great topiaries and sheared hedges. That is not normal for regular landscapes. If you want to spend an arm and a leg paying for maintenance, go ahead.
I cannot talk enough about this! We as an industry are still growing and selling plants which are invasive in different areas of the country. This alone confuses people. I think that if a plant is named invasive in 10% (land wise) of the country, the green industry should completely erase those plants from their inventory and look for native alternatives.
Some of the more common invasive plants include:
- Callery pear
- Butterfly bush
- Japanese honeysuckle
- Amur honeysuckle
- Wintercreeper euonymus
- Burning bush
- Amur maple
- Norway maple
- Chinese privet
- Siberian elm
- Oriental bittersweet
- Tree of Heaven
- English ivy
- Akebia vine
We need to stop selling and using these plants! I myself have to deal with callery pear, burning bush, tree of heaven, wintercreeper, Japanese and amur honeysuckle, Siberian elm, and amur maple in my own woods and landscape.
Wrong Plant, Wrong Place
This is one of the most common things happening in the landscape. And if you are going for low maintenance, this will bite you. Even landscape designers do it, mixing two or more plant types together and the throwing all of them on the same drip system and timer. And it only causes problems in the long run. For example, it is wrong to put lavender on a drip line at all, and then also add in salvia (another dry lover), and then swamp milkweed. 3 plants which have different needs. I am opposed to drip systems entirely, because they make the plants dependent on that water, instead of putting their roots deep and drawing water from below.
Do not mix plant types. Dry plants such as salvia, baptisia, lavender, catmint, and Russian sage should not be mixed with wet lovers like hydrangeas, swamp milkweed, aronia, Siberian iris, or willows, unless they are on separate drip lines or zones (better to leave the dry lovers off drip entirely).
Now, I am not entirely opposed to irrigation. In some cases, such as the vegetable garden, irrigation is a must. But landscaping plants become too dependent on that as a water source, so if the water gets turned off or there is an extreme drought and the water is not turned up, they stress and often die. Plus, how much money are you shelling out for the system itself, and then the water?
No, I prefer to choose plant options which are tough and match the natural landscape features around me. That is how you get low maintenance landscaping. Do I maintain irrigation systems? Of course, because not every customer wants to change out their long existing landscape for something that becomes an ecosystem within nature.
Creating Low Maintenance Landscaping
What kind of things does it take to have a low maintenance landscape? I have gone over most of the things which make you landscape harder to maintain, but what about making it easier? First things first. You have to be willing to use the natural landscapes in which you live to help guide you in choosing the right design and plants. This can be a problem if you live in a large city, such as Kansas City or Phoenix. But even cityscapes have natural features which will guide you.
For example, why Phoenix itself is a large city with urban landscapes, watering systems, and heat sinks, it sits within mountains and desert. When I was there I saw palm trees, so it is warm. You would not put a landscape from Minnesota into Phoenix. You should go for something that fits into the natural landscape overall. A waterwise, xeric landscape. Maybe a gravel garden. Maybe rock gardens. But not a temperate woodland retreat.
I mention Kansas City because it has 2 natural landscape systems; woods and prairie. Because of this, and the large number of trees planted within the cityscape, you can have 2 main types of landscape design. And you can mix them together. But you would not put a xeric desert themed garden into KC or you would end up losing all your plants from cold winter temperatures. Choose you landscape based on your natural landscape.
Landscape Ideas Which Mimic Nature
The following ideas can help you transform your existing or new landscape into one which mimics nature and the natural landscape ecosystems around you. Some of these you may already be either aware of or are already practicing.
Healthy Soil Practices
One of the best ways to start, even before you design your landscape, is to prepare the soil. But just what does that mean? Having healthy soils can help prevent a lot of problems, even insects pests, diseases, and water loss. I always recommend a soil test, but it is important to get one which looks beyond the available N-P-K and digs deep into the micronutrients of your soil. From there, there is a myriad of things to do.
If you are starting with a blank state and new construction, like the topsoil was stripped from your land and replaced with 1-3 inches of it after construction finished. This practice done by contractors is really a detriment to the landscape. But if it has happened to you, there are several options to start replacing that soil. First, forget seeding a lawn into that, with monocultures of grass.
You need to build a deep soil profile with organic matter before you can have the healthy soil and landscape you want. The best way to begin is with cover cropping systems, and a mixture of at least 8 species, including grasses, legumes, and forbs. You will want to mow this down in the fall and overseed with annual grasses and legumes next spring. Continue this process for at least 2 years, more if possible. Besides building healthy soils with crop residues, you will be providing pollinator services to a variety of insects with these plants.
Other Things Which Help Build Healthy Soils
Besides cover cropping your bare lands, there are other practices which can help prepare the landscape for new plantings, or improve existing ones. Adding compost, biochar, or heavy organic mulches (not wood chips) to the beds and lawns will help improve soils. To incorporate these materials, rake back any existing mulches and place, then rake back the mulch.
The best mulches for garden or landscape beds include cocoa hulls, compost, shredded alfalfa, pine straw, sawdust (1 year old), partially composted hay or straw (organic), leaves, or dried grass clippings. I dislike the use of wood chips as mulch, because they break down more slowly than other organic mulches. I do use them for walkways where the traffic is heavier.
I have already gone over this quite thoroughly in early 2023. But it does not hurt to talk more about it now. Alternative lawns are those which not only have grass, but a mix of annual and perennial legumes, herbs, and forbs as well. Mostly, I want people to get away from the Great American Lawn, which promotes disease and other issues with its overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We should try to be balanced with nature, improving our soils and lawn spaces and turn them into a place where you would not be afraid to go barefoot.
One of the best low maintenance ideas for the home landscape is the perennial border. As long as it is diverse in its plant selections, perennial borders are easy to maintain and keep for decades. But there are some reasons why few people do not put the effort in initially to create and sustain them. First, I recommend that they be at least 6 feet wide, though I would prefer an 8 to 12 foot wide border for best results. That is a lot of plants! But you can shop small, trade with friends and neighbors, and get plants free from construction sites. Or plant seeds.
Besides becoming a beauty spot for the landscape the perennial border can extend around the whole property, with walkways to necessary areas. It has the potential to support a lot of insect diversity, from bees and butterflies to moths and beetles. And more! The longer and larger your perennial border is, the better it is for wildlife, including songbirds, hummingbirds, and small animals.
If you keep your edges clean with a natural edge, then the only maintenance you need to do yearly is to mown down everything in early spring with mulching blade on the mower. Make sure you do this before any bulbs are up and growing (February is best in Zone 5). The only other maintenance you may need to do is some light weeding while the beds are being established. In my cottage garden, which is a wide perennial border (with some shrubs) I usually have to pull a few weeds in the spring, but no more the rest of the season.
Meadow or Prairie Gardening
If you are in the Great Plains or Midwest, you should be using meadows or prairies for the styling of your garden spaces. With groups of shrubs and trees to mimic a savannah feeling, you can have wide spaces of prairie or meadow like areas, and even completely replace the lawn. These areas, once established are almost no maintenance at all. The only thing I do in my meadow garden is to burn it each winter (January or February) and then cut down the remaining stems with hedge trimmers. If I had a greater amount of grasses, I would not have to cut any stems down after burning.
The meadow or prairie garden can also be as big as you need or want it to be. If you not raising pasture for animals, but have an overwhelming amount of mowed grass areas, then you can transform it into a meadow or prairie system. One of my customers comes to mind for example. His property is approx. 3 acres of turf, with just landscape beds around the house. If he transformed that lawn into prairie, not only would it match the existing natural landscape, it would reduce his mowing, fertilizing, and watering costs greatly.
And the benefits greatly outweigh any negative looks. The only problem I think people really have with prairie or meadow is that it does not look as clean as green turf. While during the spring and summer months it can look as good or better than turf, the fall and winter months it looks mostly brown. But we as a people need to stop thinking about just us, and start thinking ecosystems.
Prairies are full of life, from birds to insects to so much more. Grasses and forbs (perennials and annuals) make up its flora. With all the life that can abound within a prairie ecosystem, we should be promoting it to everyone who lives near the remnants of it. Just by adding a small prairie with a diverse amount of plant material, we can hope to slow and maybe stop the decline of our native bees, butterflies, and other wildlife. Monarch butterflies are already in trouble from habitat loss. And up to 25% of our native bee species are in serious trouble.
By providing new habitats, managed by us, we can hope to slow the problems with our native fauna and flora. The Great Plains were once the heart of America, and they can be partially restored by the people living there. We all have a chance to make a difference.
In 2023 I promoted the use of natives more than I ever have before. And that is surprising for me. I love natives and the cultivars of natives. I see more potential for better landscaping which is low maintenance with the use of natives than with anything else. If you want to have a landscape which is drought-proof, pest tolerant, and provides for pollinators, use natives.
Natives can be tricky to find in large quantities, for restoration projects, but they are becoming more and more available each year. I know of several large nurseries which have been specializing in natives for decades.
I have no problems with natives, just how people currently use them in the landscape. One of the problems is that people take them out of their habitat and try to fit them into their cookie-cutter landscape. Do not put natives among those rock beds or alone, 3 feet from any other plant and expect success. Native plants like to be grouped together! In fact, ALL plants like a little company, so do not be afraid to put plants only a few inches apart from each other.
Untamed Trees and Shrubs
What do I mean by untamed? Well, what I mean is to stop pruning everything into shape. Why it is certainly important to prune young trees in the landscape or garden to get them to a good shape for best shade or fruit production; it is not important to go into the forest and do the same. Most of the trees in the wood prune themselves. And what if they leave a branch broken off outside of the branch collar? Then a cavity forms and a place for birds, like the chickadee, are formed.
Shrubs too need to be picked for their desired traits and then planted in the right place. Then let them be. Shrubs will perform better without all the harsh trimming and shearing each season. They will be less likely to get diseases and insect problems if they are not stressed from shearing. Yes, you still need to prune your hydrangeas correctly, but do you? Actually, because panicle and smooth hydrangeas bloom on new wood, they do not technically need pruning, we just do it because they look better. But shrubs in the more wild and low maintenance areas of the landscape do not need pruning.
Let the Dead Lay Where They Lie
I am talking about trees. When a tree dies in the forest, no one comes along to cut it down and remove it. A standing dead tree is called a snag, and is a great thing for woodpeckers, cavity nesting birds, insects, and fungi. After the roots decompose, the tree will fall in a storm or wind, becoming another part of the ecosystem, a nurse tree. Similar to snags, nurse trees can be a home for ground dwelling animals, snakes, lizards, toads, and more. Plus, as nurse trees start to rot, insects, moss, lichens, and fungi colonize the wood. The rotting wood also holds moisture well, as a resource for plants and animals.
Choosing to go low maintenance in the landscape is not an easy choice, because you will have to rethink many of your landscaping practices. But the change is worth the price you pay. Ever since I dropped chemicals, started building soil, and planted for wildlife, my gardens have become more manageable and low maintenance. It is more than just a life changing experience, it is a change in the way of life.