Low-Maintenance Gardening

Some landscaping features are inherently self-maintaining; others require constant maintenance. Choose the former and avoid the latter.

Striking a Balance

The law of diminishing returns holds in gardening as well as in economics: The closer you approach perfection (exact bloom timing, flowers and foliage absolutely untouched by pests and diseases, or maximum vegetable yields), the harder it becomes, and the more time it will take, to get even closer. If you strive for a perfect garden, forget low maintenance! Self-maintaining landscapes work best and save you the most time if your attitude is midway between neglect and fastidiousness.

The ultimate, but not very inviting, low-maintenance landscape would not contain plants, just concrete pavement. Yet woodland areas don’t need much more attention than paved areas. Massed shrubs also require very little maintenance time. Maintenance time can also be kept low by restricting the area devoted to beds and borders.

A low-care landscape needn’t be entirely filled with plants and other garden features selected primarily for ease of maintenance. It’s fine to have some high-maintenance areas, but they should occupy only a small part of the landscape. Traditional home landscape designs burden their caretakers with large high-maintenance areas and small low-maintenance areas. If you don’t want to be a slave to your landscape, you need to break with tradition.

The Trade-offs

Creating a self-maintaining landscape involves a few steps: understanding and improving the site, determining which low-care plants and furnishings are appropriate for it, installing those components sensibly, and choosing suitable laborsaving techniques, tools, and equipment. Each of these steps requires research, foresight, and, inescapably, some time and money. However, by making these initial investments, you’ll accrue timesaving dividends for years to come.

The alternative is to spend countless hours maintaining a landscape that is likely to be both less attractive and more costly in the long run, even though you pamper it. Today, most home landscapes are dominated by plants that are inexpensive and quick to establish—the very plants that usually require frequent maintenance. These landscapes are not for people whose time is valuable.

Selecting Plants

A key to keeping plant maintenance low is careful selection. In general, look for plants native to your region or a to part of the world with a climate like yours. These plants won’t need extra water or protection from winter cold. Native plants have evolved to survive the pests and diseases of your area, and won’t need regular spraying.

Select plants that don’t need extra care. Ask at the nursery if the flowers need staking or a ground cover is invasive or if the plant is prone to any diseases.

A little research and careful selection will save hours of care during the coming years.

Adopt an Informal Style

Informal landscapes are those that look most like nature, with soft edges, curves, and an asymmetrical balance. Formal landscapes are balanced, trim, have sharp edges and straight lines. Because of their sharp edges, they need more frequent care than informal landscapes. Hedges need shearing, lawns need edging, and shrubs need trimming to balance other shrubs.

Informal landscapes are meant to be a little soft-edged, with nature providing the balance and grace. Instead of shearing three times a year, shrubs can be kept in bounds with one cut a year. Lawns (if you have lawns) don’t need edging or trimming.

Select Easy-Care Features

As you are planning your garden, put more space into garden features that are easy to care for, and less into high-care features. Patios and decks need only regular cleaning, and are the lowest-care features. Here’s a list of garden features that include plants, in order from the lowest to the highest care:

  • Trees and massed shrubs are probably the lowest-care garden plants. If shrubs the right size for their location are selected, they may need no care other than feeding and watering when necessary.
  • Ground covers require quite a bit of weeding the first three years, until they are established and cover the ground, but after that require little care.
  • Perennial flowers, in beds or borders, can be low-care if low-care perennials are selected. Select flower that don’t require deadheading, staking, or trimming other than cutting back in the fall. Perennial flowers that are not low-care can require lots of fussing.
  • Lawns are inherently high-care because they need regular mowing. Keep lawns small and select grasses that don’t have problems in your area.
  • Annual flowers are high-care because they require digging up and replanting at least once a year—twice a year in mild-climate regions—as well as deadheading and cutting back regularly.
  • Vegetables are probably the highest-care garden feature.