Landscape Design Focus: Low Maintenance

Busy, busy, busy.  We're all looking for ways to make out lives fulfilling while, at the same time, juggling work and family responsibilities, exercise, travel, and social activities.  How can a homeowner — even one who enjoys a bit of puttering around outdoors — create a landscape that is beautiful, eco-friendly, and engaging?

Here are 5 key ideas for designing low maintenance landscapes:

Reduce your lawn area to a size that can be mowed in 20 minutes or less.  Mowing a lawn that size is a quick bit of exercise rather than a weekend-draining chore. Other maintenance chores like watering, fertilizing and weeding — and the related expenses — will also be reduced. Once you've determined the size and shape of your 20 minute lawn, edge it with roll top steel set into the ground with only the top 1/2" protruding above the soil (the reason to use edging is to keep the grass roots out of the planting bed, not keep the mulch in it). Dedicate the rest of your yard to planting beds, native lawn to leave "rough", or hardscapes like paths, patios, decks, etc.

My back lawn takes 10 minutes to mow, the front about 8.
The anti-lawn.  Fescue grass in it's natural state.

Focus on woody plants.  Fill your planting beds with trees and shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous. These plants will give you structure and texture year-round, and require almost zero maintenance when the "right plant, right place" principal is followed.  Select from regional favorites with a good track record for hardiness. Choose an assortment to include colorful foliage, flowers, interesting bark, and small berry-like fruits. Avoid fast growing, weak wooded, messy species or those that can become invasive via root suckers or seedlings.   To lighten things up and add movement to the garden include ornamental grasses.  Most need a quick chop down to the ground once a year, and that's it.  If you want to include perennial flowers, keep them grouped together in areas of high visibility — near an entryway or patio, for example. Keep annuals and veggies in containers, exclusively. Here are some of my favorite, go-to plants.
A good assortment of shrubs, trees and a few perennials provide low care, multi-season interest to this sunny, corner property.
Different scale, different design style, same low maintenance concept.
Use weed barrier fabric and an inorganic mulch.  The monotony and glare of an entire landscape swathed in rock is not a pretty sight; it can also create a heat sink by absorbing the sun's warmth and radiating it long into the night (not what you want in the middle of summer, for sure!).  So I give this recommendation with the caveat that the landscape plantings are designed to cover at least 90% of it once they mature.  Keep these rock beds clean with a monthly rake/blow/vacuum to keep them free of debris and weed seeds.  The alternative, which can be very effective once established, is to plant perennial groundcovers to serve as a living mulch.
A clever design makes the most of an awkward space.  The unobtrusive texture of small scale pea gravel keeps the focus on the plants.
Buffalo grass as a groundcover / living mulch.   It's watered once a month in the summer and mowed once a year in early spring.
Use an automated irrigation system.  An investment, yes. But a truly effective way to save water and reduce hands-on time in the yard. Update your system to include a programmable clock for different types of sprinklers/plants/hydrozones (water delivery systems like pop-up spray heads for turf and low volume drip for shrubs), soil moisture sensors, and a rain shut off valve. Monitor your system on a regular basis to make sure that everything is running smoothly.

Use low maintenance hardscape materials.  Look for products that will age gracefully without the need to paint, spray, or power-wash.  Everything from fences, decks, and trellises to pathways, patios, and furnishings can be selected with low care as a priority. Natural stone, cedar, redwood,  and steel are just a few options.
This stylish metal gate by artist Dennis West will continue to age beautifully.
No maintenance necessary — this cedar trellis will age to a soft gray.  
Whether you're starting to build a new landscape from scratch or just tweaking an established garden, I hope these ideas will help stimulate your landscape plans for the coming season.  Thanks for visiting!

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