Low-Maintenance Planting Design: More Than Just Plant Selection

by Genevieve on June 1, 2013

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There are a lot of misunderstandings about low-maintenance planting design. A lot of people think that in order to have a low-maintenance landscape, you just need to choose low-maintenance plants. But the way you design your planting beds is as important as the plants you select – maybe even more so. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when planning for low-maintenance planting beds.

Openly-spaced vs. lush

openly-spaced planting design lush planting design

Openly-spaced garden of Margaret Majua; lush garden by Patricia Wells.

As plants in the landscape fill in, at some point they grow together and start to infringe on one another’s space. Without maintenance, a garden that starts out looking healthy and exuberant can quickly begin to look overgrown. For most people, the goal of the planting beds is to have the plants close enough to where the beds look full, without having plants flopping all over one another or shading out their neighbors.

However, that perfect state of growth is really a moving target. Despite what the plant tags may lead you to believe, woody plants don’t stop growing once they hit a certain size. So finding that happy medium where the landscaping looks full and yet doesn’t need to be pruned all the time can be a challenge.

There are a couple of approaches to this:

The openly-spaced garden. Some people don’t mind seeing some mulch in between the plants, so if that’s you, you can plan a landscape where everything remains tidy and well-kept with almost no care, simply by placing the plants really far apart. For some people, this looks clean and attractive. They don’t mind the look of mulch and appreciate seeing the natural form of each individual plant. For other people, this looks too sterile. “I want to see plants in my planting beds, not mulch!” they say.

The carefully-planned lush garden. Another approach many landscapers take is to target a certain date by which they want the landscaping to fill in and look good, such as the ten-year mark (which is, coincidentally, the point at which shrubs usually reach the size stated on their tag). Up until that ten-year point, the landscaping may need little pruning to stay within bounds, but once everything fills in to perfection you’ll begin an ongoing process to keep things in check – a combination of yearly light pruning on some shrubs, hard regenerative pruning on those plants that will tolerate it, and occasionally replacing plants that have outgrown their space but don’t respond well to sterner pruning measures.

By selecting a few plants each year to do a hard regenerative pruning on, you can keep the overall look of the landscaping lush, while reducing your need to do touch-up pruning on that shrub or its neighbors. Then, a bit of gentle yearly pruning on plants in highly visible areas (like next to your front door, or seating areas) gives the landscape a “cared-for” look and keeps sizing in check, without requiring constant fussing.

Obviously, this second type of low-maintenance planting requires far more finesse in both the design and the maintenance. You’ll need to research not only the relative size and care needs of each plant, but also familiarize yourself with how each of your plants responds to different kinds of pruning.

For example, it’s tough to prune a Rhododendron every single year and keep it at a static size – you sacrifice the blooms! But most Rhodies can be pruned back to stubs every 10 years and respond beautifully, with only a small period of awkward regrowth. Thus, I’m more likely to place larger Rhodies out in the landscape, where a cycle of growth and pruning makes sense. However, near the front entry, I’d choose plant varieties that can be kept to the right size with yearly pruning, because I have less patience for wild fluctuations in plant sizing or awkward regrowth when it’s in an obvious location. Make sense?

Of course, you can use both of these techniques in concert with one another to find your own happy medium. In some areas of the landscape, planting farther apart makes sense, while in others, you may opt to carefully plan for some amount of regular pruning.

One-of-this vs. broad swathes

one-of-this photo courtesy American Beauties Native Plants broad swathes at P Allen Smith's Garden Home

One-of-this photo courtesy American Beauties Native Plants; broad swathes at P Allen Smith’s Garden Home.

There are a lot of reasons to design with a broader paintbrush in your landscaping, and reduced maintenance is only one of those reasons:

Keeping the peace. Most plants have allelopathic tendencies, which means that they put out growth-inhibiting chemicals which slow down other varieties of plant. Yep, they’re all pretty and flowery on top, but down below they’re conducting chemical warfare on their neighbors. Planting in big groupings sidesteps this whole issue and gives your plants a boost over making them compete with their neighbors.

It just looks better. Unless you’re usually appreciating your garden from three feet away, massed plantings look more soothing, harmonize better with the scale of your home, and generally feel calming instead of busy and wild.

Treat 10 perennials as one. From a maintenance perspective, the reason to plant in groups is even more persuasive than the above: you can treat a stand of plants almost as a singular plant, which makes maintenance SO. MUCH. EASIER.

If you plant a huge grouping of grasses, for example, and need to prune them down once per year, it isn’t much harder to come in with a hedge trimmer and take down a stand of 15 grasses than it is to carefully prune one grass down with your hand pruners while holding two different perennial neighbors out of the way of an accidental nip. And the cleanup is a lot less fussy.

This is even the case with shrubs. If a cluster of five Spireas grows together to the point where they are one big swathe, that doesn’t read as messy to me at all. Under the right circumstances, you can even prune them as one. However, if five different types of shrub all start to grow together, the whole thing starts to feel busy and overwhelming.

I know us plant geeks like to buy one of something to “try it out” before we commit to a big stand of it, but honestly we’d be better off researching and selecting our plants more carefully so we can plunge forth with confidence and make a statement in our planting designs. Better for looks, better for health, and what a relief when we aren’t having to prune things off their neighbors all the time.

Of course, finding the right balance is key. In areas that are viewed close-up, it might make sense to take the time to maintain a more varied planting, while in farther-off areas of the landscaping, broader brush strokes not only look more appropriate but will save you time and effort.

Mixed borders vs. woody plants

Deliciously dishy garden at P Allen Smith's Garden Home woody plants at Pat Wells garden

A mixed border at P Allen Smith’s Garden Home; woody plants at Patricia Wells’ garden.

The gardening mags love to extol the virtues of mixed borders – you get your ornamental tree, layer it with a few shrubs, fill with perennials, and finally annual flowers which are replanted every year. This creates the kind of drool-worthy garden seen in books like Stephanie Cohen’s The Nonstop Garden. Utter and total hawtness.

But the fact is that most of us are willing to sacrifice a tiny bit of garden glamour in exchange for having our weekends free to do with as we please. If that’s you, then landscaping primarily with woody plants – i.e. shrubs, trees, and groundcovers that originate at one point and don’t go spreading and shooting up all over the place – is the way to go.

Most woody plants need only periodic pruning and training to develop and keep a nice shape, and other than that, really only need to be pruned when they get too big. If you select varieties carefully, you can even avoid having to remove spent flowers after bloom. Contrast that with perennial flowers, many of which should be pinched, fertilized, deadheaded, and finally cut back at the end of the season – not to mention dug up and divided every five years – and you can see why woody shrubs are such a good low-care choice.

That said, this is a matter of degrees. If you really don’t want to mess with your landscaping once it’s installed, go for trees, shrubs, and woody groundcovers only, and give each grouping enough room to fill in to maturity without impinging too dramatically on its neighbors.

If you don’t mind doing some maintenance but just don’t want to feel tied to it, a planting of trees and woody shrubs can make up the backdrop, then you can add a pop of summer color in the foreground with a couple of large swathes of ornamental grasses or lower-maintenance flowering perennials (hopefully a variety which only needs a minimalist shearing or whacking down once per year). This gives a nice balance where you still have a lot of color and a refined look without too much fuss.

IMG_5732Finding the middle ground in the garden of Mike and Kenzie Mullen.

Low-maintenance gardens come in all styles and vary widely in how much time is needed to keep things looking sharp, but the one thing all successful landscapes have in common is the level of care taken in the design process to match the maintenance needed to your lifestyle and aesthetics. And don’t be surprised if your landscape evolves over time to better suit your needs – after all, plants are alive and they change and grow, and we are alive and we change and grow – so the process of living with and maintaining a garden should never be seen as static.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy Ormiston June 1, 2013 at 9:16 am

Genevieve, As a maintenance gardener, I have to say there is so much wisdom in this post. I helped design a really low maintenance garden for a friend who used to prune his boxwood hedge with a chain saw. I made sure the plants were over spaced and planted only small shrubs, grasses and dwarf conifers. The garden has no flowers that need deadheading. All the ‘color’ come from foliage (Berberis ‘Crimson Pygmy’) and the interesting textures of the plants. There is also a beautiful stone retaining wall, pathway and stairs that was designed and installed by Earthcare Landscaping. The hardscape is another low maintenance element in this garden. Oh yes, and he has an Smart/ET irrigation controller, so he never messes with his irrigation.

There is definitely a Fine Gardening article here and a Timber Press book in the making.

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Genevieve June 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Kathy, what great points you’ve added. Hardscape can indeed be a wonderful element in a low-maintenance garden, either adding to or taking away from maintenance depending on how it is installed. And the fact that with cleanly-designed hardscape, you might have less need for traditionally-showy plants and be better able to fall in love with foliage is a great point that I think you were touching on.

The smart irrigation controller is also an extremely helpful tip. Great points!

And high-five to you! There seem to be so few people maintaining gardens with a designer eye. I am glad to know you!

(hey, feel free to use that idea yourself if you want to write a book or article! I’d love to read your take!)

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Monica Felt June 1, 2013 at 10:47 am

Great post, very down to earth and well thought-out.

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Genevieve June 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Much appreciated, Monica! :)

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Diane C June 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I really appreciate this post. I still want to garden but really need to get into the low maintenance frame of mind.

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Jane G. June 3, 2013 at 8:53 am

This is perfect for someone who loves gardening but is being held back by their work schedule. I love the landscape design you have here. I prefer the openly-spaced garden. It makes me feel that mt garden is free and it radiates over me too. :)

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Genevieve June 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

I agree about the feeling of freedom and air/ energy flow in an openly-spaced garden. Good point, Jane.

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Desert Dweller/David C. June 3, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Wow…these are some incredible hints! I almost see your first “openly-spaced” as the general majority of area (only spare to you folks who get abundant rain at some time in the year), and the “lush” as the small oasis. Your “don’t mess” with it after finished approach is reality here, especially lacking horticulturally-savvy maintenance people or owners.

I should do what I can’t really afford time-wise, and head up US-1 and visit after the bloggers fling…today’s 92F will probably be 100F+ by then.

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Genevieve June 5, 2013 at 7:57 am

Oh, I am so jealous you are hitting the blogger’s fling! I will be just about ready to have a baby then, so might not be the best time to visit unless you enjoy hospital waiting rooms. :) I am so sad to be missing it this year. I ADORE SF.

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edremsrola June 4, 2013 at 11:15 am

Great post but… ahem… just where is the beautiful example of the low-maintenance *conifer* garden? ;^)

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Genevieve June 5, 2013 at 7:56 am

Unfortunately, I have never been fortunate enough to visit Iseli, so I have very few photos of such a lovely type of garden, dear Ed! You are absolutely right that a conifer garden would have made a fantastic example, had I been in possession of photos. Woe is me! :)

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edremsrola June 5, 2013 at 11:36 am

I am certain I could hook you up with the right people – shoot me an email!

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David McClure June 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Hey Genevieve,

It’s been awhile. Great article. I have yet to find a customer that wants anything but low maintenance where I work. The plants are a primary concern, both plant selection and placement makes a big difference. Some other things I consider are placing plants that like similar soil/fertilizers together. If a plant is acid-loving, I’ll look to add other acid-loving plants nearby to make care easier. That way they can be fertilized together and the soil in that area can be suited towards those plants when initially installed. I recommend certain types of ground cover options, plants and mulch mainly. Avoiding gravel and barrier materials is a wise move here in Michigan. Rain sensors are a smart investment. Also, which you alluded to, I try to design landscapes that are designed to evolve. I will use a plant that can handle full sun to part shade near a tree that will eventually begin to shade it, for example.

Of course, I can always tell them to set up a maintenance contract with us and it’ll be no-maintenance. That’s the easiest thing to do!

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Genevieve June 5, 2013 at 5:13 pm

David, wow – fantastic tips! Even though I’m in a vastly different climate from you, I too try to avoid barrier materials and rock – it ends up being higher-maintenance in the end when the fabric pops up and begins fraying, and the plants just seem to go downhill steadily under those tough circumstances. Where with mulch and groundcover plants as you suggest, the plantings just get better with time.

And I love your tip about setting up a maintenance contract! Yes! A lot of people feel for whatever reason that they should be doing their own gardening work, or by extension housework or home repairs or whatnot, but I feel really strongly that if it isn’t something you enjoy, then why not hire it out to a company full of people who truly enjoy what they do and find satisfaction in it. I think the world works really well when we all get to spend the majority of our time doing things we genuinely love and connect with.

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective – it is much appreciated!

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Marla June 12, 2013 at 10:31 am

Great ideas here!

One consideration to add…some plants are toxic to pets and/or people, like rhodies and some allium. So, be thoughtful as well about who will have access and might want to ‘browse’ in the landscape.

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Angela August 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Thank you for the advice. I found your blog through Houzz and will be following it. I live just north of the border and am frustrated with my garden every year. I hired a garden consult this year and was able to get 1/2 of it applied before the rains stopped. I’ve been encouraged to do a swath for years and have followed the instructions even though I don’t agree with them. After reading your explanation I appreciate it more! Thank you!

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