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Designers on Low-Maintenance Gardens


Last week we looked at designers’ thoughts on high-maintenance gardens so as promised, this week we’re covering their ideas about gardening with LESS work, thankyouverymuch.

First Mary Gray, a garden designer in Northern Virginia, who starts by ranting about this sentence she noticed in a home and garden magazine: “If a landscape is designed right, there should be NO maintenance. None at all. That’s what a designer is for.”  And as anyone who’s gardened for a week or more knows, that’s crazy talk.  Unless you count asphalt as a gardening solution.

She goes on to distinguish between types of maintenance, and that’s a good point.  “One person’s idea of ‘low’ might be completely different from his neighbor’s. The type of maintenance matters, too. Landscapes that require such things as getting up on tall ladders (high hedges) or setting fires (meadows) might be considered problematic by some folks, even if the overall time requirement is lower.”  For example, I enjoy weeding, so don’t think of it as a huge chore – within reason.  Whereas spraying with any product is, to me, a huge pain to be avoided at all costs.  Organic or not.

Back to Mary, who has two excellent suggestions for designing a lower-maintenance garden: “1) Planting more shrubs and fewer perennials.and 2) Looking at what grows well in my yard and planting more of those.”

The top photo of Doublefile Viburnums, Azaleas and Pieris in my former garden illustrates both of those principles.  A backdrop of mature oaks helps, too.


Above, another shrub-dominated low-maintenance garden, with a mass of super-easy hostas in front.  The shrubs are Bottlebrush Buckeye, Cherry Laurel, Nandina and some deciduous Azaleas blooming in yellow.


Here’s another mass of shrubs with just a skirt of perennials – in this case Astilbes.  The shrubs are the shorter ‘Otto Luyken’ cherry laurel, assorted lacecap hydrangeas, and ‘Anthony Waterer’ Spirea.

And a designer in Stamford, CT makes the point that the design of a garden determines how much work it will require to keep it looking good and that some homeowners don’t care how much work it is because they want a certain look and they’re willing to pay someone to keep it up.   He explains the maintenance equation to clients thusly:

  1. Generally, the more formal garden your garden is, the more regular (read constant) maintenance that will be required to keep it looking the way it was designed to look.  Naturalistic-style gardens, especially when plants are spaced properly, are designed to require less maintenance as the plants fill in and smother weeds.
  2. Right plant, right place.  That means not having to force plants to be different shapes or sizes than they are naturally.
  3. If a client’s needs change, their garden can be adjusted:  “The key to a lower maintenance garden can be reducing the number of perennials, relying more on flowering shrubs for color and interest, and reducing the size of the lawn.
Lower-maintenance perennials massed for even less work.

Susan Cohan, the New Jersey designer who cited the formal gardens of Nemours as an example of high-maintenance garden design, makes the good point that it’s not just a matter of style or budget but of environmentally responsible gardening practices.  “Why do we seek to maintain (outside of a garden museum) the pristine yet false ideals of a world long gone when cheap labor needs to be replaced with chemicals who do our earth such great harm?  A little bit of mess is a good thing for all of us and the planet we live on.”

And I’d never thought of this before but at least back in the day when grand gardens were a lot of work, the work was done by humans, not chemicals.  “Today the staff is much, much, smaller and reliant on chemical solutions rather than the…mostly organic practices of 1907.  When labor became too expensive, chemicals came the cheap solution.”

Massing with hydrangea and one variety of hosta.

On the Unsexiness of Maintenance

From Bristol, England: “Oh granted in the field of garden design maintenance is not a sexy subject like line, texture, colour and focus. But if after the contractors leave no one can or wants to look after it all what was the point of getting the garden designed and landscaped anyway? A landscape which is cared for is sharper, its plants sassier and pest-free and frankly it is just more pleasant to be in.”

So he always aims to find out exactly how much his clients want to garden and also quietly assess how much they are likely to.  Then he designs to fit the maintenance abilities and desires of the client.  I totally agree and the wise garden coach asks that very same unsexy maintenance question.  First thing.

A Final Tip

A designer in Minneapolis stresses importance of weeding before the weeds go to seed and cites garlic mustard as “pretty near impossible to get rid of.  Ever.” after it’s become established.

Posted by Susan Harris.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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