Designing a Low Maintenance Landscape

Most homeowners prefer a landscape that requires minimal maintenance. To accomplish this goal, planning is required. Planning begins with a thorough study of problem areas, desirable areas, site conditions, and finally a study of the user's needs. This will lead to identifying the uses or functions of the public, private, and service areas of the yard.

There are particular conditions in a landscape that relate specifically to maintenance. One is the topography, otherwise known as the rise and fall of the land. A high maintenance situation exists where a steep slope requires mowing. Alternatives to mowing include planting a groundcover that doesn't require mowing. Another alternative might be installing terraces and retaining walls. Soil type and drainage are other important factors relating to maintenance. A complete soil test will indicate your soil type, pH, and nutrient levels. Selecting plant material adapted for your soil will save on maintenance. Climate and microclimate are other important site conditions to consider. Selecting plants that are hardy for your area will reduce maintenance needs. Microclimates include those areas that are unusually wet or dry, shady or sunny. Choose plants adapted for those specific situations. Plants should be selected based on their ability to fill your design requirements rather than price. Select those species of plants that grow to the desired height and spread. It doesn't make sense to plant a shrub that is going to overgrow its location in a few short years. Plant spacing is determined by the individual plant. However, plants look their best when allowed to mature into their natural shape. At first plants properly spaced may look too small for the area, but given a little time, they will fill in nicely. Additionally, plants that are properly selected and spaced should have no need for drastic pruning to keep them in line.

Structural features in the landscape such as sidewalks, patios, decks, fences, and steps should also be selected with maintenance in mind. A concrete patio or walk should be maintenance free for 10 to 15 years if properly installed. Asphalt should be sealed about every 2 years to keep the edges from breaking. Wooden structures requiring paint may need a fresh coat every few years. Redwood, cedar, or pressure treated wood should have a lifespan of about 20 years. Brick set on sand may need resetting every 3 to 5 years, where brick set in mortar should last 20 to 30 years. When considering various landscape and construction materials, compare the initial cost and maintenance to long term cost and durability.

Other features of low maintenance landscapes include the use of planting beds rather than isolated plantings. It is much easier to mow around a bed with a continuous edge rather than around individual plants. Grouping plants with similar cultural needs saves time both in site preparation and installation as well as continued cultural care. The use of a mulch around the base of plants aids plant growth and otfen eliminates hand trimming. The proper installation of edging materials such as plastic or steel will also save on maintenance by keeping mulch in and lawn out. It too should eliminate hand trimming. Construction materials such as patio pavers or stepping stones are better choices for high traffic areas that won't allow the successful growth of grass or other groundcover.

There is no such thing as a landscape that takes care of itself. However, proper planning, selection, and installation of landscape plants and structures will reduce the amount of time a landscape requires to look its best.

This article originally appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue, p. 134.


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