Friday, July 20, 2012

Can Gardens Ever Be "Low-Maintenance"?

Recently, I read "Why I Don't Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes" by well-known landscape architect and blogger Thomas Rainer. He argues that every landscape needs weeding, watering, and general, well, maintenance. That in search of a low-maintenance landscape, homeowners choose a boring triad of lawn, groundcovers, and foundation plantings which over time still need lots of maintenance including mowing, edging, trimming, and pruning.

So, is there such a thing as a low-maintenance landscape? It's one of the first features that clients ask for. Let's face it - we're a busy society, and many people don't want to spend time working in their gardens. I get that, but I have to agree with Rainer, who says that "Low maintenance is permission to disengage, pull away, and let go. When we do that, our landscapes suffer."

Reduce Lawn
I do, however, think that we can make choices in our landscapes that allow us to spend less time maintaining them. First, we can reduce or eliminate our lawns. Think about how much time is spent seeding, mowing, edging, fertilizing, watering, aerating, and dethatching lawns. Not to mention how much money is spent, and environmental damage is done, by all of the above. There are lower maintenance options to traditional bluegrass lawns.

Birds love the berries of Myrica pensylvanica
Smaller Shrubs
We can also select smaller varieties of shrubs that won't require pruning to stay in bounds. Myrica pensylvanica (Northern Bayberry), one of my favorite shrubs for wildlife, grows to a height of 12 feet and a spread of 10 feet. Not a shrub for most front yard landscapes. But Myrica pensylvanica 'Morton' (Silver Sprite Bayberry) still has all the beauty and wildlife goodness as the straight species, but only reaches 5 feet tall and 7 feet wide. Sited correctly, it would only need very minimal pruning every four years or so to take out damaged or crossed branches.

The Right Plant in the Right Place
I can't tell you how many times I see trees planted too close to the house, requiring annual pruning. Not good for the health of the tree, or your busy schedule! Be sure to check the mature size of trees you are considering for your landscape and plant accordingly.

Choose Natives
Native plants generally require less water once established, don't need fertilizing, help stormwater filter into the ground to recharge aquifers, and provide an important food source for wildlife. Native plants also bring in those beneficial insects that will help take care of the bad ones, reducing or eliminating the need to spend time and money spraying pesticides.

There is no such thing as a NO maintenance landscape, but I do believe we can make choices that commit us to less work in the yard. Rainer goes on to say, "Instead of low maintenance landscapes, we need high investment landscapes. High investment landscapes have engaged owners who make smart decisions about the kinds of treatments that will last over time. High investment landscapes focus not just on time and money, but the compounding rewards of lots of small acts of love and care in the garden." And isn't that what gardening is all about?


Tina Koral is a self-described "plant geek" and owner of Tina Koral Gardens, a landscape design studio in Glen Ellyn, IL.

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