Low-Maintenance Gardening

Some landscaping features are inherently self-maintaining; others require constant maintenance.

For example, when gardeners choose low-care garden features, they shun trees that drop messy fruits; they also choose durable construction materials, such as stone and concrete, rather than temporary materials, such as untreated wood. These gardeners place trees in beds, where they won’t have to remove the leaves, instead of in lawn areas. And they use labor-saving equipment, such as automatic or semi-automatic irrigation systems, to cut the time spent on routine chores.

Striking a Balance

The law of diminishing returns holds true in gardening as well as in economics: The closer you come to perfection (exact bloom timing, flowers and foliage absolutely untouched by pests and diseases, or maximum vegetable yields), the harder it becomes. If you strive for a perfect garden, forget low maintenance. If your attitude is midway between neglect and fastidiousness, self-maintaining landscapes work best and save you the most time.

Although not very inviting, the ultimate low-maintenance landscape would not contain plants, just concrete pavement. Yet, woodland areas don’t need much more attention than paved areas. Massed shrubs also require very little maintenance time. You can also keep maintenance time to a minimum by restricting the area devoted to beds and borders.

A low-care landscape needn’t be entirely filled with plants and other easy maintenance garden features. It’s fine to have some high-maintenance areas, but they should occupy only a small part of the landscape. Traditional home landscape designs burden their caretakers with large high-maintenance areas and small low-maintenance areas. If you don’t want to be a slave to your landscape, you need to break with tradition.

The Trade-Offs

Creating a self-maintaining landscape involves a few steps: understanding and improving the site; determining which low-care plants and furnishings are appropriate; installing those components sensibly; and choosing suitable labor-saving techniques, tools, and equipment. Each of these steps requires research, foresight, and, inescapably, some time and money. However, by making these initial investments, you’ll accrue timesaving dividends for years to come.

The alternative is to spend countless hours maintaining a landscape that is likely to be both less attractive and more costly in the long run, even though you pamper it.

As you plan your garden, put more space into garden features that are easy to care for and less into high-care features. Patios and decks need only regular cleaning and are the lowest-care features.

Adopt an Informal Style

Informal landscapes are those that look most like nature, with soft edges, curves, and an asymmetrical balance. Formal landscapes are balanced, trimmed, and have sharp edges and straight lines. They need more frequent care than informal landscapes.

Informal landscapes are meant to be a little soft-edged, with nature providing the balance and grace. Instead of shearing three times a year, shrubs can be kept in bounds with one cut a year. Lawns don’t need edging or trimming.

Selecting Plants

Today, most home landscapes are dominated by inexpensive and quickly established plants — the very plants that usually require frequent maintenance. If your time is valuable, these landscapes are not for you.

A key to keeping plant maintenance low is careful selection. In general, look for plants native to your region, or a to part of the world with a climate like yours. These plants won’t need extra water or protection from winter cold. Native plants have evolved to survive the pests and diseases of your area, and won’t need regular spraying.

Select plants that don’t need extra care. Ask at the nursery if the flowers need staking, if a ground cover is invasive or if the plant is prone to any diseases.

Here’s a list of plant types in order from the lowest to the highest care needs:

  • Trees and massed shrubs are probably the lowest-care garden plants. If you select shrubs that are the right size for their location, they may need no care other than feeding and watering.
  • Ground covers require quite a bit of weeding the first three years, until they are established and cover the ground; after that require little care.
  • Perennial flowers, in beds or borders, can be low-care if low-care perennials are selected. Select flower that don’t require deadheading, staking, or trimming other than cutting back in the fall. Perennial flowers that are not low-care can require lots of fussing.
  • Lawns are inherently high-care because they need regular lawn mowing. Keep lawns small and select grasses that don’t have problems in your area.
  • Annual flowers are high-care because they require digging up and replanting at least once a year — twice a year in mild-climate regions — as well as deadheading and cutting back regularly.
  • Vegetables are probably the highest-care garden feature.

Republished with permission from The Scotts Company, www.scotts.com.
Copyright 2008 The Scotts Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved


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  1. Living in S. California I've found Cosmos grow great here and thrive in the sun like Marigolds. The geraniums are good as well but to keep the worms off, I spray the leaves with soap & water. It works great. Tannic acid from tea or coffe is another natural fertilizer.

    Another hardy plant here is the Eurodaisy. It growes year around. Also the Peruvian Torch (a cactus). I bought that at (8) inches and it grew thru the roof. To get rid of snails I would suggest snail glue sold my Sears. Works better than Gorry's slug bait, which does more harm. The sawdust is attractive to certain Dogs and Birds.

    Still Cosmos are my favorite. A low maintenance flower, and when the seeds drop, they re-plant on there own. I think you can pick up a pak at Sears.


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