What's the most low-maintenance way to landscape?

Before the coldness
Happier times, when you maintained your landscape together.
Gary John Norman/Getty Images

­Sometimes, you have to ask yourself if you're putting in too much time and effort to improve your yard. Sure, you have plenty of friends who come over for backyard parties, but it's not like any of them ever mention how nice it looks. You planted this yard to create something for you and your wife to do together, but she soon lost interest. Now, you just spend all of your time knee-deep in soil and mulch, digging and pruning and watering.­ Let's not get even started on your water bill -- holy cow, can the water department really charge that much?

It's time to stop wasting your effort. You can still have a garden that you can enjoy without having to kill yourself. All you have to do is a little planning, some hard work on the front end and a little upkeep to have a yard you're proud of. As it turns out, the easiest landscape to maintain is one that's planned properly.


­Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape. Even if you replaced your entire yard with rock, weeds would still manage to grow and dead leaves would still accumulate. Working with your yard's natural demeanor and t­he various microclimates -- areas that differ by factors like amount of light, rain and temperature -- found around it will make life exponentially easier for you. The highest maintenance yards are the one that fly in the face of the area's natural state. Non-native plants installed in a landscape will require the most work. Naturally speaking, they don't belong there and will require the most attention to stay alive.

We're getting ahead of ourselves. First, let's discuss planning.


Planning For Low-Maintenance

Soil test
A soil test can help you figure out what areas around your yard need to thrive.
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­The more time you take planning to install your landscape, the less time you'll need for maintenance down the line. You should take a full year to plan properly, but you can shorten this timeline by paying attention to significant characteristics. When it's raining, go outside and note where the water drains or collects. Find out what parts of the yard are getting the most or the least amount of water. Try to spend at least one Saturday studying the patterns of sunlight a­cross your yard to find which areas receive morning sun, afternoon sun or stay shady all day long. Take a few samples of soil from around your yard, including your planting beds and lawn. Take the samples to your local university extension agency, where extension agents can run soil tests to tell you what nutrients it needs and in what amounts. Usually, the tests are conducted for a nominal charge. Hardware stores and garden centers also usually sell home soil testing kits.

Once you know what kinds of microclimates your yard features, it'll be easier to properly study and select plants for your yard. For the most low-maintenance landscape, you'll want to choose plants native to your region. Native species have learned to thrive in your specific region of the world. They tend to naturally prevent or decrease weed growth, should require less water and have adapted to repel indigenous pests, all of which save you time on maintenance.


Once you've studied the different plants you've chosen for your low-maintenance garden, you can tailor their needs to your knowledge of your yard. Grouping plants together by their specific needs -- like water and light requirements -- will make it easier to care for them as a whole. Understanding a plant's growing habits will also help you in the long run. A plant that outgrows the space you've provided for it is very difficult to remove or transplant. It's better that you plant it in an appropriate spot in the first place.

When you create planting beds, make sure they have a gentle curve without any straight lines. This will lend the beds a more natural look and make it easier to mow around them. Plant species that require the most water should be planted in an area easily reached by a hose, or in areas you know receive plenty of rainwater. When you do this, you won't have to spend time hauling water to your plants.

Adding drought-resistant plants to your new landscape will also help save you time. Choosing plants based on water needs is a process known as xeriscaping. It cuts down on maintenance and also keeps water bills low.

If you're committed to doing away with your old, high-maintenance landscape and starting again from scratch, there are other steps you can take to lower your landscape maintenance. It starts with taking a hard look at your lawn.


Giving Up Your Lawn

Okay, so maybe lawns don't require this much attention. But they are pretty needy as far as landscape maintenance goes.
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Your lawn requires more maintenance than any other aspect of your landscape. The reason is clear: There are few plants found in a yard that grow as quickly and require as much attention as grass. Most experts recommend you cut your grass no less than once a week during the growing season, and that no more than one-third of the grass be cut off at once to create and maintain a healthy lawn. The sheer amount of ground a lawn covers also means it usually requires more time than any other part of the landscape. As a result, even people who don't like to garden find their time eaten up by their lawns.

Here's a radical idea: Why not get rid of your lawn? Well, maybe not all of it, but you could probably find some places around your lawn that you could do without. Consistently shaded areas where grass doesn't grow well can be replaced with shade-loving ground covers like moss. Those patches of grass can also be replaced with plant beds featuring shade-loving plants. Adding landscape boulders to planting beds can add a dramatic contrast to the live plants around it (and take up space while demanding no maintenance). And you can forego live plants altogether by installing a hardscape, like a patio, deck or shed. A patio made of pavers, for example, can be extremely easy to maintain.


Replacing lawns growing on slopes are another great way to cut down on maintenance. Anyone who has a yard with grass growing on an incline knows how difficult mowing can be. You can free up time by replacing a steep lawn with other types of ground cover that require less maintenance, like low-growing junipers. A more expensive alternative is to cut a retaining wall into the slope. This will replace the slope with a rock, paver or brick wall, which also require little maintenance.

If you've outgrown the need for a manicured lawn, you could allow your yard to naturalize itself. Especially if you have a larger yard, choosing an expensive area away from the house to let return to its natural state will definitely free up some of your time. Naturalized areas, like a wooded area or a meadow, don't have to look unkempt. Planting wildflowers in meadows, for example, will give you seasonal color and generally require only an annual mowing.

Once you understand your yard and become more open to its naturalization, you can easily create a low-maintenance landscape.


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More Great Links

  • Hamilton, D.F. and Black, R.J. "Low maintenance landscapes." University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services. Accessed December 2, 2008. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EP038
  • Lohmiller, George and Lohmiller, Becky. "Landscaping: How low can you go?" Old Farmer's Almanac. Accessed December 2, 2008. http://www.almanac.com/garden/design/landscaping.php
  • Russ, Karen and Polonski, Bob. "Low-maintenance landscape ideas." Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Accessed December 2, 2008. http://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheets/HGIC1703.htm
  • "Beneficial landscaping; environmentally-friendly landscaping." U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed December 2, 2008. http://www.epa.gov/greenkit/landscap.htm
  • "Create a water-wise landscape with xeriscaping." Lowe's. Accessed December 2, 2008. http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=howTo&p=LawnGarden/Xscape.html