Low maintenance. I hear these two words often from my clients. Is low maintenance really a possibility? Realistically speaking, what does this mean and what might a low maintenance landscape look like?
Let us unravel these questions and start at the beginning. Why do we bother to have landscape gardens at all, low maintenance or not?
Piet Oudolf, the influential Dutch garden designer, nurseryman and author, is a leading figure in the “New Perennial” movement. Oudolf says that we all have an embedded longing for nature. We want plants around us to satisfy this longing. We feel best in gardens when they evoke the natural world – full of life, moving in the breeze, glowing in the evening light, dancing with butterflies and bees.
In landscape design, plants are often used in what have become expected ways. This might be some evergreens as foundation plantings, some groundcover and a few annuals for color. This can be pretty enough, even elegant in its own way, but it is unlikely to feel exciting, and certainly not full of life and movement. While there is nothing wrong with this landscaping style, it won’t involve us, and we won’t respond to it, not the way we would to plants that bring the feeling of nature to the garden.
Many may perceive this more expected style of planting as low maintenance. But is it? There is likely to be a lot of grass, so regular mowing and edging are needed to maintain the desired appearance. Oftentimes toxic chemicals are used to create that perfect lawn. Annuals are water hogs and, in our recent bout of high temperatures and drought, many annuals needed to be watered daily. The groundcovers used are often invasive plants like English ivy, vinca or wintercreeper. Once these vines are established it takes a great deal of effort to keep them under control. And many of those evergreen shrubs likely want to grow larger than the spot you’ve put them in, so pruning will be an ongoing issue. Sounds to me like someone will be working pretty hard.
The truth is that all gardens require effort, and at times lots of it, to look the way we want. Typically, the less we do, the worse our yards look.
However, there are landscapes that require less maintenance and, perhaps surprisingly, these are the types of gardens that also tend to connect us most with a feeling of the natural world. Studies show that established perennial gardens that have been well thought out and installed need about 15 minutes of maintenance every 10 days, which is much less time than it takes to keep the grass in the average lawn looking good.