Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Two Maintenance Ideas

"That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance."  (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

“That a-hole designer said these would be low-maintenance.” (Nick Daley/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

True story: last week, while waiting to get a haircut, I flipped through a local home and garden magazine and stumbled upon an article about garden maintenance. Mostly I skimmed it, but then my eye caught a quote from a landscape designer based at a local nursery. He said, “If a landscape is designed right, there should be NO maintenance. None at all. That’s what a designer is for.”My jaw dropped. No maintenance at all! See, if you hire the right designer, you’ll never have to so much as pluck a leaf off of your zero-input lawn! Apparently this guy can even design it so all the leaves from your trees blow into your neighbor’s yard, too!

I almost wanted to stand up right there in the hair salon and be, “ya’ll won’t BELIEVE what I just read here in this magazine, ladies!” but they probably would’ve thought it was some juicy sex tip from Cosmo and been disappointed when it turned out to be faulty landscaping advice — shocking though it was!

I think most people who have laid eyes on plant life realize that a “no maintenance” landscape is fantasy, regardless of what some shifty designer tries to make them believe. But most ordinary people do want to believe in “low-maintenance.”

“Low-maintenance” is a slippery term, though. One person’s idea of “low” might be completely different from his neighbor’s. The type of maintenance matters, too. Landscapes that require such things as getting up on tall ladders (high hedges) or setting fires (meadows) might be considered problematic by some folks, even if the overall time requirement is lower.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that if you graphed all this out, with “Garden Maintenance Level” on the Y-axis and “Garden Awesomeness Level” on the X-axis, you would probably get a slope of m=3/1 or something like that, whatever, it would be steep.

I want my garden to have the maximum “awesomeness” factor but unfortunately I am at a point in my life where I don’t have as much time for maintenance/management as I would like. I have a half acre, many different garden beds, lots of experiments going on, lots of ideas, loads of different soil and light conditions, plus I’m always wanting to try out new plants and I’m always changing my mind and moving things around.

It’s too much! I can’t keep up with it all, and too many areas wind up looking like sh-t.

I envision that in five or ten years I will have more time to garden, but I also recognize that my body is getting older and that I will probably be gardening slower in the future. I will have to sit down more often and take more Diet Coke breaks.

With all this in mind, here are two things that I have started doing that I think will make future gardening a bit easier/lower-maintenance, at least for me:

1. Planting more shrubs and fewer perennials.

I have an area in my backyard that I am struggling to landscape at the moment. It is a pretty big space, several plants have failed there, and there is a lot of empty ground there right now. At first I wanted to plant a small ornamental tree there, something like a ‘Hearts of Gold’ Redbud, but then I realized that I would still have to plant a bunch of stuff underneath the tree. Even though a tree is a large landscape feature it really doesn’t cover much soil, does it? Planting loads of perennials there just does not appeal to me, and since the area is far away from the house, I don’t think they’d be appreciated anyway. Plus, large quantities of perennials are expensive and tending them is usually a lot of work.

So now I’m thinking something like a Doublefile Viburnum would be just the ticket in that spot. It would spread itself out and cover lots of ground, and would still make a nice specimen plant visible from the house.

There are so many interesting shrubs out there that a full-blown “shrubbery” even carries a certain appeal.

Last year I planted this Bottlebrush Buckeye waaaay in the back of my yard and I am totally smitten by it.


These things are supposed to get HUGE, and I hope mine does, because as you can see I need it to block the god-awful mess behind it. Supposedly this shrub is a slow grower but mine has tripled in size in less than a year. Those skinny little pipe-cleaner flower buds should be big ol’ bottlebrushes very soon!

This Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ has spread quickly but hasn’t gotten too tall. And it has wonderful bright yellow stems in winter:


Below, this Variegated Five-Leaf Aralia (Acanthopanax siebolianus ‘Variagatus’) is spreading quickly and I am going to let it, even if I have to get some perennials out of its way. This thing brings an amazing lightness to a very shady spot and it’s growing right under my BW:


Other shrubs that have been handsome and reliable for me (and have covered ground) are boxwood, clumping bamboo, and Viburnum ‘Conoy’.

2. Looking at what grows well in my yard and planting more of those. Yes, part of the joy of gardening is trying new things, but when you’ve got limited time and energy it is probably prudent to keep your experimental planting areas small and manageable.

In my yard, toad lilies, Japanese painted ferns, geraniums, and phlox are always healthy and lush. Astilbes, butterfly weed, and heucheras always look pathetic.

In my yard, Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together.  Why not plant more?  (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Marshallia, geraniums, and painted ferns grow well and look good together. Why not plant more? (Winterberry Holly on the left)

Instead of trying to fight with my yard and make the latter plants work, instead of poking around the perennials area at the GC for something new (exhilarating as that it is!), I’m gonna stick to my shortlist of proven perennials for now. For now, I said.

With a lower-maintenance garden, you have time to read more garden blogs!  Let’s see what some professional designers have to say about maintenance:

Follow the links below and see what our designers have to say!

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

David Cristiani : The Desert Edge : Albuquerque, NM

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

44 thoughts on “Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Two Maintenance Ideas

  1. There’s no arguing with either point. I have quite a few perennials, but they’re just filling in until the shrubs get big. Repeating what does well for you is also good design. It saves you from that spotty, one of each thing that plant lust will lead one to. Which is not to say I never fall victim to plant lust.

  2. Great advice for a lower-maintenance garden. Notice I didn’t say no-maintenance. Remember in the movie Willow, when Willow is hiding Alora from the evil sorceress and tells her he’s put the baby “someplace where evil cannot touch her,” and the sorceress shrieks, “There no such place!” Yeah, that’s what goes through my head whenever a client asks for a no-maintenance garden.

    • James, how do you cut back your miscanthus in the winter/spring? You are right, it’s a pretty carefree plant, except for that. If you have lots of them, and no power tool, it can be a bit of a chore cutting through those coarse stems.

  3. Pingback: Garden Maintenance | Garden Designers Roundtable

  4. Great to see a garden writer talk about shrubs! I discovered trees and shrubs before perennials, and still get sticker shock when I see herbaceous plants that cost as much as woody shrubs. The difference between a pleasing composition in the garden and a chaotic mini-meadow is often just the balance and structure of some nice woody plants.

    • Agreed, John! I don’t think shrubs get enough press compared to flowering perennials. With all the shrub varieties that have colorful foliage, flowers, fruits, and sometimes colorful stems, I really think they are superior to perennials in many ways. Since they come in all sizes, they can serve the same design purpose as a massing of perennials, too.

      • More people need to look into species rhododendrons. One could have a fabulous year round garden with nothing, but species rhododendrons. They’re not your grandmother’s rhodies.

  5. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable ~ Maintenance | A Garden of Possibilities

  6. The bottlebrush buckeye is a very good choice. I have one and it is a lovely addition, and needs no real maintenance. Double file viburnam are lovely, and also low maintenance, but I do thin mine of all the vertical suckers.

  7. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable – Maintenance | Personal Garden Coach

  8. Good advise, Mary — I’ve found that “planting more of what works well” can often be the solution to a number of landscape problems! (The only “no maintenance” garden is one that’s maintained by the hired help.)

    • Jocelyn, speaking of “hired help” I wish there were more kinds of help available besides hiring a landscape company with a full contract. I wish it were possible to hire skilled people on sort of an “a la carte” basis. I would love to have somebody come in and help me a few times a year with weeding/transplanting/hedge pruning/spreading mulch, but I know that most landscaping companies encourage maintenance contracts because it’s better business for them.

  9. I’m sure I could never be a designer…I loathe hearing the “low maintenance” mantra over and over again…especially since, as you mentioned, what’s low-maintenance to a gardener is not the same as what the average home-owner expects. The benefits of planting things that do well are under-appreciated. The added bonus, of course, is that since you’re repeating plants around your garden, you have a greater level of cohesion…with the plants calling to each other.

    • Yes, hearing requests for “low-maintenance” must get kind of onerous. I think that’s why the best designers are very patient and are good teachers, too, gently explaining to their clients that they are nuts to expect a great landscape with little work.

  10. Amen to both points. Shrubs don’t need staking, dividing, or the removal of dead stems, etc. for winter. They are some work, of course, but easier than perennials. I’ve been trying to move more shrubs into the beds, though there is some resistance from my SO. And I would add to shrubs: lower-growing grasses. As to the second, I agree both for reducing the types and timing of maintenance but also better unity in the garden.

    • The only thing I do to my shrubs is occasionally prune, and that’s only on a few of them. And as long as I don’t have to stand on a ladder, I find pruning shrubs a fairly pleasant task.

  11. Amen – more shrubs / less perennial (hell), plant more of what does well. My mantra, and it weeds out clients who will be contradictory and high maintenance as well. Sad – the designer who said a well-designed garden is no maintenance…less, but not no…I’ve seen the “sustainable” word used to mean no maintenance, now.

  12. Finallly got back to this…Many years ago when I was first starting to design and the idea of sustatinable low maitenance gardens were hot buttons, I suggested in a local newspaper article that flower shrubs were the way to go. I’m glad someone in the Roundtable picked up on that idea. I’m slowly transforming my home gardens to shrubs and trees with punctuation points of other things…it’s totally satisfying and a lot less work!

  13. I completely agree with the argument that a well designed landscape requires no or little maintenance , with right choice of plants, proper boundaries and requisite spaces between the two plants depending upon their nature and growth style.

    • Even hardscapes require ocassional sweeping. There is no such thing as no maintainance. Low maintainance, yes. No maintainance, no.

  14. *no maintenance*…..hahahahaha…..that made me laugh too!!!!!! we live really rural, and sort of just let our yard do what it wants…..we have seven dogs that run the yard, so anything elaborate runs the risk of getting eaten, peed on, or dug up!! that said…..our *maintainance* is pretty much mowing every few days… husband occasionally whacks back the blackberries and/or honeysuckle…. in the fall we chuck the walnuts down the hill!!!! i have a raised area (cinderblocks) where i have a potted garden…..tomatoes, peppers, onions, basil, lettuce & peas…’s productive and aesthetically pleasing…..we have a separate in-ground vegetable garden that we weed/water regularly (that’s about the only *real* maintenance going on here!!)……planted a bunch of daffodils & crocus under some huge oak trees…..they rewarded me this spring with lots of happy blooms!!! we have about 8 black walnuts that form a canopy over the back yard…’s nice and shady….the grass, honeysuckle & wild grapes are happy…..we have green in all directions… is good!!

    • If you’re not controlling the invasive, noxious weeds on a regular basis, you don’t have a garden. You have a tangled mess. When I moved into my current house, parts of the yard consisted of 8 foot tall Himalayan blackberries tied together with bindweed. That is all that no mainatainance will get you.

      • We had a no maintenance yard for the first four years we lived in this house because we basically ignored it. You’re right about the noxious weeds. For me it was wild grape and bishop’s weed. I’m still fighting it.

  15. Mary, More shrubs are definitely the answer! I have several doublefile viburnums in my garden and they do command attention. Another favorite is oakleaf hydrangea, I have two planted in the shade and when they are in flower they are AMAZING.I’m also digging my Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea, the color of the flowers is wonderful right now. Like you, I figure if one is doing well, several more is a no-brainer.

    • I looooove hydrangeas, esp. Oak leaf, but alas, the black walnuts kill them. I have some planted in my front, though — a lace cap called ‘Light o’ Day’. I love it!

  16. I’m a great believer in using more of what likes to grow in my garden — especially the ones that spread and self-sow, so that I’m always looking for new homes for the seedlings and divisions.
    BTW, Did they have any photos of the designs done by the quoted designer? Maybe he specializes in gravel driveways.

  17. Fewer perennials and more garden shrubs? Amen. Like John ^, I discovered shrubs before perennials and it’s great to see a blogger write about them for a change.

  18. I’ve been removing grass and adding beds to my yard since we moved in 3 years ago. I’ve put in dozens and dozens and dozens of shrubs. Hydrangeas-paniculatas, oak leafs, arborescens, serratas and macrophyllas. Double file viburnums-Shastas, Popcorns, Snowflake, Shoshoni and Newports. V.Prague. Weigelas, shrub roses, rhododendrons, Spireas, Barberries, forsythias, box woods, deutzias….to name some. And 51 japanese maples. Bottlebrush Buckeye is on my ‘want’ list! I’m liking the layered look. When I’m done I will add some select perennials to the beds for accents. Great article!

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