garden seating, hardscape, landscape design, lawn care, native plants, organic, plant care, plant selection

“Low-maintenance garden”… an oxymoron?

We just bought a vacation home and need ideas on what types of low-maintenance flowers, bushes, landscaping we can plant. There is no watering system, so the yard and beds must thrive on natural rainfall except for our quarterly visits. Also, how do you prevent ‘stick-tites’ or kill existing ones?  Jeri in Missouri

tools for a low-maintenance landscape

Maintenance problems in the landscape are often the result of lack of planning.  You are ahead of the game spending time looking at how you will use your vacation home before you spend $$$.  Here are some principles that apply to anyone wanting to relax in their garden instead of just making it another entry on the to-do list.

  1. MAKE A REAL CHOICE:  How will you use the space?  Think about your property like you do your home, designating areas for specific activities.  Do you need a dining room, or just an eat-in kitchen?   If a playroom’s on your list, do you need a spot for horseshoes or a soft-ball field?  How about a living area?  How many will you need to seat?  Do these spaces connect to one another?  Be realistic and consider your lifestyle, year-round outdoor conditions and how many people will usually be in the spaces.

    HIT: create a 1 year, 5 year and forever plan for your landscape
  2. MAKE A REAL PLAN:  Using graph paper, lay out the property showing existing plants that will remain.  Note topographic highlights of your yard, including low spots and berms, great views and not-so-great, then add in your wish list of garden rooms and where they’ll best fit into your landscape and your life.  Don’t forget to leave space for utility items, such as trashcans/recycling bins and lawn equipment.  (cherie’s tip: Make spaces convenient to one another and to your home or you won’t use them!)

    plan for success in your landscape
  3. MAKE YOUR PLAN REAL:  How will you maintain the property?  Even if it’s your primary residence, a busy schedule might require your landscape still be low-maintenance.  If you can’t constantly keep your eye on it, consider hiring someone to do that for you.  If that’s not feasible, maybe “naturalizing” the property with only the designated spaces as maintained areas will better suit your lifestyle.  Add paths to get from one “room” to the next, but pick not only your plant materials but also your hardscape materials intentionally to avoid high maintenance.  A path or patio can be of many different materials, from bark mulch to lawn to pavers to concrete. Mulch and grass will require weekly or monthly maintenance; pavers and concrete will not.  When it comes to plant materials, look around you at what is native.  Contact the local agricultural extension  or state-wide native plant society for a list of appropriate plants, then keep them mulched well.  Use rainwater efficiently by grouping like-minded plants with low-water plants in the high spots and more-water plants in the low spots.  Check to see if a rain-water harvesting system would work in your area, too.

    MYTH: NO-maintenance landscapes

As far as getting rid of grass-burs or stick-tights or any other pest plant, organic methods abound with some more effective than others.  Several websites offer proven ways including the old-fashioned way:  hand-pulling.  But weeds are opportunists.   Bare spots, dry spots and wet spots are all accidents waiting to weed.  If this is a turf area, you might look at installing a native grass and allow it to grow to mature height, crowding and shading out warm-season weeds.

Whether part-time, full-time or all-time, your home’s landscape can be a labor and cost intensive proposition.  Even a little cabin in the woods begs for extra planning on the front end to ensure a low-maintenance garden, giving you the time to vacation wherever you are.


4 thoughts on ““Low-maintenance garden”… an oxymoron?”

  1. Thanks for the information! Our last visit to our Cabin we ‘hand-pulled’ the stick-tites and -weeded the flower beds, planted some native plants and put down a good layer of mulch in all beds to help keep moisture in. We believe it’s a good start to a great way to enjoy our visits. We also have discovered that it’s pretty enjoyable to ‘work’ in the yard at the Cabin when the view is so beautiful!

  2. Low maintenance gardening is NOT an oxymoron. Before we sold our house in Plano, we had to replace the center part of our backyard with Bermuda grass. Until then, the most maintenance require during the growing season was pruning back one of our Turk’s Caps about five times. The other four were much better behaved and did not require any pruning during the year.

    The best bet is to have large gardens so that you don’t have to mow. Plant them with native or well adapted shrubs which produce nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. They will be flowering during the fall migration which starts in July for hummingbirds. It is very important to apply a 2-3 inch layer of fresh hard-wood mulch in the spring. We also roto-tilled compost into our beds before we planted the shrubs.

    Remember, the bigger the beds, the less the grass which has to be watered and mowed. If the plants for butterflies and hummingbirds required maintenance, care, watering, fertilizing and all that work, we would not have butterflies and hummingbirds since no one was around until about 14,000 years ago while they evolved.

    1. Hi Dr. Dave,
      Thanks for sharing your experience with low-maintenance gardening. The only caveat I’d add is if you want to naturalize (or if you have irrigation pipes in ground), it is best NOT to “roto-till”. Digging in compost is great, but digging up weed-seeds can thwart your efforts. Native are the way to go, though, aren’t they? Low-maintenance does not mean low-beauty or low-wildlife! (And Turk’s cap – Malvaviscus arborius/drummondii – is one of my favorites, too, although it is only hardy through zone 7. I’m watching the hummers fight over it and autumn sage – Salvia greggi, also zone 7 – as I write this….. )

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