In my landscape design practice, it is rare to find a client who does not ask for a low-maintenance garden. However, the way people define low-maintenance varies so wildly that the term has almost lost its meaning.
While the generally accepted definition of a low maintenance plant would be something that you do not need to maintain more than once per year, you could still put together a planting plan based entirely on plants that fit this definition of low maintenance, and have it be a yard where you have to be outside fussing with something almost constantly. (I’ve written more about that here.)
In addition, even plants which fall under that definition vary in how much time and trouble they take. Large grasses like Miscanthus are commonly thought of as low-maintenance, yet each one needs to be trimmed almost to the ground each winter, which involves tying it up, using electric or handheld hedgers to cut it back, filling a quarter of a pickup truck with the detritus from just one grass, then raking up all the little bits that inevitably scatter into the surrounding mulch. Is that low-maintenance?
If time is how we’re defining the term, I’d prefer planting a perfectly-sized shrub in that spot, since most shrubs would need only 5-15 minutes of gentle shaping once per year and can be ignored for some time once an appropriate form is established.
Yet maybe time isn’t the only factor in how we feel about maintenance, because the definition of low-maintenance seems to differ from person to person. Recently, on a private forum for garden professionals, we had a discussion about low-maintenance landscaping where some of these differences popped up.
Here are some of the definitions of low-maintenance these professionals personally espoused:
Easy to hire out
Low-maintenance? It only takes five minutes to mail the check!
One person talked about her low-maintenance knot garden made of boxwood which, she enthusiastically said, only needed to be maintained twice per year. I heard, “low-maintenance knot garden” and laughed, appreciating her sarcasm and dry wit – except – she was serious!
In my view, there is absolutely nothing low-maintenance about running a hedger around a large section of boxwood twice per year, and then having to clean all the little leafy bits out of the surrounding mulch and gravel. It’s a time-consuming pain in the neck.
However, others jumped in with the valid point that in places like LA where there is a large immigrant population, tasks such as hedging or running a mower can be hired out easily and cheaply, so the amount of time or frequency of care is a lot less important than the type of work that needs to be done. In that setting, a formal garden with hedges and lawn could indeed be considered low-maintenance because it is such an easy and inexpensive thing to hire out.
In this setting, even a simple shrub planting is higher maintenance/ higher cost because you’ll either need to find a more specialized crew to take care of it, or develop the knowledge to do the work personally. So the skill or cost required to maintain something should absolutely be factored into any judgment of whether or not a landscape will be low-maintenance. It’s not just a simple matter of how much time it takes to maintain.
Something you enjoy doing
A labor of love in Raul Zumba’s garden.
Another thing to factor in is whether or not you’ll enjoy doing the maintenance, if you plan to maintain it yourself. Is deadheading flowering perennials fun, but weeding – not so much? Is planting and caring for your annual flower bed a pleasure, rather than a fussy chore? Or do you enjoy the stress release of weeding, but hate having to research and worry about whether you are pruning everything properly? The very definition of a “hobby garden” is something that doesn’t feel like work.
If you’re a collector or love one aspect of gardening, then tending your succulent wall or fluffing your container gardens (for example) wouldn’t be something to eliminate. After maximizing fun, avoiding irritations is also important. There are a number of plants that are downright unpleasant to prune, such as Mexican feather grass (which gets itchy seeds stuck in your clothes), Buddleia (which lets loose clouds of hairy dust which can give you a nasty sinus infection if you don’t wear a mask), and things like barberry which have painful thorns. I’d rather do a neutral task like weeding all day than tackle a Buddleia and be stuck with itches and sniffles.
Again, while the usual definition of low maintenance puts time above all other considerations, I’m going out on a limb here and saying that your own personal preferences define work vs play.
Plants with benefits
A permaculture enthusiast showing off some edibles (photo by Janette Heartwood).
Recently I designed a landscape for a fellow who wanted as little maintenance as possible, because he knew he just wasn’t going to find time in his busy schedule to maintain ornamental plants. Yet he made it clear that he was more than happy to have as many edible plants as possible tucked into the landscape, and said that even if they needed maintenance multiple times per week during some times of the year, his enthusiasm for eating fresh food out of the garden would lure him outside to spend time in the landscape.
There are also people who so enjoy watching birds and wildlife, that no maintenance is too much if they are attracting hummingbirds and songbirds into the garden. They are more than happy to refill their birdfeeders every day or even twice a day, and take great pains to sterilize their hummingbird feeder with each refill. For them, learning the ins and outs of maintaining a wildlife friendly garden is no big deal. But if they aren’t watching birds in that area of the landscape, then their level of enthusiasm for messing about with it will be close to nil.
This is why many busy, working people who might otherwise want low-maintenance have been interested in the “front yard food” trend, or in getting rid of their lawns and planting wildlife gardens. The benefits of these types of gardening fire them up to where maintaining these spaces is no big deal, even though some types of edible gardening can take a considerable amount of time and expense.
You can see why I have to laugh when I hear the inevitable statement from new clients that they would like a “low maintenance” landscape. They think the discussion is over, but I know that buried in that simple statement are a host of assumptions that need to be untangled in order to be sure I’m truly getting at the heart of what they want.
Is the term “low-maintenance” meaningless?
No, not at all. But I don’t think we should place a value judgement on the term and say that low-maintenance is good and high-maintenance is bad. As you can see from these examples, sometimes there are benefits from gardens that are more time-consuming, and yet these gardens can still fit gracefully into people’s lives, as long as the type of care is matched to the owner.
The next time you’re considering how to make your landscape less time-consuming, think carefully about what you’re really after, because it’s possible there are some unconsidered options that would enrich your lifestyle and fit into your schedule, yet not traditionally be thought of as low-maintenance.