Low-Maintenance Planting Design: More Than Just Plant Selection



There are a lot of misunderstandings about low-maintenance planting design. A lot of people think that in order to have a low-maintenance landscape, you just need to choose low-maintenance plants. But the way you design your planting beds is as important as the plants you select – maybe even more so. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when planning for low-maintenance planting beds.

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Mediterranean Plants to Rock Your Waterwise Landscape

Mediterranean-Garden-Design-Creating-a-Tuscan-Garden.jpgRecently I wrote about how to design a Mediterranean garden, but I left out one major component – which plants to choose! I just did a follow-up article over at the Christian Science Monitor which discusses just that. And yes, there are more photos of that lovely, lovely garden.  Head on over to read more.

Mediterranean Garden Design: How to Create a Tuscan Garden

Mediterranean-Garden-Design-Creating-a-Tuscan-Garden-14.jpgRecently, I was lucky enough to visit the Mediterranean garden of Lynda and Jack Pozel in Eureka, CA. Lynda’s a writer and artist, and until five years ago, owned a gorgeous cottage-style garden that was on our local garden tour multiple times. So when they moved and Lynda had a whole new garden to create, most people would have expected her to design a garden along the same lines. Just one problem – the architecture at her new home was totally different than her last one. Plus, Lynda was ready to move on from the high-maintenance cottage style and towards a more minimalist, low-care garden. So she designed a Tuscan/ Mediterranean garden, with a few bold colors, iconic plants, and strong hardscape lines to define the theme. Here’s what makes her Mediterranean garden design work.

Boldness and Simplicity

Hot colors. Strong design elements. Large swathes of one plant meandering through the beds or marching along a wall. Under the hot Mediterranean sun, design elements need to be strong and intentional to keep from looking washed out. The thing that’s hard about creating boldness is it requires editing and willpower. Once you’ve chosen a theme, you can’t just cram the latest impulse buy into whatever empty spot you have. Part of creating a successful anything is in the elements you leave out. In Lynda’s garden, she chose a simple color scheme, with shades of green, orange, and purple taking center stage. Because so many Mediterranean plants have purply blue flowers (lavender, rosemary, thyme), choosing a hot color to contrast makes the traditional Tuscan garden plants look rich and vivid in the bright light of the sun. In addition, the greyish leaves on many Mediterranean plants can look faded or dull if not supported by a few lush, bright greens. Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (27) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (4) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden
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  Even with such a simple color palette, you can see there’s a ton of room for individuality here. Were I to design my own version, I would add a few more of our California natives, like mimulus, leopard lily (L. pardalinum), and California poppies. There are an infinite number of ways to personalize. Paring down your color scheme, and even choosing a design style doesn’t have to limit your plant choices, as you can see from the wide range of plants Lynda selected.


Tuscan gardens often incorporate strong hardscape elements, especially stone walkways and patios, colorful tiles, and large pieces of pottery that house boldly-hued plants. Warm tans, reddish-browns, and terra cotta colors are the most common colors. Warm colors like this can soften the effect of a large area of stone or tile and make it feel inviting, rather than cold or formidable. The vase-shaped pots so integral to a Tuscan garden can be used to create a mini focal point in the garden, to draw attention to seating areas or direct the eye down a path. And under the heat of the summer sun, the sound and look of water can add a cooling feeling to the garden. They’re also valuable in urban settings for distracting from traffic noise. Water features can take a bit more maintenance in the garden, so aren’t for everyone, but if you’re willing to care for a small fountain or formal pool they can add a wonderful extra touch. If you’d like to personalize your hardscape even more, go on out to your local ceramics place and paint a few tiles with swirls of cobalt blue, orange, or deep brown to incorporate into stepping stones, a table, or the patio. If you’re looking for some color inspiration or ideas for those small, detailed touches that make a Tuscan garden work, Landscaping Network has some downloadable PDF stylesheets as well as photos of Mediterranean garden design. Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (16) Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (22)
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Traditional plants

When you think of a Tuscan or Mediterranean garden, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Lavender! The fragrance of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme, lavender cotton (Santolina), and others are an iconic part of Tuscan garden design. In particular, lavender makes a bold design statement when used to frame a low wall or pathway. It leads the eye to the focal point (a door or patio) while providing fragrance every time you brush against it. The shape and colors of olive and citrus trees are another element that bring visions of Tuscany. They can be trimmed formally and set in pots, or used within garden beds to screen unpleasant views or define a pathway or wall. The spires of Italian cypress are another traditional plant used in this style. Because they’re tall and slim, they make a great exclamation point and guide the eye to doors, seating areas, and pools. They work well when used formally to frame a view. The one problem with Italian cypress is they are short-lived in my cool, rainy climate (they prefer some summer heat), so in this type of climate I’d choose another plant with an upright, slim appearance (we say they have a “fastigiate” shape), even if I had to occasionally shear it to keep it slender. A few options are:
  • Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’
  • Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’
  • Podocarpus gracilior (can be kept sheared and small in a pot)
If you love the look of a Tuscan garden but already have some plants that don’t suit, you might be surprised at how easily just a little bit of editing and a few bold touches can give you the feeling of a Mediterranean garden. You can see from the creativity that Linda used in designing her garden that you can personalize this type of design in a number of ways to make it fit with your own style and home IMG_5253 Mediterranean Garden Design - Creating a Tuscan Garden (10)
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  For more inspiration, check out these two books: Italian Rustic Gardening the Mediterranean Way

Golden Conifers Brighten Up Winter

Ceanothus-and-Cryptomeria.jpgWith the winter doldrums in full force, I went to my local rhododendron nursery the other day to pick up spring color for a few jobs. Usually, I’m blown away by the blooming rhodies or the summer-flowering heathers. But this visit, what really struck me was the conifers. Specifically, the golden conifers. They just looked so cheerful against the cloudy sky, and all the browns and greens happening this time of year. I know some people think golden plants look sickly, but I think it’s all about placement. If you put them next to something that is just bursting with lush, healthy growth, and repeat their golden color throughout the garden, they look intentional and can add a real element of brightness and good cheer to the garden. Golden conifers in the garden (8)

Here are some of the conifers that won me over:

Ceanothus with Cryptomeria at Singing Tree Gardens Nursery Golden Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Aurea’, has a loose, cone-shaped habit. I love the weeping leaf-tips. In the photo at the top, you can see what a fun contrast it makes with the upwardly-reaching branches of Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’. The foliage has a soft appearance, but it’s a pretty tough plant; it will even take wind and salt air. It reaches about 10′ height in as many years, but it can get quite big in time, so don’t plant it under your eaves! Hardy in zones 6-9. [Read more...]

Ferns for Every Garden

Autumn-Fern.jpgAs we settle more deeply into winter, I’ve been really noticing the beauty of all the ferns in the landscapes I care for. They’re low-care, often have great winter interest, and seem to go with just about every type of plant or style of planting. The neat thing about ferns is they look great both on their own as focal points, and in broad drifts or masses. They’re generally resistant to deer, can take shade, and, um, they’re green! So you’d have to try really hard to make them look clashy with anything. Here are a few of my favorite ferns to use in the landscape:
woodwardia fimbriata Giant Chain Fern, Woodwardia fimbriata, is a Pacific Northwest native that gets 4-5′ tall. It has a soft-looking texture and an airy habit that’s lovely next to evergreen shrubs.While these look great massed, the mature size of 5 feet makes it an excellent focal point in a small garden bed, or a good accent to highlight larger plants. It’s not frost-hardy, so keep it protected under trees. It can take boggy conditions.
Dryopteris erythrosora (2) Autumn Fern, Dryopteris erythrosora, is named a bit backwards. You’d think that it puts on that lovely show of orange foliage in, well, autumn. Instead, the Autumn Fern’s showiest time is in spring, when all the new growth is brilliantly colored.This photo is of its summer look; mostly green with a bit of color to remind you why you planted it. Drought tolerant once established, Autumn Fern has the best color when given just a few hours of sun each day. 3′ when mature.
IMG_2978 Tasmanian Tree Fern, Dicksonia antarctica, stands in for palms in my rainy climate, acting as a tropical sentinel in the garden. They grow about 12′ tall in most gardens and about 7′ wide, so if you’re looking for a petite tree that can take shade, look no further.Their highest use in the garden is as a grove flanking a winding and mysterious pathway to a stone fountain or water feature – it feels so prehistoric and primal. You can imagine the dinosaurs romping juuust out of eyesight.
IMG_0561 Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, (say thatthree times), has the most deliciously glossy foliage, and drooping cinnamon tips on spring as it unfurls.This is one fern that really truly prefers the shade; I’ve tested it in gardens where it gets 2-3 hours of direct sun and it just fries. Otherwise, it’s proven unfussy, even tolerating wind in one seaside garden seeing as we were kind enough to give it good soil and water there. 3′ mature size.
holly fern at Longshore garden Holly Fern, Cyrtomium falcatum, is for the inner-goth crowd. Not into that fluffy frondy crap? Want a fern with some bite to it? Here you are.It’s bold, architectural, and looks great in steel planters or near sculptural elements in the garden. It doesn’t actually bite, it’s not mean like holly, it just tries to look tough is all. It gets about 3′ around and has the deepest green color in shade, going a lighter green color with some sun.
Want to find some good planting partners for ferns? Check out these posts for more inspiration: Hawt Plants for a Variety of Climates Forget Halloween: Dark Beauties to Enjoy All Year Callunas, Daboecias and Ericas: Demystifying the Different Types of Heather

Professional Tips for Using Landscape Fabric Right

Howtouselandscapefabric.jpgI’m no fan of landscape fabric, but I accept that it can be a useful tool in the garden in a few select circumstances. I go into how to decide whether landscape fabric is a good choice for you in this article, but if you’ve decided to use it, I wanted to provide you with some professional tips and pointers on how to install it professionally. [Read more...]

Low-Maintenance Landscaping: How to Tim Ferriss Your Garden Routine

TimFerriss.jpgDo you have more garden than time? Even people who love, LOVE to garden sometimes find their landscape a source of guilt rather than joy. So many times when I’m visiting a garden, I’m making enthusiastic exclamations over the abundance and beauty of it all, the owner of the garden is saying things like, “well, don’t look over there”, and “this area’s just a mess”, and “I haven’t gotten around to weeding lately”. Even if the overall effect is lovely, when it’s our garden, we can get hung up on our to-do list instead of just appreciating how far we’ve come. If that’s you, there are a ton of things you can do to reduce the amount of work required of you, so that you’re able to focus on doing the things that bring you joy in the garden. Four-Hour-Work-Week If you’ve heard of Tim Ferriss, he’s the author of The Four-Hour Workweek, and he recommends automating, outsourcing and just plain stopping doing work that doesn’t thrill you. The title of his book is misleading, because I think he works longer hours than most people, but he spends his time doing what he loves, not on the repetitive, grindingly boring tasks that make up so many people’s days. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your garden be filled with just the tasks you love? To get to choose how much time to spend and what tasks to spend it on rather than being chained to a maintenance routine you find a chore? To that end, I’ve adapted Ferriss’s advice for business success to the garden. [Read more...]

Plants to Love: New Zealand Wind Grass (Stipa arundinacea/ Anemanthele lessoniana)

Anemanthele-lessoniana.jpgAnemanthele lessoniana New Zealand Wind Grass is a stunning low-maintenance grass that keeps its glowing orange foliage all winter long. I occasionally have to prune out some dead bits here or there, which I do by grasping a small clump of dead foliage and cutting it out at the base so you don’t notice it’s been pruned. Anemanthele lessoniana gets to 4’ around and 3’ tall, and will take even the worst seacoast wind. It’s also deer-resistant. It colors up all bronzey-orange in full sun, but is an attractive green grass in part shade as well. They’re gorgeous for highlighting any kind of green foliage, and I think they look great with plants that have purple flowers like Tibouchina/ Princess Flower or Salvia leucantha/ Mexican Bush Sage. [print_link]

Plants to Love: Rozanne Hardy Cranesbill (Geranium ‘Rozanne’)

GeraniumRozanne.jpgGeranium ‘Rozanne’ (USDA Zones 4/5-9) is a lovely tumbling plant that gets between 4 and 5’ around, and about 2’ tall. She’s been the darling of the landscape designer crowd since being introduced a few years back, and even though we all plant her all the time, we’re sticking our fingers in our ears and going “LA-LA-LA” whenever a whisper of her being over-used comes up. She’s only over-used once we’re tired of her, and we are not. She loves full sun and is somewhat deer-resistant, though not reliably so. ‘Rozanne’ even tolerates strong seacoast wind without looking shabby. If you put ‘Rozanne’ in a part shade spot, she’ll still grow and bloom nicely, but she may get a bit leggy and sprawl out more. She does go dormant, so I often plant her with evergreen plants so she doesn’t leave too big of a hole in the winter garden. I like her with ornamental grasses like the Acorus ‘Ogon’/ Golden Sweet Flag grass above. She also harmonizes nicely with Roses, Rhododendrons, and Heathers. Learn how to prune Geranium ‘Rozanne’ here (link to video). I gently lift one side of the plant up and trim out some of the longest stems that are flopping on the ground either back to a side shoot or all the way back, making sure my pruning cuts are hidden by the rest of the foliage, and work my way around the base of the plant to even it up. This helps to reduce size or get the plant out of a pathway if needed, because usually the longest stems are the ones sitting on the ground. After you prune, the goal is to have the plant smaller, but not see any visible sign that you pruned it – no cut stems or bare patches. Want to join in the Rozanne lovefest? Check out Susan Morrison’s post about her here. [print_link]

Book Review: The NEW Low-Maintenance Garden by Valerie Easton

NewLowMaintenanceGardenbook.jpgYou’d think that a landscape designer who also does landscape maintenance would be dismissive of the whole low-maintenance gardening thing. After all, there’s a negative impression of low-maintenance gardens as being dull, static, lifeless places devoid of wildlife or any personal character. But there is a balance in a well-designed garden between hardscape (the patios, walkways, raised beds, and other permanent structures), the shrubs and trees that require little care beyond formative pruning and appropriate watering, and the flowers, grasses, veggies and bulbs that invite your personality to shine yet do require more care to keep up. [Read more...]