Low Maintenance Landscape Design – 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid

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Robert Pavlis

Low maintenance landscape design is fairly easy to accomplish if you know what you are doing. It is also very easy to make small mistakes that increase the time you need to spend on garden maintenance. Why make extra work for yourself?

In this post I’ll show you how to reduce your work by looking at 10 common mistakes people make when designing their gardens. Avoiding these mistakes is easy and doing so usually leads to a better designed landscape.

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Narrow Strip of Grass
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Narrow Strip of Grass

Low Maintenance Landscape Design

In this post I will look at several real gardens where the owners have chosen designs that create an unnecessary amount of work. Small changes in the design will produce a garden that looks just as nice, but is a lot easier to maintain. These time saving design ideas are easy to implement in your garden.

Form Follows Function

The expression ‘form follows function’ is used in all types of design work and gardening is no exception. Form, refers to the look and feel of a design. Is it formal or informal? Is it cluttered with interesting things or is it modern with a few simple lines. The word function refers to how the space is used.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

As a simple example consider that most homes are built in a rectangular shape. Was this shape selected mostly because of the form – rectangles look good, or was it selected because of function? It is probably function since a rectangle provides the most useful space inside the home. Imagine placing your furniture inside a round room.

The term ‘form follows function’ indicates that in most cases it is best to solve the functional problems first, and then select a form that fits. Doing it the other way around leads to weird unusable spaces.

In a garden setting it is common to ignore this design principal. For most people a garden is an enjoyable place to spend some time. There is limited functionality to consider. So form become more important than function and that may be OK. The problem with this approach is that a focus on only form can result in increased maintenance work and nobody really wants that. If we consider maintenance as part of the function element in design, then function becomes more important in landscape design.

Narrow Strip of Grass

Have a look at the above picture. There is a narrow walkway leading around the side of the house to the backyard. Beside the walkway is a narrow strip of grass. The property boundary is halfway between the homes.

Problem

  1. The strip of grass is so narrow that it is hardly worth cutting.
  2. The grass is on a slope where it forms the swale between the two properties making it even more difficult to cut.
  3. The walkway is very narrow and is out of scale with the back gate – the walkway is too narrow when compared to the width of the gate.

Solution

Swales are important and should not be removed. They are placed there to keep water from running into the basement of homes and in most cities it is illegal to remove them. But they can be modified.

The walkway could be extended to the left so that it reaches the property line. To keep it horizontal and provide support under the walkway, a line of stones or bricks can be added at the edge of the swale. This would widen the walkway and eliminate the small grass strip.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

It is always a good idea to get rid of small strips of grass. They add extra work and rarely add anything of value to the design.

Plastic Edging Does Not Work

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Plastic Edging Does Not Work
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Plastic Edging Does Not Work

Problem

  1. The frost lifted the plastic edging and now it sticks up like a sore thumb.
  2. The bed is far too narrow for the plants.

Solution

The plastic edging sold to consumers does not work very well even if it is installed correctly, which rarely happens. This type of edging is more trouble than it is worth and it looks cheap, adding nothing to a good garden design.

If you are going to use it, buy commercial grade plastic which is much heavier and then install it correctly. Pins must be inserted horizontally under the grass every couple of feet. This prevents frost from moving it up in winter. The pins should be 8″ long and thick enough so they do not bend easily. Commercial products usually include the pins and holes for inserting them. See How To Install Landscape Edging for more details.

This bed is near the front steps and is about a foot wide – that is far too narrow. The plants will outgrow the space quickly and small beds just don’t look very good. If you don’t want a wide bed here, just have grass growing right up to the walkway. It would be less maintenance work and look much better. Real beds in this location should be at least 4 feet deep and 6 would be better.

Trees Planted in Grass

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Trees Planted in Grass
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Trees Planted in Grass

Problem

  1. Two trees and a couple of perennials are planted in the grass instead of in the flower bed.
  2. The flower bed near the steps is too narrow.

Solution

From a purely esthetic point of view the trees look as if they are planted in the wrong place – the gardener missed the flower bed. From a function point of view the owner has created a difficult mowing area. How do you mow around the trees and perennials?

Planting perennials in lawn grass is never a good idea, especially for ornamental grasses like the one shown above. Lawn grass will co-mingle with the perennial grass and in no time at all you have a mess that needs to be replaced. Weeding lawn grass from inside perennials is a difficult job so they should be kept separate.

The narrow bed near the steps is an issue with both form and function. Narrow beds rarely look good, but more importantly, they are very difficult to plant. The best planting option is low ground covers. It is Almost impossible to get any height in narrow beds.

In this garden the solution seems very simple. Make the bed wider so it includes the trees and perennials. A wide bed solves both problems without a need to move the trees and perennials.

You might notice a hint of a swale at the bottom left of the picture. This is the property line and a good design would extend the bed right to this property line. Eliminate the grass all together. As mentioned above, narrow strips of grass are always a maintenance problem – get rid of them.

Creating Mowing Nightmares

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Creating Mowing Nightmares
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Creating Mowing Nightmares

Problem

  1. Short black metal fence is out of scale with the size of lawn.
  2. The pots and metal fence make mowing difficult.

Solution

This is a corner lot and I am sure the owners had problems with people cutting across their lawn. Why do people do that? To solve this problem they added a small black metal fence which is enough to keep people off the grass  – functionally it does work. By solving one problem they have created another problem. How do you mow the grass growing between the vertical pieces of the fence? With scissors?

The flower pots add a nice, unusual touch, but they are sitting right on the grass. Whenever you have a hard object sitting on grass, mowing is more work. Lawn mowers can’t get close enough to the pots to cut the grass. Most people would resort to a weed eater, also called a string trimmer. That works but is more effort and causes more air pollution. In this case it might not even work since the rotating plastic string will probably damage the pots.

The metal fence is not in scale with the lawn. It is too small when compared to the size of the lawn. It just does not look very good. Besides, it is made from thin metal and looks cheap. The fence should be taller and be made from more substantial material. It would then be in scale and look better.

I would remove the fence and create a larger garden bed that includes the planted tree, the pots, the street sign and extends right to the corner. A new shrub planted right on the corner will keep people from taking a short cut. This could be a low growing barberry which has thorns, or it could be a juniper that stays around 1 – 2 ft tall. By keeping the shrub low, the pots would still be visible. Both plant suggestions are very low maintenance needing a trim once a year. They are also drought tolerant and in most climates do not need to be watered.

Raised Edging Makes Mowing Harder

Use the above picture as the reference for this discussion.

Problem

  1. Tree is surrounded with brick that is raised above the level of the grass.

Solution

Raising brick above the soil line is a common practice around trees and in other areas of the garden. Aesthetically, it might look better to have the stone raised, but in most cases it does not improve the look of the garden. What it does do is add more work. The lawn mower can not cut the grass next to the bricks. So you need to use the string trimmer – more work, more cost and more pollution.

A much better solution is to drop the height of the bricks so they are at soil level. The lawn mower can now have it’s wheels run along the brick and cut the grass at the same time you cut the rest of the lawn.

I don’t really like the look of the circle in this lawn. I can’t explain it, but it does not seem to fit and it adds very little to the design. As mentioned in the previous section, making one large bed that includes the tree would create a much better design and solve the problem of high bricks.

Ring of Rocks

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Ring of Rocks
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Ring of Rocks

Problem

  1. Rocks and grass do not function well together.
  2. The raised rocks indicate a poorly planted tree.

Solution

People like rocks and so it is very common to see them on a lawn. This creates a mowing nightmare. You can’t mow the grass next to this pile of rocks. You can’t even cut the grass with a string trimmer. The only solution here is to get out the scissors and start cutting each blade separately.

Rocks and grass do not mix. Keep them separate.

Since I have this picture posted I need to side step a bit and talk about tree care. The rocks are pilled up creating, what is commonly called a volcano. This is bad news for the tree. The rocks hold moist mulch around the tree trunk which can lead to rot and death of the tree. Mulch should never touch the trunk of a tree. This pile of rocks should be removed for health reasons if not for maintenance reasons.

Have a look at Planting Trees the Right Way to learn more about planting trees.

Trees rarely need to be staked. If they are staked they should never have more than one stake, and it needs to be removed within one year. These stakes have been there for several years and the wire will soon strangle the tree.

Having grass right up next to a tree is never a good idea. Sooner or later, and it is usually sooner, you will damage the tree with the lawn mower. The solution is to surround all trees with a bed that is covered with 3 inches of wood chip mulch.

Shrub Too Close to the Sidewalk

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Shrub Too Close to the Sidewalk
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Shrub Too Close to the Sidewalk

Problem

  1. Shrub is too close to the sidewalk

Solution

This is actually a very nice front yard design. There is a good mix of ground covers, rocks for interest, and some taller plantings. All the grass is removed eliminating mowing altogether. The grass you see belongs to the neighbor.

They made one big mistake and it is a very common one. They planted a shrub too close to the sidewalk. When you buy the shrub it looks so small and you tend to forget how big it will get.

The solution should have been done a few years ago as soon as it was realized the shrub was in the wrong place. Small shrubs are easy to move, large ones are not. In this case the home owner did not act and now it is a bigger problem. You can still move the shrub but it is a big job now. Instead this homeowner decided to just rope it off with some very nice green garden hose on wire. It probably looks OK in summer when the shrub is leafed out hiding the wire, but now in fall and all winter it looks terrible.

Move the shrub.

Growing Shrubs on a Hill

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Growing Shrubs on Hill
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Growing Shrubs on a Hill

Problem

  1. The evergreen is too close to the sidewalk.
  2. Tree and shrubs are planted on a hill.

Solution

I discussed the problem of a tree being planted too close to the sidewalk in the previous section. This poor tree has already been trimmed back and as it grows the trimming will need to continue which will create a weird looking tree – big top with trimmed bottom.

The other problem here is planting on a hill. I don’t know why people insist on raising the soil level before planting trees and shrubs, but it is a very common mistake.

There are some special cases where this makes sense. A few types of plants, like rhododendrons, need very good drainage and like to be planted high. If the underlying soil is very poor it might also make sense, but then it is usually better to just remove a bunch of soil over the whole yard and replace it with something suitable.

Trees that are planted high are forced to grow in dryer soil or they need to be watered more often. But since they are planted on a hill, the water tends to run off the hill instead of soaking into the soil. Even with watering they tend to be too dry.

Mulch should be added under the trees and shrubs. The problem with the hill is that rain washes the mulch onto the sidewalk where it needs to be swept up on a regular basis. Is there not enough sweeping to do inside the house?

The best way to make planting beds is to keep the soil at or below the original level. Beside the sidewalk it should be 3 inches below the level of the sidewalk so that mulch can be added. Being lower than the lawn grass also works better than being too high.

Lower beds keep mulch in place and need to be watered less often. Trees and shrubs will grow better.

Weed Barrier Mistake

Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Weed Barrier Mistake
Low Maintenance Landscape Design: Weed Barrier Mistake

Problem

  1. Weed barrier is showing
  2. Rock is placed too high and is the wrong type of rock

Solution

Weed barrier is a product that should be banned from being sold. It serves almost no purpose in the garden. The only place it might make sense is behind a row of armour stones, like the one pictured above. In that application it will prevent soil from running out of the large cracks between stones.

Weed barrier does not prevent weeds from growing. Sooner or later it sticks out above the ground and then it looks ugly. Removing it in an established bed is a huge job. For more on this subject see Weed Barrier Cloth.

Skip the weed barrier and use more mulch. A 3 inch layer of mulch keeps most weed seedlings from germinating.

Rocks are great additions to a garden – I am biased – I love rocks. The problem with this rock is that it is clearly a man-cut rock. Locally it is called an armour stone. It is real rock that has been cut out of the side of a hill. Because of this it does not look natural. If you are going to buy rocks, at least buy ones that look natural. In the final garden design you want them to look as if they were there before the garden was added.

A standard design principal is that a rock should be placed so that 1/3 of it is below grade. This will make it look grounded and more natural. That rule does not always need to be followed but it is a good rule to follow in most cases. The above rock sits right on the surface of the soil and this makes it look even more unnatural. It would look much better if it was set deeper in the soil and turned so it was not so upright. Give it a twist or turn so that one corner is lower than the other so that it does not look quite so squarish.

Low Maintenance Landscape Design is Easy

I hope these examples show you that it can be easy to decrease the maintenance work in the garden. None of the changes are difficult or expensive to make and yet each one will improve the overall look of the garden.

You can have both low maintenance and good design in your next landscape project.

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

16 thoughts on “Low Maintenance Landscape Design – 10 Common Mistakes to Avoid”

  1. I have learned so much from this article, and will be using four of these solutions this weekend. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply

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