I spent a lot of time in my garden last weekend, mostly dealing with weeds. I’ve been working on the roughly 50’ x 50’ space for about two and a half years. It’s been a lot of fun having a test kitchen for plants and a large space to try out ideas, and I’ve learned more about plants, soil, pests, weeds and diseases since I began working in my garden than I ever could by reading books or blogs or by word of mouth. Characteristics I assigned to certain plants which I believed to be truths, as far as water needs, growth habit, etc., have been dispelled in my own garden. And I have a completely different set of criteria I use to define a plant as ‘low maintenance’ than I had before I grew them myself.
There are several ways my thinking about certain plants and how or when to use them have changed over the last few years, particularly how to define the term ‘low maintenance’. I’d say 9 out of 10 potential clients I meet say they’d like to have a low maintenance garden. I’ve learned to ask several questions when I hear that phrase, because low maintenance means different things to different people. What low maintenance is to me could be kind of a pain the neck to you.
Most people associate the lion’s share of maintenance needs in their garden with the plants. It’s true; there are certainly plants that require more attention than others. Maintenance also comes into play with different types of hardscape, irrigation systems, water features, etc., but as nearly all gardens have some amount of planting, let’s start there.
So the question is: what kind of garden owner are you?
No maintenance gardens. As in, I’m not hiring anyone, I’m not a gardener, and asking me to ‘occasionally cut things back’ is asking too much. I want an outdoor space that I never have to think about. If this is you, you probably shouldn’t have any plants. Sure, there are plants that look pretty good with little attention. You’ve seen them . . . along freeways.
Even really tough plants like Agapanthus start to look pretty bad if you don’t divide them every few years.
Flax doesn’t need a lot of attention, but at least cut out the dead fronds to avoid a messy looking plant. If that’s asking too much,my recommendation would be to consider moving into one of the many mid-century houses in the Bay Area, built in the 50’s or early 60’s. The previous owner hasn’t done much with the original landscape. It features concrete walkways and stairs, and a slope covered in Juniper.
No water, no maintenance. No curb appeal either, but everyone has to prioritize.
Low maintenance gardens. You need to cut back perennials about once a year, prune shrubs to shape them, and adjust your irrigation a few times a year. You probably need a drip irrigation system. Even plants requiring little water can look a lot better with some. Native plants don’t need summer water! you say. Sure, but a lot of them go dormant in the summer and that’s how they’ve adapted to the lack of rain. Dormant, meaning ‘I’m not growing, and I look kinda dead.” You can have a garden of mostly succulents and not have water, but you’ll probably have to do some work on your soil first if you’re in the East Bay. Clay soil= poor drainage= sad succulents. You can mix in some flowering plants, just cut off the spent blooms. Now and then, you invest in a cleanup. At least you’re not spending every weekend with a rake and some organic fungicide in your holster. You probably don’t have a lawn. (Or if you do, you have a responsible garden maintenance team coming by once a week to mow it. I recommend Lazar Landscape- call Mario at 510.385.2168).
High maintenance gardens. Lawns! Roses! Annuals galore! Deer spray every week!!! I’m exaggerating; I know low maintenance gardens that have these things, but in a different form. No-Mow Lawns, disease-resistant roses (or a tolerance for black spot), deer fencing. Instead of color-pack annuals, bulbs you can ignore all year until spring and then BAM!! Your entry path is the cutest on the block. Honestly though, when I think of high maintenance, I usually think of plants that grow so fast you have to cut them back once a month. My jasmine vine falls into this category. Often, people think deciduous trees are higher maintenance because they drop all their leaves. But that only happens once a year. The evergreen Pittosporum in my backyard is a great screening shrub, but it’s a maintenance nightmare. Flanked by my neighbor’s Eucalyptus, I’ve got a constant shower of debris in my garden beds. Luckily, those beds are filled with grasses and hardy perennials like Penstemon and Euphorbia that can deal with the little seed pods and sticky leaf debris dive bombing them on a daily basis. What else can be high maintenance? Structural trees like Japanese Maples – because if they aren’t pruned correctly, their shape will be ruined.
This often means hiring an expert. While you can cut a Butterfly Bush to the ground and it will grow back 6’ tall in a year, if you cut back your Romneya (aka Fried Egg Plant or Matilija Poppy) too early, you will kill it. I know. I just did it this year.
So, higher maintenance gardens don’t always mean more time, but they can mean more knowledge or experience, or money to pay someone ELSE with knowledge and experience. The important thing is to have a plan, think about your long-term goals, and truly know yourself. Understand how much time you will actually invest to keeping your garden looking its best. Cutting the occasional Hydrangea bloom for the mantle does not equate to ‘I love to garden’. And it’s OK if you just want a few blooming shrubs and one tomato plant. That’s why you hire people like us. And buy your tomatoes from the farmer’s market, when your one tomato plant gets aphids. It happens to the best of us.