Low maintenance landscapes are to some extent the holy grail of horticulture. Industrial and urban landscapes have evolved over recent years to be sleek by design and incorporate a range of elements that make them functional, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, but all these elements come at a price in the currency of maintenance.
Low Maintenance Hardscape Components
Low maintenance is an ideal that can be incorporated into any landscape design to some extent. The most common aspect of low maintenance being the choice of hardscape materials within the design. The investment in hardscape components is often substantial, but the payoff is in hours saved in maintaining the landscape. Some of these hardscape elements may not even be functional but can be appealing and provide the desirable characteristic of being low maintenance. Bearing in mind that all landscape components will at some point of their lifecycle require some form of maintenance.
The hardscape elements of paths and paving can be utilised to dramatic effect and provide an appropriate foil to the planting elements of a landscape. The beauty of hardscape surfaces is that unlike a turfed area, they require little maintenance and the clearly defined spaces that can be achieved with hardscape materials will be easier to care for. Rock gardens or the use of gravels and stone are another example of hardscape materials that can contribute to low landscaping. The rock gardens of Japan exude simplicity through minimalism, the concept has been around for hundreds of years, requiring little to no maintenance.
A relatively inexpensive way to replace turfed areas, pave a walkway, driveway, or other outdoor area, is through installing Decomposed granite (DG) which is made up of granite aggregates of 6mm or smaller, DG can be so fine that it resembles sand. DG provides a natural, rustic look and if installed with an added stabiliser is less susceptible to erosion. As a result, it has a longer life span and requires less maintenance than loose DG and makes an ideal alternative to lawn.
Using hardscape surfaces to complement other landscape elements brings a simplicity to the landscape which when coupled with a minimalist approach to plant selection, can dramatically reduce maintenance without compromising the design aesthetic.
Low Maintenance Planting
Without doubt, plants form the foundation of an appealing landscape composition, and all plants will require some maintenance to keep them in peak condition and appearance. Watering is the most obvious requirement to maintain plant growth, that can, without the installation of an effective irrigation system give rise to high maintenance costs. Understanding the water requirements of certain plants will ensure long-term aesthetic quality.
One way of keeping plant maintenance to a minimum is xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is about selecting plants that can thrive in the landscape with as little supplemental water as possible. This means choosing a variety of native plants, as well as other well-adapted species suitable for the site conditions. Cacti and succulents are an obvious choice for xeriscapes although many Australian native plants, particularly grasses and perennials such as Lomandra and Dianella varieties, make ideal plant selections for xeriscapes and require minimal additional maintenance.
One common misconception with Australian native plants in general, is that they are low maintenance. Whilst there are many that fall into the low maintenance category, there are just as many that do not. Some of the more popular species may have relatively low water demands but can produce excessive growth requiring regular pruning. Fast growing plant species such as Grevilleas, particularly the tropical brush varieties such as ‘Honey Gem’ ‘Flamingo’ ‘Superb’ and Moonlight, are spectacular flowering plants, but their vigour requires regular pruning to curtail their exuberant growth. Plants with similar characteristics such as this are not suitable for low maintenance options. Similarly, Westringia are hardy, drought tolerant and cope with a wide range of environments and soil conditions but to do well, will require regular pruning.
So, what makes a good low maintenance plant? Most suitable low maintenance plant species are evergreens that produce minimal amounts of litter. Leaves, flowers, and fruits are normal plant litter, but some species produce more litter than others and some litter more frequently than others. Evergreens will drop foliage over a longer period than deciduous trees and shrubs therefore the volume of leaf litter is more manageable, but maintenance is spread over a longer duration. Deciduous plants limit leaf shedding to one season, autumn, which may be a desirable attribute depending on maintenance scheduling. When it comes to flowering and fruiting, low maintenance landscapes tend to shy away from such plants. The litter produced can lead to significant maintenance requirements. Besides the requirement to keep hardscape surfaces free of plant litter, many flowering plants and ornamental fruiting varieties may require specialist pruning, adding to maintenance.
A minimalist approach to plant selection will ultimately result in low maintenance as management for mass plantings of a limited number of species limits maintenance to one area not individual plants. The use of this technique is used to great effect in many commercial landscapes. This technique is very effective in formal designs. Keep in mind that the more plant species added to the landscape, will result in an increase in maintenance.
Low maintenance established landscape plantings do not necessarily require regular fertilising and with careful plant selection fertilising may only be necessary to correct any micronutrient deficiencies that may occur. Pest and disease management on the other hand is another story. Low maintenance plant selection should focus on resistant species or cultivars to avoid the need for preventative or curative control applications. When selecting plants for low maintenance installations consideration should be given to the susceptibility and/or tolerance to major insect pests and diseases. Major problems are those that reduce plant quality and must be controlled on a regular basis.
The Grass is Always Greener
One of the highest maintenance aspects of any landscape are turfed areas, traditional turf lawns come at a significant cost requiring high levels of maintenance. Mowing, fertilising, irrigation, and pest disease management can relegate lawn to the back of the pack in the low maintenance stakes. There are however some turf varieties such as Zoysia cvs that require less maintenance than some of the more traditional varieties. For a truly low maintenance or no-mow lawn area, a synthetic turf may be appropriate. The decision to install synthetic turf over natural turf can be a challenge but when you weigh up the benefits of synthetics the decision can be easy. With its lifelike appearance, and minimal maintenance requirements, it’s no wonder synthetics are cropping up more in landscapes. Synthetics are also useful in areas where natural grasses just won’t grow such as in heavy shade and are ideal for roof top installations or on other hard surface areas. Pool surrounds are another area well suited to synthetic turf installations.
Synthetic Turf Benefits
• No mowing
• Lifelike appearance
• No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides
• No irrigation
• Year-round green colour
Synthetic turf has come a long way since it was first introduced in the 1960s and as technological advances continue to occur at a rapid rate, the range of synthetics is certainly going to improve further. They say the grass is always greener on the other side but with synthetic turf at least you don’t have to mow it.
Keep It Simple
All landscapes will require some maintenance however a well-designed landscape can be both attractive and low maintenance. When it comes to low maintenance landscapes, the application of sound horticultural principles in landscape design will reduce the amount of time required in the plant establishment phase and in the ongoing maintenance of the landscape. Simple layouts, simple materials and realistic expectations of landscape maintenance can all add up to low maintenance landscapes.