From our teenage years (or even earlier), Americans are trained to care for our lawns. But if you have — or decide you want — a different landscape, what kind of maintenance chores can you expect? What do you need to learn? Here's a quick course in non-lawn maintenance.
Most Chores are Seasonal
If you choose a low-maintenance design, your landscape will likely need only seasonal maintenance rather than weekly chores. Seasonal maintenance may include any or all of the following:
- Semi-annual, annual, or every-few-year pruning of woody plants
- Cutting meadows or prairies every few weeks to every few years, or burning them every one to seven years
- Periodically clearing paths of weeds every few weeks to every year, depending on path material, edge material, and surrounding plants
- Weeding the planting beds or natural areas every few weeks to every few years, depending on your plant mix and climate
- Topping off mulch or gravel paths every year or every few years
- Watering and weeding new plantings while they're getting established, which could take a month to a couple of years
- Sweeping or raking fallen leaves off paths, patios, and lawns as needed, depending on your trees
You and Your Landscape Determine the Workload
Intensity and type of chores will depend partly on your climate, partly on your chosen (or given) landscape, and partly on your aesthetic goals.
In general, plants chosen to fit the site conditions and climate can survive without supplemental water, soil additives, or mulch. Your native plants are thus cheapest and easiest to maintain, though you can also find well-adapted non-natives that will survive in your site without extra care. Look to your neighbors' gardens, regional public gardens, and nearby natural areas for examples.
Every region and climate has its challenges. Certain landscaping styles will be better adapted to your climate (and thus lower maintenance) than other styles.
- In dry areas, you'll focus your efforts on protecting plants from drought, and it will be more work to make landscapes that are lushly green and packed with plants.
- In wet areas, many chores will arise due to unwanted and unplanned growth of your plants, and it will be more work to maintain areas of bare ground and open spaces.
- In cold climates, frost-sensitive plants are more work. This includes shallow-rooted plants that need mulching to protect them from frost heaves as well as plants that are damaged or stunted by low temperatures.
- In hot climates, plants that require periods of cold dormancy (such as apple trees) are more work, as are plants that suffer in high temperatures.
When it comes to maintenance, design matters.
Neat, clean edges take more work to maintain.
Clipped shrubs and other shaped plants take more work too, as do individual plants that are expected to stay uniform with each other in size and shape. Plants that are expected to stay separate from surrounding plants or to stop growing at a certain size will not.
Continuous bloom requires not only extra planning but probably more supplemental water and fertilizer, as flowering time is dictated largely by climatic factors such as precipitation and day-length.
Maintaining a bug-free landscape is more work and has ramifications (more on why we need bugs). Trying to keep selected species out of the garden when it provides food or a niche for them also increases the workload.
The common thread here is that fighting natural processes takes more effort, whereas accepting, incorporating, and even capitalizing on natural processes shifts the work off your shoulders.
A Low-maintenance Lawn
How you want your lawn to look will determine a lot of your workload in maintaining it. Lawns are the quintessential unnatural landscape because we are fighting natural processes on several fronts. By choosing to foster a lawn that's less unnatural, we can decrease our lawn chores.
- Let other plants (like clover) into your lawn. Left to nature's devices, the lawn would become more diverse, allowing broad-leaved plants to mingle with the grass. By maintaining a monoculture of one or a few grass species, we work against this process.
- Grasses grow to their genetically determined height and then form seedheads so they can ensure their species' survival. Cutting grass before it produces seedheads encourages it to spend more energy regrowing in an attempt to produce seedheads before the seasonal cues tell it to go dormant. Choose low-growing species, and take off no more than 1/3 of the blade length with each cutting.
- Grasses and other lawn plants are indefinite spreaders, for the most part. They'll keep expanding their reach across bare soil (or mulch), into nearby plantings, under shrubs and trees, between bricks, and so forth. Keeping a lawn within bounds and out of planting beds requires constant vigilance. Not only do its roots need to be kept from spreading into non-lawn areas underground, but also the grass at the edges needs to be kept clipped so that it doesn't arch over and plant seedlings outside the lawn.
- Grasses (like any other plant) lose root mass when we cut their tops off, and this root dieback decreases their drought tolerance and their ability to gather nutrients from the soil. Plants that are left taller develop larger root masses that can buffer them against more extreme climate conditions.
Design for Efficiency
You can design away some maintenance and tackle some chores more efficiently with planning.
Use Fallen Leaves as Mulch
Why bring in mulch and cart away leaves? Leaves are nature's own mulch, and they effectively protect root zones from drying, attract beneficial soil-building organisms, and decay into rich soil full of humus.
If you rake fallen leaves off your patios, paths, and lawn, don't haul them away. Instead, put them under trees and shrubs to regenerate the soil.
Stop raking under your trees. This is a lot of work and is counterproductive to your trees' health. Your trees naturally create optimal soil conditions by losing leaves, which form a humus layer to protect their root zones. You are interfering with this healthy cycle by raking away their fallen needles or leaves. Establish one or more Tree Islands to keep the leaves under your trees where they can be useful.
Redesign your landscape for lower maintenance by including Tree Islands and other planting beds in or around areas where you rake. Then you can rake the leaves directly off the patio or lawn into nearby planting areas.
Establish Zones of Maintenance
Designate certain areas of your landscape for low work, for regular watering, and so forth. Rather than scattering your needier plants through your yard, group them. Put them near the hose. This is a permaculture concept.
Grouping your plants into maintenance zones will help you to avoid overwatering.
Store Runoff in Your Plants and Soil
Direct your stormwater runoff toward thirsty plants. Use rain gardens, swales, french drains, dry streambeds, and other combinations of shaped earth and plantings to channel runoff and capture it in your soil. Healthy soil stores water for plants to access, letting them weather longer periods between rains.
As you build up your soil with humus (decaying leaves, stems, and roots of plants), and as your plants' increasing root mass creates more channels in the soil, your soil will be able to hold more water. Over time, rain gardens and similar methods of infiltrating runoff will be able to capture more water.
In dry climates, the simple design tactic of using raised paths and sunken beds directs runoff to plants, increasing their health and decreasing your workload. For those who want the lawn to stay lusher without additional watering, try designing a low lawn surrounded by berms (and shaded by a few of the less competetive trees in really sunny sites). This design will direct runoff onto the lawn and protect it from drying sun, keeping it moister and lusher without extra work for you.
Design Plant Communities
Many plants help other plants. Forest gardening explores the science of companion planting for crop production, particularly with perennial plants.
Use nitrogen fixers like clover and leguminous plants as natural fertilizers. Grow them with other plants, or cut them periodically and use the clippings to mulch other plants.
Use living mulches — plants tall or short — to cover bare ground, shade out weed seedlings, and keep root zones moist.
Use nectar plants to keep pollinators living in your yard, close at hand when your food plants flower.
Use taprooted plants to open up channels in compacted soil, breaking it up for finer-rooted plants and increasing its ability to store water and nutrients for all plants.
Though some of the above chores may be unfamiliar to you, remember that gardening is not like hanging wallpaper. You don't have to do it perfectly the first time. In garden time, events are seasonal and recurring. Scenes may take years to unfold. Change is the rule. You can guess what will happen, but it may not happen that way at all.
In other words, hang up a hammock and be prepared to enjoy the process!