We are here to bring you some good news: ignore your landscape, and it will grow better and look better and be better for the environment. This is especially true of the low maintenance and habitat friendly type of landscapes that we like to design.
Of course, you still need to tend your landscape to a certain extent – make sure that plants have the water appropriate to their state of establishment, patrol for weeds a few times a year, and make sure there is a nice layer of mulch over sensitive plant roots. More detail on that below. Other than that though, less is really more when it comes to fostering plant health and biodiversity in your yard.
Why it Matters
Over-maintaining is a very common cause of sad looking planting design. It is especially common with commercial landscapes, but can also happen in people’s yards, especially when they hire ‘mow and blow’ type outfits who very sincerely believe that they need to be doing something to be doing their job.
Instead, the key to achieving low maintenance and ecological maintenance is to use a light hand on the landscape, and only intervene when it is really beneficial that you do so. Rather than controlling the landscape you are gently coaxing it in a certain direction. Think of it as ‘light’ maintenance, or as ‘curating’.
- Don’t shear plants, cut them into balls, or otherwise over-prune. If it’s not a hedge, don’t treat it like one. If a plant is getting too big for its space, you can prune it “up” so it develops more like tree (think Japanese maple). If its a shrub with multiple stems or canes coming from the ground, remove the largest and oldest ones by cutting them all the way back to the ground, so that the shrub as a whole is kept younger and smaller.
- Don’t blow or rake the ground bare. By allowing a natural accumulation of leaves and dead plant matter in shrub beds, you provide opportunity for a rich diversity of life forms to exist and you also shorten your chore list. For example, beneficial insects lay their eggs in dead plant stems, and beetles and worms that break down leaves also provide food for foraging songbirds. As the plant matter decomposes it also helps your plants by returning nutrients to the soil, protecting plant roots from extremes of hot, cold, and drought, soaks up rainwater and so reduces stormwater runoff, and contributes to the build-up of carbon in the soil.
- Don’t fertilize unless it’s a special plant. Vegetables need fertilizer, and blueberries, but very little else does. Fertilizer makes plants grow bigger and faster, which in turn makes them use more water, be more susceptible to drought stress and frost, and die younger. Also, fertilizer encourages weeds. Native plants, fruit trees, and shrubs and perennials from other parts of the world, grow just great with the nutrients they can get from native soil and mulch.
- Don’t install weed barrier. Weed barrier (by which we mean various types of woven, solid, or perforated synthetic sheets) sounds like a great idea, but does more harm than good. Almost all weeds come from seeds that land on top of the soil, so a barrier below your mulch won’t do much to prevent them. Instead, weed barrier can make it harder for moisture to reach the soil and plant roots, can prevent plants that spread by rooting stems from establishing successfully, and will definitely turn into a headache for whoever is trying to remove it decades later, when it will still be in the soil.
- Let grasses and flower stalks stay through the winter. Standing seed heads are good food for birds, beneficial insects overwinter on flower stalks, and standing leaves add color and texture to the winter garden. Cut dead material back in the spring, right before new growth starts.
- Let plants grow in their natural form. Domestic fruit bearing plants are a special case, but usually the less pruning the better. If shrubs are getting too big, take branches all the way back to the base to maintain natural form. Do not trim like a hedge.
- Leave it alone. As much as possible, let the system take its own course. Let dead plant material accumulate on the ground. Let plants that want to re-seed naturalize. Leave dead flower and grass stalks on the plant for birds to eat.
The three things that you absolutely do need to get right and deserve a little more discussion are water, mulch, and weeding.
Water: Irrigate for establishment. Depending on the plant, this is typically 2-3 summers. After a few years you can wean plants from water. However, most will always look lusher with some help during the hottest summer weeks. A good layer of mulch, especially arborist wood chips, helps minimize the need for water.
Some varieties of plants are adapted to getting water all summer, and will never survive on no irrigation. Learn which ones these are – if you love them and they make you happy or feed you food, then keep them watered. If you don’t love them, consider replacing them with a more drought tolerant alternative.
Mulch: A healthy layer of mulch will suppress weeds, conserve soil moisture, protect plant roots from extremes of heat and cold, decrease soil compaction, and provide a source of organic matter for soil organisms. Over time, the mulch will break down and be incorporated into the soil or evaporate as carbon dioxide. Re-apply a 1” top-dressing of mulch as needed, usually about once a year.
Recommended mulch: The best is arborist’s woodchips, available at chipdrop.com
If you can’t get this, or prefer a more manicured look, use 2” of aged hemlock, available at most landscape supply yards
Weeding: Unless you live in the wilderness, you will need to contend with advantageous plants that will overwhelm the other plants in your yard if you give them a chance. New plantings especially are susceptible to being overwhelmed by weeds if they are completely ignored. Mulch will help you a lot, and is key to helping keep the weed pressure down. Weed several times a year, especially in spring and early summer before seeds set. As plant canopies fill in, need to weed will decrease.
That’s it! For the most part plants will be happy to take their own course, and if there isn’t a problem, don’t meddle.