Low Maintenance Landscape Design Principles
In a Hurry?
Don't have time to read this whole article? If I were forced to pick one ideal lowest maintenance yard (besides renting)...
The Ultimate Low-Maintenance Yard. The easiest scenario I envision is a small, all-grass lawn that extends to hard walkways or the house itself. No water features, plants, groundcover, gravel, or mulch. Let the rest of the property outside the grass grow back to the wild (for privacy and preservation of a healthy ecosystem). Images/photos of this are below under "Lawn Overview Strategy".
Own an electric ride-on mower that can cut the entire lawn with one charge. The only physical effort required would be to mow weekly, weed wack around the house bi-weekly, and sharpen mower blades and trim perimeter growth with hedge clippers every few months. (And when self-driving electric mower technology improves you won't even have to mow yourself)
The only additional purchases you would need to make are new mower battery and mower blades every several years.
Most of us are not yard warriors. There are other things in life we'd rather be doing than mowing, watering, weeding, or spreading fertilizers and chemicals.
The goal of most homeowners is to the have the nicest home possible with as little maintenance as possible. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are some design principles that have general appeal. I'll go through these principles with examples. Even if you don't like my particular choices or layout, you will see the principles in action and likely find something you can use.
My definition of low maintenance is pretty straight forward. It's not just fewer hours spent on physical tasks such as mowing, weeding, or pruning. Low maintenance is also reducing how much yard equipment you own and maintain, yard related items on your grocery list, annoying to-do lists, or pulling out and replacing something every so many years. It's the overall amount of time and mental energy spent tending to the property.
One other thing before I start. It will be obvious to most, but I'll say it anyway. There is no such thing as a zero-maintenance yard. My ideas can save you many hours of maintenance, but the only way you'll have zero yard work is to rent a house or apartment where HOAs or landlords take care of all of your landscaping. If you don't want to rent, there are many eager professionals you can hire to take care of yard work. But even if you hire out, using these principles will not only save you money on landscaping, it will also minimize the amount of time people are circling your house with loud equipment.
One last thing before we dive in. Before you commit to any design idea or material, check your local regulations to see if what you are attempting is even allowed. I know it's boring, but it can take only one neighbor complaint or forgotten safety violation to derail an entire project.
Start with the most local, your home owner's association (if you have one). Type into a search engine "[your HOA] landscaping code" and search through the official website looking for rules applicable to your project. Also spread the search to township, county, or city. If unsure where to turn, pick up the phone and ask someone in your township for a web address. If rules in multiple jurisdictions disagree, I would follow the stricter set.
Many rural areas are very lax with what you can do with your property, but many HOAs or municipalities are so strict that much of your "decision-making" is done for you. For example, Sedona, Az. has probably the most beaufiful scenery I've ever seen, and their land development code reflects their desire to keep it that way. Everything is regulated: the minimum size of your front-side-and-backyard, awning overhang length, the color and texture of your walls, fence type and height, concrete color, whether or not you may remove a tree, number-height-and-types of shrubs and trees, irrigation type, driveway screening (using landscaping to hide parking areas from neighbors and street views), pruning shapes, outdoor lighting, permit requirements, and more.
Don't take this as ranting or singling out. This is not atypical of beaufiful cities. One of the reasons cities can continue to look so nice is because they're all on the same page stylisticly. My point is to potentially save you from headaches later and to raise awareness that your ability to convert your property may be more limited than you hoped.
Climate is another location effect on landscaping choices. Road salt and freeze-thaw cycles in cold-winter climates can be an issue with driveways and walkways. In the American Southwest water conservation is a big issue. Your climate determines what kind of vegetation will thrive, if any. Where you live will also determine the access to your water, as well as its quality. Cities typically provide public water and you are charged by the amount of water you use. In rural areas with no access to city water, private wells are drilled deep into the ground and you pump it up into your house. Well water is not necessarily exempt from local watering restrictions, either, another reason to check your municipality.
Summary of Article
My Design Principles. There are no absolute, right or wrong design principles. Beauty varies by individual so use or discard these as you like. For example I get no value out of the "golden ratio". I find it confusing and subjective. I focus on obviously effective concepts that a child can understand.
- Lot Size
- Sense of Depth
- Exterior Lighting
Low Maintenance Materials. My thoughts on each of the following landscape choices.
- Lawn Overview Strategy
- Maintaining Grass-Only
- Maintaining Plant Groundcover-Only
- Boulders, Gravel, Mulch
- Irrigation Systems
- Landscape Walls
- Not Recommended
Everyone's goals and priorities with their landscaping will be different. In addition to low maintenance, you can prioritize cost, water conservation, privacy, openness, security, a mood such as excitement or relaxation, luxury, lived-in and down-to earth, kid-friendly, pet-friendly, a gardening Eden, etc.
The main function I have for a yard is a private place to spend time outside on nice days to enjoy the view. The other requirements I have is that it must be low maintenance and it must look calming and elegant.
If you're stuck, one way to simplify your decision making is to ask yourself: Where on your property do you actually want to spend your leisure time? Focus your landscaping efforts accordingly. For example, let's say you eat a quick breakfast in the morning at your kitchen counter. You come home from work and your family eats dinner in the dining room. After dinner, you spend the majority of the evening either in the living room or on the backyard patio. If your goal is to have a nice relaxing view, it would make sense to place your nicest landscaping right in your backyard, next to the patio and in window view of the living room.
Likewise, it might be counter-productive to have the fun family yard right outside your home office window. If you want work to get done, you don't want to be distracted or feel left out watching others play. But maybe you're home alone with the kids and that's the best way to keep an eye on them while getting work done. Or maybe you only plan on living there temporarily. In that case, design a traditional lawn with mass appeal so that it's easier to sell. You get my point. Think along these lines.
Most homes have an architectural style such as colonial, cape cod, Victorian, modern, etc. Landscaping can enhance that style. For example, a Victorian home (English-style homes built in 1837–1901 during the reign of Queen Victoria) mixes well with trellises, flower gardens, ornate cast iron patio furniture, and stone or brick walkways. Many Victorian homes also have steep pitch vertical roofs so a nice counter-balance would be trees with rounded canopys.
I like Modern/Art Deco and prefer dry climates, so most of my choices will be compatible with that. Instead of stone, I'd use smooth concrete and bright walls. Palm trees enhance the elegance, as would a gate or railings with geometric designs. I'd also go with curved modern patio furniture. If I had shrubs, they'd be trimmed into rectangular or circular shapes, in keeping with Art Deco's sleek lines. And while I do prefer a small house, I do not want large open-canopy trees that dwarf the house, as Art Deco buildings are generally known for their high structures.
It is definitely okay to have a theme mixed into your style such as tropical, fun, cowboy, national, urban, athletic. If you're not as concerned about resale value you can get more specific with your theme such as horse racing, abstract art, jazz music. Themes can be created outdoors with unique furniture, patterned walkways, stand-alone sculptures, wall sculptures, wall paint, lighting fixtures, vegetation, mailbox, address plaque, and house trim.
The size of your property can impact things such as safety, privacy, maintenance, and budget. If budget and space are of little concern, you have a huge opportunity to create your paradise. Just remember that the more of the property you convert to landscaping, the more work has to be done.
And do not automatically associate very large estates with beauty. There are many large unattractive properties. They have lack of purposeful planning, out-of-place accessories, are not being maintained, are too sparse, or lacking some of the design principles mentioned below.
Sound Privacy. I personally like large lots for one reason, privacy. I don't like hearing my neighbors constantly, particularly their lawn equipment. Large lots can help with sound pollution, but trees do not actually provide as much buffer as you might think. Sounds waves travel easily between leaves. It would take a plot of trees roughly 100 feet wide to block the same amount of noise as a concrete sound wall. Rock, brick, or concrete walls block sound well, provided they are solid (no spacing). The object giving off the sound should not be within direct sight of you. The taller and thicker the wall, the better. Earth berms also work well if you can slope them high enough. Your house itself provides a useful sound barrier too.
People think planting just one or two trees helps a lot with sound, but that's actually more psychological than substantive. That's more a case of "out of sight, out of mind". Another trick people use is to drown out unpleasant noises with other sounds. Water fountains installed near you produce the relaxing sound of trickling water (but they need cleaning). If these solutions still don't satisfy you, look into Mass Loaded Vinyl or other similar sound barrier sheets that you can have installed into your fencing.
Perfectly symmetrical landscaping can look beautiful and elegant. All this means is that one side of an imaginary line mirrors the other. This can be achieved with trees lining roads, diverging pathways, pillars, awnings, driveway turnaround, structures, etc.
If symmetry is undoable or not your style, no problem. Just make sure there is a sense of overall balance on your property. Imagine each item on your property is placed on a scale with an imaginary line running down the center. You want that scale to be balanced. This is called asymmetrical balance.
The balanced items can be anything: your house, a shed or other structure, trees, shrubs, boulders, and walls. Notice that as you walk along the property your imaginary line moves with you. So again, nothing is exact here. Focus on the perspectives that are the most important to you, such as view from the street or from your favorite room in the house looking out.
I would also include with balance a center of interest. Center of interest is simply the first thing your eye is drawn to when you look at something. Our eyes prefer to center quickly on one definitive area. From there, they scan around gently to different elements, a secondary center of interest, tertiary COI, etc. Our mind does not like to be bombarded with too many visual elements screaming for our attention all at once. It makes us uncomfortable. The same is true when looking at artwork.
Most aim to have the front door of the house be the center of interest, as if to say "Welcome". That's a pretty good rule of thumb. There's a good chance whoever designed your home did so with this in mind. Contrasting colors are a great way to enhance the center of interest, while analogous colors are low key.
Another way to concentrate focus is by having multiple lines pointed in its direction, either with walkways, fences, plant rows, and even plant height. Contrasting lines and shapes works as well (a circle amongst rectangles will stand out and vice versa).
Don't get too hung up on center of interest either. Experts often don't agree on what the COI even is for the same subject. We all see the world differently. It is a good tool to keep in mind for when something just doesn't look right and you can't explain why.
Sense of Depth
Depth ties in nicely with center of interest. Even if we don't realize it, we intuitively love a great sense of depth. Think of epic movie locations like Rivendell from Lord of the Rings or Naboo from Star Wars. A framed foreground opens up to see miles of open scenery. Having an expansive view helps tremendously, but depth can be achieved even with smaller properties.
Most of depth perception is about framing and overlapping. Framing means dividing your view into sections. You can do this with objects like pillars, plants, furniture, fencing, walls, etc. Allow the sections to overlap each other without concealing the best views. Different lighting of the sections also helps.
These principles work on vertical planes as well. Steps going up or down change height, adding visual interest.
The main functions of outdoor lighting is to increase safety and to show off your home and landscape.
Many of us have nothing more than typical light fixtures attached to the house above entryways. So if minimizing all maintenance and accessories is your highest priority, you can probably skip a separate outdoor lighting setup altogether. (For another great reason to skip, read "light pollution" below)
With that said, outdoor lighting can make your home and landscape look really elegant. I'm not even interested in impressing the neighbors. I just like the look of lighted walls, gardens, and trees.
If you do choose to have a landscape lighting system, the maintenance involved will be the occasional light bulb changes, fixture repositioning/cleaning, re-burying exposed cables, and the little bit extra energy costs.
For the "stuff" you have to own, there are many different lighting setups, so it's hard to generalize. But you'll have electrical cord run from your house exterior, to light, to light, to light... This waterproof cord is hidden underground, buried a few inches deep. The cord can also be snaked underneath hard walkways. If you plan to use several lights for hours at a time, the cord that runs to the house will probably do so through a transformer box, which is typically attached to the house. This box steps down the voltage from 120 volts to 12 volts, which is safer and uses less energy (120 V is typical home voltage in U.S. and Canada). The size of the transformer will depend on the number and type of lights you use. The setup just described is called "low voltage lighting". Lastly you need the light fixtures themselves, which can be staked into the ground, installed into hard surfaces, hung high up in trees, or buried flush into the ground. They can be installed almost anywhere, even underwater.
Hiring a landscape lighting professional is a good idea. They will help you position the lights and choose the right fixtures and bulbs. They will take care of the technical details and install everything. If you are technically minded and have a good eye for design, you can do everything yourself. I can't walk you through a custom design, but here are some general lighting principles.
- Use lighting to highlight the most beautiful or unique aspects of your landscape. Sculptures, trees, gardens, and water features. Moving water can look especially beautiful when lit at night (though water features aren't low maintenance).
- Less is more. Don't light up the entire yard. Nothing will stand out and it unnecessarily adds to light pollution.
- You want to see the effect of light, not the light source. Hide fixtures whenever possible.
- Warm yellow light is typically better than cold blue light. That lighting "feel" is measured on a Kelvin scale. LEDs can achieve warm light with less energy usage. 2700K-3000K is best. The Kelvin should be written on the packaging.
Do-It-Yourself tips for landscape lighting
- If you don't know what will look good, get a bright flashlight with adjustable beam and experiment with different lighting positions. If this fails to inspire you, at least your neighbors will get a chuckle.
- Avoid solar lights. They need to be placed in the sun for the panel to charge. Even then, they usually don't produce enough light. If you decide to try solar, check first how many lumens they put out. The little solar lights you see in retail stores might only put out about 10 lumens. For comparison, 220-270 Lumens is a good bright light for uplighting. Don't let "Lumens" scare you. It is a measurement of how much light is put out. So two lights could be the same color (measured in Kelvin), but one can put out much more light (measured in Lumens).
- Use LED lights. They are generally best because they use less energy and have a longer life. LEDs last about 35,000-50,000 hours, verses CFL (8,000-20,000 hours) or incandescent (750-2000 hours). Use bulbs between 2700K-3000K which is a warm yellowish color.
- If using uplighting, bounce the light off trees and foliage so that it also brightens surrounding areas like patio or walkways. Uplighting looks great against textured walls and it's easy to hide these light fixtures.
- You do not have to create a perfectly-lined runway-light effect on walkways. It's okay to stagger the fixtures and spread it out.
- You can experiment with different colored light with lens filters. A blue filtered downlight hanging overhead can imitate the mood of a moonlit sky. Green light adds saturation to your foliage and evergreen trees. You can even change colors temporarily for celebrations.
- Shadow lighting looks great as well. Cast branch shadows up onto walls or down onto walkways.
Here is a very good Youtube video on different types of landscape lights as well as lighting principles.
For convenience and safety, you can program your lights with timers. They can turn on and off on a schedule. Or sensors can dim or brighten your lights automatically depending on how much light there is. You can even control them with a phone app, whether you are home or away. You can use motion sensors as well, which turn on when people (or animals) walk by. These are good for driveways and walkways. There is so much you can do with lighting. Just keep in mind that the more technical gadgets you buy, the more that can go wrong and will eventually need replaced.
Light Pollution. One last, but important thing on lighting. I had never really thought about light pollution until researching this article. I had assumed that it was a small annoyance for star gazers and all around visually unappealing. Then I came across these photos and realized: Holy cow, why aren't we all star gazers? I don't think I've ever seen a sky like this in my life, yet apparently it should be the norm.
I never looked into light pollution because I didn't realize what we were missing. I also didn't realize that beaming light uselessly outward contributes to glare, making it harder to see at night, thus more dangerous.
To combat light pollution, the author recommends not installing landscape lighting at all. At the very least he suggests doing two things in particular.
- Shield all lights so that the light's source cannot be seen from it's horizontal plane. This means use no uplighting.
- Set your timers to turn off at 10 or 11 PM, when most people are sleeping anyway.
Click through the photo source for an in-depth read. It has definitely changed the way I think. I'll likely even forgo landscape lighting entirely.
Lawn Overview Strategy
Why vegetation at all?
A natural question for those who dislike lawncare is: Why not just pour concrete over the entire yard? Maybe with carve-outs for trees so that is looks nicer. Wouldn't this be less upkeep than lawns and groundcover? The problem with this is that concrete is an impervious surface, which is a fancy way of saying that it does not allow water to seep through it when it rains.
Imagine that we convert a gigantic section of land to concrete. During a heavy rain, all of that water hits the concrete and rolls downhill immediately. In no time, all that water would rush to the lowest areas, causing a flood. Normally much of that rain absorbs right into the ground. The vegetation and dirt act like a giant sponge. Both ways, the water still goes downhill, but the vegetation and dirt slows down the water considerably, enough to prevent flooding.
While your whole-concrete lot won't make a big difference on that large a scale, it would make a big difference if everybody did the same thing. That's one of the reasons you see minimum vegetation requirements for your lawn in many localities. There's also an entire underground ecosystem that is disrupted, cut off from air and water.
Okay, then why can't you just leave it as dirt? Because if something doesn't grow back, there won't be any roots to keep the soil in place, and the dirt will erode away by rain or wind (yes, your yard can actually blow away, which seems crazy to me). So we need to hold the soil down with something.
My lowest maintenance solution
Eliminate all foundation planting. Choose all-grass or all-groundcover yard.
Most people prefer a combination of grass lawn and plant ground cover. The grass covers most of the property and the plants typically surround the house itself. The latter has been coined "foundation planting". From a design perspective, I agree that vegetation and small trees near the house typically looks better than none at all. Foundation planting is said to soften the hard edges of the house, to blend it into its surroundings. Foundation planting can also help heat or cool a house in inclement weather.
From a maintenance perspective, though, I really dislike foundation planting. I could argue it keeps moisture near the house, which invites pests and mold. Or that it gets in the way when it's time to paint or do other maintenance. My main argument though is that having both a grass lawn and foundation planting forces you to own more lawn equipment and do more tasks. It's much simpler to just go all-in on one or the other.
How would this work? If I am located in an area where grass lawns are predominant, then I have a grass lawn as well. Have the grass go all the way up to the house or walkways. But the walkway itself butts right up against the house. No mulch, gravel, plants, or trees in between. If I live in a very dry climate where there are few lawns, I don't plant any turf grass. Just groundcover (which could include plants, boulders, gravel, mulch, etc.).
The advantage of groundcover-only is that you do not need to own a lawn mower. Thus, no mowing, sharpening blades, oil changes, buying gasoline, or other mower maintenance. The advantage of grass-only is that you won't have to weed, prune, spread mulch/gravel, or possibly water anything.
Stylistically, this isn't completely satisfying with all homes, but there's many that can pull it off.
Neither choice necessarily prevents you from growing one or two stand-alone trees in the yard, as mowing around them is easy. Just trim low branches occasionally and pick up fallen sticks.
Choosing any vegetation is location-specific, including grass. If you have yet to choose grass seed, this region-specific advice might be useful to you, but I would just ask any knowledgeable landscaper in your area what's the easiest to maintain.
Okay, so this is the part that will get me into the most trouble with the lawn crowd. I ignore most grass maintenance advice I read online because I find it unnecessary. Over the years I've broken almost all of the rules over various lawns and they looked fine. I live in western Pennsylvania where we get lots of rain. I have never watered, aerated, dethatched, overseeded, sprayed, or fertilized a lawn. All I do is mow. I mow as little as possible, on average once a week. Some neighbors are on their tractors literally every two or three days to keep it perfectly manicured. No thanks.
Here's our lawn now. We've been here about four years. It won't win awards, but it's fine.
Oh, one other thing about grass. As you might imagine I was immediately drawn to something called "no mow" grasses. Here's an example of a low, no mow dichonra that may work for you. But most of them are really long. Too shaggy and unkempt for my taste. When you walk on them, they don't bounce-back like regular turfgrass. Also, even though they're labeled "no mow" some do still require occasional cutting.
If I had a very small lawn I'd probably go the simplest route possible and get one of those little push reel mowers with no engine or batteries. Sharpening the blades takes a little elbow grease and gooey sharpening compound.
The easiest way to cut of course is with power mowers, either push or ride-on. Get an electric mower if you can find one that's practical for your situation. Electric mowers require fewer moving parts and maintenance than mowers with engines. Electric is also quieter, which I love. Right now, electric mowers are more expensive and can typically run for just an hour or two at a time between charges. But as the technology improves and the prices go down, we'll see more and more residential mowers. The other downside to electric is eventually you will have to replace their batteries, as they hold less charge over the years. Overall maintenance is still much easier though.
Self-driving lawnmowers. Yes, there are real self-driving lawnmowers. They're not yet as great as what you're probably imagining though. At least not yet. Right now, they're more like criss-crossing Roombas that occasionally get stuck in your yard. They do cut the lawn though and dock themselves for re-charging. I cannot wait for the technology to improve and take over.
Weed whacking (a.k.a. weed eating). Because of their wheels, mowers typically can't reach where the grass grows along a wall. If you don't have much grass to wack and prefer simplicity, get small clippers (they look like scissors) or larger hedge clippers and cut them by hand. If you don't want to crawl around your house on the ground, though, you'll probably need a weed wacker. I'd get an electric one with rechargeable battery but gas powered works too. For most people I would not recommend getting an electric weed wacker that needs a cord plugged into an electric outlet. It's annoying having to pull the extension cord around the house.
Maintaining Plant Groundcover-Only
Groundcover is typically defined as low-height plants that spread outward as they grow.
If you can get away with only planting an attractive groundcover plant in your entire front and back yard, you may technically have the easiest possible yard to maintain. No mowing, weeding, watering, or mulching. Once established, your only job may be to keep it trimmed back from adjacent properties and walkways. My biggest problem with this is that leaves, sticks, and debris will find their way into the yard. And without an occasional mow or leaf blowing, it may look unkempt and become home to who-knows-what. It may also draw the ire of your neighbors.
If it's the route you want to take, do research before you commit, as it can be hard to get rid of once rooted. Choose native plants and avoid invasives. Invasives are species of plants that spread easily but are harmful to local plants or animals. Pick groundcover that will spread over your whole lawn and that will outcompete weeds. Make sure it won't grow too high, will not draw unwanted animals, and will grow under your light conditions (sun, partial sun, shade).
If I were going to attempt this, I'd even drive around and look for properties that have a groundcover I like. I'd knock on the door and say I'm looking for a grass alternative lawn and that theirs looks attractive. A lot of people are really friendly and would be happy to answer as many questions as you have. Get a feel for how much work is actually required for the groundcover in your area.
There's plenty of videos online showing how to plant groundcover. One tip I'd add is that if you're covering large areas, instead of digging each hole with a shovel, use (Amazon affiliate link). It's well-made and makes transplanting much quicker. Proplugger
Boulders, Gravel, Mulch
Boulders. Large boulders are one of my favorite landscape bases because they stand out visually and there's nothing to maintain. You can add wonderful depth to a property with boulders, especially if you excavate the land to different elevations. You can also integrate steps and meandering pathways.
We stayed at West Court Buttes hotel in Tempe, Az. (now Marriott) when I was a kid and I remember it vividly. I didn't articulate why it was so great at the time, but I realize now it was because of the magnificent layering of boulders and landscaping throughout the entire hotel, particularly the pool area. There were curving pathways revealing hidden cubbys and waterfalls. It felt luxurious, yet totally natural, as if carved out of the mountain (I'm sure much of it was).
Unfortunately excavating land and filling it with boulders will become too expensive for most people. It may be affordable to use these principles on a smaller scale however. In dry climates, it's common to have sparse native gardens, the majority of which is covered with gravel. Add a few raised dirt mounds with a cluster of boulders.
For wet climates, I like the same idea, but instead of gravel, let groundcover plants surround and overtake the boulders. What I would not let get moldy or overgrown though, would be the steps and walkways in between. This will be inviting to walk through and it will look more strategic than lazy. I would even power wash those walkways from time to time for a beautiful contrast.
So where do you even buy boulders and how much are they? To avoid outrageous shipping costs you need to find a local stone quarry or supplier. Many work with local businesses and contractors and won't have websites. So you might have to go old school, calling around to find someone who sells them in your area.
Boulders are sold by the ton because they are very heavy. Prices can be $100-$300 per ton plus delivery and placement cost. Sandstone weighs approx. 150 lbs/cubic foot. Granite and limestone approx. 175 lbs/cubic foot. A 3 cubic foot sandstone boulder weighs approx. 4050 pounds or two tons. That's $200-$600 for one large boulder (rock weight can be visually deceptive too).
Boulders are a big deal to install. Do not try to transport these on your own. A dump truck needs a place to drop the boulders onto your property that won't damage your driveway and walkways and a tractor may be used to move them into place.
Fake boulders. Because of the weight and cost involved with real boulders, many people literally make their own out of concrete. They build a form out of old pieces of concrete, wooden 2" x 4"s, or other materials. Then they either lay on a shaped wire mesh, or slop the concrete mix right on top of the frame. To make it look just like weathered rock, they carve and brush textures to it as it dries. The concrete is usually a mixture of sand, cement, water, and colored dyes. With practice, they look indistinguishable from the real thing. Just go to Youtube and type in "how to make fake boulders" for detailed instructions.
The main problem with fake boulders is obviously structural. They are more susceptible to cracking or breaking when water freezes inside cracks or if too much weight is placed on them. Besides cost, the best benefit to fake boulders (also called "faux boulders") is that you can custom shape it for any project you want like a pond or waterfall. For this reason you also do not have to bury them as deep into the ground like real rock. It's also much easier to move because the inside is hollow and weighs less.
Here's some final tips for boulders. Don't use many different sizes or colors of rocks or it will look odd and unnatural. Match the rocks that are native to the area. Have the grain of the rocks line up with each other as you place them. Bury the rocks partly into the ground instead of just dropping them. Take photos of actual rocky hills in your area to see how they're natural positioned. Position rocks so water rain-off goes into plants. These things combined make it look much better than a flat piece of land with several boulders just stacked up.
Gravel. (I do not recommend using gravel for driveways- see "Not Recommended" section below) A filler in many gardens is gravel, which comes in different sizes, textures, and colors. Gravel is durable and does not decompose. Unfortunately, gravel has some upkeep. It tends to sink into the soil over time. So unless you pour it on top of landscaping fabric, every several years you may need to add more gravel to cover bare spots (and for the health of your soil and plants, I don't recommend using landscaping fabric).
Gravel collects leaves, dirt, twigs, and other debris that blows around. A leaf blower will work, but if the debris is finely packed, you'll need a combination raking/blowing. To make it look like the day it was poured, some owners go so far as to sift all the dirt and debris out of their gravel with a shovel and wire mesh. Some even wash the gravel before putting it back. They do this every 10 years or so. I would never do this. But I also wouldn't expect a pristine gravel bed.
The worst part of gravel is that you will still have to deal with weeds. Even if the gravel was poured over landscape fabric or other nonporous fabric, they still eventually poke through. And weed seeds and dirt still blow in on top of your gravel and grow from there. Pulling weeds from gravel is a pain, particularly in large swaths (see "Weeds" section for ideas).
Mulch. Mulch has many upsides. It's attractive. It's great for plants because it breaks down naturally and adds nutrients to the soil. It keeps in moisture nicely and if applied yearly, it's probably the best natural way to prevent weeds. The biggest downside to mulch is that you have to add more annually or bi-annually.
But if you've read my strategy above, you've probably gathered that my only use for mulch would be if I chose the all-groundcover lawn option. If so, I would spread mulch only once or twice to keep the weeds down until the groundcover fully spreads. After that, I'd just let it break down and never deal with it again.
Here's a few tips for spreading mulch. Before putting it down, thoroughly turn all soil with a metal rake or garden weasel. This allows more air and water into the soil. To prevent initial weeds, put down a couple of layers of cardboard and wet it down so it doesn't fly away in the wind. The cardboard is to keep weeds from getting any light, so overlap the edges several inches, leaving no open spaces. Cardboard is best because it breaks down harmlessly over time. On top of the cardboard, put down 2 or 3 inches of compost, then the mulch. Have 3 inches or less of total mulch down at any given time, but not up against trees. Mulch against tree trunks exposes the tree to diseases or gnawing rodents living within the mulch. Your ground cover plants will spread out nicely into this mixture while keeping most of the initial weeds down.
When you add the plants, pull some mulch away and cut slits into the cardboard. Plant them into the soil underneath, taking care not to bury it in mulch when pushing the mulch back.
First, what are weeds? Weeds are just unwanted plants, often for aesthetic reasons but also because they compete with desirable plants for nutrients, sunlight and water. They also can interfere with harvests, serving as hosts to diseases and harmful insects. Weeds tend to have abundant seed production, and when the seeds get buried, they survive a long time, patiently waiting for the right conditions to grow.
People do anything to destroy weeds including propane torch, hot weed steamer, drill attachments, dumping boiling water, road salt, vinegar water, and of course chemicals. None of these are permanent. Weeds always grow back, often within days. The best way to fight weeds is to prevent them from growing in the first place.
If you follow my grass-only or groundcover-only yard strategies above, weeding should already be minimized. Mulch is also a good natural weed preventative, but only if you're willing to add more every year or two. See "Mulch" section above.
If you already have weeds though, here are the easier ways to kill them that I have found.
Weed killing robots. Okay, this is more for gardening, but it was too cool to leave out. There are several interesting machines in use, but one curious design for everyday residential use is the "Tertill". The Tertill bounces around your garden looking only for plant shoots less than one inch tall. When it drives over one, it activates a rotary weed wacker, killing it, then moving on. This eliminates the weeds before they become a nuisance. I love the Tertill design because it's solar powered. So you don't have to charge it. And it adjusts its activity level based on how much sun there is. It's new and expensive right now, but if it performs well, I'm sure the price will come down.
(Amazon affiliate link) a.k.a. oscillating hoe. I own a stirrup hoe and I love it. It basically scalps the ground, sliding right underneath all of the weeds. I pull the hoe over the entire weeded area, then just use a garden rake to gather all of the dead weeds. What would normally take two hours to weed by hand is now done in about 20 minutes. It works great on damp soil, but I've never used it on gravel or other hardscape. This would be used for the first year or two, until the ground cover takes over. Stirrup hoe
Vinegar solution. People mix together this solution or something like it into a spray bottle. It kills most weeds fairly quickly but it doesn't get into the roots so you may have to apply it a few times. I'd try this for spots the stirrup hoe can't reach like in between driveway cracks.
- 1 gallon white vinegar
- 1 cup salt
- 1 tablespoon liquid dish soap
Roundup. I personally would not use herbicides like Roundup because they contain potentially harmful chemicals like glyphosate. I list it only because it's effective. It lasts for weeks, longer than hoeing and vinegar solutions which last only days.
The goal is to have driveways and walkways last as long as possible with as little maintenance as possible. How long your hard surfaces will last depends on many factors. The biggest are how well they are installed, the climate, and of course the materials chosen. Before we get into the best materials to use, here's some general things to know.
It is very important to hire experienced and reputable professionals, particularly when pouring concrete, as having the proper mixture and dry times are dependent on the weather during the pour on the day. Generally, finding the best companies is an annoying process of getting multiple estimates, asking technical questions, requesting (and checking) references, verifying they are bonded and insured, and reading over the contract to make sure everything is detailed out. If they seem inexperienced or any of this annoys them, move on. It may be just another job to them, but you have to live with the work. But some of this is gut feeling. For example, I would skip a lot of the formalities and hire Mike Haduck (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1By4oBZiv9u8qnkcdCgdqw) in a second. He's obviously an experienced, humble, trustworthy guy.
Ask how much weight your new driveway can hold. Tell your installer if you expect to support RVs, large trucks, or heavy equipment. They may coarsen the mix, add rebar, alter the subsurface, etc. You do not want sinking or cracking.
Also, regardless of the material, make sure they grade away from the house or other structures. That just means that when it rains, the land is shaped so that the water slopes downwards away from your house. This is really important because excess water can flood basements and destroy foundations and encourage mold.
Another consideration is invasive tree roots. Assume a tree's roots will grow at least as wide as the canopy. So don't plant tall-growing trees anywhere near your house, driveway, walkways, or retaining walls. They can raise up or cause large cracks as they grow into them. Some invasive root trees to avoid include American Elm, Silver Maple, Willows, Hybrid Poplars.
Check that whoever's doing any digging call 8-1-1 at least several business days prior to your project. 8-1-1 is a national call center that contacts all appropriate utility companies with your intention to dig. This can be water company, electric, gas, phone, or cable tv. The utilities will send someone to mark your property with paint so that you don't dig in the wrong areas. All of this is usually free to you, the homeowner.
Concrete. My personal preference for driveways and walkways is poured concrete. Concrete is comprised of stone, sand, and cement. It is extremely durable. It lasts about 30 years and if installed properly, requires no maintenance. It can be finished with different textures, patterns, and colors. You can even have aggregate material like pebble sprinkled on top as a decorative finish.
The biggest downside to concrete is the potential for large cracks. This is where it pays to have an experienced installer. They control and prevent cracking with proper subfloor, slab drainage, expansion joints, rebar or mesh, pouring in proper heat and humidity conditions, water/cement ratios, and more.
Also, minimize or eliminate usage of road salt and de-icer on concrete. It causes surface crumbling and cracking and may corrode rebar if you have it. Keep this in mind before you choose to have patterns with stamped concrete. This is also why if you want colored concrete you should consider having it mixed in, as opposed to painting it. If painted concrete cracks, there will be a color mis-match.
Asphalt. Made from stone, sand, and tar, asphalt is typically black but it can be finished with different colors. Asphalt is lower cost initially but it does not last as long as concrete or paving stones. It usually has to be replaced every 15-20 years, depending on climate. And it needs periodic maintenance. It should be sealed once in its first year, then every 3 years afterwards. It will also crack as temperature fluctuations cause it to shrink and expand. You'll want to avoid asphalt in very hot climates, as it melts in the sun and vehicles sink and leave marks.
A funny quirk about asphalt is that in some areas of the U.S. is it considered "temporary" while concrete is considered permanent, thus your property taxes could be slightly lower. You can find that out from your local tax assessor.
Paving stones (also called "pavers") are usually interlocking tiles that can be made from (in order of durability) cobblestone, concrete or brick. Pavers are very long lasting and one major benefit is that you can pull up and replace each individual tile if it needs replacing.
There are many location-specific factors to consider when laying paving stones so there is no one right or wrong way. Consult your professional. They may recommend laying it on gravel, or even on top of poured concrete. The concrete can prevent tiles from sinking or rocking back and forth (but the concrete needs a smooth finish to avoid that rocking).
My biggest problem with paving stones is weeds. Despite any preventative measures taken, eventually seeds will blow into the cracks and weeds will grow. They can be combated of course (see "Weeds" section above), but I'd just as soon choose a material with much fewer cracks, like poured concrete.
Wet climates. As bummed out as I get in overcast and rainy Pennsylvania, one upside is that I never have to water anything. Grass, trees, or plants. Even when the lawn browns on occassion in summer, it doesn't die. It turns green again with more rain. Should you get many days with no rain and you fear it's in danger of dying, just screw a pulsating, revolving sprinkler onto a garden hose and move it around occasionally until the whole yard is watered (I've never had to do this). So if your climate is similar to mine, you'll need no irrigation system and you can skip this whole irrigation section.
Dry climates. If you live in a dry climate, you will probably need to water your grass or groundcover to keep it from dying. The two most common types of residential irrigation systems are Sprinklers and Drip. Sprinklers sit in the ground and spray water outward. Drip irrigation is a series of hole-punched hoses that lay near select plants and trees. Water drips out of the holes directly onto the ground. The water absorbs down, feeding the roots.
The main advantage to a drip system is that you use water more efficiently. Much less water is lost from blowing winds and evaporation. The main disadvantage is that drip holes clog often and require more attention. And you will need many emitters to properly irrigate large trees, as they have wide root systems.
Whatever system you get, you will want an automatic timer so that it waters on whatever schedule you want. You'll also need a backflow preventer, which prevents garden water from seeping back into your house's potable water supply should there be a temporary pressure change. You may need a pressure regulator as well. This insures that too much water doesn't flow through the system at once (drip system may be designed for 20 psi while your faucet may be 40 psi). Your water pressure may also not be high enough to water the entire yard at once, so it will be divided up into "zones" and watered one zone at a time. You'll probably have a box buried into the ground containing all the different valves to each zone. You'll also want a shut-off valve and an appropriate setup to drain the system for winter. A filter may be needed to minimize sand and minerals like iron which can clog your emitters. And of course there is the emitters themselves, which is where the water shoots or drips out.
For a grass-only lawn, I would choose a sprinkler system, as it is easier to maintain than a subsurface drip irrigation system. There's fewer worries of rodents eating underground tubing, less clogging of emitters, and less digging involved when the system needs replaced.
For groundcover-only landscaping, you could go with sprinklers or drip, again depending on your particular needs. I don't want to be checking and replacing emitters constantly so I'm still going to prefer sprinklers. I may be okay with above-ground drip if I had a sparsely vegetated boulder garden and I could hide the tubes. Most hide the tubing under mulch, but mulch isn't a long-term option for me. If I had a total-groundcover plant spread over the entire yard, I would definitely use a sprinkler.
You can install the irrigation system yourself if you're not intimidated by valves, water pressure, timers, filters, soil types, flow rates, watering needs of each grass/plant, water coverage, and things like that. For a whole yard system, I'd have a knowledgeable professional design and install it, making it clear to him/her that low maintenance and simplicity is a big priority.
If you'd like to do it yourself here's a good start.
For Drip irrigation
For Sprinkler system
Maintenance Required. Both types of systems require maintenance. How much is hard to detail because there are so many different setups. Generally speaking, you will have to adjust watering schedule every few weeks, dependent on the weather. At the beginning of season inspect backflow prevention and check valve boxes for pests, unattached electrical wiring, or anything unusual. Monthly you'll want to walk the property looking for signs of leakage, broken sprinkler heads, or clogged emitters. With sprinklers you'll check that the spray patterns are still covering the needed areas. At end of season, drain the system so that lines don't freeze in winter and become damaged.
Drip systems usually have filters, which need to be cleaned regularly to prevent clogging. Some drip systems flow chemicals throughout the hoses to prevent this, but long term, they will still clog and need to be replaced. Animals like chewing up drip lines as well, requiring replacing. Usually drip irrigation systems require more hands-on maintenance.
- Vegetation intakes water through their roots, not their leaves. So watering directly into the ground is more effective.
- Roots grow toward wherever there is enough water, nutrients, and oxygen.
- Don't group plants together with different watering needs.
- Water in the morning. There's not as much wind and sunlight to evaporate the water you spray.
- But avoid watering in the evening. The water can sit on vegetation all night, which invites fungus growth.
How long to water?
Water deeply and infrequently. Generally a healthy, more drought-tolerant, root system for grass should be about 6 inches deep. One foot deep for groundcover. Three feet for large trees. Since different soils absorb water at different rates, time how long it takes your sprinkler to moisten the soil that deep. To do so with grass, cut into a patch of sod with a shovel and feel it every several minutes until it becomes moist at the depth of 6 inches. Add up how long that takes. That is how long to run your sprinklers. Since the roots are so deep, you typically will only water once or twice a week (depending also on how much rain you get).
If you have slow-draining, heavy clay soil, you may get water run-off onto the street or sidewalks during watering. To fix this, you may need to set the automatic timer to water in stages (example: 10 minutes on, 20 minutes off, 10 minutes on, etc.). This gives the water time to soak down into the soil.
With a drip system, the same root depth watering principles apply. Except with a drip system, you will obviously be watering longer, probably for hours at a time. Watering frequency rules still apply as well, only once or twice a week.
The lowest maintenance way to have trees on your property is to just allow the native trees and vegetation to grow freely with everything else on the outer borders of your lawn or groundcover. I've been very fortunate to grow up in homes with woods around our house where we played, swung on vines, explored nature, built forts, tree houses, and campfires. It makes for a great childhood and aside from occasionally picking up fallen branches on the grass or trimming some growth back with hedge clippers, it's zero maintenance.
Not everyone has the kind of space, though, to allow the edges of the property to just go back to nature. Or maybe it's not your preference. You can still add some trees in the yard. Once established and healthy, they require little care. But to get to that point, you need to do some planning and research.
Research & Planning
First determine the purpose of your tree. Are you planting for ornamental reasons? For shade? Fruit? Wildlife habitat? Wind blocking? Do an internet search for the best trees in your climate to fit your needs. Example "zone 6 ornamental trees", "zone 8 best cherry trees", etc. Write them down and check them for other important factors such as:
- Maximum diameter and height. Plant for what the tree will attain at full growth. Think decades (or centuries!) from now. When driving around, notice all the distorted trees that had to be cut around power lines. You don't want this. Nor do you want any structure within falling radius of a tree. Tree trunks widen also, so avoid building decks around them and remember thickening underground roots can move walkways and fences.
- Disease-resistant. Mother nature is in constant battle on very diverse battlefields, so there is no "disease-free" specie of tree. There are many different tree diseases. Most are caused by fungi transported by insects (your tree is the host). Many of these are non-native pests which invade from imported firewood, logs, and shipping crates. With no natural predators they thrive. They can be particularly attracted to open tree wounds and stressed trees during drought. Usually you can't cure an infected tree, so the best defense is preventative. Sometimes disease wipes out entire swaths of trees, so avoid growing any problem species specific to your area. If the internet doesn't help you pinpoint those, consult a local arborist. The other best defense is to set conditions to grow the healthiest tree possible. See "Proper Planting" & "Tree Maintenance" below.
- Soil conditions. There are six main types of soil. Sandy, clay, silt, peat, chalk, and loam. Most people just identify their soil type and select trees accordingly. Usually fertilizer is unnecessary. If you want to maximize your chances for success, you can have an arborist test your soil for texture, fertility, salinity, pH level, and drainage conditions. He/she will recommend the best tree to plant as well as how to best improve your soil.
- Sun. Track the sun's path over the proposed spot and choose tree according to amount of sunlight needed.
Choosing a tree this way may seem like a nuisance, but if you try to force something into growing where it shouldn't, your low-maintenance tree can become an unsightly headache or a pile of firewood.
The best time to plant trees is whenever the roots have the most time to establish themselves in the soil before being exposed to extreme temperatures. The actual months vary by climate and hemisphere. Type of tree also effects when is best to plant, so inquire before purchasing.
Root structure. Proper root growth is the most important factor in growing a healthy tree. Root systems vary by species but all roots grow toward nutrients, water, and air. Typically this makes large tree root structures grow much wider than deep. Most root growth is within only 18" below the surface.
To attain proper root growth:
Don't buy a tree with girdling roots. Girdling roots are roots that circle around the root ball. When planted into the ground many of them continue to grow in circles. This causes problems years down the road as the roots that are wrapped around the base of the tree thicken. The thickening roots strangle the tree, which chokes off water and nutrient flow between roots and branches. This will cause reduced growth, leaves falling early, branch dieback, or splitting bark. It also weakens the tree's structure and makes it more susceptible to falling during heavy winds.
Girdling roots are frequently found in potted containers. Balled and burlapped trees tend to have less girdling, as do bare root trees. When buying your tree at the nursery gently pull the root ball out of the container and inspect it. Don't buy one with a heavy mass of circled roots. It's difficult or impossible to inspect the roots of a balled and burlapped tree so ask questions and use a judgement call.
Some circling can be fixed. If you soak the roots in water, you can unfurl many of them by hand. This is difficult to do with trees larger than a couple of inches in diameter, so a smaller tree is preferable. Cut off girdling roots that can't be straightened, provided they're not thick enough to be vital to the life of the tree (judgement call based on experience).
Remove all packaging material when planting a tree, even burlap.
Dig a wide, shallow hole. The hole should be roughly 3 times wider than the root ball's diameter. Only dig as deep to allow the trunk to flare out above the ground. It should not go straight down like a telephone pole. When you're digging, the proper tree height will probably look too high, but allow for settling soil. Planting too deep deprives the roots of oxygen and can lead to root girdling and decomposed bark, which further stresses the tree.
When the tree is set in the hole, spray the root ball with water and gently rake the compact dirt off the edges so that roots are exposed. You want them to come in direct contact with the soil in your yard. Backfill your soil and continue to moisten it with water. Sway the tree back and forth gently, seating it into the ground. Make the final position as straight as possible. Also remove any of the nursery's soil above the root collar, even if it's several inches higher.
Spreading mulch over the top is a good way to keep down weeds and hold in moisture. But don't bury the collar (base) of the tree in mulch, which is known as a "mulch volcano". It's done for aesthetic purposes but it's harmful to the tree. Mulch volcanoes attract moisture, insects, and fungus to the trunk. Mulch should be 3 inches or less, but taper it downward at the base so that no mulch touches the tree.
When the tree matures after a few years, I'd let the mulch break down naturally and allow the existing grass or groundcover to grow around it.
Trees need more attention when they are young, particularly the right amount of watering. See "Irrigation" above. Otherwise they just need to be pruned every year, or less often depending on growth rate.
Pruning. Trees can be pruned with several objectives: to improve the quality of flowers and fruit, to restrict growth, to change its growing pattern, or to grow strong and healthy to full growth. There are also varying species so pruning techniques and times are diverse.
It's usually best to prune when the tree is dormant. Most recommend early spring or fall, but pruning in winter can work too, as there are fewer insects out to bring disease into the fresh cut. You'll remove all dead branches. If there are diseased branches, remove those as well and rake and dispose of the infected leaves.
For strong growth, typically trees are pruned to have a central leader, which means one main trunk that grows straight up. You'll want to avoid many branches growing out of one point. Also avoid branches criss-crossing each other, as they may rub together when fully grown. Get rid of tree suckers if you see them. A sucker is any new branch growth out of the tree's roots at the base. There's many good videos on pruning techniques. Just keep in mind that the pruning decisions you make with young trees permanently affect its long-term structure. Be especially certain before pruning evergreen trees, as branches typically don't grow back from the trunk like deciduous trees do.
For pruning you'll need a sharp pair of pruning shears and I'd recommend getting a pole saw as well to avoid standing on ladders. And never operate a chainsaw from a ladder, as falling branches can knock the ladder out from underneath you.
Raking. Most people rake leaves in the fall because it looks nice, but it can also protect the health of the grass, as layers of compacted leaves can cut off the sunlight and air. Instead of raking though, just mow over the accumulated leaves when they are dry and let the clippings sit in the grass. But I don't even do this. We get some leaves in our yard but we just let them go entirely.
Other. You shouldn't need to use fertilizers for your trees. If you have fruit trees, keep an eye out for insects, but don't apply pesticides unless you know what you're doing. Different insects need different treatments at specific times. Be skeptical of companies wanting to spray general cover sprays of mixed pesticides on schedules. They should be targeting specific pests based on their life/feeding cycles.
Living on a large lot is not always possible. If neighboring properties are close, I would need something for privacy. There's many different types of walls and fences. Stylistically, consider the wall a low-key extension of the house. I generally don't want attention drawn to it.
I prefer solid walls for rigidity. Maybe I suffer from lack of imagination but my favorite is still either smooth-finished or stucco-textured cinder block (CMU) wall. When built properly, it can last more than a century. Insects don't eat it, it won't come down during strong winds, and it blocks sound better than most fences. Its underground footer stretches the entire length of the wall, preventing dogs or other animals from digging underneath it.
You want to let stucco walls dry though, as the texture can slowly disintegrate with constant exposure to water. Make sure sprinklers aren't soaking them and that standing groundwater irrigates away from it. For this reason I'd probably shy away from a stucco finish in a wet or snowy climate.
NOTE: If you need your landscape wall to hold back land, that's called a retaining wall. Retaining walls require careful engineering or they will fail.
Gravel Driveways. Gravel driveways form ruts when you drive on them, which need to be raked smooth. They also need topped off with more gravel as it sinks into the ground. Snow removal is difficult and you'll also get weeds. We had one on a slope and would definitely not recommend it.
Potted Plants. I like the look of plants in large elegant pots, but they tend to be higher maintenance. They usually require potting soil and fertilizers. Soil needs rejuvenated from time to time since nutrients drain out of the containers when watered. Pots tend to dry out faster and soil temperatures could become an issue if left in the sun. They just generally need closer attention.
Artificial grass. Artificial grass (or fake grass, artificial turf, synthetic turf, etc.) is a surface of synthetic fibers designed to look like natural grass. It can be made of plastic, nylon, polypropylene, rubber compounds, or polyester foams. After it's installed on your bare dirt ground, typically sand and rubber particles are raked in as a filler.
While it can look and feel like the real thing, it still gathers leaves, animal waste, and other debris, which is normally chopped up by a mower and processed by nature. So you'll still have to blow or rake, and spray it regularly with a hose. If you don't clean and sanitize the grass, it will eventually smell like poop and urine. Artificial grass also radiates more heat in the sun.
Lastly, artificial grass lasts 10 or 20 years. But after that, you have to pull it out, throw it in a landfill, and replace it.
Landscape fabric. Landscape fabric was originally developed for agricultural use, to keep weeds down for one season only and then pulled up. Eventually people started using it permanently in their gardens. The companies selling it were happy to go along. I don't like it because it starves the ground underneath of air and nutrients. Weeds will eventually grow over top of it as seeds and dirt blow in. See "Lawn Overview Strategy" and "Weeds" above for better alternatives.
Swimming pool or water features. Moisture equals maintenance. Filters, heaters, pumps, scrubbing, chemicals. I wouldn't wish a swimming pool on my worst enemy. Kidding aside, if you get one, there's a lot to learn and it needs constant monitoring. I would definitely hire someone to maintain it. Be careful with any standing water such as a pond, as they attract insects, algae, and critters like muskrats.
Well, there it is. Hopefully you got some use out this article. I learned a lot researching it, but I am by no means an expert. I'm sure I'll change my mind on some things over time. Until then, I wish you luck in your quest to combine beauty and simplicity in all aspects of your life.