Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why I Don't Believe in Low Maintenance Landscapes

The American obsession with low maintenance landscapes is a problem. Here’s why.

There are several phrases I’ve learned to dread from clients. “I want to swim by Memorial Day,” is always a heart-stopper, particularly when you were hired in March to design a swimming pool and garden. “I want this garden to look perfect for my daughter’s wedding,” is perhaps the most dreaded phrase of all. If you ever hear that one, run far away. But the phrase that makes me cringe the most is a phrase I hear all the time: “I want this to be low maintenance.”

A low maintenance landscape is a rather innocuous request. It is also, of course, an absolutely sensible one. After all, who has the time or resources to pour endless hours into a landscape? Plus, traditional maintenance often focuses on chemical inputs and gas-powered machinery, all of which are bad for the environment. Perhaps low maintenance landscapes are both good for people and the environment, right?

Yes and no. “Low maintenance” is not just an idea, it is an ideology. It is the promise of more for less. As Americans, we still believe cheap, fertile land is our manifest destiny. We deserve bounty without labor, satisfaction without commitment.

The ideology of low maintenance has received new fervor from advocates of sustainable landscapes. In eco-speak, maintenance is a dirty word. Maintenance means gas-powered machinery, irrigation systems, and petro-chemicals. A low maintenance landscape is natural.

The promise of low maintenance landscapes is an empty one. The very idea that you can do less and have more is a mythology. Landscapes constantly change and require input—lots of it—to look the way we want them to. Lines blur, plants suffer without water, and weeds move in. Nothing stays the same. Even naturalistic and native landscapes require heavy interventions to look natural. In nature, thousands of years of natural selection create relatively stable environments. In our yards, our active engagement is the sine qua non of a garden. The less we do, the worse our yards look.

"Low maintenance" or just neglect.  A perennial garden on the U.S. Mall
The second problem is that the “low maintenance” dogma prioritizes yards over gardens. Layered planting beds full of trees, shrubs, and perennials are often eliminated (too high maintenance); instead, we opt for the holy triumvirate of the American landscape: lawn, foundation shrubs, and groundcovers. We choose these because their upfront cost is low and we understand how to maintain them. But in reality, these decisions commit us to endless maintenance. We cover our yards with lawns and then must mow, edge, and weed-eat weekly during the growing season. We plant cheap evergreens at our foundations that get too big and require regular pruning to keep them from eating the house. We throw groundcovers in our beds because we want them to cover large areas, then we spend years battling them to keep them in place.


A garden, on the other hand, requires higher upfront cost and maintenance to get it established, but less investment over time. Nurseryman and perennial expert Roy Diblik writes convincingly of his “Know Maintenance” approach in his book, The Small Perennial Garden. Diblik demonstrates that perennial gardens need 15-20 minutes of maintenance every 10-14 days—dramatically less time needed to maintain a traditional lawn. By investing in the garden rather than yards, we can get better looking landscapes that require less labor.

The low maintenance dogma reveals something about our culture: we don’t know how to BE in our landscapes. When someone asks me for “low maintenance,” what I hear is: “I don’t want to deal with this landscape.” Maintenance is nothing more than gardening, a personal investment into the landscape. I’ve long said that gardening is a relationship with a piece of ground. That relationship is the single most rewarding aspect of gardening. If the act of gardening is a relationship, then low maintenance gardening is code for “let’s just be friends.” Or “I’m just not that into you.” Low maintenance is permission to disengage, pull away, and let go. When we do that, our landscapes suffer. And so do we.

My high investment garden.

The alternative to low maintenance ideology is not high maintenance gardens. We absolutely should design our landscapes to need less input; our plants should be tailored to their conditions; and we should choose treatments that require less time, machinery, and labor. Instead of low maintenance landscapes, we need high investment landscapes. High investment landscapes have engaged owners who make smart decisions about the kinds of treatments that will last over time. High investment landscapes focus not just on time and money, but the compounding rewards of lots of small acts of love and care in the garden. “We live on the edge of existence and nonexistence,” wrote one of my favorite garden bloggers, James Golden. “Our gardens are one manifestation of our choosing life and hope and caring.”

75 comments:

  1. Beautifully expressed...I thoroughly agree.
    I would use the description 'high interaction' and 'relationship gardening'.
    As a bit of a current day heretic, when/wherever possible given a client's lifestyle, I DIS-courage irrigation systems.
    Instead, we focus on rainwater harvesting, water catchment contouring and site permeability to reduce water needs...Most importantly, I encourage folks to water by hand when needed (that's the heretic part!) because that de-facto places them in garden and in relationship with their plants.
    Usually they are able to savoir the involvement.

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    1. 'Relationship gardening' is good. I'll have to borrow that ;)

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  2. Amen! I have a neighbor with a "low maintenance" yard which she spends four or more hours per week mowing, edging, and pruning. My yard has 1000 times more plants and I probably spend 30 minutes a week on it, mostly handwatering new plants and weeding.

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    1. It is amazing how little work a real garden can be once established. I putz quite a bit in my garden, but that's mainly because I want to. A few minutes a week is all it really needs.

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  3. God bless you!

    I could not agree with you more. From a lifetime of talking to homeowner/gardeners I've figured out that it isn't necessarily the amount of maintenance that's at issue, though few people have hours per week to garden, rather it's fear of the unknown. How much time, how much water, how much weeding, pruning, etc.? Non-gardeners worry that they're burdening themselves with responsibilities that may eventually overwhelm them. Educating helps; nobody much balks at the idea of a half an hour every couple of weeks and a day or two in both the spring and the fall, so it pays to go over with them what maintenance will entail. Of course that's easy to say but not so easy to do!

    I do agree that that the low-maintenance concept lessens, even cheapens, gardens. When I was much younger, I felt a similar aversion to the concept of "four-season plants". Clearly a plant with appeal through the year is a fine thing, but taken too far, and it was, the concept led to a greatly lessened use of many wonderful "one-season" plants that could have made wonderful additions to many gardens. Too much of a good thing....

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    1. Chris,

      Thanks for the comment. Your point about "four-season" plants is a good one. I never thought about it, but it is a part of the same mentality. Yes, too much of a good thing.

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  4. Thomas, Well said! The idea that people wish to withdraw from their yards instead of spending time in them is particularly telling.

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  5. Thomas,

    I love the post and the reasoning behind it, yet find myself quibbling in two places.

    First, rather than arguing against low-maintenance landscapes you seem to be arguing that people have an ill-conceived idea of exactly what that means. What, after all, could be lower maintenance than a garden which needs "15-20 minutes of maintenance every 10-14 days"?

    Second, I dispute the conclusion of your fifth paragraph ("The less we do, the worse our yards look."). I think this is inappropriate on two grounds. One is that you established that a well-tended perennial garden requires less maintenance than a manicured lawn, and the former surely does not look worse than the latter.

    Perhaps more importantly, I think that you may be subconciously ceding the premise that a garden must always look the same or, at least, should always look "under control". I think there is growing movement that views the role of gardener as being one of editor more than designer.

    In the old paradigm, my garden would constantly be redesigned with annuals or heavy pruning. In the new paradigm, the beauty flows from the seasonal succession: my panicum doesn't look worse in winter than in summer, just different. An established meadow that requires mowing once a year does not look "worse" than a lawn which requires mowing weekly).

    I'm guessing that I don't actually disagree with you on any of these points but rather are expressing them somewhat differently from you. Regardless, thanks for writing about this any the many other things you cause us to think about.

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    1. Vincent,

      A great response. I struggled at some points writing this post, in fact, because I realized I was saying a couple of different things. I do agree with what you've written. And I appreciate that your comments give me a chance to clarify my thinking. I was generally trying to make two points:

      1. The traditional American landscape is not, in fact, low maintenance. That is due to the fact that we understand our landscapes as yards, not gardens.

      2. The second point is one I alluded to, but did not make very well. That is, even naturalistic/ sustainable/green gardens require maintenance to look good. Yes, yes, they are lower maintenance than clipped topiary. But I think we naturalistic gardens tend to undersell how much maintenance is required to keep a garden looking good. We have a laissez faire attitude that often underscores what our gardens could be. This is a more complicated point that may require another post for me to express well.

      Anyways, thanks for the great comment. Really got me thinking.

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  6. "I'm just not that into you" made me laugh out loud on the commuter train. I agree that we invest so much of ourselves in our gardens that we have a relationship with them. I'm not a designer so the only gardens I've planned for other people were for class and ended in disappointment because I knew the clients had no intention of doing anything because of the maintenance requirements. I have always wondered how you design a living landscape for non-gardeners who do not intend to hire someone to maintain it. It seems like being a matchmaker and knowingly putting an incompatible couple together. Do you cross your fingers and hope for the best or are there common strategies that are actually beautiful and practical, -- and aesthetically acceptable to the mainstream?
    PS- I have a large perennial garden that requires tons of maintenance (when I read 15-20 minutes a week I was like WTF?). Is there some Ferber method for plants I was supposed to use when they were babies? My garden is very very needy (read very very weedy).>

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    1. Sounds to me like you just need more plants. Maybe it's because I have a very small garden and a very large plant addiction, but I have very few weeds, and I think it's simply because they've been out-competed.

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    2. Ha! Yes, didn't you know about the Ferber method for baby plants? It's a lifesaver. That comment made me laugh out loud. As to your question about designing a landscape for someone else that someone else maintains . . . I haven't quite figured that out myself.

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    3. I agree with Ed--you need more plants! And lots and lots of mulch, reapplied annually. (Keeps the water in, too, mulch. Good stuff.) A perennial garden I designed for my father needed TONS of weeding the first few years, but once the plantings matured a bit, they out-competed the weeds. It still has room for change and additions, but the weeds aren't such a problem now.

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  7. I think that when people say "low maintenance," what they really mean is "zero maintenance." And, to Vincent's point, I absolutely think that the average US homeowner wants their yard to look "under control" at all times with the absolute minimal effort on their part.

    I also hate the word "yard." It's a unit of measure, not a place to run around, grow food, relax, etc! I like the way the British use the word "garden" to refer to the bits of land surrounding their house. It implies that it's tended. Or at least that it should be tended.

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    1. Totally agree. You said it better than I did. The expectation is total control with minimal effort. It's not achievable.

      As to your second paragraph: YES. Sometimes I think this blog should be called the why-don't-we-garden-more-like-the-british blog. I have to deliberately try to not have consecutive anglophile blogs in a row.

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  8. One of the things that makes the traditional “low-maintenance” landscape attractive to busy folks is that the maintenance tasks can be farmed out to one of the many “mow and blow” landscape companies because the maintenance is more about brute force and lends itself to a line-production business model (get in, get out, get paid). Caring for a perennial garden—whether a traditional English-style herbaceous border, or a New American style garden, or one inspired by native plant communities—requires a great deal more knowledge and understanding of how the plants behave throughout the year, which ones will benefit from pinching back early on, which ones go dormant by June, which ones get started so late you’re sure they’re dead until they finally (thank god!) make an appearance, which ones re-seed gently (how sweet!) or aggressively (OMG!). It also requires a great deal more engagement. I agree there’s a high return on the investment, but it’s often hard to convince busy clients of the meditative qualities of weeding. :-)

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    1. Absolutely true, Ed. There is a knowledge gap that fuels many of these issues.

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  9. Interesting example of the neglected garden.
    I question whether the designer started with appropriate plants.

    I think that low maintenance should mean stuff that will grow in the area w/o any help.

    When starting with plants adapted to the conditions, a little effort goes a long way... Ie: start with amended soil, add a bit of mulch, and the plants thrive. Well chosen plants attract butterflies, and birds, and there will always be something good to photograph as long as faulty maintenance activities (like deadheading), are avoided.

    When people start out with ill-conceived ideas of unnatural stands of poorly adapted turf, and invasive exotic ground-covers, their work has only just begun.

    So... If it looks nice, we're gonna want to be outside in the garden. If it looks bad in spite of any amount of efforts to maintain, people are gonna hire a maintenance crew, and then stay indoors.

    Some good thoughts in the post.

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    1. Picking the right plants for the right spot . . . amending the soil correctly . . . these are all worthy design tasks that will drastically reduce maintenance.

      BUT

      I often find native and sustainable gardens look more weedy and unkempt precisely because there is a dogma that says you can throw native plants in the ground and let nature do its thing. It doesn't work that way. The flaws of the low maintenance mentality apply as much to the sustainable gardener as it does to a traditional suburban yard.

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    2. Some people think that maintenance requires them to cut the plants back, in spite of the fact that they're depriving native songbirds of a meal, and missing out on wonderful photo ops.

      That dogma is something I would dearly love to see addressed. Yet you seem to be embracing it in your response to me!!

      When people see my garden as 'weedy' due to my inclusion of verbesina, and veronia, and various perennial sunflowers, that is fine, as I'm not constrained by absurd by-laws like the poor lady in Tulsa who recently lost her garden due to aggressive city employees.

      Please lighten up. The plants look a lot better when permitted to change with the seasons.

      I'm horrified every time someone clips back their plants in the name of tidiness.

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    3. Please hear me. I do not advocate deadheading plants. Or even cutting them back in the winter (in spring, yes). I am an advocate of letting plants keep their natural forms, including their dried foliage. If you saw my garden, you would know I'm a pretty loose gardener.

      But even native perennial gardens require maintenance to look good. I don't like the dogma that we should do no maintenance because it's somehow not natural.

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  10. An excellent post---thank you.

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  11. Like us, a garden is organic and continues to grow, mature and evolve through time. We also require maintenance for the upkeep of our bodies: hair, teeth, nails, exercise, food, etc. When we engage with the natural process occurring in a garden, we engage with life. Like you, I believe that creating and keeping a garden is a relationship with place, with nature, with the earth, and with oneself. My ongoing expression and collaboration with nature in my garden is what I like to call my LAND DANCE. Granted, sometimes nature takes the lead with an abundance of weeds or drought. I can dance along in response or I can disengage. It's my choice, my dance. I choose to stay in rhythm because nature is such an amazing partner who imbues my life with beauty, meaning and many rewards. In the end, I reap what I sow.

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    1. Olga,

      I think the dance metaphor is a lovely one.

      I spend so much of my professional effort trying to establish self-sustaining native landscapes. I've tried it on the garden scale as well as 2400 acre sites. The issue I constantly come up against is how difficult it is to really get them going. When we disengage, invasives take over, valuable habitat dies, and the whole thing falls apart. Sometimes worse than if we had done nothing at all. Of course, it works in "nature" because it has thousands of years of natural selection to create a self-sustaining system.

      So I feel deeply bothered by the idea that you can plant something and just let it go. I don't think you can let it go. What comes in instead is worse. I know that makes me sound like a control freak. It's not about control. It's about creating moments where humans can intersect with a thriving, self-sustaining native landscape. We're losing those every day.

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  12. I have designed and installed residential gardens in Houston, TX for eighteen years, and your philosophy rings true for me. Two topics here that I constantly encounter with clients: 1. Degree of maintenance required, 2. Landscape or garden?

    I am always asked "will this flower garden be high maintenance?" to which I reply "not high maintenance but regular maintenance." A request for low maintenance is a signal to me that this potential client has a discconect to the environment and only wants to create a landscape that can take as much neglect as possible and still look OK.

    I also have spent my entire career trying to make a distinction between a gardener and a landscaper. I am a gardener. When I have a potential client tell me they are only interested in working on the areas they can see from the kitchen window -- I am saddened. Webster's definition of landscape is "a portion of territory that can be viewed at one time from one place" and a garden is "a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated." While I can create the former by installing the latter, my purpose in life is to bring the peace, joy, and magic of nature into people's lives. That is best accomplished by clients who are willing to step outside, and into a garden, and reacquaint themselves with the beauty of life.

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    1. Beautiful comment, Norm. I totally agree with your distinction between landscape and garden. And I like your response about regular maintenance. Sometimes lots of small interventions add up to a big impact.

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  13. Very insighful article.

    Although, your statements: "...we don’t know how to BE in our landscapes." and "When someone asks me for “low maintenance,” what I hear is: “I don’t want to deal with this landscape.”" seem to indicate a wider problem.

    Is this attitude regarding landscapes a wider social issue that is beyond our power as designers to change?

    Does it reflect the distorted values that many people hold?

    If so, is there anything at all we can do about it?

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    1. Those are really good questions. I'm not sure I'm smart enough to answer them either.

      I will say this, I DO think part of this problem is something designers can change. I hear designers--particularly those commited to native plants--promising low maintenance landscapes to clients all the time. We're giving them permission to disengage, to expect more from the plants than they'll actually perform. That's one of my bigger frustrations.

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  14. I had to chuckle reading your blog as it mirrored life. One of the must haves for my husband was a small yard as he wanted low maintenance and mine was a space for a garden. He spends countless hours every week as he mows, edges, prunes and maintains his "low maintenance" piece of grass(and I do mean piece)and complains about all of the work. I have the joy of the side perennial garden-weeding, shaping, enjoying, much less time and much more joy!

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  15. Hallelujah! Finally, someone says it! Whenever I overhear someone at a nursery tell the employees that they want low-maintenance plants, what I really hear is "I want the plant equivalent of furniture". It makes me so annoyed, knowing that whatever they buy, it's probably going to die...as they don't value plants for what they are...and just see them as decorations. Unfortunately, that idea is espoused by pretty much ever home/garden show on TV right now...where the plants are just window-dressing for increasingly ridiculous/tacky hardscaping (a fire pit in a pond...really?!?).

    I would never say my garden is high-maintenance...but it does involve work...and sadly, more work than most people would be willing to put in. Then again, I rarely think of it as work, as I enjoy it...and most of my time in the garden is just me strolling around, checking things out. Sadly, it seems most people just want a "space" to "entertain". I want a garden!

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    1. I love the plants as furniture metaphor. Never thought of it that way, but you're exactly right.

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  16. I often find that clients who claim to want low maintenance are basing that requirement on previous experience of not wanting to spend time in the garden because they didn't have a beautiful garden. Once the garden has been transformed by a good design tailored to their preferences, they discover that they are quite happy to spend time looking after it as it's all part of their enjoyment of their new space. So, it's hard to second guess when taking the client brief whether low maintenance really means low maintenance!

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    1. Yeah, I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps the aversion to maintenance is an aversion to maintaining a disappointing landscape. When it's beautiful, it's a joy.

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  17. I identify with the homeowners that ask for low-maintenance, to a certain degree; I don't want to deal with my own personally tended landscape, even for 15 minutes a day, because I'm not especially interested in gardening or tending the earth or whatever at this point in my life. I would ask these clients: "why did you buy a house when you didn't want to maintain it?"

    I think your post points to the fundamental problem of house or building landscapes; people want them primarily--not as a leisure space or as a meeting point with "the earth,"--but as part of the facade of the building, as merely a signal of wealth, prosperity, and excess leisure. The desire to have a low-maitenance yard has something in common with the desire to use a tanning salon; they both want to *signal* leisure without taking part in that leisure.

    I think you point to a larger question: Why have house landscapes at all? Why have your very own personal special "nature-thing" when we have parks and nature and stuff right outside the city? If I *should* be connected with the landscape, why not also with people and community and whatever else stuff I'm supposed to do to be a good, "real" person?

    Perhaps a few years back I would've agreed with you about being connected with landscape through your yard. These days, I'm starting to think that the urban environment (which would include the suburban-style house) should be more unapologetically urban and unnatural. Of course it should be more energy efficient, more pleasant, etc...but I don't think this is necessarily done by creating little symbols of hyperreal nature/agriculture in front of every building. Do we really think that this will somehow "reconnect" us to the Earth and our reliance on it?

    To a certain degree, by pointing out the client's design error, you fail to point out your own deceit: that you're doing something worthwhile by facilitating the creation of these hyperreal spaces. Perhaps, in total, they only serve to signal to ourselves that we, in the city, can still be "natural" (as if that has some value in and of itself). It strikes me as the same kind of deceit we signal to ourselves when we claim that a sugar soda can also be "diet."

    I do not mean to sound so derisive; I'm just questioning what landscape architecture can do, and what it can't. I'm begginning to suspect that it *can't* bridge that connection on its own. It cannot create a meaning which was not there; it must come beforehand from the client, from us.

    (for the record, I'm not a landscape architect)

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    1. Anonymous:

      "creating little symbols of hyperreal nature/agriculture... Do we really think that this will somehow "reconnect" us to the Earth and our reliance on it?"

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

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    2. Oh, and gardens are more than "little symbols." Perish the thought!

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    3. Dear Anonymous,

      A worthy comment!

      I agree with your general assessment that "house landscapes" are often about some kind of signal: wealth, leisure, ecology--it varies depending upon the values of the owner. But that's precisely what makes it so interesting. Our landscapes are texts that say something about us and our values. Doesn't that increase their significance rather than diminish it?

      You are quite right to ponder the frivolity of "house landscapes" at all. I recently wrote a post about their utter frivolity and my complete commitment to that cause. But to call it a "deceit" strikes me as a bit jaded. Sure gardens are "hyperreal spaces." Of course, they are fabricated. But so is art, the internet, and cities. Why does that diminish their importance? I think a lot of your questions stem from your presuppositions about what "nature" really means.

      And why do landscapes have to be "little symbols of hyperreal nature/agriculture"? Gardens and landscapes can take any kind of stylistic form, from hyper-urban, modern, classic, rural, etc. It seems your assumptions about landscape architecture is that it is always some kind of neo-romantic naturalism. That is not at all where the profession is currently.

      By the way, the "sugar sodas" analogy was a bit of a stretch.

      I thought your final question (what landscape architecture can do, and what it can't) was a great one. As one commited to the profession, I will of course find value in it. I probably could write a small novella on the subject, but that's not really what you're after. I get the sense you don't really understand what landscape architects really do. The scale of the work is tremendous, and anyone knowing its history or current breadth would probably pose the question differently. Does Central Park not create some kind of connection between man and nature (or at least our idea of nature)?

      On a smaller scale, YES, I absolutely think gardens can connect us to something larger than ourselves. Your final comment about "meaning" seems to suggest that meaning only resides within us. I would absolutely disagree. For me, the fundamental value in gardening/ landscape/place making is connecting to something OTHER than ourselves. It's inherent value is finding a piece of ground to pull us outsides of our bubbles and experience otherness. In that, I find deep value (as would environmental psychologists and a host of others who have studied it empirically). It is why I worry about an attitude that invites disengagement with the physical world. Engagement is so utterly wonderful.

      You began with the admission "I'm not especially interested in gardening or tending the earth or whatever." That explains much of the rest of your point of view. So my challenge to you is this: try to garden for a year. Try to radically transform some little patch of dirt into whatever you want. Then let's talk.

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  18. I guess it depends on the connotation of the term 'low maintenance' For me it means landscaping with lots of shrubs and herbs I love that suit our climate & without the kind of lawns and hedges that 'mow & blow' gardeners buzz cut. I love planting & weeding my own garden and would eliminate all lawns if I could persuade the entire family that it would be better.

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    1. You describe precisely the engagement with a garden that I find so joyous.

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  19. I guess I don't have the same reaction to the phrase 'low maintenance.' I would consider my flower beds fairly low maintenance. That is for the amount of space devoted to beds, the amount of time I have to dedicate seems pretty reasonable to me. The reasons are: 1) in a normal year I have to do almost no watering; 2) because plants are well adapted and closely planted, the amount of weeding is fairly minimal, 3) for same reason, I almost never use fertilizer. Of course, I still have to do staking, edging, etc. And every year I try out a new plant or two. But I enjoy those things.

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    1. The enjoyment is what it's all about. Then it's not maintenance, just simply gardening.

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  20. This is a truly outstanding and incredibly articulate post, Thomas. In my experience, when someone asks for "low maintenance," what they really mean is "no maintenance." I do believe there are plants that are lowER maintenance (which I constantly steer people towards) than many of the high-input plants people tend to end up with, but while these lower-maintenance plants may require less upkeep as individuals, the holistic landscape is never, ever, ever as "low maintenance" as the person asking would prefer. Ever. Times infinity.

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    1. Yeah, that's exactly why I get prickly when I hear low maintenance because I know it means "I don't want to bother with it."

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  21. There really is a tension between maintenance and gardening, isn't there? The things I do because I want to (deadhead, cut back, plant), and the things I do unwillingly (mow, some weeding) tell me that. It's the difference between a sensuous engagement with the garden and the doing-the-dishes side of it. I think that gardening books, especially ones for beginners, tend to emphasize the chores aspect, and don't talk much about the play part. It's always, "now is the time to thin your carrots," and never "now you can walk barefoot on the lawn." That probably puts people off.

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    1. "It's the difference between a sensuous engagement with the garden and the doing-the-dishes side of it." I love that. A worthy, but complicated distinction.

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  22. "Landscapes constantly change and require input—lots of it—to look the way we want them to." There's the rub--what we want them to look like. That's a fickle thing. I agree whole heartedly that we do not know how TO BE in our landscapes, in nature. We have fear in our genetic code from days when we were the hunted, so wall ourselves off in a/c with a can of bug spray nearby. I recently had a client ask for plants that got butterflies but not bees or wasps! I've never heard anyone assume low maintenance means foundation barberry and lawns. When I talk about it at garden clubs everyone assumes I mean the right plant in the right plant in the right place, every shrub and tree and perennial working together. Yes, the garden will evolve, but it's supposed to, just like us in our lives. If we live outside nature will be in that evolution vibe right alongside the garden, both of us growing. Let the garden be a garden--a mix of wild and human order, not one or the other.

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    1. I agree, Ben. It IS a fickle thing.

      I think the only point I'd emphasize different from yours is how difficult it is to create the "right plant in the right place, every shrub and tree and perennial working together." That's incredibly tough feat that requires much trial and effort, planting and replanting, adjusting and editing . . . Even the world's best plantsmen fail at this frequently.

      Perhaps I have high standards, but part of my goal in this blog is to encourage sustainable and native plant gardeners to raise their game. To focus less on ideology and more on craft. To make gardens that have the same spirit of wild landscapes--even if they don't have the same scale.

      The great irony for me is that to achieve a breezy, spirited native landscape--to create the je ne sais quoi of naturalness--one has to work the hell out of it. And that's why the low maintenance schtick I hear from native advocates gets under my skin.

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  23. I have a wonderful low-maintenance yard.
    I simply do not maintain my garden. I just let nature take it's course. Sure, I mow when the lawn gets too long but, otherwise I enjoy the myriad plants (weeds?) that fill my garden area. So far, I don't think my neighbors mind except for a former downstairs neighbor who was super fond of rose bushes (which now dominate the driveway facing side of the garden). It doesn't look like a park but I have lots more time for the things I actually like doing and it still looks cool (in my opinion anyway).

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    1. Not much I can add to that. Enjoy the meadow!

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  24. As a botanical garden educator, I encourage folks to create gardens (home landscapes) that they love, but more importantly need the kind of gardening that they like to do.

    Some people (not me) love pruning and shaping and dead-heading; I happen to enjoy my vegetable garden -- digging, harvesting, etc.- and watching butterflies and bees visit my naturalistic perennial borders, which thrive on neglect.

    Part of my message is that your garden should welcome you home, not be a source of additional 'to-do' items!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an excellent point, Lisa, and one I actually wish I emphasized more.

      Delete
  25. Back in the 1980's and early 1990's I specialized in residential landscape architecture and design/build. I used to frown when the customer asked for "low maintenance" landscape. When asked why I responded with. "I was hoping you would be my first customer to request a "high maintenance" landscape. I would then go on to explain many of the points you reference in your post. I also suggested if they truly wanted "low maintenance" to drive 20 miles outside of town and look at what nature intended. As you pointed out a natural landscape is always evolving. Nature does not want a pristine landscape worthy of a photograph or painting. What we can do is design so the right plant is used in the right place and has room to grow without excessive pruning, but it is going to take some maintenance to keep Mother Nature from doing what she wants (natural succession). As some of my designs are now 30 years old I see where I was successful, where I had room for improvement and where Mother Nature won the war.

    Alan

    P.S. I stumbled across your well written blog via LinkedIn. In 1985 I worked with Tim and Vaughn

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Alan,

      Thanks for clicking over. I love your customer responses. I'll have to borrow those some days. It's also great to have a long perspective like yours. It changes the way you design to think about a garden over 30 years rather than just 3.

      Delete
  26. The most-often read post on my blog is one that I subtitled "A Low-Maintenance Perennial Garden Strategy." The reason it's so popular is that so many people do browser searches for "low-maintenance perennials." I'm sure when they find their way to my post, they're disappointed. It's not about how to choose plants that require no maintenance (I don't think those plants exist); it's about how to weed once a year rather than once a week and how to use mulch and soaker hoses to make watering both less frequent and easier. When I say "low-maintenance," I mean that a gardener should be able to spend more time *being* in the garden than *working* in the garden. But I agree with others that those who are doing these searches probably really mean "no maintenance." If you have a relationship with your garden, you want to spend time in it. It would never occur to me to count the 30 minutes I spend each morning wandering through the garden, looking at what's happening, deadheading some plants, stopping to sniff the fragrant flowers as "maintenance;" that's pure pleasure! -Jean

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jean!

      I remember reading that post. It was excellent. I think the points you were making were great. And I'm all in favor for smart gardening strategies that minimize the chores and maximize the enjoyment. Those are very wise. I was ranting against an overall ideology, but as you point out, there is much wisdom in lowering maintenance requirements through smart gardening.

      Delete
  27. Thomas, you always say exactly what I'm thinking in such an eloquent way. What could be more rewarding than spending a bit of time each week tending the earth? Why can't people understand that? It doesn't have to be laborious or require some innate talent. Just a little attention to "maintain" what is already a living piece of art. We take care of so many of our other possessions, why not our landscapes?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's always a relief to hear someone else is thinking it. I feel a bit less vulnerable making sweeping statements like I did in this post ;). Thanks for the comment. Totally agree.

      Delete
  28. Is there a word problem here? "Maintenance" is defined as:


    -The process of maintaining or preserving someone or something, or the state of being maintained: "the maintenance of democratic government".
    -The process of keeping something in good condition: "car maintenance"; "essential maintenance work".
    -The work of keeping something in proper condition.

    Three points:

    1. Maintenance implies work which implies non-leisure. This is a false dichotomy which does not allow for enjoyable and productive tasks.
    2. Maintenance refers to a constant state, which a garden is never in.
    3. A garden is not a machine, nor a man-made system. It's complex and constantly changes. It is a process.

    Any suggestions for an alternative phrase?

    ReplyDelete
  29. A great and very relevant topic - thanks for championing gardening and looking at what 'low maintenance' really means. I have clients who have loved gardening in the past but are growing older, and maybe one of them has a disability, so they have asked me for a 'low maintenance' garden. The current ones want to keep the lawn because it's a family house and they want to be able to sell it. I think for them, they would prefer raised beds so they don't have to bend down, and shrubs and ground cover (perennials that are low and mat-forming) and some perennials that don't need staking or dividing every 5 minutes, and of course bulbs which naturalised are great value.

    I do quibble about the low amount of time you have mentioned for perennials, as I have a big perennial weed problem in my garden, but I think this could be because I'm not able to weed myself, (rehab from chronic illness) so the problem builds up. One of your commenters was perceptive in pointing out that most gardeners you pay hate hand weeding! They want to dig everything up and start again. They think the spade is mightier than the trowel...

    ReplyDelete
  30. Thanks for the article. While low maintenance can usually be qualified, "perfect for the wedding" never can.

    ReplyDelete
  31. This is a great point! So many people want something that just looks presentable and easy for the landscape companies to manage. They might as well have astroturf.

    I have a high-maintenance lawn for my kids to play in...as soon as they are grown it will be converted into a perennial and vegetable garden.

    I am a fairly new gardener, and find the connection with nature and the earth that comes with tending my own little 1/3 acre is worth all the work.

    P.S. Maybe as a culture, we are just lazy. We have lost the art of enjoying our "work", even the weeding.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Hi Thomas

    Interesting that the east coast perspective is that lawn / shrubs / ground covers get the 'low maintenance' moniker. For San Diego it is now understood (finally after years of preaching) that those are the high maintenance plants requiring energy producing pollution and yard waste and wasting resources. The use of natives and Mediterranean climate plants is now in vogue and understood to be the less impacting and more desirable garden choice. We are designing gardens for a school district that incorporates all of the desirable aspects of sustainability to replace the wall - wall lawns for all of the right reasons.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I like Geraniums they are pretty hardy, look good in containers and in the garden, some others I like:

    Pansy's are hardy too
    Petunias ,purple ones are the best smelling
    Marigolds
    Allyssum nice smell

    ReplyDelete
  34. Your article brought a smile to my face. As a landscaper, I too am regularly asked to construct low or no maintenance gardens. It can be quite draining.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's the same for me - so many just don't seem to understand that every plant requires some maintenance (unless it's artificial!). Designing and constructing very low maintenance designs that also look great and work well is not a simple task.

      Simon @Ambius

      Delete
  35. Such a great post but on the other hand I'm interested on landscape in Mesa az, but you can still keep on posting!

    ReplyDelete
  36. I really love and appreciate your article, Thomas. Many clients initially declare 'no work' zone for their landscapes, which we all know is impossible.

    I could not agree with you more! The truth must be told!

    May all your gardens grow,
    Jan

    ReplyDelete
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  39. I agree all the points from this post. But will it be useful enough to save money from maintenance expenditure? Regular monitor of Stamped Concrete Cleaning found to be useful.

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