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.”
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