From the December/January 2012 Issue:

Low-Maintenance Landscapes

    Writer: Mary Vinnedge |

When planning a low-maintenance landscape, begin with soil preparation, careful plant selection and a flexible mind-set

Article Photo
enlarge | This Bergenfield garden was planted entirely with low-maintenance plants. Landscape architect William Weiss III mixed well-behaved dogwoods, magnolias, Japanese maples, hinoki cypress, pieris, azaleas, viburnums, rhododendrons, verbenas, miscanthus, hostas, erica, heaths and heathers, and more.
If landscape upkeep brings you down, then take note: Smart gardening practices can decrease maintenance, save money and protect the environment. Landscape specialists Susan Cohan, Karen Siciliano and William Weiss III share ideas for reducing pesticides, fertilizer and irrigation while enjoying plants that beautify your property for decades.

Your attitude toward your yard is crucial to the low-maintenance organic approach that Weiss advocates. Homeowners who see yards as status symbols—the golf-course lawn and topiary shrubs—may be unable to adapt, says Weiss, whose firm is Greenland Landscape Co. in Paramus. “Look inside yourself,” he says. “What are you willing to accept?” This type of garden may experience insect or rodent damage so you need a tolerance for a messier look. “By going natural, you’re acknowledging that things aren’t going to be perfect, but things are going to be fantastically different,” he says.

You’ll also need patience, says Siciliano, whose firm is Siciliano Landscape Co. in Red Bank. “People used to have more perennials. Then they wanted annuals for instant gratification, although annuals are meant to be used for a pocket of color. Perennials can give you year-round color” without the replanting, fertilizing and removal required with heavy-feeding annuals. Most perennials grow indefinitely in one spot with minimal feeding, although most should be cut back once yearly.

Use flowering shrubs with variegated foliage for four-season color too, says Susan Cohan of Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham. Start your low-maintenance landscape with a soil test available through county extension offices and private labs. “Then prepare the soil according to the recommendations provided in the results,” she says.

Article Photo
enlarge | Easy-care hostas and shrubs create a peaceful woodland setting in this lawn-less Bergenfield landscape designed by William Weiss III. It’s shown seven years after installation.
Choosing, Planting, Mulching
Next select the right plants for the available space and sunlight, soil, climate, moisture, drainage and deer conditions, Cohan says. (Find a list of favorites in “Low-Maintenance Landscapes” in the Article Archive section of “Hire somebody knowledgeable or do the research yourself. That cute plant in a 3-gallon bucket at the nursery can end up being a monster,” she says.

Siciliano agrees. “Homeowners want a certain look but often don’t consider sun, soil and space. Good landscape design works with what Mother Nature has given you. The trend is your friend.”

Generally choose plants:
• Whose full-grown height and spread fit the site. Place low-growing shrubs under windows, for instance. Aggressively spreading plants will sprawl beyond the site and mean constant maintenance; remove them.
• That perform well for a long time. “As a landscape architect, my head is in the future, wanting a landscape that looks good after five or 10 years of growing,” Weiss says.
• That resist insects, diseases and deer.

Then install your plants at the proper soil depth to promote root health. “Plant so the soil is at the same level as when the plant was in the container,” Cohan says.

Apply mulch to minimize weeds and maintain soil moisture. Siciliano likes triple-shredded hardwood mulch; Cohan uses shredded, undyed hardwood mulch; and Weiss recommends well-composted (at least six months) ground hardwood mulch.

“Apply a maximum depth of 3 inches, but 2 inches is adequate,” Weiss says. “Don’t let the mulch touch the stem of any plant.” Doing so can encourage rot and insects and, because mulch is in a state of heat-generating decomposition, it can burn plants.

Article Photo
enlarge | Red Knock Out® roses; liriope, an ornamental grass; and day lilies contribute to a technicolor Monmouth County landscape maintained by Siciliano Landscape Co. Note that the lawn grass, separated from planting beds by stone, has a healthy height.
Turf War
Lawns are another story. “A little work in fall makes it easier the rest of the year,” Siciliano says. “In fall, every lawn should be aerated, pH-tested, treated to an application of compost tea and then seeded.” Compost tea nurtures earthworms and soil microbes. “It will enrich the growth of grass … The thicker the lawn, the more weed-resistant it will be,” she says.

Weiss seconds that notion. “If the lawn is doing well, weeds won’t do well. Lawns shouldn’t be overfertilized or underfertilized, but they must be fed.” Fertilize properly because any excess ends up feeding algae that fouls the groundwater.

He prefers fescue and rye hybrids mowed no shorter than 2½ inches, but 3½ is better and means less mowing. “When lawns are too short, they thin out and the blades can’t produce enough food. Taller grass also shades out weeds,” he says. “A mulching mower can recycle the nitrogen from clippings so one application of a natural fertilizer may be all you need each year. Certainly no grass clippings need ever be removed from the lawn if it is mowed at a height of 3½ inches.”

To really slash maintenance, eliminate lawn altogether. Beds of shrubs, perennials and ground covers are less demanding.

If you can alter your idea of a perfect lawn and landscape, then you won’t be a slave to it. “Life’s a trade-off,” Siciliano says.

Mary Vinnedge is an award-winning garden and environmental writer. Contact her online at and

Low-Maintenance Materials
Choose easy-care garden materials such as:
• Vinyl fencing (no need for paint but can mildew in shade).
• Composite lumber that neither splinters nor requires painting or staining. Some new products mimic wood effectively; some faux woods can be hot underfoot.
• Sustainably grown plantation hardwoods that weather to shades of silver.

Let it Flow
Lugging hoses is a chore so a program­mable irrigation system is a welcome convenience. Keep in mind that:
• One inch of water weekly is plenty for every plant, Susan Cohan says.
• Cohan and Karen Siciliano suggest drip irrigation systems for beds because they reduce evaporation and aren’t wind-blown. “Put mulch over [the system] so it doesn’t show,” Cohan says.
• Rain sensors automatically shut off sprinkler systems, freeing you from a chore while conserving water.

Cohan’s Tips
Susan Cohan offers this advice for landscape harmony:
• Choose plants that won’t outgrow their site and end up scraping eaves, hiding windows or blocking walkways.
• Supersize your beds, leaving room between plants and the house for chores such as painting and gutter cleaning. Bigger beds allow for more plant choices: You’re not limited to small plants, which expands your lower-maintenance options.
• Space your plants properly to save money and work. You’ll buy fewer plants, prune less and have to remove fewer plants.
• Use stone, steel or brick as a bed edging against the lawn. It provides a barrier and eases the use of a string trimmer.

Article Photo
enlarge | Invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) crowds out native grasses, sedges and other flowering plants.
Least-Wanted List
• Hybrid tea roses (susceptible to diseases, insects and deer and also need pruning).
• Japanese honeysuckle (invasive).
• Linden (messy).
• Purple loosestrife (invasive).
• Lyme grass (invasive).
• Norway maples (invasive), silver maples (messy, weak wood).
• Russian olive (invasive).

Article Photo
enlarge | Nepeta faassenii ‘Blue Ice,’ a variety of dwarf catmint, reaches 6 to 14 inches in height; space plants 8 to 14 inches apart in full sun.
Favorites for Easy-Care Landscapes

Ground covers
• Pachysandra (shade-tolerant)
• Vinca (shade-tolerant)

• Daylilies
• Ferns (great in shade, deer-resistant)
• Hostas (great colors and textures, protect from deer)
• Lily of the valley (deer-resistant)
• Lungwort
• Joe-Pye weed
• Nepeta
• Yarrow, a.k.a. achillea (self-seeds, deer-resistant)

• Boxwood: ‘Green Mountain’ (pyramid shape), ‘Green Velvet’ (short, stays dark green), ‘Varder Valley’ (stays short) and ‘Wintergreen’ (rounded form)
• Crape myrtle
• Shrub dogwoods Cornus florida and C. rubra
Fothergilla gardenii
Ilex crenata ‘Beehive’, I. opaca (American holly) and I. glabra (inkberry) hollies
• ‘Summer’s Beauty’ and ‘Forever and Ever’ hydrangeas
• Sargent’s juniper
Myrica cerifera or wax myrtle
• Rhododendron
• Knock Out® roses
Rosa rugosa
Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel)
• ‘Globe’ Colorado blue spruce (round, gray-green)
• Viburnums
• ‘Florida Midnight Wine’ weigela (blooms, variegated foliage)

• River birch
• Dogwoods
• ‘Shademaster’ honey locust
• Larch
• Dwarf Southern magnolia ‘Little Gem’ (big blooms, glossy foliage)
• Red and sugar maples
• White and red oaks
• Black pine
• Eastern redbud Cercis canadensis ‘Rising Sun’
• Norway spruce

Planting Array
Landscape architect William Weiss III used the following plants for the projects pictured in this article:

Azalea ‘Exbury Hybrids’
Azalea mucronulatum Korean Azalea
Azalea Obtuseum spp. Gable
Azalea Obtuseum spp. Kurume
Azalea Schlippenbachii ‘Royal Azalea’
Azalea Kaempferia Hybrids spp.
Cherry, weeping, ‘Higan’
Cotinus Coggria, Smokebush Royal Purple
Crabapple, weeping, ‘Red Jade’
Flowering Dogwood, Pink (Rutger's hybrid)
Flowering Dogwood, White (Rutger’s hybrid)
Hamamelis ‘Arnold Promise’
Hinoki False Cypress ‘Fernspray Gold’
Hinoki False Cypress ‘Gold Drop’
Hinoki False Cypress ‘Golden Sprite’
Japanese Maple ‘Bloodgood’
Japanese Maple ‘Crimson Queen’
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’
Kerria japonica
Kousa dogwood ‘Lustgarten Weeping’
Magnolia Soulangiana
Magnolia stellata
Mahonia Aquifolium
Mountain Laurel
Mugo Pine
Pieris japonicum ‘Dorothy Wyckoff’
Pieris japonicum ‘Red Mill’
Rhododendron indicum, ‘Satsuki Azalea’
Rhododendron ‘Scintillation’, Dexter Large Leaf Rhododendron
Rhododendron cv. ‘Catawbiense Album’
Sorbus alnifolia
Spirea ‘Old Gold’
Viburnum spp. Burkwoodi
Viburnum spp. Carlesii
Viburnum spp. Double-file

Ajuga ‘Valfredda’ Chocolate Chip Bugle Weed
Allchemilla mollis Lady’s Mantle
Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ Bluestar
Aquilegia Canadensis ‘Canyon Vista’
Baptisia australis Wild Blue Indigo
Calamintha nepeta var. nepeta
Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Lilafee’ Fairy Wings
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ Purple Wall Flower
Hellibore ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’
Hellibore virdis occidentalis
Hellibore x ‘Early Purple’
Heuchera ‘Velvet Knight’
Hosta ‘Blue Angel’
Hosta ‘Blue Mammoth’
Hosta ‘Frances Williams’
Hosta ‘Great Expectations’
Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’
Hosta ‘Moonbeam’
Hosta ‘Potomac Pride’
Hosta ‘So-Sweet-Fragrant’
Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’
Hosta ‘Veronica Lake’
Hosta ‘Zounds’
Liriope spicata Creeping Lilyturf
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’ Dwarf Maiden Grass
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cabaret’ Maiden Grass
Pachysandra procumbens
Pennisetum alopecuroides Fountain Grass
Stachys ‘Countess Helene Von Stein’
Verbena Canadensis ‘Greystone Daphne’
Verbena ‘Blue Princess’
Verbena ‘Mystic’
Vernonia altissima ‘Purple Pillar’
Veronica repens ‘Sunshine’

Calluna vulgaris ‘Aurea’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Cuprea’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Hillbrook Orange’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Maris’ spp.
Calluna vulgaris ‘Red Haze’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Robert Chapman’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Schuigis’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Silver Knight’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Winter Red’
Calluna vulgaris ‘Yvette’s Silver’
Calluna vulgaris Hoyerhagen’
Calluna vulgaris Kinlachruel’
Erica ‘Ann Sparkeles’
Erica ‘Darley Dole’
Erica ‘December Red’
Erica ‘Springwood Pink’
Erica ‘Springwood White’
Erica ‘Winter Beauty’

Go Native
Landscape architect William Weiss II identifies the following as his favorite native shrubs:

Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush)
Clethra alnifolia (summer sweet), very fragrant
Cornus sericea (red-twig dogwood)
Ilex glabra (inkberry), evergreen
Ilex verticillata (winterberry)
Kalmia latifolia, evergreen
Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle), evergreen
Rhododendron maximum (rosebay), evergreen
Salix discolor (pussy willow)
Vaccinium angustifolium (low-bush blueberry)
Vaccinium corymbosom (highbush blueberry)
Viburnum acerifolium (maple leaf viburnum)
Viburnum dentatum (southern arrowwood)
Viburnum lentago (black haw, nannyberry)
Viburnum prunifolium (black haw, nanny berry)


SOURCES Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham, Greenland Land­scape Co. in Paramus, Siciliano Landscape Co. in Red Bank.

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