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Home & Garden Design
Publication Date: Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Designing for longevity
Low maintenance doesn't mean no maintenance

text and photos by Janet Bell

As a landscape designer, one of my primary responsibilities is to design a planting scheme that will complement the architecture, fit the taste and lifestyle of my clients and be attractive and thrive. The goal is to create planting beds that can be maintained based on the clients' needs and expectations, which requires many considerations and a lot of communication.

Issues include: choosing plants that fit the environment; proper spacing of plant material for growth; choosing an irrigation system that best fits the plantings.

At Encinal School in Menlo Park, English laurels and redwoods were planted close together in order to screen out a busy street (Middlefield Road). These plants are crowding each other now, and the sequoias will end up crowding out the garden space in front of them (or heavily shading it) in years to come.

The first words out of most homeowners' mouths in terms of maintenance are, "We want a low-maintenance garden." There are often qualifications to this, such as, wanting flowers all year long, must be deer-resistant, must handle dog traffic, etc., which create a challenge. However, I do my best to keep maintenance in mind and try to avoid plants that require a lot of individual attention.

Japanese anenomes (Anenome x hybrida) is an example of a plant that people either love or hate, but all will agree that they tend to take over a garden area. While everyone loves and wants lavender (Lavandula -- miscellaneous species), it requires a low-water environment, lots of sun and proper annual pruning in order to thrive and is often a disappointment. Australian bluebells (Sollya heteromeles), a plant that is often planted under oak trees, becomes leggy and most often fails. Most vines (trumpet vine, jasmine, potato vine, wisteria, evergreen clematis, etc.) grow so quickly that it is difficult to keep them from taking over the neighboring trees; while these are valuable plants in the garden, the maintenance issue must be considered.

Soil composition (heavy clay, sandy, etc.) is important in the health of your plants, as its minerals and moisture-retention qualities will affect plants' health, and plants should be chosen that will work in our local soils. Most of the Peninsula is composed of heavy clay soil, however there are pockets of other types of soils in various areas. Incorporating soil amendments into a site can make a huge difference in the success of plantings; other soil additions, such as gypsum to break up the clay, sand or lava rock to lighten the soil, can be very advantageous. In order to maintain a healthy garden, beds should be cultivated and top dressed with organic compost or a similar product a minimum of every couple of years.

Sun exposure is a critical factor in choosing plants. While you can put a hydrangea in full sun, it will struggle -- especially in these increasingly hot summers -- so why do it? While we might want to include certain plants in our gardens, if the situation is not right, planting them will only bring disappointment. Planting sun-loving plants in a predominantly shady area will create a leggy plant with few flowers.

There are many other factors, such as: Is the area prone to oak root fungus or verticillium wilt? If so, choose plants that are resistant to these diseases. Are there deer? You can have a beautiful garden with aromatic and native plants in an area that deer graze, though you are limited to plants that are not considered tasty.

Proper spacing of plant material

It is crucial that plants be placed with room to grow into the size that nature intended. Planting back from a headerboard or sufficiently in front of a fence allow the plants the room to grow with a minimum of maintenance.

I often have requests for instant screening -- to plant shrubs to create a barrier to a nearby neighbor -- to maximize the immediate effect. The problem with this is that it won't be too long before these plants are crowding each other, inhibiting air flow and sun (which creates woody branches) and requiring frequent trimming.

A pittosporum, viburnum or Carolina cherry hedge are much more attractive when planted four feet or five feet apart vs. three feet apart. They can keep their natural shape and will not require being sheared as they grow into each other.


Creating an irrigation plan is an important component of a low-maintenance garden. There are positives and negatives of all types of systems. While a spray irrigation system seems more reliable because you can see the water, it also has a tendency to be blocked by plants as they grow; it also contributes to weed growth and uses more water than a drip system.

There are a number of types of drip irrigation that can be explored. Drip irrigation is more vulnerable to the elements, including animals (dogs, squirrels and raccoons may chew through the pipes). Drip systems use less water and are more efficient by watering the soil directly, however, some plants don't respond to this type of watering as well as others.

It is crucial to include containers in an irrigation plan, so vacations can be taken without the worry that the plants in them will die during the week or two you are away. Containers should be on a separate system (or valve), as they will need less water, more often than the beds. If you have the opportunity to install irrigation and drainage pipe through the patio below the pots, this is the best approach (though pre-planning is obviously required).

Working with a professional (or doing a lot of research) to plan your landscape carefully is a big step toward creating a thriving, healthy garden that will require less maintenance and offer more enjoyment.

Janet Bell, APLD, is the owner of Janet Bell & Associates, a local landscape design/construction/maintenance firm. She is also a certified member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. She can be contacted at 650-328-3400 or [email protected]

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