Beauty is High Maintenance

Posted by shane - January 15, 2012 - Gardening Tips - No Comments

One of the most frequent comments I hear from customers is that they want a “low-maintenance” yard.  But they also say they want a nice yard.  In my experience, there are three ways to have a low-maintenance yard:

1) Move to a condo

2) Pave over your entire yard

3) Get used to ugly, also called “natural.”

Folks, natural is the Rocky Mountains, which are beautiful.  “Natural” in a yard is a homeowner convincing himself that his neglect is somehow pretty.  Natural = neglect.  And neglect = invasive weeds, runaway perennials, unruly shrubs, and trees that self-destruct, over time, from poor branch structure.

Unless your yard looks like this, it will need work! R.LePage photo.

Beautiful urban landscapes take time, effort, and money.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of landscapers out there that are selling lies, convincing people that they can install a low-maintenance yard full of beautiful plants.  This just isn’t true.

All that said, there are ways to minimize the amount of required maintenance.  But if you have a yard, you will have to work on it, or hire someone else to do it.  I think the term “low-maintenance” is often heard as “no-maintenance.”  Once again, if this is what you want, move to a condo.

So how does one reduce the amount of maintenance in their yard?  There are a few ways:

1) Plant drought-tolerant species from good nursery stock

More and more, I’m moving toward the native species and those that have proven drought tolerance.  Pine, trembling aspen, dogwood, wild rose, dwarf birch, various willow shrubs, and others, may not be the most showy plants, but thoughtfully planned, you can design a great yard from these trees and shrubs.

Avoid species of trees that are prone to disease, such as mayday, ‘Schubert’ chokecherry (black knot), and mountain ash (fireblight).  Also avoid trees that have annual insect problems, such as birch (leafminers, aphids, bronze birch borer.)

2) Plant trees and shrubs in the right place

Very few, if any, people seem to read the labels on the plants they buy.  If they did, they would be able to determine the mature height and spread of the tree or shrub, thus saving themselves a lot of pruning  later on, trying to make their tree fit their yard.

Properly planted crabapple. S.LePage photo.

Pick the right tree for the right place, and you will have very little future maintenance.  I recently drove through the new Vanier neighbourhood in Red Deer to have a look at what new homeowners were planting in their tiny, postage-stamp yards.  What I saw was a disaster.  Almost every  yard had the wrong tree species planted in the wrong place.  In 5 to 10 years, those trees will have over-grown their spot and will become a problem.  In 20, most trees planted in their current locations will be gone, removed as nuisance trees.  I suspect these new neighbourhoods won’t look like much in 20 years, which is too bad, because gone are the days of the big yards, with all those big shade trees, which make up what we call the urban forest.  Careful planning is a must.

The rosybloom crabapple in the centre of the above picture was planted such that when it is mature, its spread will only reach as far as the fences that surround it.  It will not encroach on the neighbour’s yard, or the parking area behind the fence.  It will need structural pruning each year for a few years, but essentially, it is a low-maintenance tree.

Also, plant your trees and shrubs properly.  Do some reading beforehand to make sure you’re doing it correctly.   A lot of my maintenance work is a result of improperly planted trees.

3) Don’t over-prune & stop “shaping”

Professional high-maintenance pruning in White Rock, BC. S. LePage photo.

There is a disease in the urban landscape that I call “Bored Guy Syndrome.”  It’s everywhere and I pray I never get it.  This is where people get really bored and continuously, and indescriminately, cut and shape their trees and shrubs, such that everything is short and round.  Ironically, these are the same people that want a low-maintenance yard the most.  No wonder!  They are slaves to what they’ve done!

Trees and shrubs respond to hard pruning by putting on a new flush of growth to replace what has been cut.  In a low-maintenance yard, with good nursery stock planted in the right place, little pruning is needed, except to remove diseased or deadwood every several years.  As soon as trees and shrubs are shaped, they will need to be re-shaped, and re-shaped, and it never ends.  Hard pruning, without understanding the nature of the plant, can also ruin the structure and natural beauty of that particular species.

4) Create mulched areas, or beds, around all your trees and shrubs

Mulch is so important.  It holds in soil moisture and greatly reduces watering requirements, prevents competition between the lawn and the trees, and breaks down slowly to provide nutrients to the plants.  It will also slow down weeds, and make the weeds that do grow through it easier to pull.  Simply, mulched trees are healthier and “low-stress”, and that’s what you want.

Don’t waste your money on expensive landscape fabric.  It doesn’t work, and its a nuisance to deal with if you have to pull out plants later on.  And it’s plastic!  Do you really want to bury a bunch of plastic in your yard?

5) Don’t go after the “perfect” lawn

I’ve seen a lot of yards.  The nicest lawns are meticulously cared for by people who have the time to devote to it.  They need constant water, fertilizer, and weed control.  For low-maintenance types, that’s insane.

Minimize the amount of grass in your yard by expanding the mulched tree and shrub areas.  Trees are far less maintenance than lawn.  If you are putting in a new lawn, I recommend using low-maintenance grass species: fescues as opposed to Kentucky bluegrass.

Taller grass is lower maintenance than short, constantly mowed grass.  Reduce the amount of irrigation and fertilizer.  Last year, in Sylvan Lake, I only watered my lawn once.  By summer, it was just as green as my neighbour who had a fertilizer company come out every 3 weeks.

These are some helpful hints to lower the cost of your yard maintenance.  If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start with your yard, it is best to call a professional arborist or hoticulturist for a consultation.  A couple of hundred spent on an assessment and some advice can save thousands later on.

(c) 2012 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.