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Designing with Maintenance in Mind

As we come to the end of a long season of garden maintenance, we’ve asked three ELA members to share three recommendations they want to keep in mind when they start designing for next season.

M.L. Altobelli, Greenery in Motion, Westminster, MA

First and foremost, I make sure the soil is building carbon or is at least neutral for carbon storage. Carbon – in its many guises – is critical to the long term stability of the ecosystem whether dealing with drought or flood or just “normal” growing conditions.

Second, I consider plant palette diversity. The more kinds of plants there are in a landscape, the better the soil quality will be, the more resistant the entire planting will be and the more aesthetic it is likely to remain even when under stress.

And finally…I remember the client’s aesthetic sense – and landscape needs. It’s all well and good to care about the larger ecosystem, but it doesn’t do much for the long term if the client calls in another professional to undo what you’ve put in place. What a waste of absolutely everything!!! The hardest part is working with clients who have a different view than your own. Two choices – release the client to work with another professional or use all tools at hand to achieve their goals and my own.

Jennifer Nichols, GreenWeaver Landscapes, Lenni, PA

There are three main points that come to mind when designing for maintenance:

  1. covering the ground layer
  2. designing with mature sizes of plants in mind, and
  3. using a preponderance of site-specific workhorse plants in the landscape

These three points work interchangeably. For instance, using a combination of workhorse plants such as a groundcover of Packera aurea around a new mass planting of Itea virginica on a site with damp soils will keep weeds down until the Itea fills in the space. Understanding that the ground layer may be temporary and shaded out over time does not negate its importance. And giving the Itea room to reach its mature size will minimize the need for pruning. Knowing that the garden will change over time, and planning for these changes with maintenance in mind is key.

Darcy Paige, Laurel Garden Design, Melrose, MA

2016 was the most difficult season of my 20-some-year-long career as a professional gardener! Searing heat on top of extreme drought turned many plants into crispy critters. By mid- to late summer, we were unable to install plantings or to prune certain super-stressed plants. Installations that were delayed in the spring were not able to be installed in summer or fall. Hand watering of a few remote and unirrigated sites became impossible. The soil was so dry that it became hydrophobic, repelling any water that it received (more on that below).

Whether a garden thrived or crisped came down to three things: plant types, soil quality, and irrigation. These will be my focus at the drawing board going forward.

Right Soil

Although not specifically a design issue, clients need to know more about how important good soil is to the success of a newly installed (and existing) garden. I will be tweaking/enhancing my emphasis on this during design presentations and in maintenance proposals.

Earlier in the fall we top-dressed several particularly stressed gardens with 2” of compost. We will let the worms take it down during this mild fall season. Because drought causes many beneficial microorganisms to go dormant, or retreat during times of severe stress, I will be urging the clients that don’t already, to invest in a substantial application of compost and compost tea to their beds in the spring, to boost populations of the little microbial darlings. That in turn will boost the health of the plants and enable them to better survive any subsequent (oh please, no!) droughts.

In the spring, after the compost and tea, we will apply partially-composted mulch or leaf mold. We anticipate that the addition of organic matter and microbes will help the stressed plants recover from 2016 and survive any subsequent water challenges.

Mulch is a tricky issue for my company. We maintain garden beds only, not turf. Most clients have a separate landscape company care for the turf and do the mulching. On the sites where my crew mulches, we use soil friendly mulches, as mentioned above. The client doesn’t notice the difference between our mulch and bark mulch, and the mulches gradually become compost, enriching the soil. In cases where a landscaper mulches a property, they are very resistant to switching away from bark mulch. I’ll be talking to landscape companies this winter to get input on this and try to find one who is using leaf mold as their compost.

During the planting of fall flowers this season, we had to pre-water all of the holes dug and create water walls by piling up rings of soil around each plant, so that when watered, the water would not run off. Next season I will stock the trucks with either yucca extract or dish soap to act as a surfactant, which will aid with the absorption of water in the powdery, bone dry holes. Thanks to M.L. Altobelli, a panel member at the ELA’s Fall Summit in early November, for that reminder!

Right Plants

During the drought, I began to look for gardens and specific plants that were surviving, or even chugging along quite well in the drought conditions.

My own garden, although woefully under-maintained (‘cobbler’s garden syndrome), fared well, even without mulch or additional water. I believe it was a result of good soil; long-established, deep roots; ground that is pretty much covered and shaded by foliage; and the ‘right’ plants. Most things did well, but not everything. My Kousa Dogwood, all of the astilbes, and the Stewardia suffered. I noticed that these species were also very stressed in other landscapes that I tend. I will downplay these plants in future designs. And my lawn, which I had composted heavily in the spring, did surprisingly well without any water.

Most gardeners (and even clients!) know that lavenders, sages, woody herbs, lychnis, and penstemons do not require much water once established, but there are many more. Over the winter I’ll be looking more carefully at expanding my palette of xeriscapic plants. I’ll be analyzing each client’s site with an eye to what plants performed well. I’ll be reviewing photos of my hikes in desert habitats, where I saw many examples of grasses, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that thrive without much water. Last winter I had the opportunity to design a xeriscape in Carson City, Nevada, which receives only 11 inches of water per year! I’ll be pulling out that plant list again, for sure, and tweaking it for the Northeast.

A shout-out to Christie Dustman, who, at her inspiring talk at the ELA Summit, pointed out the incredible drought tolerance of conifers. I do include conifers in my designs for their beauty, winter interest, habitat enhancement, texture, etc., but I will now put conifers at the top of my list of go-to plants for drought tolerance.

Lawns! It seems a no-brainer to me to reduce water thirsty lawns, but to many people it is still very important to have large swathes of green leading up to their house, especially on large properties. In new designs I will very much downplay, or eliminate, lawn, and continue to fight the ‘lessen-your-lawn’ battle with existing clients.

We design and install lots of containers for our clients. Most are irrigated, but some depend on hand watering by the client (always a worrisome proposition). Annuals that kicked butt for us in spite of the drought and some less-than-stellar watering practices were Diplodenia/Mandevilla, Sweet Potato Vine, and all of the succulents. Also, ironically, the Asparagus and Kimberly Queen ferns are outstanding in dry containers. They have water/carbohydrate storing bublets or tubers on their roots that help when there is inadequate water. I’ll be leaning on those again in the future, and incorporating more baby conifers, as mentioned above, into my designs.

Right Water

Besides designing with water-wise plants, carefully installed drip irrigation can be crucial to plants surviving a severe drought. Already I never guarantee plants unless the client will commit to a drip system. Sometimes I work with professional irrigation companies to install the drip lines off of the same lines as the lawn irrigation lines. In this case they need to be installed on their own zone, as the timing requirements are different for lawn and planting beds of shrubs, perennials, and small trees. It also allows us to turn off water to the lawns in favor of irrigating the planting beds that clients have invested in. Occasionally I will install micro-drip systems right off of the client’s outdoor faucet. It’s easy and cost effective for the client.

Careful analysis of any existing irrigation systems will be important before taking on a new project; during the drought of 2016, I discovered two malfunctioning or under-functioning systems that seriously compromised the clients’ landscapes. During moister seasons, these under-functioning systems may slide under my, or the client’s radar and go unnoticed. In severe drought (if the municipality is allowing any irrigation), the systems provide at least a little life support for thirsty and overheated plants. Besides irrigation mechanics, I will encourage clients to make sure their drip systems are set correctly according to their towns’ requirements – neither under nor over the prescribed limits. Lawns mostly recover from drought, but some trees and shrubs may not. Several of my clients are investigating digging a well for landscape use, and I’ll be pointing certain other clients in that direction, after we address soil and plant choices.


I have not mentioned hardscape, which is a huge part of landscape design and has a significant impact on water usage, ground water renewal. and water storage. Suffice to say that we will continue to include, and look for new opportunities to design and install permeable patios and driveways, rain gardens, and water storage systems such as cisterns.