University of Missouri Extension

G6902, Reviewed June 2008

Low-Maintenance Landscaping

Christopher J. Starbuck
Department of Horticulture

Few homeowners intentionally install a landscape that requires a great deal of maintenance. However, unless care and planning are used in landscaping, you may find yourself spending more time taking care of the yard than you had hoped.

The term "low-maintenance landscaping" should be kept in perspective. All landscapes require some maintenance. Plants are living organisms that require routine care to thrive. However, with proper design and selection and timely maintenance, you can create a home landscape for leisurely enjoyment.

To achieve a satisfying landscape design, the planting process must begin with planning. Whether renovating an existing landscape or installing a new one, a good place to start is to take a family inventory. Most likely you will not immediately install all of your plan's features. Consider both your present needs and future desires in this planning stage. Set priorities and develop the plan as time and money allow.

Site analysis

Once the use areas of the property are defined, take a closer look at environmental aspects of the property. For a complete analysis, the property must be examined at various times of the year. For example, you'll want to provide some protection from winter winds but open the home to cooling summer breezes. Likewise, shade patterns change dramatically with the seasons. Provide for early morning and late afternoon shade during summer months by locating shade trees on the east and west exposures of the home. Leave the area directly south of the house open to allow winter sunlight to warm the house.

In addition to sun and wind control needs, the site analysis should include a check of soil drainage and storm runoff. Low spots may need additional fill or a change of grade to permit proper drainage. Steep slopes may need a retaining wall or terracing. Make note of special microclimates — areas that are particularly protected, exposed, dry, wet, shaded, sunny, cool, or hot. For example, the south side of the house may be protected from extreme winter temperatures and winds, but be excessively hot and dry during summer, while an area near a downspout may be constantly wet. Also note good views that should be preserved or unsightly views that should be screened.

Take a soil test to determine if soil amendments or fertilizers are needed. Most Missouri soils benefit from the addition of organic matter. Where the soil can be tilled, add 1 to 3 inches of peat, compost, or well-rotted manure to the surface of the existing soil. A 1-inch-deep layer requires about 3 cubic yards of organic material per 1,000 square yards. Work the organic matter into the top 6 inches of existing soil. Avoid tilling under established trees. Tilling destroys many tree roots, leading to possible decline or death of the tree. Improve soils under trees slowly by adding compost to core aeration holes or amending small pockets of soil within the tree's root zone each year.

Maintenance by design

Maintenance needs in the landscape are closely tied to the design. Aesthetic reasons for including certain features in the landscape may be in conflict with low-maintenance goals. A compromise may need to be made between an unimaginative landscape with least possible maintenance and a more pleasant, functional landscape with low-maintenance features. Following are some design considerations to enhance low maintenance.

Plants grouped into beds Figure 1
Plants grouped into beds require less care than individual specimens. Develop walkways through wide beds for easy access and maintenance.

Groundcovers Figure 2
Many groundcovers are better adapted to shady yards than turf grasses are. Choice of plant materials ranges from big, bold-leaved hostas to grasslike liriope. In addition to providing interesting foliage colors and textures, many groundcovers bloom for several weeks each growing season.

Plant selection and establishment

Good low-maintenance design techniques may be negated by improper plant selection. Choose the right plant for the site. Following are some pointers for selecting and establishing your landscape plants.

Ornamental grasses and native wildflowers Figure 3
A combination of introduced ornamental grasses and native wildflowers backed by Viburnum shrubs makes an attractive low-maintenance border adapted to dry, sunny conditions.

Check garden plantings Figure 4
Check garden plantings to detect pest problems in early stages. Look closely at stem tips and on undersides of leaves. Note development of any unusual spots or discolortation on leaves and stems.

Proper maintenance

After plants are established in the landscape, maintenance needs can be minimized by following correct maintenance procedures on a timely basis. Following are some suggestions to reduce the time and amount of maintenance necessary in established landscapes.

Planning checklist

This checklist is designed to help you consider your family's needs and wants. The more you consider these, the better the plan will fit your lifestyle. Check the items that affect your family, and add information for later planning.

Personal and family profile

How many people are now in your family?

Do you expect additional children or grandchildren?

What are the ages of the children?

Are any members of the family physically limited in mobility?

What specific allergies do family members have?

List special gardening interests.

If you plan to have a vegetable garden, do you plan to grow vegetables for fresh use only or for freezing and canning also?

Do you enjoy working outdoors to maintain the landscape? Which maintenance chores are you willing to do yourself, and which will you hire done?

What are some of your favorite flowers?

What are some of your favorite shrubs?

What are some of your favorite trees?

Family activities

What types of outdoor cooking and seating for meals do you need to plan for?

What size groups will you entertain and need to provide outdoor seating for?

In which yard games and sports does your family participate?

Are special activity areas needed for children? If so, which activities?

How much time do you normally spend in outdoor leisure activities in the yard?

Family service needs

Do you need a spot for a clothesline?

Where are the trash cans stored?

What kind of shelter and fencing is needed for pets?

Where will garden tools and supplies be stored?

Do you have parking or storage needs for a boat, camper, mower, or extra vehicles?

Do service vehicles (delivery trucks, garbage trucks, fire trucks or ambulance) have convenient access?

Are there unsightly views that need screening?

Future plans

List any house additions or landscape features you plan to add in the future.

Several hours of planning and thought before planting can prevent maintenance headaches for years to come.

G6902 Low-Maintenance Landscaping | University of Missouri Extension

Order publications online at or call toll-free 800-292-0969.

University of Missouri Extension - print indicia