Read This: The New Low-Maintenance Garden

The New Low-Maintenance Garden: How to Have a Beautiful, Productive Garden and the Time to Enjoy It, by Valerie Easton, photography by Jacqueline M. Koch (2009)

Plant lovers may reject Valerie Easton’s very premise: that you can have a low-maintenance garden by making a “non-plant-centered garden,” one that depends on hardscaping for all-season structure and a limited, selective palette of the gardener’s favorite, easy-care plants. I’ve read enough comments on garden blogs to know that many readers are pro-plant and anti-hardscaping. We value plants above all else and view designers who want to pave part of the garden with suspicion.

Easton understands all too well. She writes,

We usually start our gardens with the best intentions and often with a plan in mind, which is soon abandoned when we tote home black nursery pot after nursery pot. All those tiny trees and shrubs and baby perennials look so innocent and scarcely dangerous. Just squeeze one more in, and then another and another. Soon enough our garden becomes a conglomeration of plants we’ve fallen in love with. We end up with a space that isn’t particularly personal or reflective of our needs, as well as such a maintenance nightmare we don’t love it for long….If you come to gardening through your love of plants, and most of us do, how can you possibly create a non-plant-centered garden?

Joan Caine’s garden, Cameron Scott/Exteriorscapes design, Seattle, WA. Posted with permission of the photographer.

She was herself a plant collector for many years, maintaining a large, richly planted garden until one day she realized it had become a chore rather than a sanctuary. Her son grown and her husband wanting to pursue other interests (not help in the garden every weekend), she found her garden had become all work and no play. So they sold their house and garden and moved to a new home with a smaller lot, which she promptly turned into a low-maintenance retreat for herself, her family, and friends. How? By eschewing most perennials and relying on hardscaping, small shrubs and trees, perennial bulbs, and groundcovers.

Easton advocates simplifying, decisively editing plant choices, thinking before planting, and, above all, making a strong design that will guide your planting scheme and make your garden look inviting all year with places to relax and enjoy the garden, not just work in it. Her mantra: “Design before plants, think geometry, and invest in infrastructure.”

Thomas Lloyd-Butler’s garden, Jeong Hyeon Lee design, San Francisco, CA. Posted with permission of the photographer.

The book is filled with lovely images of small gardens that blend extensive hardscaping—patios, wide paths, sheltering arbors, raised beds—with beautiful plantings of slow-growing foliage plants and seasonal color provided by bulbs, shrubs, and groundcovers, not perennials that require dividing, staking, deadheading, and pruning. Easton suggests using raised beds to define and divide the garden and provide a relatively weed-free place to grow ornamentals or edibles, and planting groundcovers that carpet the ground to squeeze out weeds.

Like many designers, she strongly believes in hardscaping as a way to bring people into the garden, provide unchanging structure, and reduce the planting area (after all, hardscaping doesn’t need to be watered or mowed). She does address sustainability issues like how to reduce water runoff, keeping rainfall on one’s property rather than moving it to storm drains; gardening without pesticides and herbicides; and incorporating edibles in the ornamental garden. At the end of each chapter she provides a list of additional reading or other resources.

The author’s garden in late summer. Posted with permission of the photographer.

Easton’s premise may not appeal to garden-blogging plant lovers. But it will be embraced by gardeners facing the limitations of an aging body or the time constraints of a busy career; by gardeners with a contemporary sensibility who want a clean-lined, non-fussy garden; by nongardeners who want an inviting place to enjoy being outdoors; and, not least, by designers who are asked by nearly every client for a low-maintenance garden.

Disclosure: The New Low-Maintenance Garden was sent to me for free from Timber Press for review purposes. My review is uncompensated, and my opinion is my own.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

posted in Books, Containers, Design

21 Responses

  1. Pam, this book appeals to me for my future residence, wherever that may be! I’m concerned that over the next 24 months, I might realize my own nightmare creation. My perennials are now small, but assuming that they WILL grow as everyone promises, I could end up with way too much maintenance for my liking. While I love being outdoors in the garden, I’m not one who wants to be out there every day, as true gardeners are wont to do. Thanks for the nice review, and I’ll be checking it out on Amazon.

    Oh, I don’t know, Robin. I think of myself as a true gardener, but I confess to not going out in my garden every day either. Every other day, perhaps. :-) As for the book, it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. As I start this new garden, I need to really think about how much maintenance I’m willing to do long-term. It’s easy to get carried away in the excitement of a new space and not consider how you’ll feel about all that pruning, watering, etc. 10 years down the road. —Pam

  2. cheryl says:

    Yes, gardening IS a lot of work, but it is also “therapy”. One (or at least, I) can totally forget about all the little ninny worries and troubles nagging at me by being totally emmersed in whatever garden project I have going at the moment. (usually several projects)LOL If and when I do sit down, I find myself leaping up almost immediately to tend to something that needs pruning, weeding, moving, adjustment…Frankly, I feel lazy when I just sit… unless its my turn to host the neighborhood “Wine Coolers Whenever” evening and then its fun to sit and listen to the comments and the laughter.

    Hi, Cheryl. Thanks for your comment! I agree wholeheartedly that gardening, even the hard work of it, can be relaxing—to a certain type of person (myself included). But not everyone is that person. As a designer, I have had many clients who are not gardeners and don’t care to be, but they still want a beautiful and relaxing outdoor space to enjoy. They do want to sit down in the garden and not always have to be working in it. They are among the target audience for this book, as well as those hard-core gardeners who feel it’s time to scale back. —Pam

  3. Jean says:

    Thanks for the review. If I could just get my “inner editor” under control, maybe I could edit down to just the low maintenance ones. Does she give tips for that? :-)

    Hi, Jean. Yes, she does. She talks about the kinds of plants that require less maintenance than others, and she offers advice for making those hard choices about which few to grow. I’m not ready to make those hard choices myself yet, but I can see that day coming. —Pam

  4. Amy Emerick says:

    I love the pictures of her garden. I have learned that gardening is hard work especially when I plant something and don’t allow enough room for it to grow. I am constantly pruning to keep it under control.
    I just bought ‘Marilyn’s Choice’ the one you mentioned on my blog that was a winner in your garden for fall and winter.
    I noticed the stock tanks in the photo. They do look pretty and I am thinking about getting one that size for a container. Where did you discover the idea to use stock tanks? -Amy

    I hope ‘Marilyn’s Choice’ works out as well for you as it has for me, Amy. I think Lori (Gardener of Good and Evil) has mentioned it favorably as well. As for the stock tanks, I don’t remember when I first got the idea to use them as planters. It must have been around the time I started my last garden, in 2000. I certainly didn’t originate the idea, as I’ve seen them around Austin for a number of years. They have become much more popular in the last several years all over the country, as evidenced by images in garden magazines and other blogs. Maybe they’re the contemporary tire planter or half-wine-barrel? ;-) —Pam

  5. I wonder if the “plant lovers” who might otherwise reject these ideas about the importance of hardscape… would relent in the face of images like the ones you have posted here? Sell them on the function of hardscaping as a way to frame and draw attention to their beloved plants, maybe? Hmm.

    p.s. I (heart) COR-TEN steel. You have no idea how much I YEARN to include some of that in my “rustbelt” garden. :)

    Cor-Ten steel in a Rustbelt garden—I love it, Kim. Cor-Ten is very popular in Austin too, used most commonly to make raised beds and stair risers. —Pam

  6. I have to say I completely agree with Valerie. I LOVE plants but I don’t regret for a minute all the space we’ve given over to hardscaping. Great review Pam, thanks for doing the dirty work! (hehe)

    Loree, your garden is a perfect example of what Valerie Easton’s talking about, I think. You have those stunning hardscaped spaces, surrounded by low-maintenance, mostly evergreen plants that look good year-round. And yet it is still, obviously, a gardener’s garden. —Pam

  7. Iris says:

    Great review, Pam! I may need to get this book. It’s so difficult to self edit sometimes, but then I see photos like the ones on this post and feel like ripping out half my front yard. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift.

    Your garden looks great, Iris. I think there’s a certain stage in life or circumstance when it makes sense to self-edit and scale back the workload in the garden. It doesn’t mean you have to start out that way though. :-) —Pam

  8. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This sounds like one book I would like to look at at least. I am sort of at that place in my life where I am looking at more shrubs tree etc. It feels good too. I just want it to look good.

    I know what you mean, Lisa. I’m thinking about mostly evergreens (agaves, yuccas, etc. for my climate) and grasses in the front yard, when I start gardening out there, to make it fairly low-maintenance. I’m not ready to cut down on my plant palette in the back garden yet though. —Pam

  9. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Pam, having recently added some hardscaping, I’d probably do well to read the book to see what advice would work for me. I would like a bit more time to just enjoy what I’ve created!

    Cindy, I’ve been meaning to tell you how great your new paths look. Congrats! —Pam

  10. Gail says:

    Pam, An excellent review~~The photos you’ve shown make her case beautifully. I am one of those plant lovers who figured out how important hardscape is in making a garden visitor friendly. it’s so much easier to do it from the beginning. Hindsight is almost always 20-20! Now, where can I find those delicious Cor-ten planters in Nashville! gail

    You’re right, Gail. In fact, many plant lovers come to appreciate hardscaping (or have the budget for it) after the garden is somewhat established. Ah well, better late than never, although it IS easier to plan for it from the start. —Pam

  11. I adore hardscaping. In fact, I’ve noticed that when I come back from visiting gardens, nearly all of my photos are of the hardscaping. Great review–I think I’m going to buy that book.

    I take a lot of photos of hardscaping too, Susan. It’s very important for framing a garden and making it accessible. —Pam

  12. Thanks for the review Pam. This looks like a book I would like to add to my gardening library. I love a book to have good pictures–I need that visual–and looks like this one does.

    It does have nice pictures, Linda, which is important to me as well. —Pam

  13. Town Mouse says:

    For the wildlife gardener, this approach is not very appealing. The more species, the more benign insects, and the more birds, butterflies, and pollinators. “Monoculture” allows bad bugs to thrive and is more likely to require that you fight back with pesticides.

    As for the maintenance issue, I try to find the right plants for the conditions I have in my garden, which means I don’t need to run around messing with them all the time. Then again, I appreciate that the book promotes water harvesting. I hope the author also points out the CO2 emissions of concrete and encourages the use of permeable pavers instead.

    Photos are great. Maybe she’s more plant-centric than she’s willing to admit…

    Thanks for your perspective about wildlife gardens, Town Mouse. You raise a good point, namely that monocultures can be detrimental to both plants and local wildlife. The author doesn’t promote monocultures in her book, but she does advocate a smaller plant palette.

    Contemporary design in general seems to lean that way as well, with fewer species and few flowering plants that would attract wildlife. That doesn’t make it bad—there’s room for many different styles of gardens—but it’s a consideration for the gardener who is attracted to a contemporary style but still wants birds and insects in her garden. —Pam

  14. Frank Hyman says:

    thanks for the comment Pam, have enjoyed your blog and the review too!

    Frank Hyman

    Thanks for visiting, Frank. I really enjoyed your guest post on Garden Rant about lawns. —Pam

  15. Ben says:

    Think before you plant? I guess that means think before you buy, too! Yikes! I often wonder how my garden will evolve as I grow older. It’s inevitable, for sure. If I make it to 100 I’ll probably become the gardener I was as a child, with a paper cup, a handful of dirt and a packet of marigold seeds. I have no doubt I’ll find just as much thrill and wonder in that cup of dirt as I do in the 1/5 acre I garden today. And now, back to work. I’m digging a new bed today!

    Hi, Ben. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I’m happy to know about another Austin gardener. Have fun digging out your new bed! —Pam

  16. Mamaholt says:

    Yep, I’m gonna buy it too. I am a lazy gardener and LOVE hardscaping. My 2 dogs and my child like to too. At 46, I already feel the effects of gardening all day and my garden is brand new. Hmmmm…saving for more stock tanks feels like a good idea.

    Oh yes, more stock tanks are always good, Mamaholt. —Pam

  17. yolie says:

    thank you for reviewing this book and including all the fabulous photos. i’m a firm believer in hardscaping and we’ve spent years transforming our yard in this manner. i’m inspired by the tanks as planters idea, i’ve got the perfect spot! funny how you might see something several times before the light bulb finally comes on.

    Oh yes, Yolie, stock tanks make fabulous containers. Check out my post about using stock tanks in the garden. —Pam

  18. David says:

    Great review, and I agree w/ the book’s concept. I am most definitely a plant person, but a garden is better when it merges architecture with life forms. People do not tend to stay in a place that is a chaotic mess; they stay in a space with order and peace…we do not visit natural areas because they look haphazard. Natural areas do have pattern and order, even the most diverse; hardscape contrasts and brings attention to plants like the sky, ground or landform does in nature.

    Kind of like strong, sculpture plants used well with more herbaceous plants…the former can stand on it’s own, the latter rarely can, but together…sweet music.

    (I enjoy your blog and ideas, too…a long way to get through all of it, though)

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, David, especially about finding order in nature. I’ll be thinking more about that. Thanks too for digging back through my blog. Yes, there’s a lot to see; I’ve been at this a while. :-) —Pam

  19. Wonderful review. I read her book too, and found myself surprised at her early statements, but after finishing it, I believe she’s correct about many things. Loved that you used the photographs of her garden to illustrate your review and her techniques. I still like my big rambling chaotic garden (at lease for now).~~Dee

    Thanks, Dee. I wanted to use multiple photos of the author’s garden, but the publisher/photographer sent me just one, plus a couple of other gardens in the book. Of course I was glad to have them, but I didn’t get to request specific photos. —Pam

  20. Great review. Design is a topic that people often times come to when the results of their labor does not match the vision in their head. The book looks like it talks about subjects we all need to be reminded of here and there!

    So true, CIMS. Thanks for your comment. —Pam

  21. jenny says:

    I think this is a book I really need to read. I do sometimes find my garden a bit of a chore but can’t quite get a handle on how to make it less so. Love the metal raised planters.

    I was thinking of you as I read this book, Jenny, since you’ve mentioned the chore issue to me before. —Pam