It would be great if we all had our landscapes designed by a professional with many years of experience and the wisdom that comes with that. Unfortunately such people are few in number and expensive to hire. So most of us will wind up designing our landscapes using what knowledge we have gained from our own experience and that of our friends and relatives. Most of us will also tend to copy the landscapes we see in our neighborhood.This seems to be a sensible and cost effective method of providing a home landscape that is acceptable among our peers.
Trouble is that most of our friends, neighbors, and relatives are not skilled in cutting edge landscape techniques or horticulture. So they continue to plant the same tired old plant selection. They continue to repeat the same old design with the lawn as the major focus, a tree or two planted squarely in the middle, and a row of tightly clipped evergreens stretching from corner to corner against the house. Thankfully this old routine has begun to slowly evolve into landscaping that involves less lawn (or no lawn in some cases) and a more practical plant selection that requires less pruning, less fertilizer or chemical support, and above all, less water.
Homeowners today are demanding low maintenance landscaping. Perhaps the most critical factor in providing this is selecting plants that are best suited to our environment. However if you watch what these same homeowners purchase on their own you will find that the plants they bought were selected for one reason only………they looked good at the nursery. Ask any person in the nursery business and they will tell you, “If it doesn’t look good, it won’t sell.” Very few people are willing to purchase a plant on merit alone. If it is the least bit scraggly or bare branched it will be passed over. The perfect dense leaved varieties that have been the mainstay of the old high maintenance landscapes of the past remain popular on the basis of looks alone.
A good example of this is the desert willow. This native of western Texas and Mexico enjoyed popularity in your grandmother’s time (say 60 to 80 years ago). Once the general public decided that any tree worthy of purchase must have a straight trunk and closely resemble a big lollipop, this beautiful but typically crooked tree fell by the wayside. Desert willow as a young tree resembles a wiry, scraggly, crooked shrub rather than a tree. After a few years of growth it finally does stand up and develop a nice (but usually still crooked) multi-trunked tree form. Desert willow is making a strong come back among today’s homeowners because of several very desirable attributes. First of all it requires no extra water other than rainfall once established. It grows fast so one doesn’t have to wait long for shade, but the most exceptional quality and saving grace is the flower. The large trumpet flowers ranging from white, to pink, or maroon usually appear the first year of growth. The bloom period lasts typically from May through October and at times is very showy. Still the nurseryman must be able to explain all this to convince the buyer to purchase this scraggly young seedling. Even then, the customer will select the straightest one in the bunch even though they were just told (by a professional) that the crooked ones make the most interesting specimens.
It is strange but so very true that when we shop for plants we let our eyes make the final decision. We all have a concept what pretty is and conversely what ugly is. This is a natural response. We can be taught to appreciate the beauty that others see but have a hard time learning to like it ourselves. In order to make good plant choices sometimes we must force our eyeballs to take a back seat and let our common sense prevail. Sure that specimen may look great now, but will it eventually get too large for the space we intend to use it in? Sure you could cut it back but pruning often is high maintenance, isn’t it?
The following are some of the things that should be considered as you plan your landscape. These points are extremely important to achieve that goal of low maintenance that most of us say we want.
1. Weather- This is the absolute most critical factor to consider when selecting plants. The plants should be capable of surviving not just the “average” weather we expect but the extremes as well. Study the weather records in your area to learn just how hot, cold, wet, or dry it has been. Understand that these extremes can and almost certainly will occur again.
2. Exposure- The slope of your land, presence of water (rivers and creeks, lakes and ponds), trees, building structures, and even large rocks create micro-climates that have a great effect on plant selection. Is your home on a hilltop or down in a wooded valley? What direction do the prevailing winds blow? Plants dry out quickly in areas exposed to wind. Choose accordingly. Place a thermometer on the sunny south side of the house then place it on the shady north side. On any given day this experiment can show you the wide range of temperatures the plants in those locations must endure. Paying attention to exposure and micro-climate greatly increases the number of plant species you can choose and their success in surviving.
3. Soil- Soil is usually the first thing people tend to blame when a plant dies (actually most plant deaths are attributed to weather instead). Know your soil type and select plants that can grow in it. While it is relatively easy to improve a small area (say for a vegetable garden or bedding plants) it becomes increasingly harder to improve large areas. Large plants like trees and shrubs have extensive root systems that quickly grow well beyond the holes we plant them in. Better to choose your plants to fit your soil rather than attempt to change the soil. A soil test is a very good way to understand your particular soil and what is or is not in it as far as minerals and nutrients are concerned.
4. Drainage- Along with soil type you will learn of another critical factor called drainage. This refers to how quickly water percolates through your soil. As you read nursery tags or study plant books and catalogs, you will find that most plants are recommended to be planted in “well drained” soil. There is a good reason that you see so many of these plants in the nursery trade. That is because most plants are grown in pots with drain holes so they lend themselves perfectly to this culture. Remember that plants have to “look good” to sell. Does this mean that if you are plagued with tight clays, caliche, or have an underlying shelf of solid rock that you can’t have a nice landscape? Certainly not. Although raised beds can be built and are a good way to insure drainage, you will find that nature provides plants for all situations. There are a good number of plants that can grow in tight soils or boggy conditions. It will take a bit more study to learn about these versatile plants and possibly a bit of searching to find a nursery that sells them but that is way more cost effective than having to build raised beds for everything.
5. Mature size- Still the number one mistake made by novice landscapers and even professionals lacking in experience. Plants are chosen and arranged paying strict attention to color, texture, and growth form. The finished landscape looks great the first year. Somewhere around the third year some plants will begin to swallow others, it becomes apparent that the bed isn’t wide enough, or we find ourselves having to constantly shear off new growth that seems determined to block the view from the window or grow into the eaves of our house. What comes to mind immediately is topiary. You know those shrubs we see that are clipped into spirals or “poodles” that you find so many new homes will display on either side of the front door or in those little squares the builder left on either side of the garage? If more people realized that these topiary are fashioned from shrubs capable of growing quite large (some are actually small trees) we probably wouldn’t see so many planted. Again we let our eyes get the better of us. Topiary look great and are fine for people who really enjoy pruning. The rest of us should pass on this temptation.
There are many other factors that come into play when designing a low maintenance landscape but plant selection is the most critical. All of us are aware of our favorite colors, shapes, and texture. There surely are trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants that you will find attractive that are capable of surviving local weather extremes. They may be different from the ones chosen by your mom and dad back in the 1950’s. Back then water was cheap and few of us had a clue about the problems we would eventually face regarding chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They also had us kids to help with the mowing, weeding, and pruning. Back then, most of the plants we used were exotic species collected from foreign countries. Most were not native to the United States let alone Texas. Some of these exotics managed to adapt and survive our environment very well. However, many could not survive without our extra help. Visit your old neighborhoods today to see what has withstood the test of time.
When you ask the question, “Will this plant survive in my soil, exposure, and climate once it becomes established?” You will find the best choices are your local native plant species. These guys have withstood every drought, flood, and cold winter we’ve had in many hundreds (or in some cases thousands) of years. Although they may be the latest thing to show up at your local nursery or neighborhood, they are nature’s oldest and best solution. Today’s cutting edge low maintenance landscape will utilize mostly native plants. With literally thousands to choose from, it shouldn’t be too hard to find some that will be perfect for your needs. Likely some of these will look a bit scraggly in their nursery containers, but that doesn’t mean they won’t grow to be excellent landscape specimens. It just means they don’t respond well to nursery culture. Survival in Texas often calls for deep and wide reaching root systems. That’s hard to do when you are only allowed a one gallon pot to grow in.