Put in the Prep Time
Experts agree: Extra hours on the front end pay dividends later when it comes to creating a low-maintenance backyard. "By far, bed prep makes a difference for years to come," says Will Stribling, who owns Sutter Landscapes, LLC, a Design/Build & Maintenance firm in North Carolina.
That includes getting your soil tested and making notes of sun/shade patterns as well as moisture and microclimates -- a patch of yard that dips and is cooler than elsewhere, for example.
Learn more about soil testing.
Get tips for evaluating your yard.
Analyze Your Gardening Habits and Constraints
Time, vision, and reality: These key elements make a low-maintenance backyard. When Madeline Ann Sutter, with Sutter Landscape Architects & Gallery in North Carolina, meets a new client, she asks three questions: What do you have, what do you want, and what do you want to change? "It's a way of helping the client collaborate in the design of her outdoor space," Sutter says.
For example, a garden can be designed to take as little maintenance as possible, but only if you're honest about your lifestyle. You may love roses, but they may not be the best plant if you don't want to fuss with their upkeep. Instead, a carefully chosen tree or two, or well-sited drift of one type of perennial is a good beginning to test your ability to care for a garden. In addition, if there's room in your budget, hire some of the more labor-intensive tasks to reduce your time commitment, too.
See even more maintenance tips to save you time and work.
Buy Healthy Plants from a Reputable Grower
Both Sutter and Stribling recommend purchasing plants from a nursery that knows plants and their habits and can answer questions about performance. "This is your assurance that the plants are disease-free and have been well tended since the start of their lives," Sutter says.
Video: Watch tips for picking healthy plants.
Research Plant's Mature Size, Care, and Growth Patterns
A newly planted tree may seem small in the existing landscape, but that changes. If you pick an ill-suited spot or stuff too many plants in one space, you'll pay the price in unhealthy results. Tend your plants well and place them in a site they're suited for, and in time you'll be rewarded with healthy, beautiful flowers, shrubs, vines, or roses.
Use our Plant Encyclopedia to research your plants.
Periodically Reevaluate Your Garden
As trees grow, they provide increasing amounts of shade. A fence changes the flower border needs of your landscape. A new structure might require a trellis and a vine. Every few years, step back from your landscape and figure out what long-term adjustments you might need to make. If you're thinking of adding a plant or a built element, research its maintenance requirements -- dividing plants, staining wood -- to make low-maintenance backyard. If you can't -- or don't want to -- handle the work requirements, your landscape may get the best of you.
Refresh Your Mulch
For what it costs -- and the effort it saves -- mulch is an inexpensive superstar. It cuts down on erosion, minimizes weeds, and creates an attractive, unifying element in garden beds. Add a couple of inches each year.
Learn more about mulch.
Use our mulch calculator.
Buy the Right Tools and Equipment
Tools make quick work of what would otherwise be time-consuming tasks. Do your research and find the right pruning, digging, raking, and other equipment that can help you make a low-maintenance backyard. Keep your tools sharp and clean to prevent potential spread of disease.
See our list of must-have garden tools.
Learn to sharpen your tools.
Consider Your Garden's Style
Traditional gardens are often defined by clipped plants and rigid hedgerows, elements that many people believe are time-consuming. But a more naturalistic looking landscape also can add hours to your maintenance schedule. "To create a natural appearance on a shrub, for example, takes artful fine pruning, and that can be a slower, more difficult process than straight trimming," Stribling says.
That's not to say that natural landscapes always take more time, but different tasks in different style gardens will require forethought and planning and may not be the easiest way to make a low-maintenance backyard.
"I've done it myself and watched many people run around watering everything," Stribling says. "Clients say they will water but it gets old and plants do not do well."
There are other options, including professional installation, as well as a few soakers and emitters with a timer. "Instead of having to redo things from the ground up, you'll always have a good base, and it can make the difference between good results and nightmarish results," Stribling says. "They're worth their weight in gold, and there are really efficient ways to do it. Water has gotten quite expensive and maximizing that is by far worth it. If a garden is watered well in its first couple of years, by the third or fourth year it can exist on its own with minimal supplemental watering."
Realize that Maintenance Needs Change
The first couple of years of a new landscape can be fairly maintenance heavy. But patience, persistence, and care pay off, Stribling says. "Don't be unrealistic; have patience and the garden will run itself in a few years," he says.
Go for Fewer Plants with Big Impact
"A lot of people will take this brand new bed and crowd it with 30 to 40 things," Stribling says. Instead, think less is more: A few big-deal trees and a drift of the same high-performance perennial can pay off to make a low-maintenance backyard. "You get to decrease maintenance dramatically," he says.
Tend to Problems When They Happen
Let plants get stressed by disease, lack of water, or over-fertilizing, and they'll require more care. Instead, create a maintenance schedule -- formal or informal -- to stay on top of problems. For example, walk around your yard every few days to pull stray weeds, deadhead here and there, and make sure nothing looks diseased or dying. "What I learned the hard way and what I tell every client is 'Call me before, don't call me later,'" Stribling says. "A garden is like a closet: Let it get too cluttered and it's way out of hand and you won't want to deal with it. Maintain a routine, and it won't have such an easy time getting away from you."
Learn What Your Plants Need
Prune an oak tree during warm weather and you invite disease. Transplant peonies in spring and they may not bloom the following year. The things that you don't know about your plants can become harder to deal with and go a long way toward preventing you from learning to make a low-maintenance backyard. "If you do things too early or too late, you won't get the best results," Sutter says.
Check out our regional gardening guides for information specific to your area.
Consider Lawn Alternatives
Lawn is a maintenance-intensive addition to a backyard. Minimize yours by creatively using groundcover and flowerbeds in areas where a stretch of grass isn't necessary. You'll eliminate fertilizing, mowing, aerating, and other tasks associated with lawn upkeep.
Check out these top groundcovers.
Remember to Make It Beautiful
A beautiful yard is one you want to be in and one in which everyday maintenance tasks don't seem so burdensome. "I'm in my landscape just to enjoy it all the time," Sutter says. "I tell people to have something in their landscape that draws them there regularly, another room to go to that they enjoy. Then the garden will keep you wanting to go out there, and you'll take care of it."