Designing a smart garden

 Smart garden design takes a lot of the work out of gardening. If you plan it right, you can have a beautiful garden that lets you take weekends off.

Truly low-maintenance gardens are carefully planned spaces. They are in scale with your property and with your expectations. They’re full of attractive plants that thrive in your climate without pampering. The flower beds are showy without being chaotic, and the lawn is a cool, carefully framed green picture, but it doesn’t gobble up your time, money or energy. When you get it right, a low-maintenance landscape makes gardening look easy.

“Designing from the top of your head may work, but it will most likely work better if you write it down and do a simple plan,” says Jack McKinnon, a garden coach in the San Francisco Bay area who helps clients design and plant their gardens. Having no plan at all is at the top of McKinnon’s list of common gardening mistakes.

Brian O’Neil, a garden designer in Norfolk, Va., helps his clients understand the spaces and conditions in their gardens and concentrate the plantings in areas that are easy to manage and take care of: In a low-maintenance garden, he doesn’t make the flower beds too big, and he groups plants according to their requirements for sun, shade and water.

In the center of a rose garden, O’Neil placed a sculptural urn, raised on a pedestal. As he says, the urn will never outgrow its space; it doesn’t need weeding, watering or fertilizing, and it will not die if it is neglected. It looks perfect year-round, and every summer the garden’s owner plants it with easy annuals that spill over the edges and complement the colors in the rose garden.

“Most people who call me want low-maintenance gardens,” says O’Neil, who is director of horticulture at Norfolk Botanic Gardens. When he starts a design project, he works with clients to use the best of what is already on their property — existing trees, evergreens and shrubs –adding flowerbeds with drifts of reliable plants.Most people also want a lawn, says Julie Messervy, a garden designer in Vermont. A lawn should be a refreshing swath of green, but it shouldn’t demand a lot of attention. “I don’t have to have a perfect lawn,” she says. “I don’t put chemicals on it.” Messervy, the author of “Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love,” thinks of lawns as great places to play croquet, badminton or ball games; they also help frame a garden and provide visual relief. Don’t make them too large, she says, and choose a grass that thrives without special attention. She recommends drought-tolerant, low-growing native buffalo grass, which is adapted to much of the United States. A no-mow mix of fine fescue grasses works well in northern gardens where buffalo grass will not thrive.

Flowerpots of all kinds let you grow the flowers you love without committing yourself to the work of large flower beds, and they also let you bring a part of the garden onto a patio or porch, or up the stairs.

Brian Kissinger, a garden designer in Paradise Valley, Ariz., likes to plant one spiky or leafy plant in each of a group of flowerpots, and cluster the pots together for a dramatic effect. Since he moved to Arizona from the Midwest, he has discovered a simpler style, partly in response to the rigors of the climate.

“Scale back: Look at your garden on a smaller scale,” he suggests. “Plant the things you really appreciate — you don’t have to plant everything. You can have a great look, a timeless look, if you plan it right, and if you limit yourself.”

Less work, more pleasure
Here are some low-maintenance gardening ideas from garden designers:

— Jack McKinnon, a garden coach in the San Francisco Bay  advocates mulching to conserve moisture, help control weeds and improve the soil. He is an enthusiastic organic gardener who has learned that when nature is in balance in your garden, the good bugs (and birds) help control the bad bugs, and the pests usually are not a problem.

— Smart paving materials look good and make any garden easier to keep up, says Julie Messervy, a garden designer in Vermont. Messervy  also recommends using local stone where it is available, bricks or high-quality paving material that will stand up to your climate and conditions. “When you pave a patio or courtyard, what is left over is easy to take care of,” she says.

— Native plants and plants that are naturally adapted to your climate and region are among the best choices for low-maintenance gardens.