The Thought Experiment was fondly regarded by Albert Einstein, giving him the perspicacity to develop his more famous theories. Based on the results that one sees casually looking around, Planting Design is apparently as complex as, say, Special Relativity. Your Design Pundit wonders if the thought experiment might yield some interesting insights.
Think about this: is a 'low maintenance' landscape actually possible? What exactly would be needed to make this happen? What is a low maintenance landscape anyway?
It's something that your DP ponders frequently. For one thing, your DP is a lazy DP, but he also is a Design Pundit that appreciates enduring and surprising quality in upscale plantings. How shall the twain meet?
It's actually the case, of course, that low maintenance implies slower growth rates, which implies garden designs that look terrific all the time, and not just for a few weeks after the maintenance crew has been busy.
Continuing our thought experiment: what is a low-maintenance garden, anyway? Your DP is willing to concede that, as living things, plants do scramble over the course of time, becoming larger or endeavoring to reproduce. This disquieting activity can sometimes dismay those who prefer gardens neat and tidy. Worse, even a preference for a more unkempt look can be alarmed by the insistence of your garden plants to grow or to become, shall we say, engaged to one another.
That is the state of people as well as plants.
What does low maintenance mean in this context? Same as it means in any other context: let's keep trips out to the garden, tools (or checkbook) in hand, prepared for any activity other than pure enjoyment to a minimum, shall we? And those of you who comforted by a Felco #7 in your hand, well, you have your own issues then, haven't you? As do I, as do I.
Without a closer definition, we have no way to test the official DP advice. A low-maintenance garden also has this characteristic: it pretty much looks the same year after year. Isn't that what we want in our gardens? Yes, there are non-cultured landscapes, and your DP, being a well-practiced DP, knows all about these. But what he has in mind today is more along the lines of the common grounds for homeowner associations, where consistency is surely a blessing.
And by the way: did you know that your DP can make a short presentation at your next General Meeting? Yes he can, and without obligation, although the weeks fill up quite rapidly this time of year.
Low maintenance means this
Not wanting to be left with the dreaded 'L' word ("Oh, I love that!", a term never used by a proper designer.) So, a low-maintenance landscape, in no order except the first:
We require plants to be chosen according to horticultural suitability first, with design characteristics being in a far second place.
n Has a look consistent with the Master Plan over the natural lives of the plants;
n Is built with plants with true and known dimension;
n Is built with plants that are allowed to celebrate natural and proper dimension without onerous pruning;
n Is built with monocultures for the most part.
And, to achieve these goals, we start with design.
I can hear the groaning already! "There he goes again, talking about design! Stop it!"
There's a reason for this: if your designer is unintelligent about all 3,000 available plants, get another designer. If that designer cannot build a conceptual plant list for each spot with a dozen or so plants, all of which would thrive, start shopping. It's simple as that.
Smart plant choice is sine qua non. You cannot be successful otherwise. Your garden will be costly and it will look awful.
And that is how I justify saying that 'design is not opinion.' You can fret all you want about plant combinations — arguably, this is where art enters the process — but if the plant fails horticulturally, you and Superman are having a contest.
So, where are all of those low-maintenance plants? On my Bulletproof Plant List, of course, which has been updated and expanded and will be available soon.
How do you know?
We want our plants to reach the desired heights, don't we, and then stop growing? Sometimes when I say this to people I get a sort of blank stare. Mostly this comes from folks who really don't think much about plants.
Let's look at some examples: Wart Fern is one, so are Dianella, Parrot Flower, Zamia, Firebush, and many others that have the same characteristic of reaching a typical, mature height. Many plants don't behave this way but are very widely used: Arbicola, for example, or Ficus benjamina, or XXX. These are decidedly not low maintenance. Why are they used? Sadly, your DP does no know why we find 8-inch shrubs subjected to regular-size reductions to about 3-inch. It's humiliating.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.