Tips for creating a budget-friendly, low-maintenance backyard

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Longer days and warmer weather make us think about going outside, whether it’s to entertain family and friends or simply to relax and get lost in our thoughts. Instagram is also full of pictures of enviable outdoor living spaces that are worth emulating. But what if you don’t know a fern from a fig tree?

If you want a nice backyard but feel intimidated by the thought of spending a lot of time, money and energy to get it, take heart. Even people who are not great with plants and landscaping can have an outdoor space suitable for entertaining. There are two main elements to creating a comfortable, low-maintenance garden: durable hard-working plant that will stand up to the elements, and plants that don’t require much watering, pruning, or skill to keep them looking good.

Without getting too much into the weeds, here are some basic guidelines for designing an outdoor area that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance—or money.

The first step is to establish the area where you want to live your outdoor life.

“Figure out how you want to use your outdoor space,” says Tamara Belt, owner and landscape designer at Hawthorne Garden Design in DC “Do you sit and drink? Is it a place to cook and eat? Do you want a fire pit ?How many ‘rooms’ do you want?”

For city dwellers with a small backyard, a centered patio surrounded by a plant border is a classic layout. Suburban homeowners with a larger yard should think about zones: where you can entertain, where you can relax, where you have a lawn for children. In this scenario, a terrace to the side will make the yard look bigger and give children more space to play.

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Mulch is one of the most affordable hardscaping materials. For a simple outdoor gathering area, Belt recommends having a small fire pit with a circular mulch pad surrounded by a stone perimeter to help define the space.

You can also make a patio yourself with budget-friendly materials such as concrete pavers and pea gravel. Lay heavy-duty landscaping fabric before laying down pea gravel to prevent the small rocks from sinking into the mud. Then place stepping stones between the rocks. If loose pebbles are a problem, an adhesive can be applied to prevent them from spreading. Cast concrete pavers cut into shapes that mimic real stone are less expensive than natural materials such as Pennsylvania flagstone.

A more permanent option is a stone terrace set in sand rather than wet concrete. It is more expensive than pavers, pea gravel or a mulch pad, but it will stand the test of time. “It bends with the ground and you can fix it,” says Hugh Perry, a landscape designer and horticulturist with Meadows Farms in the D.C. area. Materials can include masonry, such as brick, tile, travertine or granite, and even porcelain tile.

As you plan, consider how the hardscaping will hold up year-round with rainfall. “Think about what it’s like when you have to shovel or there’s ice,” says Belt. “A gravel path is great, but after a big snow you can’t shovel it.”

Once your hardscaping is in place, look for low-maintenance plants that don’t need much pruning and do well with the hot summers and heavy rainfall of the Mid-Atlantic.

Before you buy, research the plant size as well as the rate and direction the plant will grow as it matures to understand how much maintenance it will require. “You want to think about how this thing moves over time,” says Perry, who recommends choosing plants that need trimming once a year.

Remember that in this case it’s best to keep things fairly simple and focus on a few types of planting. With more plant variety comes more work. “When people come into plants, they’re a kid in a candy store,” Perry says. “They buy too many varieties and then they just collect plants.”

A large cluster of one type of plant will grow together and help suppress weeds. This also creates a more dramatic look. “You get the cherry blossom effect,” says Perry. “It has a big impact.” This less-is-more approach is the foundation of a well-composed garden.

To keep your garden looking good year-round, plan for four seasons of interest. Belt recommends dividing your plantings so that a quarter will be at their prime each season. For example, a small farm with 12 plants would have three plants each dedicated to spring, summer, fall, and winter.

About a third of the plantings should be structural plants, such as evergreens, Belt says. “These are the bones of the garden that will be present all year round and give it shape.” From there, you can plan plants of varying heights and textures for contrast. “Otherwise you can end up with a bunch of plants lined up like books,” she says.

Flowers are only present for a short time, so don’t be seduced by large flowers in the nursery. Instead, notice a plant’s shape and foliage. Spring and summer plants have amazing flowers and fragrance, but in colder months it’s best to focus on colorful leaves, sculpted stems and berries.

As you plan, be aware of the differences between native, non-native and invasive species. When it comes to plants, some degree of aggressiveness is good because it keeps the weeds at bay. But watch out for invasive plants in the region, such as purple loosestrife, fall olive, Norway maple, tree of heaven and kudzu vines. They grow rapidly and disrupt the local ecosystem by pushing out native species. Although many non-native plants are not invasive and are beneficial for erosion control and water filtration, they do not provide food for local pollinators and birds as their native counterparts do.

“Being native doesn’t mean it’s a prettier or better plant, but we strongly caution against invasive plants,” says Perry.

Belt recommends the following plants for a low-maintenance four-season outdoor area in the Mid-Atlantic:

  • Eastern Redbud (Canadian Circles).
  • Flowering dogwood (A blooming horn).
  • Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).
  • Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis).
  • Arrowwood viburnum (A toothed viper).
  • Carex.
  • dachshund flower (Echinacea purpurea).
  • Marginal tree fern (Dryopteris marginalis).
  • river birch (Betula nigra).
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens).
  • summer sweet (Clethra alnifolia).
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).
  • Red Maple (Red maple).
  • Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).
  • White wood aster (Aster split).
  • Wrinkled leaf golden rice (Solidago rugosa).
  • Hollies (Ilex).
  • Red osier dogwood (Horn silk).
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
  • witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Marissa Hermanson is a freelance writer in Richmond.

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