Downsize the Garden to Age in Place in the South

Updated April 1, 2011
exterior of small house with yellow painted siding, green grass, and concrete sidewalk
Iriana Shiyan -

Whether it's the physical demands or time and cost of caring for a garden, simplifying it can ease the stress of maintenance.

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by Ellen Goff


When I asked my 93-year-old mother what was the best way for a homeowner like her to manage a home landscape, she said, "Raise your children to do it." Although this strategy has worked for the past 50 years, we've made a lot of changes along the way to reduce the cost and complexity of upkeep.

You don't have to be 93 to take a hard look at the demands of your own yard or patio. Downsizing or "right-sizing" the home landscape is a popular discussion for empty nesters and recent retirees as well as for seniors who want to age in place.

Factors such as expense, time and motivation are often as concerning as having the physical stamina to manage a lawn, flower beds, trees and shrubs. Ironically, after years of waiting for the extra time to create a real garden, many people find other outdoor interests more meaningful. Here in the South especially, we enjoy long seasons for golf and tennis and the beaches welcome visitors practically year-round.

So what's the best way to start reining in your landscape? Simplify.

"A good, practical approach is to limit those things that take up more resources - water, fertilizer, maintenance," says Greg Paige, a horticulturist for highly rated Bartlett Tree Experts in Charlotte, N.C. "The drought of the last couple of years has forced all of us to think about sustainability. A good start is to limit lawn size. Then, be sure you have the right plant in the right place for it to thrive."

To reduce the overall size of my mom's yard, we allowed the surrounding woodlands to encroach across the old property lines, consuming about half the space of the yard. To avoid a shabby appearance, we tamed the transition boundary with low-maintenance native plants, shrubs and lots of spring- and summer- blooming bulbs. We eliminated most perennial plants and restricted annual flowers to containers and hanging baskets.

Navid Derakhshan is more pragmatic in designing landscapes for light maintenance. He and his brother are co-partners of highly rated Outdoor Makeover in Marietta, Ga., where they create landscapes that can be managed simply with an annual cleanup. The key, Derakhshan says, is in the plant choices. "This is crucial," he says. "Use dwarf or slow-growing varieties and plant them where they have room to mature without pruning."

Derakhshan says there are many types of ground cover plants that are self-sustaining once established and add interest while blocking out weeds. He also suggests using mulch to deter weeds, such as pine straw, river stones or gravel. He recommends putting down weed barrier fabric first, then spreading mulch on top.

Be sure to inspect mature trees around your home, especially those with large roots that can crack and lift sidewalks. Phil Cervi, co-owner of highly rated Blalock Paving in Raleigh, N.C., says he deals with this nuisance often.

"We're honest and upfront with our customers about tree roots," Cervi says. "We can repair the walkway, but roots are going to go where they will." He says in many cases, tree removal is the only way to permanently fix the problem.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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