September 29, 2022

If you want a nice backyard but feel intimidated by the idea of spending a lot of time, money and energy to get it, take heart. Even people who aren’t good with plants and landscaping can have an outdoor space that’s fit for entertaining. There are two main elements to creating a comfortable, low-maintenance yard: durable hardscaping 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 in the weeds, here’s some basic guidance for designing an outdoor area that doesn’t require much upkeep — or money.

The first step is to establish the area where you’ll be doing your outdoor living.

“Figure out how you want to use your outdoor space,” says Tamara Belt, owner and landscape designer at Hawthorne Garden Design in D.C. “Are you sitting and having drinks? Is it a place where you cook and eat? Do you want a firepit? 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 to entertain, where to relax, where to have a grassy area for children. In this scenario, a patio off to the side will make the yard look bigger and give children more space to play.

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

You can also DIY a patio with budget-friendly materials such as concrete pavers and pea gravel. Lay heavy-duty landscaping fabric before you put down pea gravel to prevent the tiny stones from sinking into the mud. Then nestle steppingstones among the rocks. If loose pebbles are a concern, an adhesive can be applied to keep them from scattering. Poured concrete pavers cut in shapes that mimic real stone are less expensive than natural materials such as Pennsylvania flagstone.

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

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

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

Before buying, research plant size, as well as the rate and direction the plant will grow as it matures, to understand how much upkeep it requires. “You want to think about how this thing is moving through time,” says Perry, who recommends selecting plants that need to be trimmed once a year.

Remember that, in this case, it’s best to keep everything fairly simple and to focus on a few types of plantings. With more plant variety comes more work. “When people get into plants, they are a kid in a candy store,” Perry says. “They are buying too many varieties, and then they are just collecting 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,” Perry says. “It’s high-impact.” This less-is-more approach is the foundation for a well-composed garden.

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

Around one-third of plantings should be structural plants, such as evergreens, Belt says. “These are the bones of the garden that will be present year-round and give it shape.” From there, you can layer plants with varying heights and textures for contrast. “Otherwise, you may 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 wooed by big blooms at the nursery. Instead, take note of a plant’s shape and foliage. Spring and summer plants have great blossoms and fragrance, but for colder months it’s best to focus on colorful leaves, sculptural stems and berries.

As you plan, be aware of the differences between native, nonnative and invasive species. When it comes to plants, a certain amount of aggressiveness is good, because this keeps the weeds at bay. But beware of invasive plants in the region, such as purple loosestrife, autumn olive, Norway maple, tree of heaven and kudzu vines. They grow quickly, disrupting the local ecosystem by pushing out native species. Although many nonnative plants are not invasive and are beneficial for erosion control and water filtration, they don’t provide food for local pollinators and birds like their native counterparts do.

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

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

  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).
  • Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).
  • Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).
  • Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis).
  • Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum).
  • Carex.
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
  • Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis).
  • River birch (Betula nigra).
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens).
  • Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia).
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum).
  • Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).
  • White wood aster (Aster divaricatus).
  • Wrinkleleaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa).
  • Hollies (Ilex).
  • Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea).
  • Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Marissa Hermanson is a freelance writer in Richmond.