Real Estate

Go to your happy place

Creating a stress-free garden in four easy steps

by Dawn Engel

Gardens are restorative environments where we can relax and enjoy being outdoors and feeling one with the world, right? Uh, not quite! In my career as a landscape designer, I have worked with some seriously anxiety-ridden garden owners.

I hear the same thing over and over: My plants are all looking diseased. My water bill is higher than my mortgage. I'm sick of spending my weekends pruning and weeding, and so on. Unfortunately, it seems as though our gardens can contribute just a wee bit of tension to our lives.

I know that gardens can be a pain in the you-know-what, and I want to offer some of my hard-fought wisdom. In my 15 years of designing gardens for hundreds of homeowners, I have come to one basic conclusion and it is this: Streamlined, easy-care gardens make for happy lives.

Here are my four basic steps to creating a simple, happy, stress-free garden:

1. Get rid of headache plants. Cast a cold, hard eye on your garden and be ruthless. Tear out any plants that are too frost-tender, too thirsty, too disease-prone or too insect-infested. Don't get sentimental on me now. Get rid of everything that you have to cover when it's cold, spray or fertilize every two weeks or deadhead constantly. You have more important things to do than babysit a bunch of diva plants.

2. Simplify your plant palette. Maybe you love the look of a cottage garden filled with one of every type of plant, all mixed together in a montage of contrasting colors, textures and forms. Or maybe you are like me, and see all those plants and think: maintenance nightmare. It makes sense to limit the number of differing plant species in your garden if you don't want to break the bank (or spend all of your weekends) maintaining it.

I prefer to plant in masses rather than take the "one of each" approach. Massing looks cleaner and calmer to the eye and is so much easier to take care of. Imagine a front yard with a drift of blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) paired with bright and ebullient kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos 'Orange Cross'). It takes just two or three types of plants to create powerful design impact, all while reducing your garden chore workload.

3. Downsize your planting areas. I know it's strange to hear a landscape designer tell you to take plants out of your landscape. I know gardens are supposed to be full of the green stuff. However, by leaving some breathing room in your garden, you open up a plethora of possibilities. Contemplative open spaces to practice yoga, crunchy gravel paths to stroll on, extra patio space to use as a spontaneous dance floor -- all of these things increase the options for enjoying our garden and give us a reason to head on out there. The best part: You don't need to water and fertilize a dance floor.

4. Make your garden give back. We all know how good it feels to do something selfless for others, so be a little altruistic and create a garden that is as tempting to birds and beneficial insects as it is to you. Plant Salvia 'Pozo Blue' to attract native butterflies. If you need to plant a hedge, consider Arctostaphylos densiflorus 'Howard McMinn' to provide habitat and nectar for birds and other native wildlife.

Also, properly dispose of all of those nasty garden chemicals you have skulking around in your shed. There are so many wonderful organic options available now; there is no need to unleash toxic stuff in your garden anymore. Remember that your yard is possibly the only bit of nature that you have complete control over; make choices that fit your needs and the needs of the creatures you share the land with -- and bask in the feel-good vibes that come with that.

Dawn Engel is the principal landscape designer and project manager for Samscaping, Inc. and the president of the Peninsula District APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers). She can be reached at


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