Is a maintenance-free urban green and greenery possible?

What happens if the designed urban green and greenery is not maintained at all?

  • Planted trees and plants suffer from water shortage, leading to their weakening. They may not root very well and could die. Even if they do root, the stress caused by water shortage can lead them to weaken further, making them susceptible to various diseases and pests, stunting their growth. The aesthetics diminish as the plants do not appear healthy or lush.
  • Plants requiring regular trimming lose their compact shape without maintenance: elongation takes place, they may partially dry, and the crown may thin out. For some plants that need pruning to stimulate blooming, flowering may decrease or cease altogether. The aesthetic appearance is lost, and the plants fade in general.
  • Planting areas and flower beds become overgrown with weeds, and if the weeds are vigorous, they can outcompete the initially planted species. The natural selection leaves behind stronger and more resilient species.
  • Natural succession or change of species in a habitat. Dominant species producing strong regrowth, such as those spreading through root suckers or rhizomes (e.g., horsetails, couch grass), those with high seed germination rates (e.g., ash, elm, maple), or those that produce a lot of seeds (e.g., sorrels, Turkish warty-cabbage) will take over. This means that naturally aggressive and seed-spreading species will dominate the planting areas and flower beds, and the initially planted species will gradually be gone and replaced. With no maintenance, nature takes over and curates the planting areas according to competition – the strongest will survive.
  • When plant species and habitats are replaced, the concept and function of the landscape design disappears. For example, suppose a sensory garden (or outdoor learning area, etc.) was established, but with the end of maintenance, edible plants (and plants intended for educational purposes) are replaced by other species (which may not be edible), then the whole idea of the sensory garden is lost.
  • In the fall, leaves falling from trees and shrubs can cause lack of oxygen the plants underneath if left in a thick layer, leading to the death of the lawn and its replacement with more resilient, seed-spreading species.

Therefore, a maintenance-free greenery is achievable, but it must be considered that the plants in the planting areas will be replaced over time by natural, spontaneously generated vegetation.

Next, it must be decided whether or not to be satisfied with the natural succession.

  • If it is acceptable, then a maintenance-free greenery is possible.
  • If it is not acceptable, then the planting areas and flower beds must be completely replanted every 5-7 years as the planted species gradually die off and are replaced by natural vigorous vegetation.

Why are maintenance-free green areas so desirable?

1. Often the goal in landscape design is to achieve an aesthetic and functional solution with optimal balance in both establishment and subsequent maintenance. This idea is valid and correct and should be the basis. Before designing, it is necessary to determine (see also our post on the necessity of the design brief and how to draft one) what is needed for the area (functionality), what are the resources for maintenance (budget), and who will maintain the area (property owner or local government, which assumes ordering the service and preparing a maintenance budget).

2. Landscape design often aims to ensure that maintenance:

  • Is cost-effective with minimal expenses:
    • Requires little time – the work can be done quickly and easily.
    • Involves minimal labor costs – work can be done with machines and requires less man power.
  • Is simple, not requiring special technical resources for maintenance, a lot of different equipment, or specific skilled labor.
  • Is resource-efficient – using few different resources – minimal watering, fertilizing, pest control, etc., not needing many different tools and types of skilled labor.

Common fears regarding landscape maintenance

  • Maintenance is very complex. This fear is associated with unawareness of plant growth conditions and different maintenance techniques, leading to the perception that it is very complicated.
  • Maintenance is expensive and costly. This fear is related to the resources required for maintenance, which were not previously considered, including the need for regular skilled gardening work (e.g., seasonal pruning), daily maintenance (e.g., watering, fertilizing, pest control), etc.
  • Maintenance is time-consuming. This fear is also related to the cost of maintenance. Landscape maintenance can be compared to house cleaning, just conducted in the outdoor space. Dust accumulates over time, and if we do not clean for a long period of time, the house gets covered in dust. The same is true for green areas, where nature gradually takes man made flower beds over without human intervention, leading to the natural succession of habitats based on the principle of natural succession.
  • The neighbor’s back yard looks better?! The landscape design must be more impressive than the neighbor’s yards. While general maintenance like mowing and trimming is usually manageable, other maintenance, often the most important (regular pruning, watering, fertilizing, etc.), may not seem understandable or necessary, and therefore is often neglected. This causes stress to the plants, degrades the health of the greenery, diminishes aesthetics, creates an impression of neglect, and eventually leads to the natural succession of plant species.

How to optimize and minimize landscape maintenance?

1. A clear design brief is the prerequisite for a good result. The design brief should describe what is needed and what is the desired result; and information about who will maintain the area.

2. A well-designed and well-thought-out project. A lot can be done during the design phase to ensure that the outcome is aesthetic, functional, and has optimal maintenance costs. The right plant in the right place grows well, and maintenance costs are reduced. This requires involving a competent landscape architect who knows living material very well.

Smart design optimizing maintenance needs means:

  • Choosing plants that suit the growing conditions of the site (including light and soil conditions), thereby reducing their need for maintenance, as they thrive and are stronger and healthier growing in the suitable conditions.
  • Choosing generally hardy and low-maintenance plants (e.g., those that maintain their shape well, require pruning only once a year, are drought-resistant, etc.).
  • Assembling plants in such a way that there is no room where unwanted plants could start to grow. This means that the entire growing season, the planting area is covered and lush, and unwanted plants (including weeds) cannot grow in the planting area, as dense planting covers the entire area and capture all the light.
  • Designing irrigation systems through which watering and, if necessary, fertilizing can be done. It is important to note that this reduces the need for human labor and allows for automation.
  • Minimizing leaf raking by designing more evergreen plants. It is also possible to designate areas where collected leaves can be composted on-site to return valuable humus to the plants.

3. Requiring quality throughout the planting and constructing phase. When well established, then less time and resources are needed for maintenance. The best outcome is achieved when high-quality materials (growing substrates, seedlings, mulches, other auxiliary materials) are used, and the work is done by a professional (gardener, arborist, landscape gardener) who does their job at the best possible way.

4. Preparing a maintenance plan. The maintenance plan indicates the specific tasks and type of work in certain point of time for every planted area and flowerbed. This helps to plan maintenance work ahead and ordering the services on time, which is an important cost-saving point. Prevention is always cheaper than solving problems, e.g., pest control work is more expensive than weeding and watering.

In conclusion, the key to a minimal maintenance landscape design is smart design, where everything from design phase, plant and material selection to planting and construction is well thought through.

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