low maintenance low water landscaping - please help!

laurell(8 - Washington)August 11, 2011

I posted this on the PNW forum, but I figured that I would post here to get your guys' expert opinions as well.

We FINALLY tore out some of the almost 40 year old junipers from the front of our house (half of them was 9 - 4 feet apart!). We are replanting the lawn (ugh - it'll come out in 2 years when hubby is over it and there's more money to do more extensive landscaping) but will be rebuilding an L-shaped berm and doing some plantings on it. For now, I'm going to do 3 clusters of plantings, one at each corner that can eventually melt into each other as funds become available and I develop a clearer understanding of the space without those horrific bushes there. We're having 10 yards of compost delivered (2-3 of which will be going on the lawn portion, the remainder will get stirred into the rocky sandy dirt) to build up a bit of a berm, and then I want to plant drought resistant plants (I don't mind watering to get things established, but I'd rather spend my time watering my more high maintenance beds in the back that have tons of flowers and vegetables). The area is full full full sun, as in it only gets shade when the sun is down.

I've chosen to go with a blue/purple/purple-pinky/white color palette for blooms (my back yard is a rainbow and at times it feels a bit disjointed). I've taken to thinking of the 3 separate corners as "vignettes."

I've included a couple pictures of the areas that will be vignettes, and the main grassy part, plus the rocky thing. The front picture shows the yard much as it sits tonight, the junipers along the side of the house are going in a few weeks, but hubby wants to get the grass going now, so we need soil, and he is insistent that the house not be sporting "a huge unplanted berm of dirt."

For the first vignette, which is next to the driveway, I have a vaguely mountain shaped piece of black slate, and a very sturdy (heavy!) rock to prop it up that I'm going to affix house numbers to, and hopefully at some point use a spot light to illuminate. Since this is the only area that is getting planted this weekend, the plan is a bunch of purple blooming sage, some english and french lavender (not the small varieties), and I plan to pick up some rosemary and hopefully another shrubby thing to put behind the slate that I can use elsewhere in the landscape (nandina maybe?) I have some thyme (a flat of it!) that I was going to use in the back yard, as well as 3 decently sized Mediterranean spurges that I bought and found out that their sap is mega nasty that I don't want around the dogs, so most of that will probably make its way into this vignette as well.

Vignette 2 will probably contain 1 smallish alaskan weeping cedar, several nandina, and some lavender(love me some lavender!), and various sedums that I'm able to track down at Flower world or something.

Vignette 3 will be a largish shrub that can survive under a fir tree (but still gets full sun) that can block out my view of the neighbor's trash cans, probably rosemary, etc, but I am really not terribly particular about this as long as it ties in with the rest of the landscape and is pretty low maintenance.

Along the house, we are planning a deck for this autumn, and a new (less soviet) walkway for next spring/summer so I am holding off on putting anything in those beds until I'm clear on what the space will actually look/feel like with the deck and steps and walkway in.

The overhead is the google maps view of the house, with the junipers in the yard, just so you have a better understanding of the layout of the front of the house.

I am totally disjointed and completely neurotic. I apologize for the length of this post, but if you have any input, I'd really appreciate it, either with plant suggestions or things you see that are setting me up for a trainwreck. I am pretty young, and this is my 3rd year of home ownership/gardening and I'm trying my darnedest to avoid costly mistakes/headaches.

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Quick question - in the sketch you have the "soviet" walkway (love the description) and then 2 more casual paths leading from it. One seems to take you around the side of the house & the other takes you ... where? Or is it not meant to be a path, but a way to access the shrubs in front for pruning, etc?

The lawn area you have outlined now loosely follows the existing lawn, and I think it will be attractive. I like that you don't have any odd corners or pointy protrusions to mow every week. That's smart.

For the low water aspect, have you considered winding a soaker hose through your new beds as you plant them? That would be a pretty low maintenance way to water the plants as they get established the first 2 years. It's easiest if you lay that in before mulch goes on top of the bed.

As to plant selection - remember that near the entrance to a driveway you don't want anything tall that would block your view of when it's safe to pull into the road. Previous owners of this house had huge burning bush plants that completely obscured the view in one direction on our street - those were the first things we tore out of here. Followed by ugly junipers (I feel your pain on the rootballs of those things).

re: Vignette 3 - is that side the only/best access to the backyard? If so, consider the potential need to get a truck back there at some point. If not, I notice your house looks shorter than it's neighbors. I'm not sure if V3 is a place to address that or how you could even do it. But if you sketch in some different sized trees/shrubs in that area on your picture you may be able to get a sense of how to give your house more presence. I can't help but think this is a job for DesignShare ;)

Good luck, the plan looks sound to me. I'm not a pro, though, just a DIYer. Hopefully a pro will weigh in on potential pitfalls.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 5:49AM
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laurell(8 - Washington)

Thanks for taking the time to look over my design plan. Anyone's input is helpful, regardless of whether you're a professional or not.

The soviet walkway will get torn out and replaced with more gently curving and farther out from the hydrangea stamped concrete probably. The path that leads off of it to the side of the house and to the house are the only way to get to the back yard (no way we'll fit a truck back there ever, we are stuck in wheelbarrow hell, after moving 12+ yards of compost and 6 yards of gravel + several tons of basalt back there, we're almost done!) and to the only hose on the front of the house. The two casual paths will just be made from flagstone or whatever I can get for a good price at a later date, but will be necessary to avoid wheelbarrows from running through the lawn like they have in the past.

The house is on a hill, so the house to the left of it in the photo is about 6-10 feet taller (plus being 2 story when ours is a ranch home) and the house to the right is 6-10 feet lower, and is also a split level, so their top floor is level with our only floor.

The biggest plants that will be in "vignette #1" will be rosemary or a smallish nandina, nothing more than 4 feet tall and not too terribly thick.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 12:04PM
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Sorry to hear about the lack of truck access to the backyard. We planned for access & even put in an 8' wide double gate on one side of our fence. But that's not wide enough for "real" trucks like the logging guys used when they took down a bunch of trees, so we had to remove the fence on the other side of the house anyways (twice, in fact). Point being - even if you think you have access, or try to have access, you can find out you don't.

Another question, now that I understand the road slopes & that's why your neighbor's house looks really tall... Between their privacy fence & your home, is there a steep slope? Is this something you want to cover with a no-mow groundcover? And does that slope create drainage issues for you?

If the slope creates any drainage issues, when you lay the pathway around the side of the house you could install a french drain for not much more money. It's sort of like, "While we have the ground torn up and we're planning to have loads of crushed stone delivered ...we'll do a french drain at the same time."

It's hard to tell the dimension of that sloped area, though, perhaps it is small enough that mowing isn't an issue.

Glad to hear about your choices for the plants in Vignette 1. After we took a chainsaw to the burning bushes that blocked our driveway view the neighbor walked over and said, "I'm glad you did that, the last lady who lived there almost totaled her car one morning when she was leaving for work ..."

Good luck with plant selection, in Zone 8 the world is your oyster for picking plants. The choices are so broad!

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 1:23PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

It's true that the world is your oyster plant-wise in Zone 8 - that can be part of the problem; too many choices.

Laurell, you sound remarkably focussed and well-informed for a newish home owner; a way faster learner than I ever have been! I have to learn everything the hard way, by making the associated mistake (and yes, I have spent the corresponding money!). Of course, there was no internet while I was on my way up the learning curve, and somehow books and mags never quite addressed the things I needed to learn, or I read the wrong books. I'm a big fan of books and magazines, but they don't say "don't do this!" often enough.

From the aerial photo, your back yard looks great so between you and your husband you have a great eye and good instincts. So even if you have to battle each decision out, that's working for you!

I'm not real good at colour schemes, but one thing that jumps out at me from your plan is that you are going quite heavy on the nandinas. Now, I'm no nandina expert, but it seems to me they have a reddish hue, not quite in the palette you're after. On that basis and on the basis of surviving under the fir, I'm going to suggest you explore the world of conifers. Several types have blue-tinged foliage and might give you your desired colours year-round. Don't write off junipers just because you had the worst possible kind! The blue rug type might be a real asset for you, for instance, or the blue pencil kind.

Another option is bluish deciduous shrubs (and in both these cases I agree with Pam about visibility and am thinking of vignettes 2 and 3. One is Rosa glauca, which my neighbour has so I can vouch for it, and another is a cultivar of Fothergilla; blue mist or something. Can't quite remember; I killed it years ago (part of my learning curve). To which I'll add that Fotherfilla technically prefer some shade if I recall correctly - if you use it, or others that are marginal for your site, a good trick is to put some pavers around the roots to help them keep from roasting.

If you feel strongly about nandinas for some reason, there is always the option of planting clematis to wander through them. Again, pavers over the roots though.

By the way, are those tall conifers - one in front, two in back - yours? After the years I've spent trying to compete with huge trees for control of my property, I've learned that I'd rather cut and replace sooner rather than later... if removal is on the horizon (think ten years out) it is worth starting to think about replacement stock so you still have some shade/wind shelter/bird habitat when they go. You can only replant where new stock won't be damaged by removal, though.

In fact, come to think of it, a tree is the one big plant you could get away with in vignette 1, if you keep it pruned narrow and lacy until the canopy gets overhead. Depending on which way the sun comes, that might make your full sun area a little more hospitable to plants and people.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 3:13PM
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laurell(8 - Washington)

Pam - along the side of the house there is a 5-8 foot wide flat walkway of old bark, and next to it, covering the slope are some junipers that have been well-trimmed through the years. Since they are doing their job of erosion control, and I really don't have to look at or maintain them short of an annual trim, I will leave the ones along the side of the house (and throw in a couple arborvitae or similar to screen off the dead wood on the end) but as soon as we get into the actual yard, the bushy scary eating the yard ones will come out.

Thanks for your input karinl. I am becoming more keen on including conifers in the landscape. That has been something that I'm getting more and more used to. When I first moved it, I was so against anything non-broadleaf evergreen it was ridiculous. We were going to go with an alaskan weeping cedar (and still may) but at Flower World, we ran into something called a dwarf sequoia, which was SO interesting, and we will almost certainly be using it in the landscape. I've been unable to find anything online about them. It had a similar growth pattern in that it kind of looked Dr. Seuss-y, the branches hung almost straight down, but it was gorgeous.

We have 5 HUGE fir trees, one on each corner of our yard, and they ALL belong to neighbors. The people across the street from us are hoping to open up their view a bit and have spoken about wanting to go in on taking down the one uphill of us, but the people that just bought that house are like the Seattle suburb wannabes of Jersey Shore so I do not expect that they will have any interest in spending any money on landscaping. I caught them thinning out a photinia that provided privacy screening between our back yards with a sawzall (.25" thick branches). The people downhill from us are renters and based on the state of various "wear items" around their house, like the fence, I have a feeling the landlord is uninterested in investing any money in the property that they don't have to. Cliffs: It's unlikely either of those huge fir trees are going anywhere.

Thanks for the kind words on the back yard. I've spend the last 2.5 years trying to whip it into shape. We have put a huge deck between the 2 decks on either side, the raised veggie beds, defined garden beds around the decks and elsewhere have gone in, I've taken out about 1/2 of the lawn, we put in a fire pit and gravel "patio" in front of the other deck to address the ongoing lawn moss and crappiness issues, and torn out about 1000 sq feet of vinca minor and 3 overgrown rhododendrons. It has been quite a project, and I feel that I've gotten far enough with it that I'm ready to start tackling the front so it doesn't look like meth addicts live here.

I'm not particularly tied to nandinas, and after spending $50 today on ONE dwarf variety for vignette #1, I have been seriously rethinking my position.

I have a couple more plants to move from the back yard to the front tomorrow morning, but I will post photos tomorrow once I get everything "completed." It looks FANTASTIC.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 10:08PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

If you spent fifty bucks on the plant, you might consider waiting until September to plant it... if you can keep it in the shade until then! Or hope for a cool spell and make sure you water the hole a few times, and the surrounding soil quite thoroughly, before planting.

Do an search for Sequoia gigantea pendula (image search is quite striking). Not a dwarf, but I agree, gorgeous.

Looking forward to your photos.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 11:36PM
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laurell(8 - Washington)

Yes! That is it!

The nandina will be getting hit by the sprinkler 4 times a day, but I have watered it in thoroughly and will be maintaining moist soil while everything fills in. Luckily we have had a VERY mild summer this year and are looking forward to at least a week of 60's and rain! Ideal for fresh plantings!

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 11:55PM
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laurell(8 - Washington)

    Bookmark   August 14, 2011 at 2:28PM
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You weren't kidding, this does look AWESOME!

I can see the junipers on the sloping part of your yard more clearly now. I can see why you want to keep them. They're big, but obviously healthy & well suited to that area. They're so thick I bet weeds don't stand a chance there.

This is much, much improved from where you started. It looks larger & relates to the scale of the house better. Great job!

    Bookmark   August 14, 2011 at 6:21PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Yes, it will be fun to watch that grow in. Something about your piece of slate... have you tried it positioned on its longer flat side? It might look more stable that way. Looks OK like this but I'm just visualizing it as an address sign.

I imagine that once your front stretch grows in you will want to consider at least gradual replacement of the junipers along the side. They have big root systems that can put out a lot of annual growth now, and you will have to prune fast to keep up with them.

Keep us posted on vignette 2 and 3!


    Bookmark   August 14, 2011 at 8:09PM
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laurell(8 - Washington)

The bottom side of the slate is a very sharp and flat edge that was clearly made by a saw. It isn't very attractive. The junipers on the side of the yard are will be going in a few weeks. The ones that are smallish along the side of the house are ugly but effective at controlling weeds and erosion. So far we only have had to trim them back about once a year. Should we expect their growth to increase as the larger ones in the more open yard area come out?

Since this area has gotten minor attention at best, and i expect that I will have a lot of watching and moving of plants as I grow to understand their specific needs and preferences more clearly than SWGB and the internet can tell me. I see that as part of the process and am already making revisions in my head regarding layout and plant choice.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2011 at 1:11AM
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