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Saving costs on Maintaining Landscapes

By Todd Layt

Landscape contractors, developers, architects, and home gardeners, particularly those on acreage are presented with this question regularly. How to make more green space, with less maintenance? On one hand clients or gardeners want more plants and turf, and less concrete, providing a better, cleaner, cooler, and more pleasing environment, but on the other hand they want it maintained on a shoe string. Low cost maintenance starts with plant, turf, soil, and mulch selection, and can be enhanced by clever design, and caped off with efficient low cost maintenance.

More Green, Less Labour for Landscape Contractors, Architects and Home Gardeners

For 4 years at Ozbreed we have maintained 12,000 square metres of gardens and lawns with one plant maintenance staff every fortnight, and one lawn staff every fortnight. That equates to one man per week, with the odd clean up from extras once per year over a few days. The gardens are extensive. Usually our maintenance staff believe this would take three to four times as many man hours. So how can so many maintenance hours be saved? Normally I would not use my own experience to write an entire article, but in this case it is the simplest way to explain landscape maintenance on a pittance.

Over the years many lessons have been learnt. It all commences with good plant and turf selections and intelligent design. Low maintenance low to no irrigation green life is essential. The main planting areas use low maintenance evergreen plants such Lomandra and Dianella types. The Lomandra types are all longifolia and hystrix types that are long lived and need trimming only every 4 to 6 years. We have avoided weaker Lomandra confertifolia types. The Dianella types are mainly caerulea types, which cope better with Sydney’s climate. In Victoria Dianella tasmanica and revoluta plants could also be used. So selecting on Genus alone is not enough for a low maintenance solution. Common forms also increase maintenance, as reliability, uniformity and tidiness is compromised. Revolutionary plants like Tanika® Lomandra, and Little Jess™ Dianella are used in big group plantings.

Design and placement is very important. These type of plants are planted close together to ensure no gaps after one year, ensuring weeds are chocked out. It is called planting for weed control. Cutting strappy leaf plants back every four years or so is very quick if you use a saw tooth blade on a brush cutter. This cuts rather than tears. Simply cut the tops of all of them at about 20 cm high, then rake out the old foliage and collect it. It makes a good straw for the vegie garden. Then shape each plant into a nice ball with shape hand shears.

This method saves many hours. Mulch is another very important factor in lowering maintenance costs. Always use chunky mulch that have no fine grade material. Hardwood chip is best as it lasts the longest. Using mulch with fine grade material acts like a seed raising mix, and helps weeds invade. It also becomes hydrophobic, and constrains rain water flowing into the soil. Chunky mulch at 50mm to 75mm reduces weeding to a very low frequency. Getting the soil right before planting is beneficial, and here is where fine grade organic material comes into. Incorporate it into the soil for healthier more robust plants.

Many people prefer formal looking gardens. If the right low maintenance drought tolerant plants are used then formal hedging and screening can easily be achieved. Easy care Callistemons are a great choice. Some new innovative forms like Slim™ Callistemon, which is a narrow growing type, or Red Alert™ Callistemon, a red new growth alternative to Photinia, create screens that require less pruning. For smaller hedges, the new short internode ultra-dwarf types of Westringia need far less care and water than high maintenance Buxus. Grey Box™ Westringia and Aussie Box® Westringia are two great examples. Trees are an essential part of a Landscape, and again low maintenance choices such as Acmenia Smitthii, or Trisonopsis laurina are good examples, rarely needing trimming.

Hedging plants as we found is not that hard. It’s really just like mowing the lawn these days, provided you use a long arm hedge trimmer. These devices are quick, and save all the bending and reaching. Hedging using a machine like this can be done in a fifth of the time of traditional hand shears. This actually allows us to hedge more often, keeping our westringia and Callestemons, or Lilly Pillies very tidy looking, and with more frequent pruning the job can be done very quickly.

Many areas have a lot of shade, and for those areas Liriope are some of the best easy care plants. Some Liriope also work well in full sun. These days they are many to choose from, including the mow once per year lawn alternative called Isabella® Liriope. It is a dense low growing form that can be used amongst stepping stones. Just Right® Liriope is different than all other Liriope, and unlike evergreen giant, it stays evergreen for many years without trimming, and even copes with the harsh full sun of Perth. Evergreen and low to no pruning is what makes Liriope such a good choice, but there is a key to making them the ultimate low maintenance plant. All except Just Right® Liriope should be cut back to the ground by brushcutter, shears, or mower in late winter. That means in July in Queensland, Early August in Sydney and Perth, and Late August in Melbourne and Adelaide. This removes old foliage, and keeps them clean.

Lawns are about half our landscape, and the main reason why we mow less often is because we have mainly used Zoysia. Zoysia has been proven in research to need one third to half the mowing of other lawns when fertilised, and a fifth of other lawns if not fertilised. Empire™, probably the best known Zoysia is one of our biggest labour saving assets. In some large areas we have only fertilised it once in four years and it still looks great. We mow these areas only about 5 to 6 times per year. The only down side is that these areas brown off quickly in winter, but to me a brown lawn does not need mowing. It greens up very quickly in Spring. In some high profile areas we fertilise it in Autumn and Winter, and this greatly improves its winter colour. Nara™, a native Zoysia is our other large turf area. It needs a little more fertiliser, but it does have very good winter colour. It needs more mowing than Empire, but a lot less than other turf types. Our other lawn areas are mainly Buffalo, although higher maintenance than Zoysia they are very good in our shade areas. The better types if fertilised in Autumn and Winter had Winter colour on par with the Nara Native turf. Our contractors also use state of the art mowers, with high capacity cutting ability. You simply cannot beat efficient equipment.

Wise use of chemicals is one method that has really saved an immense amount of hand or spot weeding. We never have a problem removing grass weeds in our non-grass gardens. We have no hard edging against our gardens and Zoysia. We simply spray invading grass dead by using Fusilade a few times per year. Even if Kikuyu or Couch invades our Lomandra, Liriope, Mondo, or any non Poaceae plant we simply eradicate it with Fusilade, and we have never seen any bad effects to the plants. We also use Pre-emergents on all our gardens. We started off using Oryzolin (Prolan, Embargo), and we found at higher rates it worked well, and harmed very few plants. Lower rates were not as effective. It is registered for use on gardens, lawns and for nursery use. For the last two years, we entered into a trial with a chemical company of a new Pre-emergent that we found worked better, and harmed no plant that we could find, and no turf type that we have. It is Prodiamine (Barricade). Currently it is only registered for Turf in Australia, but trials are under way, and hopefully our research work will allow everyone to use this in the next year or so. We use these chemicals three times per year, and have cut down our manual weeding 50 fold. We use Sempra to remove Nutgrass, and other sedges, and use other chemicals to kill broadleaf weeds in turf.

Finally what about colourful flowers, and other higher maintenance really showy plants. Here we use our 80/20 rule. If 80% of the garden is low maintenance easy to care for plants and turf we can use higher maintenance plants in smaller areas. We plant pockets of colour. Although in our garden, we have reduced maintenance further by using coloured foliage such as the new Nandina types that have red foliage for up to 9 months of the year. Flirt™ Nandina, Blush™ Nandina, and Obsession™ Nandina have red new growth instead of lime green, giving us low maintenance red for much of the year. So you could say our rule is the 95/5 rule, but I am sure you get the idea. The main plant that needs more water we use is Little Ruby™ Alternanthera. Compact and low growing it gives purple colourful foliage all year. It is a little more frost tolerant than the common form, so although it gets burnt back in winter, it reshoots in spring, even here in Richmond NSW.

More green and less labour is achievable through planning, and smart maintenance. Less hard space and more green does not have to cost an arm and a leg. Ozbreed’s extensive trial gardens are proof of this. If you want to find out more about research used to reduce maintenance click here.

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