Creating a low-maintenance landscape requires planning and a certain amount of know-how.
James T. Jesser, a Laguna Beach landscape architect, suggests starting with landscape books produced by Sunset magazine for ideas on what plant materials will grow best where you live and the conditions that various plants need. Ortho books are another resource. Both are usually available in nurseries and home improvement stores.
Check your local library too. A wide variety of gardening books should be available to help you learn more about what various plants require.
And you may also want to check with your local community college because several offer classes in landscape design, maintenance and installing sprinkler systems.
"So much of it is really plant selection," says Lisa Iwata of Land Interactive in San Clemente. She says that's because it's important to select plants that are suited to the soil they will be in. "You have to do less amending of the soil, both at installation and down the road.
"Plants that require a really high-acid soil, for example, have a hard time adapting to our very alkaline soil, so you need a lot of amending and then frequent fertilizing," she adds.
The only sure way to find out exactly what kind of soil you have is to get a sample analyzed.
"We work hand-in-hand with the soils agronomist, first to test the soils and find results that make a certain palate of plant materials compatible to that condition," says Pat Murphy, a landscape architect with Forsum Summers & Partners Inc. in Dana Point.
Two firms in Orange County that perform soil analysis are the Soil and Plant Laboratory in Orange and Landscape and Water Management Consultants in Laguna Niguel.
The reason xeriscapes tend to be low maintenance, says Randall Ismay of Landscape and Water Management Consultants, is because the idea is "not to change the soil, but to find a plant that will work in that soil. . . . Our philosophy is not to change the world, but to live in the world we have."
The best way to take a soil sample is to scrape away a couple of inches of soil. Then fill about 1/3 of a small paper lunch bag with the next several inches of soil, says Ismay, whose company performs this service only occasionally for individual homeowners.
He says the cost would be from $25 to $125, depending on how much detail is requested. The analysis would include recommendations of plants that would do well in that particular soil.
There are several different types of analysis available at Soil and Plant Laboratory, according to Oris Matkin, founder of the company. He suggests that homeowners might want to request a combined fertility and suitability analysis, which would cost about $45. This analysis would contain information about salt, sodium or boron toxicity, major nutritional elements that might be required for good plant growth and an analysis of possible drainage problems, based on an inspection of the soil sample.
The analysis is usually accompanied by a report, which is produced for an additional fee, which in most cases would be around $40, according to Matkin. The report includes suggestions for pre-planting preparations, suggestions for soil maintenance programs and a statement of any problems that might be indicated by the soil samples.
Once you have a palate of suitable plant materials, it's time to make a plan. This is done by deciding how you want to use the yard and how you would like it to look.
It's also important to determine what plants are climate appropriate for where you live. Sun exposure is another important factor in determining selection and location of plants.
Before any planting is begun, however, it's also important to plan and install an effective irrigation system, which is really the life-support system of a low maintenance landscape.
Jesser says novices should invest in hiring a professional to install irrigation systems and to do grading because serious problems can result when these jobs are done incorrectly.
When you get to the planting stage, be sure not to crowd plants because this can promote insect problems and necessitate frequent trimming of plants, according to Land Interactive's Iwata. Choosing plants or trees of the right size is also critical, she says.
This means you need to know how tall and wide a plant will grow before you plant it. For example, people who have a window that's 3 feet off the ground may make the mistake of selecting a plant for that location that will be 8 feet at maturity. That means they will constantly have to prune it if they want to be able to see out of the window.
"Tree selections are often done very poorly," Iwata says.
She also says low maintenance means learning to live with "a little bit more relaxed look" and "creating formality more with color and texture than with heavy-duty pruning."