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New house build, need low maintenance landscape ideas

January 22, 2019

Hi! We just had our offer accepted on this new ranch home. We are in south central PA, zone 6. I am looking for low maintenance shrubs and trees that will not block light into the windows. Any suggestions? There is a small planting area between garage edge and walkway to front porch, and then we will need foundation plantings to soften the other side of the walkway. Thanks in advance. We have some good nurseries in the area but I’d like to get some opinions here while I have time. We settle in late March.

Comments (26)

  • Southern Bell
  • Holly Stockley

    Which direction does the house face?

  • threedogsmom

    Front is north, back yard is south.

  • Holly Stockley

    Slightly tricky, given that your front is pretty full shade. Think about a dwarf conifer or two in the background. Mountain laurel are shade tolerant, but can get tall, so maybe as the ground slopes downward would be OK. A small viburnum or deutzia might tolerate the shade, in front of the porch?

    I have some hydrangeas on the North side of my house and they HATE it there. They are pretty undersized and refuse to bloom about every 3rd year or so. You may find a lot of flowering shrubs will be fussy that way. They'll live - but they may refuse to bloom or do so very grudgingly.

    Sometimes it's easier (especially at first) to fill is some of the area like that near the garage and right in front of the porch with impatiens or another shade-loving annual.

  • Diane Ronaldson

    My yard has a lot of shade, and the shrubs that have done the best are Boxwoods. You can get a dwarf variety if size is an issue.

  • PRO
    Patricia Colwell Consulting

    IMO your nursuries are a treasure trove of ideas much better than what you will get on here.

  • tangerinedoor

    I have used New Guinea impatiens in shaded areas approaching my house before, tubs of them. They are striking and easy to keep. You could try this temporarily on the porch and near the walkway while you get situated and let the garden tell you what it wants?

  • PRO

    A scheme of arranging ... beginning with wide steps.

    threedogsmom thanked Yardvaark
  • laceyvail

    The small trees Yardvark shows are absolutely required.

  • threedogsmom

    Having the visual mock-up is very helpful! What type of trees do you have shown?

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Wide steps with a wide landing and walk are both attractive and useful. If they haven’t yet been installed, ask for a 4’ or 5’ wide walkway and steps (at a minimum) so folks don’t have to approach single file. It will make the entrance more classy and welcoming, and if you have any discretionary funds, this is a place it would be well spent.

    Is the pipe in the yard for the well or the septic and how far is it from the front of the house? The answer to this is important because you don’t want woody plants such as trees or shrubs planted close to a septic field.

    You should get your soil tested at a soil lab (such as PA Cooperative Extension) before planting. The soil texture (clay, sand, and loam in what proportions) and soil pH will influence what will grow well for you, so you can save yourself frustration if you go to the nursery knowing your pH and texture.

    Often the soil around the foundation of new construction is a mix of subsoil from digging and construction debris, so you will want to spend the first season establishing the lawn, planting trees where you will want them, and improving the soil for the front garden. Dig in compost to the whole bed and then plant a cover crop of buckwheat which will give a fluffy green appearance. Then in midsummer turn under the buckwheat and cover with a thick layer of mulch to prevent weeds, and plant in late summer or fall by moving aside the mulch where shrubs are going. Soil feeds the plants, and if the soil is well prepared for the whole bed, plants will be happier.

    Make the bed at least 6’ deep front to back; look how the generosity of Yardvaark’s sketched bed complements the house. Plan to plant the shrubs and trees with the final size in mind. Leave at least 1’ between the final size of the plants and the house so you can paint, wash windows, etc. (so the planting hole for a 6’ wide shrub needs to be at least 4’ off the house). Nothing should be touching the house when grown, even though that make make things look a bit empty at first. I often put in some clumps of annuals in a new bed to fill space while woody plants get more size over the first few years. You can look up accurate plant sizes (tags usually give only a 5 year size) at the Missouri Botanic Garden’s PlantFinder.


    For interest the first summer, get a couple of large pots and plant them with long flowering shade tolerant annuals such as Impatiens.

    In PA you will want a reasonable percent of the front plantings to be evergreen or the house will look stark in winter. Two evergreens that will grow in shade are yews (which deer love, so you will want to spray them with a deterrent or not plant them) and mountain laurel/Kalmia latifolia as mentioned above. Mountain laurel needs well drained, acid soil as do Rhododendrons. Because it is bright shade (1 story house and no overhanging trees) that may get some midsummer sun either early or late in the day, you can also plant part shade plants. Look at smaller Rhododendrons, Microbiota decussata/Russian arborvitae, and various flowering evergreen groundcovers such as Veronica Georgia Blue that will tolerate shade. Then you can add some flowering shrubs and clusters of perennials or annuals for seasonal interest.

    Some deciduous flowering shrubs that have long season interest and grow well in your area include:

    Viburnum - spring flowers, berries if you have a compatible mate, and fall color

    Hydrangea have a long bloom season. Don’t get big leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) which won’t bloom reliably in your area. Look at smooth Hydrangea/Hydrangea arborescens such as Annabelle, Invincibelle Ruby, or Mini-mauvette. They will like your light conditions and are reliable bloomers in colder zones.

    Hydrangea paniculata/panicled Hydrangea likes at least half day sun and so can be planted at the west end to get enough sun, such as Limelight or Quickfire for large ones or Little Lime or Bobo for smaller ones.

    I like a house framed by trees diagonally off the front corners as Yardvaark has illustrated. Look at disease resistant crabapples for more sun and redbud/Cersis canadensis, dogwoods, and Stewartia for your part shade.

    Notice how Yardvaark’s sketch has taller plants over to the west as the land contour drops off so that the overall look of the bed doesn’t drop off.

    The most important things you can do for low maintenance are a buried edging strip to keep out grass, correctly sized plants for the space to reduce pruning, more shrubs and fewer perennials, and having the ground completely covered by plants or mulch to reduce weeds. Check for weeds often since seeds blow in, and if you prevent them getting a foothold, maintenance is far less.

    threedogsmom thanked NHBabs z4b-5a NH
  • PRO

    "What type of trees do you have shown?"

    I'm not giving you specific plant recommendations, but goals (such as sizes, shapes and where you put things) that you can refine as you choose the plants. I'm showing trees in the 20' to 30' range and multi-trunk. Many different trees and large shrubs are capable of doing that.

    threedogsmom thanked Yardvaark
  • PRO
    Ginkgo Leaf Studio

    Boxwoods for sure as a foundation shrub and you can mix in various hydrangea varieties too. We especially love the panicle hydrangea 'Bobo' and 'Little Lime'. A great tree to anchor the corner of the house would be a serviceberry or redbud. Congrats on the new house!


    threedogsmom thanked Ginkgo Leaf Studio
  • Diane Ronaldson

    I had gorgeous Hydrangeas for many years until the wildlife discovered them, and have been feasting happily on them lol. Just beware!

  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    Just a note about boxwoods in the NE US. There are a couple of issues, boxwood blight, which is a fatal fungal disease and requires removal and proper disposal of infected plants, and boxwood psyllium, an insect which disfigures the foliage So be aware that if you choose them, either choose blight resistant types or keep an eye on them for health issues.

    threedogsmom thanked NHBabs z4b-5a NH
  • threedogsmom

    Thank you everyone for your detailed replies, this is VERY helpful. I will be sure to incorporate many of these ideas once we get moved in and spring comes. Looking forward to it!!

  • celerygirl

    Some inspiration

    threedogsmom thanked celerygirl
  • housegal200

    As part of your visual plans, consider painting the garage doors the same as the siding so they're not so prominent and add much larger outdoor sconces there.

    Remove your shutters, which are the only ones shown.

    I love everyone's landscaping plans--so worth it IMO because beautiful plantings frame the house and bring nature to your door. Realistically, though, you may find yourself very tight on budget with all that comes with buying a new house. In that case, foundation plants and a tree plus ground cover for your sloped yard in a bed that extends to the edge of the house into wiell in front might also frame your house very well. Work with your garden center early on for plans that you can work towards, for example, foundation plants at first but working toward a major landscaping plan as budget and time allow.

    threedogsmom thanked housegal200
  • celerygirl

    Low maintenance landscape

    threedogsmom thanked celerygirl
  • NHBabs z4b-5a NH

    threedogsmom, here in the eastern part of the US, gravel mulch is never a low maintenance material unless you want to use a lot of weed killer which I assume you want to avoid with dogs. Weed seeds and dust blow in, the seeds sprout and they are far more difficult to remove than from an organic mulch such as shredded bark mulch. You also get weeds eventually in bark mulch, but it is easier to work with. Gravel mulch works better in drier climates.

    threedogsmom thanked NHBabs z4b-5a NH
  • mad_gallica

    Except when plants are filling in, you really want to avoid any large expanse of any kind of mulch in this general climate because of the weed issue.

    Gardenweb has many forums devoted to specific gardening topics. There is a Lawn Forum, a Tree Forum, and Shrub and Perennial forums. If you want advice on plant selections, those are the places to go. Just be sure to say where you are.

    I'll edit this after dinner to add links unless somebody else does it first.

    Thanks, NHBabs :-)

    threedogsmom thanked mad_gallica
  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    What makes a plant "low maintenance"?? :

    • suitability to the planting conditions - zone hardy, meet proper sun or shade requirements, have drainage requirements you can meet, within proper pH range, require minimal irrigation after establishment
    • lifespan - the longer a plant lives, the lower the maintenance levels. Avoid annuals or biennials and stick to longer living perennial species. Trees and shrubs and some groundcovers - woody based plants - are your best bet.
    • size/scale - avoid plants that will easily outgrow their alloted space without pruning. This would also include most hedging plants and vines. Look for dwarf or compact varieties if space is an issue. And do not overplant!
    • problem prone - avoid plants with noted disease or pest issues, like powdery mildew or lily leaf beetles or blackspot on roses. Or are known to be attractive to deer or rabbits, if those are common to your area.
    • good behavior - avoid aggressive or rampant spreaders or those that self-seed freely. This includes all invasive species.
    • Finally, avoid a lot of edibles. Not only do these require a lot of attention to grow well, they can also be quite messy and will attract some often unwanted wildlife attention as well. And any perennials that require frequent division, deadheading or staking.

    Of course you can modify or even ignore this list as you see fit to include whatever plants you really do like that don't quite meet these criteria :-)

    threedogsmom thanked gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)
  • Cheryl Hannebauer


  • threedogsmom

    Thanks all, lots of good information here! In my current house I have beautiful cottage gardens and quite the hosta collection but at the new house I don’t want to be beholden to so much garden maintenance. I am ok with the foundation plantings being primarily evergreens and shrubs, and like the idea of adding seasonal color with pots and containers. We are looking to simplify home maintenance and time spent on yard work going forward, but I still love adding annuals for colorful, showy containers. My two favorite gardenweb forums have always been Hostas and Cottage Gardens, but I am ready to dial it back and simplify.

  • PRO
    Dig Doug's Designs

    some ideas:

    threedogsmom thanked Dig Doug's Designs

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