Minimalism in the Garden
JUN. 12, 2020
Minimalism has become a hallmark of contemporary architecture and interior design. Muted colors, simple lines, geometric shapes, clear vistas, and clean surfaces are characteristics of minimalism. Minimalists strive for an unembellished, even austere, beauty that encourages serenity and thoughtfulness. Author and lecturer on minimalism, Joshua Becker explains, “At its core, being a minimalist means intentionally promoting the things we most value and removing everything that distracts us from it.” Certainly, a timely approach to our hectic lives.
This same focus, choose the best and ditch the rest, can be applied to gardening. If carving out more time for what matters most to us is important, perhaps we can simplify our landscape and its maintenance as we pare down other demands on our time.
Let me propose a minimalist approach to the garden, based on plants that really do take care of themselves; namely shrubs, ornamental grasses, and trees. With a bit of planning, your landscaping may enhance your home’s appearance and require less of your time—only occasional pruning, fertilizing, and tidying. If that sounds like an inviting proposal to you, read on.
Simplicity is the key. Complement the lines of a modern house with a weeping cherry or elegant Lombardy poplar. A clump of Moon-grass or Raven-grass can subtly screen the meters and cables marring the exterior of even the most carefully designed house. No need to install a stockade fence to hide your neighbor’s camper and garage; instead, plant a hedge of Skyrocket Juniper; they’re tall, elegant, and fast growing. These are examples of the practical options available to the minimalist gardener.
Let me offer you three reasons for landscaping with trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses instead of the traditional garden’s profusion of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.
Simple to plant
Decide where softening, screening, or shade is needed. I recommend consulting with a landscaper or experienced gardener as you create a placement plan. You’ll want to consider not only where you think the tree or shrub will be most attractive now, but also how the tree will fit in as it matures. Might the shrubs you’ve chosen grow and block a view? Or, will the roots eventually endanger the foundation of the house?
Once you’ve devised a placement plan, holes must be dug deeper and wider than the root ball. Be sure the hole is well watered and appropriately fertilized, another reason to have the advice of a professional. Settle the sapling, bush, or grass mound into its new home and tamp down sufficient soil to fill in the hole. Mounding a bit is a good idea since settling will occur. Depending on the variety, you may need to water the new plant often until its roots begin to mature. Then, forget about it.
Time saving, easy maintenance. If you’re landscaping with trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses, there is only one task that MUST be done, and that is pruning. You may have to set aside a weekend in the fall or early spring, or make an arrangement with landscapers to tidy up the shape and size of your plants annually. For some shrubs, deep pruning is best and will give you lush, full new growth; others require only “haircuts” to keep them looking good. For ornamental grasses, annual, serious dividing of mounds will keep them elegant and properly sized for the location. Once a year, your trees may need an arborist’s trained eye to remove any weak branches or detect any infestations. (Note: The minimalist gardener spends no weekends weeding. She doesn’t rush home from work to check the sprinkler system. He doesn’t spend Saturday morning pouring over fertilizer formulas. No dead-heading for the minimalist.)
Elegant design clarity. Concentrating your landscaping on a few, well-placed specimens fits in with the minimalist philosophy. “Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing, layout, processes, and procedures,” observes American author and efficiency expert Tom Peters.
Simplifying your home’s landscaping need not mean sacrificing color or variety, rather the minimalist landscape includes carefully chosen, well-placed specimens. They may be colorful and fragrant, spare and graceful. Here are some suggestions you may discuss with your landscaper or research for yourself:
Evergreens & Holly: In addition to the obvious advantage of lush foliage, year-round, evergreens and holly can be either trees or shrubs. Spruce and pine may spring to mind, but there are other beauties to consider.
Japanese Red Pine: Heat and drought tolerant, these pines grow tall and handsome with meandering limbs crowned with large needle clusters, distinctive from the traditional evergreen tree. They are dramatic and require no attention, not even pruning.
Gardenias & Camellias: These beauties retain their glossy, dark green leaves all winter. They need some protection from harsh conditions, such as wind and strong sunlight, but if they are planted in a comfy setting, their beauty is unsurpassed. Add to the year-around glow, in springtime these shrubs provide fragrant, colorful blossoms. Grow these bushes in clusters. You can prune them as low shrubs or let them grow, possibly reaching three or four feet tall.
Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo): The best of bamboo’s qualities with none of the disadvantages, Nandina is a deciduous shrub that displays beautifully all year long in our region. Clusters of slender stalks rise up to, perhaps, five or six feet, but can be kept pruned as low or mid-size bushes. While the clusters of slim leaves remain all winter, spring leaves are blush pink, turning to green. Late spring brings on Nandina’s tiny white flowers. And, as summer progresses, clusters of berries appear maturing from green to vivid red. Not only do these berries provide a striking contrast through the winter, they also provide food for birds and squirrels. Expand
Fragrant & Flowering Shrubs: If your garden plan is minimalist, then pleasing the senses with one or two well-placed shrubs fits your desire for maximizing joy in the simple pleasures. Here are a few exceptionally fragrant and/or colorful shrubs: (Note: grouping a few plants together helps avoid a woody, unkempt appearance.)
Boxwood: In our historic surroundings, you see lots of boxwood hedges and individual bushes. They’re distinctive for their rather bitter scent, but Colonial gardeners found the scent deters insects, so they often planted boxwood under windows and near outdoor seating areas. Their only drawback—they’re slow growers. Don’t expect a line of young boxwood striplings to fill in quickly. You’ll want to practice your Zen patience with them.
Korean Spice Viburnum: Here’s a showy darling that does put on quite a show throughout the growing season. You’ll see clusters of pink buds flowering in March and April. These flowers have a heady, spicy fragrance. In autumn their green leaves turn deep red.
Abelia: Another easy-care beauty, the Abelia has white flowers shading to pink on dramatic, arching branches. The jasmine-like fragrance tempts hummingbirds and butterflies. And, if that’s not enough to persuade you to plant some, consider that the glossy, dark green leaves turn bronze in the fall.
Ornamental Grasses: Finally, consider a few of the beautiful grasses that can accent a pond, hide an unsightly garden hose, and just lift your heart with their graceful motion on a summer’s day. Honestly, there are so many beautiful types that it’s hard to choose which to recommend. But, here goes: 1. Pink Muhly Grass: Also known as “Sweet Grass,” this beauty’s pink fronds, usually 12–15” tall, keep their shape and color through the winter. A mound of Muhly Grass is a consistent performer—modest, colorful, and lovely. 2. Maiden Grass: Tall and graceful, these silver plumes on dark green stems hold their own throughout the year, even adding drama to bleak winter gardens. And… (drumroll please), the deer won’t eat Maiden Grass. 3. Golden Hakone Grass: And if you need a low, shade-tolerant plant that provides some drama, Hakone Grass is for you. As its name indicates, the long, slim blades are golden edged in green, turning russet as cold weather sets in. This hardy, low grass settles in easily and stays where it’s planted, not requiring much pruning.
Consider what will serve your garden’s needs. Once you’ve chosen and planted your minimalist garden, you’ll know that you can set aside worries about garden maintenance. You can devote your spare time to reflection and recreation.