I am designing a small landscape for someone with autism. It must be quite self-sustaining with straightforward maintenance. The charming, but high-maintenance cottage landscape shown above would be overwhelming for someone coping with unfiltered stimuli. Thinking through the details, I have developed a checklist for the design.
- Minimal turf grass. Some lawn is essential. Regular mowing keeps natural areas from creeping toward the house, but scheduled mowing must be an easy task, with clean edging between grass and shrub beds and fairly level ground.
- No annuals or perennials. No matter what the species, herbaceous plants must be cut back and groomed during the off season. This might be something the person with autism could be trained to do, but for a starter garden, it is a no-go.
- Living ground cover rather than mulch. The ground surface must be covered densely to prevent weeds, and refreshing mulch is something that requires attention at least four or five times a year. A thick, vigorous ground cover which chokes out all competition is a good thing for this type of garden. I’m thinking about using lots of Mondo Grass and Georgia Blue Speedwell, as well as Creeping Phlox for sunny areas.
- No vines to train and support and prune. Climbing plants can be unruly. Well-behaved, slow-growing shrubs with naturally geometric form and growth survive inattention much better than rambling vines.
- Large trees set far away from the house within a massed shrub area. Falling limbs, hazardous tree roots, and leaf debris must be allowed to stay in place with only infrequent monitoring.
- Shrubs must be able to maintain ideal heights without any pruning at all. Typical foundation plants become overgrown without seasonal pruning unless they are true dwarf or prostrate cultivars.
- For vertical accents, miniature “trees” can be placed in areas which need some height using tree-formed evergreen tall shrubs (like Dwarf Burford Hollies). Once shaped and pruned, they maintain bared lower branches without much fuss.
- A clean landscape with uncomplicated lines and minimal variations of height and shape is good. An austere plant palette reduces clutter and visual noise.
- Showy flowers and color. Bringing attention to the house and the landscape might also bring attention to the house’s occupant. I will keep the color scheme focused on foliage greens and bronzes. People with autism can be vulnerable to exploitation. The fewer people that are aware of the living situation, the better. A quiet landscape is best.