Eco-Friendly, Low-Maintenance Gardening with Roy Diblik

During the lunch break Roy answered questions from gardeners, like Carole Galati here. Photo by Kathy Jentz.

Way back (it seems) in February, I attended a popular winter event for DC-area gardeners – the Green Matters Symposium of Brookside Gardens.

The highlight for me was the keynote address by Wisconsin plantsman Roy Diblik – “Design Strategies for Low Maintenance and Ecologically Beneficial Landscapes.” What’s striking about this eco-gardening approach is its focus on low-maintenance, so it’s good for the environment AND the gardener.

Roy started by showing examples of bad public landscapes, in a corporate/civic style we unfortunately all recognize. So much mulch! So few plants! Roy imagines the plants saying “What the hell happened? Why are we so far apart?” Here the wood mulch is so thick, rain can’t get through it.

Above, again too few plants and too much mulch, and we were told that it takes regular spraying with herbicides to look this tidy.

Here’s an example of a high-maintenance border with mums that only look good for 3 weeks.

The garden above looks much better but the chaotic array of plants with varying needs make maintenance difficult.

Cover the Ground with Plants

Ah, that’s better!

We heard that the model for garden design should be natural ecosystems, like the Wisconsin forest floor shown here. It’s never disturbed except for burning and harvesting, and notice there’s no open space, and no need for mulch.

Prairies are another great example, where there are about 300 million living beings in a handful of the soil.

Art Institute of Chicago

Low Maintenance Theory and Practice

Roy doesn’t even call it maintenance or labor himself. He prefers terms like “the joy of gardening” or “stewardship” because they’re so much more motivating. It’s only “labor” if there’s too much of it to do.

He told us about the 19,000 square feet of boulevard (the space between sidewalk and road) that he maintains using the practices he preaches, requiring just one pass with a mulching mower every six months, no spraying of anything.

Designing with Plants

With the craze for complex, mixed plantings of perennials (see Piet Oudolf, etc), I’ve wondered how regular home gardeners could possibly know where to start. So breaking it down to 20 (or even fewer?) plants makes sense – you can always add more.

The point, which he made repeatedly so we’d get it, is to learn the “growth habit/growth rate” of each plant, and their reproductive habit. Knowing how they grow and reproduce might mean starting some less competitive plants first so they can get established before starting the more competitive ones. For example, one might plant solidago (a “thug”) only after other plants (from seed) are established and can compete.

And it’s about the combinations, not individual plants. (Roy uses an analogy I love – that it’s like music. We don’t select music for the notes but for the whole sound.) It’s about what grows together happily and knits together tightly. “It’s all about intimacy and coming together.”

And plant intensely because covering the soil with plants means MUCH less weeding.

Some plants he commented on:

  • Allium is great for entertainment value. Other plants can hide its ugly or brown leaves.
  • Calamintha can be designed in thousands of patterns with other plants.
  • Monarda is often mentioned as a hummingbird magnet but Roy says that’s not true. Attracting hummers is about the whole site, he told us, not specific plants.
  • He’s a big fan of ornamental grasses – they let light through other plants, collect water, and open up the soil.

Above, the High Line in New York City, which uses lots of carex. On the right is an oak surrounded by plants that grow within its dripline, especially carexes.

Diblik Miscellany

  • He’s never taken a horticulture class and calls that “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
  • But there’s something else he calls the “best thing that ever happened to me” – aging! “I’m always learning. I’m an intern…By the time I’m 92 I’ll be unstoppable.”
  • He credits the movie “Forks over Knives” with losing 21 pounds in 9 weeks. (And he looks damn fit!)
  • He recommends a labor-saving tool I’ve never tried but will now – the Dutch push-pull hoe. He hoes every 14 days in late April to mid-June and stops when seed germination is done.
  • About his wife – she plants fruit trees in the boulevards of Chicago, and currently now in Guatemala helping people harvest water.
  • He believes that “We’re in the most transformational period of horticulture ever.”

It was meeting Roy and conveying “Greetings from GardenRant!” that led to his guest post here last month: “Good Plant, Bad Plant, Native and Non-Native. Is it that Simple”? Check it out!


  1. I agree that Roy’s talk was the highlight of this year’s Green Matters Conference and that it seems like a lifetime ago now. So glad it was able to go on and that we are still able to get out and be in our gardens now.

  2. That Boreal Forest Floor looks just like my “lawn”! Which sits under a canopy of fir trees. I’d like to say I made it that way intentionally, but I had more than a little help from the plants.

  3. I loved his talk and am planning a bed right now using his book. I have never seen the Dutch push-pull hoe so am very glad you included a picture. Now that I know what to look for, I am sure I will find it. Many thanks.

  4. Roy’s “Know Maintenance Perennial Garden” is an excellent book, filled with common sense garden design and maintenance practices that we should all be using. After reading it a few years ago, I went out and bought a push-pull hoe, and it has turned out to be the best tool ever.
    Roy moves beyond the practical skillset and does what he does with a soft-spoken and painterly approach. I hope that more gardeners will listen to Roy and others who promote the benefits of attractive and sensible high-density planting.

  5. Thank you Susan. I ordered his book so I have something garden related to read during Colorado’s Spring snow storms. We are expecting snow Sunday and Monday and next Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, I love the moisture and snow is a slow melt form of water vs. rain. His book sounds like a great read.

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