How to design your landscaping for kids, a dog, and a very full life

In Stacie Crooks’s garden, mornings are magic. As she and husband Jon breakfast on the patio, they can look through a leafy screen to see son Dylan bouncing on a trampoline. Or they can glance across flowering perennials to the main lawn, where son Trevor roughhouses with the family’s Jack Russell terrier.

Stacie doesn’t worry that the dog might damage the lawn or that an errant soccer ball could snap shrub branches ― the garden is designed for her active family.

The Crooks’s garden accommodates plants, entertaining, pets, and play. Best of all, this high-performance landscape takes Stacie only about three hours per week to maintain.

That’s good, because she has many activities beyond family responsibilities. She loves to kayak, ski, and manage the docent program at Seattle’s E. B. Dunn Historic Garden, and she runs her own garden-design business (

“When prospective clients come over to discuss their own gardens, this garden always wins them over,” Stacie says of her home’s landscaping.

With all these demands on her time, plus kids and a dog romping through the yard, how does Stacie keep her garden beautiful enough to turn heads? By thoughtful design and smart plant choices.

Careful planning

The rear garden fans out from a patio filled with pots of perennials that echo the border plants, while a Japanese maple near the patio gives the space a sense of volume and is a great place to hang the bird feeder.

The lawn, bordered by a paved mowing strip that makes edging easy, gives the kids and dog space to run. Two extensions of the lawn are partially camouflaged by shrubs: one section contains the trampoline, while the other, concealed by a small island of perennials and shrubs, serves as the dog’s comfort station.

The dog was trained to do its business here and nowhere else, which makes cleanup fast and easy.

For privacy, Stacie planted a screen of Leyland cypress along the back lot line. It took six years to fill in, and the trees now block not only the view of her uphill neighbor’s house but also the path of airborne weed seeds.

Shrubs, perennials, and grasses pack most of the border between screen plants and the lawn. “It’s a fusion garden that looks like a medieval tapestry and shades out weeds,” Stacie explains. In the undulating perimeter bed, she experiments with plant combinations.

The bed also serves as a nursery from which plants can be divided and moved into other parts of the garden. The area contains a vegetable bed ― the domain of 9-year-old Trevor, who is rapidly becoming a gardener in his own right.

Smart plant choices

“One of my goals,” Stacie explains, “is to demonstrate that there are lots of drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plant choices for the Northwest, and I try them here before I recommend them for anybody else’s garden.” Many of these plantings are shrubs that she mixes freely in the border with low perennials and grasses.

Some of Stacie’s favorite shrubs include viburnums for hedging, backgrounds, and fillers; small-leafed rhododendrons, which are more sun-tolerant than most; Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) for its red winter twigs and variegated summer leaves; and most of the less-than-3-foot Euonymus species.

Among ornamental grasses, Stacie likes 7-foot-tall maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) for its coppery plumes that mature to cream, and a 20-inch variegated sedge, Carex morrowii, which is a good edging plant. Of the dozens of species of perennials she grows, she has particular favorites that add lovely splashes of color. They include Euphorbia x martinii, Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ (or East Friesland), asters, single-flowered Japanese anemones, Hosta ‘Francee’, Corsican hellebores, and a range of true geraniums (‘Ann Folkard’, ‘Ballerina’, and ‘Gravetye’ top the list).


“Low maintenance” is always a relative phrase. Most perennials, for example, demand more upkeep than shrubs. In all, Stacie Crooks’s garden gets a weekend of serious attention in March, about three hours of attention per week from then through fall, then nearly a week of cleanup in November. During the growing season, she tries to do all of the maintenance at once ― on a Saturday morning, for example ― because it’s easier and more practical than trying to work in piecemeal garden time while juggling her kids’ schedules and her own business.

Shade out weeds by planting shrubs and perennials close together. Stacie also treats weed-prone areas with a preemergence herbicide to stop stray seeds from germinating.

Fertilize effectively. Stacie’s plants get a dose of organic 5-5-5 fertilizer at planting time, then again every spring. Beyond that, she applies only composted horse manure every second autumn.

Group plants by water needs to make the watering easier. The lawn, which is watered only by rain, goes dormant in summer.

Use a mowing strip of paving material to keep grass out of the planting beds and make edging easier.


Divide the garden into separate areas, by function. Consider a patio for quiet dining, lawn for kids to romp on, a corner for the dog.

Separate each space with shrub borders, level changes, or low hedges. Dividing the garden makes the property look bigger and more functional.

Match plants to spaces. Put soft-textured but tough plants around places where kids play. Ornamental grasses, sword ferns, and heathers are good choices.

Use a tough lawn grass that is easy to care for and bounces back quickly from foot traffic. Less-thirsty dwarf tall fescues stay evergreen year-round in warm climates. Perennial rye is a good choice for the Pacific Northwest. Seeded lawns are generally more durable than sod for heavy traffic use because they establish deeper roots.

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