Low Maintenance Gardening

Low Maintenance Gardening

Low Maintenance Gardening
by Carol Wallace


Last week my husband and I got to wondering why it is that with eight or nine different garden areas scattered around out property, I spend about 80% of my time in the walled garden - and why I am always busy when I'm in there. It isn't even the largest of the gardens. But it's definitely high maintenance, with something always needing thinning, pruning, deadheading, dividing, or pampering. Not to mention weeding. And when that's done and I plop into one of the chairs to take a break I find myself staring at things and deciding that something needs to be moved, something else needs to be composted, and that I have a hole that needs filling - AFTER I get done collecting all the seeds from those flowers nearing the end of their bloom cycle.

When I think of all the upkeep that one garden takes I can't imagine how I have time to deal with the other seven or eight. I visit them every day. But they never seem to need much more than that inspection and an occasional visit for weeding or watering. And deadheading - since there are daylilies everywhere! But that takes no more than half an hour a day even at peak daylily season.

So what did I do differently with all of those, that makes them so relatively carefree? I had to spend a long time looking and thinking, but I think I've managed to put my finger on it - and I hope it will help all of us to simplify our gardening chores.

The walled garden is actually the first really serious garden I ever planted. I did a ton of research before I began, mostly about what plants would like the conditions I could give them in my yard, as well as in my climate zone. After that I wasn't too interested in anything but color and height.

While I did pay some attention to spacing, especially when I made out my preliminary shopping list, there were two things I hadn't yes discovered about myself and my garden.The first (about the garden) was how bare it would look when the peony that the books told me to allow a square yard of space for only took up about three inches of that space. And the second was that I was absolutely unable to resist any interesting looking plants not on my list that promised to help me make all that space look full.

So I ended up with a garden that looked fairly full even in its first year - but a garden filled with several dozen different kinds of plants, all with slightly different cultural requirements.

It was easy enough the first year - I could remember that the lavender didn't want a real soaking but that the rose behind it could get quite thirsty. Every plant got watered individually - for a while. But I kept returning to the nursery - often just to ask questions. And all these cute little plants in four inch pots would leap off the shelf and grab my ankle, just begging me to adopt them - and I nearly always did. So by the second year I had a real mishmash that I could no longer keep track of.

Some of them actually grew to be the size the books predicted. Others were stunted by the crowded conditions, and many died of either too much or too little water when I was forced to resort to a "one size fits all' treatment because I could nolonger remember which plants wanted what. Heck - I couldn't even remember most of their names! And I was perpetually being surprised by something getting much taller than I expected - or staying much shorter. So gardening, for me, became a perpetual game of "shuffle the plants."

Meanwhile, other areas of the property were calling out for planting - begging and pleading. I heard them as I walked by, but didn't really have time to stop and get the whole list of demands. Like Audrey, the 'Little Shop of Horrors' plant, my first creation was calling out, in a voice that brooked no delay, "FEED ME!"

Ah well - I needed to do something with the rest of the yard and so I did, in a somewhat half-hearted manner. The big shady patch got a big bunch of hostas and rhododendrons - and a few springs of sweet woodruff that took off when I wasn't watching and carpeted the whole bed.

The pond area? I found a great daylily sale, and so even though my husband's favorite suggestion was to plant the area with groundcovers so we could stroll along right next to the water, I bought the sale plants. "They cover the ground, don't they?" I pointed out when he expressed disappointment. Actually I tucked a few bearberry plants among them as a salve to his feelings, and that spread almost as satisfyingly as the woodruff.

And then we created a huge island of mulch around the tall evergreens that act as a wall dividing our property into what seems like two separate lots. The idea was mostly to cut down on the mowing - but of course the mulch was another of those voices demanding more greenery. But that was an easy one. A local nursery went out of business and at the inventory clearance auction I bought lots of dwarf conifers. Instant garden! In fact I discovered that shrubs of any kind were a great way to fill space in an interesting manner, and so started hauling home things like variegated dogwoods so that I could enjoy the red twigs in winter, and buddleias because they attracted hummers in summer. (Plus, these two shrubs seemed to be extraordinarily cheap compared to others I saw on the nursery lot.)

10 Easy-Care Perennials
This booklet will introduce you to 10 beautiful perennials that are undemanding, wonderfully versatile, and adaptable to a variety of growing conditions. They’re not particularly fussy about soil conditions, and they can tolerate both drought and overwatering, as long as they have adequate drainage. These wonders of the perennial world grow quickly, require little maintenance, and reward you with a kaleidoscope of color and gorgeous foliage year after year.

Every once in a while one of those instant gardens got the benefit of the overflow I was trying to cram into the walled garden - the one I really enjoyed working in. But on the whole, each area was planted with a relatively limited selection of plants all well suited to the growing conditions. Few of them demanded much care at all - except for deadheading the daylilies. A good mulching every spring and fall kept the weeding to a minimum. And it was easy to remember which plants needed what.

Purely by accident I came to realize that buying plants by the dozen - as opposed to a dozen one-of-a-kind plants - was not only easier - they looked better. So I developed a few rules of thumb.

First - find one really great groundcover.
Sweet woodruff is my all time favorite for shade, although I also consider smaller hostas to be groundcover. In another area I have strawberry plants running rampant over the ground around the other plants.I'm using Purple Brocade ajuga in another because I have a lot of gold foliage there and I like the contrast.

In the side yard I have an accidental groundcover - a sweet autumn clematis that started to grow sideways when the trellis it was on fell apart. That looks good too. The point is that a good groundcover will tie things together and help suppress weeds. And all of the ones I've mentioned so far will allow spring bulbs and perennials to grow through them.

Second - Limit your plant palette
Not only does working with a limited number of plant types make it easier to remember their cultural requirements, but it is much easier from a design standpoint. You know that you want a variety of textures - something fine, medium in mass and large. You probably want some variations in height - short, medium and tall - and in shapes - pyramidal, rounded, trailing, vase or fountain shaped. Choose a few and stick with them. You will get a naturally unified design that is easy to work with.

Third - Mulch like mad!
- Not only does fresh mulch look good in whatever bare spaces your garden may have - it also helps suppress weeds and hold in moisture.

Fourth - Believe the books when they tell you that 4 inch pot requires three square feet of ground.
If you don't, you'll end up with a tangled mess, and a lot of unnecessary work digging things up and moving them - and you may even have to face the agonizing decision of which plants will have to go to the great compost heap in the sky to leave room for the rest.

Fifth - If you like it and it's easy - buy in quantity
.Ten hostas make more of an impact than two. If you've got a large space, twenty is even better. One of the most striking views in my garden is of a sweep of thirty lavender plants in full bloom. Awesome! It puts my single specimen Tropicanna canna to shame. And it's REALLY easy to remember how to care for something you have so much instant experience with.

Sixth - Make informed choices - and go with the tried and true
When you keep your design simple like this, you still have a huge number of plant choices, so you will no doubt come across plants that enjoy similar conditions that complement each other with no difficulty. It's at this stage that you can either complicate your life or simplify it.

I know I'm always preaching about getting out of your floral rut and trying new and different things. And I do as I say - in the walled garden. But in the rest of the yard one main cause of their low-maintenance status is that I have almost unfailingly relied on classic perennials that are known to be both long-lived and low maintenance. Peonies and hosta, for instance, can go for decades without needing division. Astilbes, daylilies, Siberian iris (NOT the bearded types!), geraniums - all are so simple to grow that they practically raise themselves. Aside from the daylilies they don't really demand that you deadhead them. Most are incredibly long-lived.

These are not garden classics for nothing. People plant them and grow them and love them because they don't cause gray hairs and panic attacks. Nor must you risk strained backs from constant dividing and moving these stalwarts.

It all comes down to this.
The reason I spend most of my time in the walled garden is that I have hundreds of different plants with cultural needs that differ, and a plethora of sizes, shapes, textures and colors that demand a lot of time puzzling over how to combine things better, which ones to feed, and which to cut back.

The rest of the yard is filled with a combination of easy care plants,planted in quantities without much agonizing over the design, and all wearing a blanket of mulch and groundcover that holds weeds to a minimum while helping to retain moisture.No fuss - and yet they look good.

I guess what it boils down to is that the old advertising maxim holds as true in gardening as it does in writing ad copy. KISS - Keep it simple, stupid - always works better than you would believe. So why don't we try it more often?

About the Author

Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author