I would much rather create a new garden than maintain an older one. Fortunately, when I planned my existing gardens, I consciously used techniques to reduce the time and effort needed to maintain them. Now most of them are relatively self sufficient, leaving me time to plan new gardens.
Watering, pruning, weeding, cutting grass, fertilizing and insect control are typically the garden chores that take the most time. Sometimes the solution to the “To Do” list is simply to take chores off the list. Deciding to do less may also be better for your plants. For example, fertilizing and over watering encourages rapid, tender growth which entices deer, aphids and other hungry critters, or especially in the case of grass, mowing or cutting. Instead of blanketing everything with fertilizer or insecticides, I do it by exception based on special needs. For example, plants in containers and those with special nutritional needs such as berries, palms and citrus get a dose of specially formulated long lasting fertilizer once or twice a year. For the grass, rather than stimulating growth with high nitrogen fertilizers, I prefer extra phosphorus in the early fall to promote root development over the winter. For plants in garden beds, I spread compost or mulch, which adds nutrients, conserves moisture and suppresses weeds.
Another chore, particularly in the hot summer, is watering, but most plants, once established, can be trained to become tough if watered less frequently but deeply. Their roots will go deeper into the soil, searching for water rather than staying along the surface where it is hot and dry. Obviously, drought tolerant native plants and those from the Mediterranean require less attention and can better withstand the hot summers and wet winters, so my plant selections are primarily from those origins or those that love it here and are easy to grow.
Since grass needs to be watered frequently and requires regular cutting, I am gradually reducing the amount and limiting its use to areas where it functions as a path or play areas for the grandchildren and dogs. Keeping it alive through the hot summer requires a reliable irrigation system with an automatic timer. Because the water is likely to be applied overhead and subject to evaporation, early morning when it is cooler and less windy is the best time to apply supplemental water.
Except for pruning for structural or fire prevention purposes, I do as little cutting as possible, preferring the natural shape of the plants and an informal rather than manicured look. Nothing is sheared and there are no perfectly clipped shrubs in my garden. It saves time and is better for the plants since each cut encourages a flurry of new growth.
When selecting plants, I also look for those that are self-cleaning to reduce deadheading and clean up. Some roses and oleanders have this feature. Other plants produce berries or interesting seedpods that add interest to the garden if left on the stalk through the winter. Cutting them back then becomes an annual rather than weekly chore. Among my favorites are ornamental grasses, crape myrtles, Jerusalem sage and roses that produce hips; and plants such as Russian sage, salvias, and gaura that bloom many months without extra attention. Larger plants, trees and shrubs incorporated into the landscape also reduce maintenance and are less time consuming than gardens containing just perennials or annuals.
But my biggest time saver is the method I use for weed control. When creating a new bed, I cover the area with newspaper and anchor it with mulch. The newspaper smothers and decays existing vegetation thereby adding nutrients while also retaining moisture in the soil. When the newspaper decays, my plants are usually large enough to smother most weeds. If not, I add another layer of newspaper in the trouble prone areas and cover it with mulch. Bare or disrupted soil encourages weed growth so I keep a thick layer of mulch covering my garden beds. Using a drip system, which takes water to only the roots of the plants and not the surrounding area, also slows down the spread of weeds.
To avoid problems later on, I provide generous spacing between plants that considers their mature size. Otherwise soon they will be growing over and around each other and I will have a major job moving, dividing and replanting them. When it appears a plant is going to get too large, I concede and move it to a more suitable place rather than constantly cutting it back and forcing it into a space that is too small or inappropriate. Leaving space between plants also lessens the likelihood of disease and pests.
Instead of doing unnecessary chores, I use the extra time to monitor the health of my garden and to appreciate its current status. Healthy plants seldom get diseases or serious bug infestations so I try to prevent problems by checking regularly to see if my plants are healthy and happy. That means they are getting enough but not too much water, the amount of sunlight they require, good air circulation and the freedom to grow without undue interference. I only intervene if it appears that the problem is spreading and the bug or disease entity is currently present. Often by the time the problem is apparent, its cause has left the scene.
By using a low maintenance approach, I have redefined my “To Do” list as well as what is aesthetically satisfying. I find that if the right place and conditions are carefully matched with the right plants and if appropriate support systems are in place such as drip irrigation and weed control barriers, my garden will do fine with only a little extra help and encouragement from me. That´s the way I like it.
Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener who enjoys planning and designing flower-filled cottage gardens that provide the most satisfaction with the least amount of ongoing effort.