One of the things visitors to my garden often say is “Wow! This must be a lot of work!”. Well – it actually isn’t as much as it may seem looking at the size of it. It’s surprisingly low maintenance!
I spent many years working full time with the time spent caring for my gardens snatched before and after work. Over time I discovered a few things that cut down considerably on the maintenance work. I share them with you here in hopes they may help you as well.
- EMULATE NATURE – The more “formal” the garden is the more work it is to keep it looking good. The more you emulate nature – with curving lines and naturally diverse mixtures of plants, the less “perfect” everything needs to look. Straight lines of paths and beds and plants must be constantly maintained – an overgrown plant or a weed or two stick out like a sore thumb!
If you allow space for nature to play along, you sometimes end up with wonderful volunteers and unexpected (but pleasant!) surprises. I like to think of my gardens as a collaboration between me and Mother Nature. She is always bringing me gifts. All I need to do is be open to receiving them. Formal, perfectly maintained and controlled gardens don’t allow for this sort of spontaneity.
- Persimmon and English walnut surrounded by strawberries, comfrey, yarrow, chives, orange daylilies, sorrel, angelica and other miscellaneous lovelies in my “food forest”.
- COVER THE GROUND WITH SOMETHING! Mother Nature rarely leaves bare soil.
Most of my garden is covered with plants that I choose to have there – whether I planted them or they “volunteered”. Once you have lived somewhere a while you learn to recognize your local weeds – even as tiny plants. If I don’t recognize a plant, I will let it grow until I can identify it – possibly even to the point of flowering – before I decide whether it is welcome or not. I have had some wonderful plants show up this way.
I also plant lots of groundcovers as well as self-seeders like forget-me-nots, that tend to reproduce themselves merrily all over the garden. When they are finished blooming (or when I need the space for other things – whichever comes first) I pull and compost them. By then they will have spread their seed for next springs plants. Some plants – like sweet alyssum (one of my favorite re-seeders) transplant easily as tiny plants and so I have good supplies of volunteers to tuck in around the garden where I want them – even if the place they came up doesn’t work for me.
Study up a bit on groundcover plants before you introduce them into your garden. Be especially cautious of the large ones, unless you have really large areas you need to cover – plants like English ivy, Vinca minor and Vinca major and St. Johns Wort can be very aggressive. Make sure a plant is easy to get rid of if you decide you don’t want it. Well chosen and well placed groundcovers are a godsend! They keep weeds down and add color and beauty (and sometimes fruit!) with very little effort!
Some favorite non-aggressive ones I have grown in the Pacific Northwest are coastal strawberry, ajuga, blue star creeper, wild ginger, wild bleeding heart, Redwood sorrel, very low creeping thymes, woods strawberry, regular everbearing strawberry, Sweet Woodruff, oregano, and sedums of all kinds.
- Creeping thyme, sedums, violets and coastal strawberry and Thrift around Rain Garden.
- MULCH – All my beds get mulch, but especially any bed that is going to be empty for any time. Nothing beats a thick layer of mulch for making weeds less of a problem. Mulch keeps the soil under it moist and friable (loose and crumbly), and feeds worms and important micro-organisms. It keeps the soil from forming a crust on top that water can’t penetrate, as well as decreasing the amount you need to water to keep things thriving.
We have a huge pile of wood chips and if you go down several inches into the pile at the end of August (it doesn’t rain here from May to Sept.) you will find the chips are still moist! The same thing happens to your soil with enough mulch on it.
AND it cuts down your weed problems. If you do get a weed it’s much easier to pull out. Mostly you just won’t get weeds with a good thick layer of mulch.
If there is one thing I would tell a new gardener that would make their lives easier, improve their soil greatly, grow healthier plants and cut down on water use and muddy splash on your plants – its MULCH, MULCH, MULCH (not with stones or plastic however!). Leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, and all sorts of chopped up green or brown stuff, wood chips, etc.
- Groundcovers and wood chip mulch
- PLANT SPACING – One the the most common mistakes gardeners make is not giving the plants they add to their gardens enough room to grow to their natural mature shape and size without pruning.
It’s a challenge to visualize the full size of a small plant in a pot – but I found if I take a measuring tape pulled out to the mature width of a plant and lay it with the center where I want the plant to be – it helps a lot. Do this a few times and you will begin to get a realistic sense of things.
If you can’t deal with the empty spaces between young trees and shrubs fill in with perennial or annual herbs, flowers or food plants and groundcovers! You will be so happy you did a few years down the road. Most plants have wonderful natural shapes when given the room to grow without pruning. If you have to prune every year you have lost that, not to mention the time and energy it takes to prune and then deal with the prunings!
If, on the other hand, you have a small space and your goal is to cram as big a variety of food bearing plants into it as possible (pruning time be damned!) – that’s an entirely different story and I say “go for it!” (been there, done that!). Many kinds of fruit trees and bushes and vines need yearly pruning to bear their best anyway, so these would be exceptions to this advise.
- Native groundcovers Woods Strawberry, coastal strawberry and Yerba Buena under Vine Maple by pond – with pine needle mulch.
- SET UP IRRIGATION SYSTEMS – It’s hard to hand water to the depth that is best for plants – you usually just wet the top inch of soil. Sprinklers usually put water down faster than the ground can absorb, so you end up with a lot of run-off and wasted water, not to mention it’s hard to get into corners and odd spaces.
Drip irrigation and mini sprinklers are so much more efficient. They may seem overwhelmingly complicated to set up, but once you have gotten through the first bit you will find that it’s not nearly as hard as it seemed when you were reading about it. Then you can put your watering on timers and go off and do something more fun than dragging hoses around your garden.
So – to recap – For a more carefree, low maintenance garden:
1. Emulate nature with natural free flowing curves and lots of diversity.
2. Cover the ground with plants you want to grow.
3. Mulch everything – especially bare soil!
4. Space plants so you will never have to prune them.
5. Install drip irrigation and timers.
There you go! Now is a great time to PLAN your garden while you wait for those seed catalogs to come!