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10 Tricks for a Low Maintenance Garden

The holly grail in gardening is the perfect beautiful garden that exists without any maintenance. I see titles for books and blog posts all of the time claiming to be “no-maintenance”. Any real gardener knows that is baloney but there are things you can do to have a low maintenance garden.

As gardeners age, maintenance becomes more of a chore, but we don’t want to give up our gardens. Making some simple changes in plant selection and attitude can reduce your work load significantly and allow you to keep the garden longer.

In this post I will describe 10 things any gardener can do to reduce maintenance to a minimum.

Aspen Grove Gardens - a low maintenance garden

Aspen Grove Gardens – a low maintenance garden

 Aspen Grove – My Low Maintenance Garden

The picture above is part of my 6 acre garden. Not counting new plantings and changes to the garden, the total maintenance time spent on this hill garden is about 3 days for the whole year and much of that that time is spent adding mulch.

Grow Perennials

Perennials are plants that come back year after year all on their own. I use the wider definition here and include things like bulbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Stay away from annuals or short lived perennials. Use only plants that remain in your garden for at least 10 years.

Pay attention to the hardiness zone of the plants you select and only pick ones for your zone. To be on the safe side, pick them for a zone colder and that will keep you away from marginally hardy plants.

When I go out into the garden each spring I know that there will be almost no dead plants that need replacing. All of my plants are perennials that reliably come back. Good thing too, since I have over an acre of flower beds.

Selecting the right perennial is also important. Many require too much work to keep them alive and looking good.

See also: Planting Perennials the Right Way

Mulch, Mulch and More Mulch

Mulch is the most important thing you can do for your garden. It slowly fertilizes the soil as it decomposes and it reduces weeding and watering. Mulch also keeps the soil cool, which plant roots really like.

I use wood chips in my garden and I hardly ever need to weed. I never water established plants except in the shade garden that became too sunny when I lost a couple of large trees.

low maintenance gardening

A new garden bed that was not mulched. Everything you see are weeds.

 

low maintenance gardening

This new bed, a few feet over from the one shown above, was made at the same time, but was was mulched and then planted with daylily seedlings. It only has a couple of weeds.

Eliminate Staking

Peony 'bowl of beauty' never needs staking, by Robert Pavlis

Peony ‘bowl of beauty’ never needs staking, by Robert Pavlis

If you read some of the old books about perennials you will see great discussions about staking the plants. That is all good advice, but why bother? Reduce the time needed to take care of the plants and get rid of any plants that need to be staked.

Many of the taller perennials need to be staked because of their height and large flower size. Today, you can find miniature versions of your favorite tall plants which do not need to be staked. For example short delphiniums can be used instead of the traditional tall ones. Many peonies flop without staking, but some newer varieties like ‘Bowl of Beauty’ don’t need to be staked.

I have to be honest here. I love tall delphiniums so much that I do have a clump of them and I do need to stake them. But they are the only plants that I stake.

Speed up Deadheading

Geranium sanguineum blooms all summer long

Geranium sanguineum blooms all summer long

Deadheading is the term used to describe the removal of spent flower heads. In some cases these are removed to make the plant look better and in other cases it prevents the formation of unwanted seeds.

Some newer cultivars are sterile and don’t produce seed. A side benefit of these is that they bloom much longer because the plant does not know it’s sterile and keeps making flowers in the hope that seeds will develop.

Some perennials make very short flower stocks and small seed heads so there is no point in removing them since you can barely see them. Geranium sanguineum (one of my favorite perennials) blooms all summer long and you never see the spent flower. It also grows thick enough so that you never have to weed under it.

If you do have a perennial that needs to be deadheaded and you just can’t bare to part with it, forget those tiny scissors. Bring out the hedge trimmers and do the job in seconds.

Eliminate Dividing

Some perennials only do well if they are divided every couple of years; German bearded iris are a good example of this. Other perennials like peonies can be in the same spot for 100 years. Select plants that do not need regular dividing.

The other reason for dividing plants is to reduce their size in the garden. Since many gardens are on the small side, you don’t want the clumps getting too big. Select plants that spread slowly so you have to divide less often.

Ditch the Weedy Plants

Monarda, commonly called  bee balm, is a great plant with lovely colors and it even attracts butterflies. The problem is that this plant is very weedy and spreads fast. To keep it contained in a small area requires annual reduction of the clump. That is just too much work and I have removed all of it from the garden.

Stay away from weedy plants – they are just too much work.

Eliminate Pests by Eliminating Plants

I am not talking about getting rid of all of your plants, but certain ones are pest magnets.

I love lilies but in my neck of the woods the lily beetle comes every year and decimates them. Some people spend their whole summer collecting and killing the beetles and their grubs, just so they can keep their lilies. My approach was different. I left the lilies and beetles alone, figuring that when the lilies were all dead I would replace them with something the lily beetle would not eat – like daylilies, which are not lilies.

As it turns out, I have not had the lily beetle here for the last three years and the lilies are starting to return, at least the ones that were still alive.

If a plant gets the same pest every year, consider replacing the plant – don’t fight mother nature.

Stop Fall Cleanup

If you clean up your garden in the fall, almost every plant needs to be cut back to ground level. That is a lot of work. If instead you do the cleanup in spring you gain a number of benefits. Firstly, it is better for the beneficial insects and birds who find shelter and food. Secondly, it is a lot less work. By spring most perennials are laying on the ground and you don’t need to cut them back.

Any leaves or stems that are laying on the ground in spring can be left there to compost right in the garden.

Don’t Be So Neat

You do not need to remove leaves in the spring.

You do not need to remove leaves in the spring.

We have these images in our head of perfectly manicured gardens and some public gardens are like that. But remember, they have full time staff taking care of the gardens. Most of us don’t have that luxury.

The natural look is in – embrace it. There is nothing wrong with a few leaves or stems laying on the ground. The odd weed is OK too, except that plants will grow better without weeds.

Real thick layers of leaves should be partially removed so plants can easily grow through them, but thin layers can just be left were the leaves fall.

Change Your Attitude About Pests

New gardeners keep a very close eye on their leaves. As soon as they see a small nick or bite, they get online and ask what they can spray. Many times they have not even seen the pest, but something needs to be done about this serious problem!

Learn to chill.

Take a walk in the woods and have a close look at the leaves. By mid-summer they all have nicks and chew marks on them. It is part of nature. When was the last time a pest killed a plant? It rarely happens.

One of the best things you can do about a pest problem is to let predator insects find the pest and deal with it. If you don’t provide food (ie the pests) for these predators, they will not visit your garden which means you will always have pest problems. Keep in mind that 90% of the insects you see are good bugs and any spray or treatment kills both good and bad bugs.

I grow several thousand different types of plants and I don’t try to control any pest. My garden helper, Mother Nature, does that for me.

 

You might also like to read : Low Maintenance Garden Design

 

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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenFundamentals.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Fundamentals an educational site that

2 Responses to '10 Tricks for a Low Maintenance Garden'

  1. Judy Stewart says:

    I second Marie Martin’s comment 🙂 Also no more fall clean up for me!
    Judy Stewart

  2. Marie Martin says:

    Very beneficial information, thank you.

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