How to Garden the Low-Maintenance Way

Masses of grasses and other easy perennials.

Master Gardener Lisa Winters shared these terrific tips for low-maintenance gardening at Homestead’s Perennial Affair.

No-Maintenance?

Is there such a thing as no-maintenance gardening?  Contrary to some mistaken reports in the media, NO.   Here are the true no-maintenance options: living in an apartment with no yard to take care of, or paying someone ELSE to do the maintenance work (and having all the fun).  Lisa added one more reality check – that even decks need maintenance, after all.  No free ride for property owners!

What is Maintenance?

Well, that depends on what the task IS and who’s accomplishing it.  To gardeners, maintenance is what they do and enjoy.  But even to them (us), some jobs are more enjoyable than others, and it’s the low-enjoyment tasks (a/k/a drudgery) that we’d like to keep as minimal as possible.  For example, many gardeners think of lawn care as drudgery, but rearranging perennials in our borders?  That’s creative and fun.   Same for pruning, a task enjoyed by many avid gardeners.  And there really are folks who love taking care of their lawn.

Why Chose Low-Maintenance?

Skipping right over laziness, Lisa named two thoroughly unassailable reasons for choosing a low-maintenance garden – physical limitations of various types, and time restrictions.  Nuf said.

Low-Maintenance Gardening Tips

  • Keep it simple.  Site containers and all thirsty plants close to a water source and where they’re easy to get to.  Also, limit the number of high-maintenance plants you grow, and use pavers or mulch for high traffic areas, rather than lawn.
  • Avoid free-standing trees in the middle of lawn – because they create bits of lawn that have to be edged after mowing.
  • Use large curving lines for borders – they’re easier to mow around than straight lines that turn corners.
  • And another thing about edging – you can avoid it altogether if you install a mowing strip around the entire lawn.  A mowing strip needs to be at least 6″ wide and flush with the soil, and can be mulch or pavers.
  • Avoid ponds because they demand spring cleaning, fall winterizing, the occasional liner leak and several other time-consuming tasks.
  • Choose the “right plant, right place,” to use the popular slogan of sustainable gardening.   So for sunny spots, choose sun-lovers.  For small spots, choose plants that won’t get big.  Seems obvious, but it requires reading those plant tags!  Or just ask the nearest Homestead employee staffer for help in making your plant choice.
  • Choose plants that are pest-resistant, disease-resistant, and drought-tolerant. 
  • Large sweeps of just a few plants (with the same light and water requirements) are easier to take care of than just a few each of many different plants, which can reproduce and crowd each other out, requiring the gardener to intervene.

Masses of Hydrangea paniculata and an easy-mowing strip

Lowest maintenance plants

  • Ornamental grasses, which require nothing more than being cut back to 6” in March.  (They’re also happy with as little as a half-day of sun.)
  • Trees and shrubs:
    • IF you select the correct size for the plant’s location. (Otherwise, very frequent pruning could be required).
    • Don’t shear shrubs and whole hedges or prune them to perfect geometric shapes or topiary of any kind.  Shrubs that are pruned to natural shapes are a lot less work, and usually healthier, too.
    • Consolidate them in borders rather than dotting them around the yard.  That’ll lessen the amount of lawn-edging required, and look better, too.  (Not to mention prevent injury to your trees from mowers and string strimmers.)
    • Limit or consolidate island beds for the same reason – to reduce lawn-edging and a better appearance, too.

Higher maintenance plants

  • Annuals need frequent watering and feeding.
  • Vegetables need frequent watering, feeding, and changing out as the season progresses, from cool- to warm-season and back to cool-season plants.
  • Any plant in a container, where they need much more frequent watering and feeding, too.
  • Fruit trees, especially in our humid climate, are highly susceptible to disease and also need protection from fruit-stealing critters.  Figs seem to be the exception – they do very well here.

It depends

  • Lawn: Perfect, weed-free, always-green lawns are a lot of work.  Good-enough lawns that have a few weeds and are allowed to go dormant in mid-summer aren’t.
  • Other groundcovers:  Around trees and along fences, where lawn has to be edged after mowing, groundcovers are a better option.  However, most groundcovers should be planted alone or with large plants, not with annuals or perennials that can be smothered by the aggressive behavior of most groundcovers.   What’s easiest is to stick with one or two groundcovers that works well in your garden and use them extensively, rather than mixing many of them and having to protect the weaker ones from the more vigorous ones.
  • Perennials:  Contrary to their reputation as low-maintenance plants, perennials are constantly in a state of flux and need adjustment every season.  (Removing the failures, containing the spreaders, dividing the too-large.) The good news is that most gardeners enjoy this. It’s creative work, and not especially back-breaking, so Lisa encourages gardeners to grow perennials, especially the easier ones.  And more good news is that they DO live for several years, unlike annuals that need to be replaced every year.  (Click here, here, here and here for some easy, heat- and drought-tolerant perennials.)

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