Change is part of life, but during the last three years change has been momentous for many people. Change may be seen in how and where you work and eat, the way you dress, your daily routines and social life, and whether or not you travel. You may have pets or hobbies you did not have previously. Your children’s schooling and care may have changed, as well as who lives in your household. This may be the precise time to evaluate your ways.
Do your garden and yard still suit your new reality?
Lives are enriched by gardening, as well as by seeing (or eating from) other people’s gardens. For emotional and mental health, gardening should probably be one of the last activities that people abandon, even if life has become busier and more demanding. Let’s consider how to adapt or simplify, without sacrificing all that’s good about the sentence: “I’ll be out in the garden.”
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Horticulture professionals often roll their eyes upon hearing that a client wants “a low-maintenance landscape.” Then that client asks for neatly shaped boxwoods and yews (cones, meatballs, spirals and hedges) and a sprawling, pristine lawn (with one or two trees stuck in the middle). Or perhaps the client wants a long and dramatic sweep of one-color petunias or million bells or another annual, so it stays colorful and the same all summer. None of these things are low maintenance; they only look tidy and easy if someone does extensive clipping, mowing, weeding, deadheading and watering.
One path to low maintenance is hiring professionals to provide and maintain the yard you envision – after finding that person or company and after extensive communication about what you really want. But if you are reading this because you are the gardener or person doing the yardwork, here are ways to make it actually easier and less burdensome.
1. Straighter lines, larger beds: To simplify edging, mowing, weeding and watering, the ideal landscape garden has straight or long curved lines, whether the beds are islands, borders or foundation beds. Wide foundation beds can be easier to maintain if they are several feet away from the house and wide, to allow for naturally shaped shrubs that don’t need pruning. (Only buy or plant with the mature size in mind.) Group small beds together and layer the plantings, putting compatible trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials and groundcovers together. Well-matched and properly spaced plants complement each other and block most weeds, with selective mulching.
2. Fewer species and less fussy plants: Depending on your strength, time and energy, your new way of gardening may mean using more shrubs than perennials, more perennials than annuals, and more container plants than in-ground beds. That “simple” planting of annuals needs lots of buying, planting, watering and tending every season; perennials mostly come back in spring. However, as a longtime perennials collector, I have learned to give up many species with individual needs for thinning, moving, cutting back, staking and pest prevention. I replace some with shrubs that offer multi-season beauty and ones that do not outgrow their space.
Also consider downsizing to use many of a few easy species (sedums, coneflowers, St. John’s wort, mountain mint, butterfly weed or oakleaf hydrangeas) rather than a few of many species. When you are choosing the plants, do not fall for the momentarily prettiest genus or species in the garden center. Do learn what types are truly easy to maintain and attractive for a long season.
3. Simpler hardscape and edges: Alone or with a landscape professional, consider how to handle walkways, paths and patios. Weeds creep in between flagstones, bricks and other kinds of paths unless they have well-built foundations. Mulched and gravel paths need raking and edge management. Using rocks, bricks (or artificial rubber or plastic) to edge beds or paths will require pulling grass or weeds away from them or weed-whacking. The easiest solution is V-shaped trenches along edges. Or place level pavers, slate or concrete just below soil level, so mowers can keep the lines clean. This is a large topic, and mistakes lead to much work, so talk with experts and do careful planning in order to have less, not more, labor.
4. Take out troublemakers: I am the last to give up on plants. I have a high tolerance for imperfection and unattractiveness if a plant makes a pollinator or bird happy. But there is a time to let plants go. This winter may have shown you which trees dropped countless branches and endangered what’s below them; hire an arborist to prune or take them down. If shrubs were smashed beneath the eaves or flattened by the snowplows – move or remove them. If certain plants overrun all neighboring plants every year, end the fight. If you don’t like pruning certain plants, spraying for powdery mildew or deadheading some plants, then out with them! The compost pile awaits.
5. How you use your lawn and gardens: Life changes could mean it is time to rethink your whole yard’s layout. The dogs may need large fenced areas, or clear paths for running between the perennial and shrub beds. Carefully review whether you have plants that are poisonous for pets or children. You may now want permanently built raised beds for the food and flower garden, more fruit trees, or a flat garden close to the house and water systems. You may need to install irrigation systems because dragging hoses and sprinklers has become impossible. If some plants wither in summer heat, and others are too wet all spring, move plants with similar needs together. To benefit and enjoy birds and other wildlife, you might allow one section of the yard (20 or 30 feet?) to look casual and natural with swaths of native plants and wildflowers (with water pools and bird baths). You may let a backyard lawn become a meadowlike play or sports area, while you carefully tend parts of the front lawn as paths around the beds or a frame for your house.
Now that things are different, think about what is important for your situation and family, what you like, and how you best use and enjoy your little piece of earth.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.
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