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There isn’t such a thing as a no-maintenance garden, but you can have low-maintenance plants and plantings

Duing the seemingly endless COVID-19 time, many people, constrained to working from home and limiting travel, took up gardening. Now, as we ease back into whatever the new normal is going to be, some are wondering about future gardening projects. Will they have time to enjoy puttering in the garden? Will they be able to keep up with its care?

If you’ve pondered these questions, you’re not alone—you join the many gardeners who have constraints on their time for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps you have a little less mobility than you’d like. Perhaps you have a young family, or are involved in caring for older relatives, or are busier than ever with the return to how things were before COVID interrupted all our lives for two years. Even I, a hardcore gardener since forever, look around the yard while there’s still three feet of snow everywhere, and wonder how I will manage it all this year.

Happily, there are solutions for those who want to continue to exercise their green thumbs and enjoy their plantings. We always say there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden, unless it’s a photo in a book or on a wall, but there are certainly low-maintenance options for making the most of your desire to grow your own foods and enjoy beautifying your yard.

If you’ve looked online for tidbits on gardening for busy folks, the first thing is—don’t judge yourself if you can’t or don’t want to do it all. I read several articles that referred to “lazy” gardeners, and I don’t care for that label. In my work and passion for planting, I know dozens, if not hundreds of, gardeners across the country and beyond, and there’s nary one who is lazy. Busy, for sure. Limited by time, mobility, funds, whatever. That’s all good. And if you don’t enjoy gardening—but love the results—that’s perfectly fine, too.

 
Elegant and long-lived lilies in a mixed border

Reduce the lawn

Lawn lovers, please don’t hate me. Grass is good if you have pets or kid that need to play on it; otherwise, it is essentially a monoculture on which people expend a lot of money, time, water, and fossil fuels for basically no return. Many are turning their front yards into gardens, either ornamental or food producing, and spending more time on more pleasurable pursuits than mowing, whip trimming, raking, etc. I’ve been expanding my own gardens on my side of the farmhouse every year, making less grass and more flowers.

 

Hardscaping projects

These require some initial time and effort—and often, expense—to create, but once they are done, they require little to no attention. Hardscape features include walls and fences, trellises, arbours, gazebos, stone or gravel pathways, ponds and other water features, seating such as stone benches, outdoor fireplaces and cooking areas, hot tub or swimming pool, patios, and decks and more. A quick trip to Pinterest will give you endless inspiration and as a bonus—most of these ideas will also take away from that high maintenance grass!

 

Creating outdoor rooms

There has been a definite expansion in interesting in these areas of the yard in the past few years, and perhaps especially during COVID. We enjoy an area where we can sit and read, enjoy visiting with friends, have a meal, doze on a lounge…. Building an outdoor room takes some real planning and some investment in hardscaping—decks or patios, walls, arbours, outdoor kitchens or what have you—but also are a payoff in increasing your home’s value, should you wish to sell down the road.


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erennials spilling over a rock wall with a mix of shrubs and trees

 

Mulching your beds

I enjoy weeding, but I also plant my perennial borders so thickly that they shade out many weeds. I like a tidy border of mulch along the edge, both to keep my neighbour from mowing the garden, and to help keep weeds down and moisture in the soil. Use good quality bark mulch and apply it at least two inches thick; you will likely have to top it up every spring, as it does decompose and add a little organic matter. If you’re using pea gravel or other stone options, you may need to lay down landscape cloth under it to deter weed growth.

 

Container gardening

Even for those of us with a generous planted area, container plantings add moveable colour or the opportunity to use plants on decks and balconies that you can’t put in your beds. For those who have issues with deer dining on hostas, daylilies, tulips, and other delights, planting such species in containers out of reach of those long-legged pests is a solution. In addition, you can refresh your containers throughout the season with new plants, and enhance them for the season (Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc.) And you can grow many edibles in containers, from herbs and salad greens to tomatoes and peppers, and even woody food crops like blueberry bushes or dwarf fruit trees. All my edibles are in various-sized containers around the yard, and I grow a lot of tomatoes, greens and herbs.

 

Vertical gardening

We often forget about the many trailing or vining plants we can grow—including in containers—to add another element to our yards. Clematis, of course, are a favourite vine that come in a huge array of colours and forms. With a little planning, you can train vines to scramble through bushes as well as along fences, up arbours, or obelisks; and did you know, there are a few clematis varieties that don’t get more than a few feet tall? Check with your local nursery to see what they carry.

 

Easy care plants for beds and borders

Many perennials are great options for plant-and-forget choices, while others require more care, at least needing dividing every few years to keep them vigourous. Look for perennials that work with your site—you don’t want drought-tolerant species if your soil is wet and slow to drain, nor do you want to grow massive plants that need a lot of muscle for dividing or moving them. (think of giant Miscanthus which is, in a word, giant.) To make sure you don’t buy garden thugs, look for plants that clump politely rather than creeping or running. Many shrubs are excellent choices for the low maintenance garden, requiring merely a little pruning to keep them tidy—and there are countless dwarf varieties, including some amazing evergreens, that are ideal for a small yard or for container planting.

 

Hire some help

Perhaps you need a hand for spring or fall cleanup, or to move, divide and plant species around your yard. A day or two of help doesn’t have to break the bank—there are often students available to do jobs like mowing, yard cleanup, moving of soil and mulch, leaving you with more time and energy to do the things you enjoy in your yard.

 

TOP PLANTS FOR LOW MAINTENANCE GARDENS

Shrubs are stars of a low-maintenance yard—some have a long period of bloom, some have colourful foliage, some have excellent seeds, berries, nuts and fall colour for additional interest. Among my most favourite shrubs are hydrangeas of all types, from the white Annabelles to the blue, pink, or purple mophead and lacecap varieties, to the so-called peegee types with their huge flowerheads that can be dried and enjoyed throughout the winter. Among favourites are: ‘Invincibelle Spirit Ruby’; ‘Blue Billows’; ‘Limelight’; ‘Quick Fire’ and the ‘Endless Summer’ varieties.

Other great choices include flowering weigelas, spireas with colourful foliage like ‘Glow Girl’, dwarf conifers such as blue spruces and creeping junipers, and later blooming rose of Sharon (hibiscus). You can also find many dwarf tree forms including magnolias, flowering maples, and flowering dogwoods which will give you endless weeks of delight and not require much care once planted correctly.

Perennials are my weakness, as I have a huge number of old favourites as well as always needing to try some new varieties. Many will rebloom if they are deadheaded once their flowers are spent; others have a long period of bloom, or you can lengthen out the period by having several varieties of the same species. Peonies, for example, can fill your yard with colour and fragrance from early May to late July, depending on what varieties you plant. Other great long bloomers include Amsonia, bluestar; Echinacea, coneflowers; creeping and tall phlox varieties; Monarda, bee balm; Campanula, bellflowers; Geranium, ie cranesbills; and for those untroubled by deer, hostas, and daylilies. Perennial grasses are also an excellent option but again, make sure you plant clumping forms that will fit your garden size, or try a few in large weather-proof containers.

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