When It's High Time For A Low-maintenance Garden

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

July 3, 2008 5 min read


When it's high time for a low-maintenance garden

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

Copley News Service

If your garden is full of weeds, wilting plants and overgrown shrubs, chances are you've broken the first rule of landscape design: it's better to have low maintenance than no maintenance.

Ironically, having a low-maintenance garden is easy to do if you follow some basic rules:

- Keep it simple.

- Keep it small.

- Use mulch to keep weeds down.

- Choose plants wisely.

- Educate yourself about your garden site, including soil, drainage and sunlight.

"Not knowing the type of soil you have, the site's exposure and drainage is the first mistake people make in planting a garden," says Charlie Nardozzi, a senior horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. "They put the wrong plant in the wrong place and wind up with nothing but headaches."

It's also easy to get "seduced by plant descriptions," he says, choosing trees, shrubs and plants that require an inordinate amount of attention. In some cases, aggressively growing plants can choke out others you've carefully groomed to blossom each year. And if you focus on colorful annuals, which die off at the end of the season, you'll be making a lot more work for yourself, Nardozzi warns. The association offers advice on low-maintenance gardening in the how-to section of it Web site, www.garden.org.

The University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension believes a small, well-kept garden "is better than acres of weed growth." In its guide to low-maintenance landscapes (available online at www.solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu), it points out that "reducing size is often the most straightforward and successful way to reduce landscape maintenance."

It also recommends planting shrubs in masses to eliminate hand-edging and weeding, avoiding over-fertilizing that can make you have to prune more often, and opting for native plants. "Even with good planning, plants poorly suited to a site can ruin the landscape appearance." Native plants have already adapted to their surroundings, climate and drainage and are "less susceptible to pest problems."

And when it comes to choosing plants for your low-maintenance garden, think quality over price, the extension says. "A cheap plant is not necessarily an inexpensive one" if you have to spend time and money to replace it or bring it back to good health. What to avoid?

- Plants with excessive new tender growth.

- Weak, cracked trunks or branches.

- Damaged, yellow leaves (check for insects or improper handling).

- Roots growing outside the container.

"Before you buy, evaluate a plant just as you would inspect a garment or appliance," the extension says. "To find quality, shop at reputable nurseries and garden centers that look neat and well cared for. Don't buy plants without seeing and inspecting them first."

Flowers and shrubs are not the only way to have a low-maintenance garden, notes the Ohio State University Extension. "Forest gardening offers a new approach to home landscaping," it says, combining food production with ecological function.

Drawing on the diversified mix of plants found in the deep mulch of a forest, the forest garden includes trees in a variety of heights, like white oaks and beech trees which provide a natural canopy for the garden, a layer of shorter trees such as cherry, crab apple or pear, a layer of shrubs like blackberries followed by a layer of herbs (such as chives, parsley or rhubarb), a flowering ground cover and then vines.

"The ideal time to start a forest garden is in the fall," extension horticulturists say, layering each level on the other. Instructions in creating a forest garden are online at www.ohioline.osu.edu in its "Fact Sheet" Yard and Gardening section.

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