By Diana Lawrence
Extension Master Gardener
University of Vermont
With two young children, a full time job, and a house to clean, I find that gardening is often both a reward and a burden. Weeds tease, unplanted perennials beckon, and pots wave for water as I wait guiltily for the weekend to arrive.
I'm not alone. Gardeners with physical challenges, vacation homes, or lots of laundry, for example, simply don't have time to lavish attention on backyard beds. I subscribe to the philosophy that gardens should only alleviate stress, and never generate it, and so I believe in the low-maintenance garden.
There are three basic chores that seem to drain the time out of every visit to the garden: weeding, watering, and division of plants. A few shortcuts can reduce those efforts and leave you with more time to enjoy the true purpose of gardening (which is to wonder if you should move some plants around).
Choose hardy perennials that need very little division or deadheading and can withstand summer heat and occasional drought. If your plants are wilting and thirsty, chances are you will be, too. Perennials such as ornamental grasses, fringed bleeding heart, echinacea, lady's mantle, artemesia, vinca vine, sedum, hostas, coreopsis (tickseed), daylilies, and yarrow are all workhorses that need minimal attention.
Shrubs and trees also are increasingly popular additions to the garden because they provide visual interest without much effort. Many Vermont nurseries now stock specialty shrubs and unusual trees that are suited to zones three through five. Remember, annuals look beautiful and provide instant gratification, but they have to be planted every year.
If you're a container gardener, think big. The smaller the pot, the more quickly the soil dries out and needs watering. Use large pots and be sure to mix your potting medium with a helping of polymer crystals (available at garden and home supply centers).
These crystals absorb several hundred times their weight in water and release the moisture as the soil dries out. This can significantly reduce the need for watering, especially in larger pots. Follow the directions carefully. Pots with too many crystals will eject their contents during a heavy rainstorm.
It's also helpful to keep your pots as close to your water source as possible. Scattering gorgeous containers around your yard may create a lovely landscape, but the trek from pot to pot can get tedious when rainfall becomes infrequent.
Mulch is a terrific way to reduce work in the garden. It helps reduce water evaporation, gives the garden a neat appearance, and discourages the growth of weeds.
Bark, pine needles, and shredded leaves are common organic mulches that decompose over time and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Apply the mulch after plants are well established and the soil is reasonably moist. Add a little extra in the winter months to protect them against damage from fluctuating soil temperatures.
If you'd rather not mulch, a noninvasive ground cover is another effective and attractive way to squeeze the weeds out. Sweet woodruff, ajuga, pachysandra, lamium, and thyme will all do the trick.
Of course, a gardener's work is never done. However, a low-maintenance
garden can wait until the weekend.