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Keeping it Simple 

Effort-to-reward ratios in the garden

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Low maintenance, low maintenance, low maintenance. This seems to be the mantra of gardeners today. And given our fast-paced lives, it's not surprising. Low maintenance can and should be designed into a landscape. Following are some thoughts about what that actually means and how to achieve it.

What is Low Maintenance?

In the words of Bert Walker, former head of the agriculture department at College of the Redwoods, "Low maintenance is not no maintenance." If you want to have a landscape that looks reasonably neat and attractive, some upkeep is required. Even if you cover the entire landscape with concrete (not recommended!), you would still need to clean it off occasionally.

And low maintenance means different things to different people. For some people, mowing the lawn is an easy, familiar task that doesn't require any specialized plant knowledge. On the other hand, for many people mowing the lawn is their definition of high maintenance.

Opinions also differ on where routine garden tasks — watering, weeding, pruning, cutting back, deadheading, digging and dividing plants — fall on the contiuum. Here's where personal preference comes into play. Most people don't enjoy weeding, though I have met a few who do. I enjoy pruning trees and shrubs, but many people find it intimidating. Some people find deadheading flowers relaxing, while to others it is simply tiresome. The important point is to understand your own likes and dislikes when it comes to gardening, and then make sure your garden requires more enjoyable than burdensome tasks.

Well Begun is Half Done

As with many other tasks in life, taking the time to do things right from the start can save much time and frustration down the line. This means evaluating your soil and doing a thorough job of soil preparation before planting. Adding organic matter is almost always beneficial, especially if you are dealing with sandy or heavy clay soil. If there are poorly drained areas, correct the problem or plan to use plants that do well in that situation. Whatever time you spend on soil preparation will yield benefits in terms of healthier plants and less on-going maintenance.

Weed Management

Since weeding is the most obnoxious garden activity for many people, here's my approach to managing garden weeds. Perhaps most importantly, planted areas should be covered with 3 to 4 inches of mulch. (Be sure to keep mulch from coming into contact with the plants themselves, as that can lead to rot.) A good layer of mulch suppresses weed growth and has many other benefits. It holds water in the soil, so you don't have to irrigate as frequently. It also buffers the soil from temperature extremes and provides a favorable environment for soil microorganisms. And if you use materials such as chipped or shredded bark, they add organic matter to the soil as they decompose. Mulch can make even a newly planted garden look neat and "finished."

Some people are reluctant to use mulch because they have heard that mulching with wood chips, sawdust or straw temporarily starves the surrounding plants of nitrogen. This turns out to be one of those gardening myths. It is only when such materials are mixed into the soil that they can be a problem, not when they are spread on top of the soil.

Other strategies for minimizing weeds: Plant densely so that when your plants mature they will cover the ground, thus shading out weeds; use drip irrigation; fertilize judiciously. And avoid disturbing the soil unnecessarily as tilling brings up weed seeds, burns up organic matter and disrupts soil texture and the soil food web.

I am not a fan of using landscape fabric in planting beds for several reasons. It can be expensive, it's made from fossil fuels and ends up in landfills. Also, no matter how carefully you try to cover the fabric, it generally surfaces and is unsightly. Furthermore, the longer it is in place, the more weeds are able to germinate on top of the fabric and grow with their roots entangled with the fabric, making them difficult to pull up. In a planting bed that is well mulched, with the soil in good tilth, the weeds that do appear are easier to uproot. (Genevieve Schmidt wrote eloquently about this topic in "Why I Hate Landscape Fabric," Sept. 19, 2013.)


One final thought on how to achieve a low-maintenance garden: lower your expectations. Several years ago Fine Gardening magazine ran an article on this subject, and that was one of its suggestions. Before you dismiss the idea, be aware that the birds, butterflies and beneficial insects we want to invite to our gardens are attracted to what we might consider "messy" areas — leaf litter, rotting wood, rock piles and decomposing plant material. Many books on gardening for wildlife recommend leaving some corners of the garden untidy so don't feel guilty if your garden is not perfectly manicured.

We create gardens for our pleasure. An attractive garden requires a certain amount of work, but if we design a garden thoughtfully, we can reach that happy state where the pleasure definitely outweighs the work involved.

In my next column, I'll focus on low-maintenance plants — the foundation of a low-maintenance garden.

Donna Wildearth is the owner of Garden Visions Landscape Design in Eureka. Visit her website at

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Donna Wildearth

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