In any garden, I start thinking about the purpose of the garden. A purpose might revolve around particular values a person wants to practice living in their garden, or a particular way they’d like it to contribute to their life. The purpose can also help guide you towards particular maintenance strategies. Birds and insects benefit from the abundance of material, cover, and forage that exists in “messier” gardens, which means less work for the gardener. Once a purpose is defined, I look at how that purpose will best be enacted. What might success look or feel like?
When one of the key elements of the garden’s purpose is ease of maintenance, I first check for stacking functions. Is there something that the person loves to do that qualifies as maintenance? For example, harvesting routines can accomplish a lot in the garden and can be quite simple (more on this later). So I start with a few simple questions:
1) What are your tolerance levels for various fluctuations? Which fluctuations do you actually enjoy?
2) How do you enjoy interacting with your garden?
3) What types of work are you least willing to do?
- Fluctuation in color: Do you like lots of changes in color and texture? Do you like stability and consistency, like an assembly of evergreen shrubs provides? Using slow-growing evergreen shrubs in a garden is a simple way to keep maintenance tasks to a minimum, but it can reduce the opportunity for more lively shifts in color palate throughout the seasons. On the contrary, using a wide palate of sturdy self-seeding plants like calendula, foxglove, columbine, forget-me-nots, poppies, and johnny-jump-ups gives you a lot of easy-care color. The main maintenance task associated with that strategy is editing and “keeping in check” the wild proliferation of seedlings.
- Fluctuation in seasons: I take care of some gardens that are very flower focused, and others that rely more on things like seed heads and bark for interest. Planning to enjoy garden elements like seed heads means you don’t have to cut back perennials right away, and many double as bird food for the winter. Flowers can require deadheading to keep the duration of their bloom time long, but perhaps that deadheading can occur when you’re harvesting a bouquet?
- Fluctuation in water needs: Does walking slowly around your garden with a hose in the summer sound more like a meditative blessing or a chore to you? Plan accordingly! Using plants that don’t require much water is an obvious way to cut down on the resources your garden needs. Don’t forget that everything needs water sometimes, especially newly planted garden-mates. Plan to deliver water in a way that works for you. If you don’t think you’ll be able to keep up on watering, scale down your garden plans to avoid the burdensome task of replacing dead things and keeping out the weeds that thrive in neglected areas.
- Fluctuations in scale & composition: Every plant in your garden will grow at a different rate in relation to the others, so over time some will dominate and others will fade out. If this is not OK with you, plan to do consistent pruning and/or transplanting to make sure everybody’s got room. If it is OK with you, make sure you pick plants you love as the most-likely-to-dominate.
As you can see, learning what types of fluctuations you enjoy lets you identify which maintenance tasks aren’t urgent for you, and plan your garden with plants that will still satisfy your longings.
Second, let’s take a look at how you want to interact with your garden. When I hear people say “low maintenance” some people really mean they never want to think about their garden. Others mean they don’t want it to look dilapidated if they’re not out there every weekend, or that they don’t want to constantly be investing in solutions for areas that aren’t working.
- Harvesting herbs like mint and oregano, especially ones that are in danger of falling into pathways. With large batches of herbs, you can make and freeze pesto, or simply dry them for using in tea and soups.
- Harvesting flowers, especially continuously blooming flowers like columbine and calendula, or flowering branches from quince, lilac, and mock orange can serve as deadheading and pruning. Plants that do best when consistently deadheaded, like roses, do just as well when the blooms are cut for an arrangement as they begin to bloom. Being thoughtful about where to cut blooming branches helps to shape the plants you’re working with.
- Weeding while harvesting veggies. I know, how could you weed without it feeling like work? When you pull weeds before they go to seed, you can leave them in place to wilt on the soil surface and function as mulch. It feels very natural when wandering through a veggie bed to harvest a salad to pluck a few weeds here and there.
- Dividing perennials. How many times have you had a friend over for tea in the fall, and then wanted to go outside because there’s a brief sunbreak to take advantage of? Perhaps you end up on a wander through the garden, and cut them off a piece of a perennial that’s become dominant, or snip them a bouquet of seedheads to pass on? Strawberry runners in pathways, irises, cranesbill, coreopsis and phlox can all be quick to divide. Seedheads of poppies, nigella, coriander and parsley travel well.
- Mulching using arborist chips and planting densely are the quickest ways to reducing weeding. Making sure weeds don’t go to seed is the easiest way to prevent future weeds, so timing any weeding you have to do well can save you many hours in the future.
- Pruning large shrubs is easiest on a dry day in the winter, when the structure of the shrub is most visible, and you need help convincing yourself to get outside in the short hours of daylight. Just take out a few of the most wayward larger branches back to a junction point that’s easy for you to reach. Cut out smaller branches that are dead or excessively cluttered-feeling. You’ll be left with a shrub with a more balanced shape and a bit more air circulation inside. For most shrubs, taking a few cuts like this once a year is a reasonable maintenance approach. It gets more burdensome when you wait 10 years!
- Unplanned plant replacement can be a drag. The best way to avoid it are picking the right plant for the conditions in the first place, using careful observation and reality checking (I know, you might not be as prone to optimism as me, but I think you are). Is it going to be soggy in the winter? Be baking hot in the summer? Are you really going to hand-water?