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My Secrets to a Low Maintenance Garden

I am a lazy gardener. I like sitting in my garden listening to birds, but I don't want to be a slave to weeds and overgrown shrubs and demanding, finiky flowers. Most of my garden is low-maintenance, and that might surprise some people. A comment I often get is, "This must take a lot of work!"

Not really.

Of course, I do have a big garden, and that takes more work than a small space. But I have a full time job and don't have helpers other than my husband, and I find it manageable. Here are my secrets to a low-maintenance garden:

1. Cover the ground. Weeds love bare spots and will fill in whatever space you don't.

I use a lot of mulch. In my area pine straw and woods chips are readily available, and that is what I primarily use. I don't like gravel, as it tends to be hard to walk on and weeds grow through it easily. If you use gravel, be sure there is an excellent weed barrier underneath.

I also have planted a lot of ground covers, including indigofera, mondo grass, hellebores, vinca minor, and many others. Be careful where you plant ground covers, because they will spread. Only plant them where you truly want them to cover the ground.Mondo grass covers part of the hillside in the woodland garden, along with trees and shrubs.

Brick, stone, even wood and concrete are great hardscape choices. If you struggle with weeds and poor plant growth under a large tree, consider putting in a patio with a couple of comfortable chairs and a little table. It is low maintenance and is a comfortable spot for visiting with a friend or reading a book. If you are putting in hardscape near trees remember to protect tree roots during construction. Also, don't put solid pavement directly over those roots, because this will prevent nourishment and moisture from getting to the roots.This stone patio at Birmingham Botanical Gardens is accented with modo grass for an easy-care, yet lovely retreat.

2. Plant colorful shrubs and trees. Other than occasional pruning or fertilizing, which is usually no more than once a year, they require little attention. In my spring garden I get a lot of bang from the colorful foliage of Japanese maples and from flowering trees like dogwood, magnolia, and redbuds. Flowering shrubs such as forsythias, azalea, fothergilla, viburnum, weigela, and spirea provide months of successive color. Many shrubs have colorful foliage, too, with leaves that may be varying shades of green, yellow, or purple. Some have interesting variegation. Even without annuals or perennial flowers my garden would be colorful.

Variegated weigela has beautiful foliage, as well as spring-time flowers.
Japanese maples and colorful azaleas provide a powerful punch of spring-time color.Snowball viburnum grows up to fifteen feet tall and has enormous flowers in mid spring.The Cherokee red dogwood has fabulous variegated foliage, as well as beautiful red blooms.

3. Keep some wild area. A wooded area filled with native trees and shrubs is a haven for wild life. If the natural area is bordered with attractive shrubs, lawn, or ground cover it will look neat. You will enjoy the sounds and antics of birds, squirrels and other woodland creatures.Open lawn is bordered by woodland.

4. Don't plant stuff in the middle of your lawn. Trees and shrubs should be incorporated into planting or natural areas, so you can easily mow the grass without having to tediously go around a bunch of trunks.The tree in the middle of this lawn area has a large mulched area around it to make mowing easier.

5. Keep your lawn mowed at its highest recommended height. Longer leaf blades allow for more photosynthesis, and your grass will be healthier, feel plusher underfoot, and you will mow less often.

6. Plant trees, shrubs, and flowers that are appropriate for the location.

Check hardiness zones, and light, soil and water requirements when purchasing plants. If your area suffers from frequent drought, don't plant a thirsty lawn or moisture loving flowers! 

Consider the ultimate size of the plant. Don't put a shrub that will grow to ten feet in front of your living room window! Don't plant shrubs too close together. Give them space to reach their natural potential.

7. Accept that low maintenance does not mean no maintenance. If you do those chores that are unavoidable on a regular schedule, things won't get out of hand. I am in the ten weeds a day camp. Pulling ten weeds takes a minute or so and ultimately prevents thousands of weedy offspring. Also pull weeds after a rain; it's much easier because the ground is soft.

A low maintenance garden may be a lot of work initially. Planting trees and shrubs, establishing ground covers, and building hardscape all take time, effort, and money; but it is worth it, for once it is done you can spend most of the year just sitting back and listening to the birds.  

Are you a lazy gardener? You, too, can have a beautiful, low-maintenance garden.

Blessings.    Deborah

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Reader Comments (26)

I am a lazy gardener. I don't like plants that are too demanding of my attention. I've also learned an extra trick. Give your plants room to breathe. If you crowd them, with the intent of trimming them to keep under control, you'll never get to put the hedge shears down once the plant is mature. So much better to plant a few less, and give them room to grow as they should, naturally.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

You brought up some really good points. I like low maintenance gardening. Planting natives have helped me to enjoy my garden in more ways than one. We did put rocks on the side of our house that no one every goes on....oh, the weeds! Maybe a ground cover would be better. I always enjoy looking at your blog...beautiful!

Beautiful gardens. Sometimes I'm glad I don't have acres of land, I think I'd go broke creating all the gardens I dream about. I like filling in my gardens too so the weeds don't have a chance. I do struggle with horsetail, though. I truly believe a bag of mulch was infected with the darn stuff.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie

I don't consider myself a lazy gardener ... I enjoy garden work ... but I do try to minimize the amount of time spent on less pleasant chores like weeding. Mulch and groundcovers rock.

Love the photo of the pink dogwood. Stunning.

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjoene

I would put myself in the lazy gardener camp. I garden in order to create a beautiful space that I can sit in and enjoy; the work is a means to that end. I have a different set of low-maintenance strategies (probably because I garden in a very different type of setting). I'll post about them next month sometime. Thanks for sharing your tips. -Jean

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJean

Your azaleas are beautiful!

April 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

You've brought up some really good points. We do keep our lawn long too. It seems to stay a bit greener that way in the dry months of summer.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen at Summerhouse

These are all lovely advices. And when you have such a large garden area, you need to know these things. Otherwise, you would need an army of people for garden maintenance.
We are also lazy when it comes to things that we "must" do (mowing, pruning...), but are always very happy to do some new project. I don’t think that its being lazy, but we don’t like to do that boring things.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervrtlaricaana

I'm not a lazy gardener just one with no time as i too work full time and I have no help. There is a lot, as you say, that you can do to make your life easier. Alot of it is common sense and planning ahead so you dont waste precious time undoing your mistakes!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

That is a beautiful picture of the Japanese maple and azaleas! Wow!

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFlorida Girl

I had to re-post since my initial grammar was so poor. lol

Excellent advice. I am in the process of trying to cover the ground and put in more small trees and shrubs (we have so many big trees here already), especially since my garden was suddenly expanded after the house was moved 3 years ago. That progress was slowed by dry conditions in '07/'08, as witnessed by my having to recarve my garden from the weeds this year!

You've done a wonderful job with your garden and property. It's very beautiful. I love your photos of the 'Cherokee' Dogwood.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Bay

Dear Deborah, What excellent advice here and so much that I agree with totally. In particular, the advice about not mowing grass too short I must have told this to countless people but, in my experience, they continue to shear it to the ground and, as a result are disappointed with the straw that results in the summer.

And, how true that low maintenance is not no maintenance. Little and often are my watchwords and that always does, in my view, help one to keep on top of things without them becoming too much of a chore.

Enjoy a happy weekend in your lovely garden.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdith Hope

Deb, excellent post and with great advice. As we get older there needs to be less strenuous activity in the garden, so over the years we have replaced more labor intensive plants/perennials with more shrubs, evergreens and of course my favorite ornamental grasses. Strolling and enjoying the garden is an important aspect of gardening. ;) Have a wonderful weekend.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

I'm determined this year that mine will be low maintenance. I want to enjoy relaxing in the garden rather than it being a chore. A bit of work now in the Spring hopefully will bring dividends to me later in the year when I can sit and do the things you too like to do in the garden.

Yours is just beautiful Deborah and I know it is a huge area compared to mine and you have planted it up well. You have the space to show off those wonderful shrubs and trees in all their splendour without having to prune them to keep them to a particular size. The size of your garden hasn't overwhelmed you since you have incorporated such good maintenance techniques into your garden design.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

Great advice! The less ground the left bare, the less places for weeds to grow. I've been adding more shrubs to my garden too and trying to pay attention to how big they get, rather than having to work at them to keep them smaller.
Beautiful pictures to go along with your post.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

I'm in the lazy gardener group but it's amazing how much work it is to be lazy! Something I've done to make my yard lower maintenance is to put in permanent edging between the lawn and mixed borders. It's incredible how much time I would spend edging and weeding out all that creeping grass.

Christine in Alaska

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChristine B.

aloha deborah

you have some amazing blooms today...i am in awe, love your amazing gardens, thanks for taking us on that tour, love all the flagstone and rocks.

have a great weekend.

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternoel

Because I have a small space, I naturally have a low maintenance garden. But aside from that, I only have one plant or two which isn't an easy grower for my climate. So far its working like a charm...

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Great post! Great tips! Your gardens are truly lovely and inspiring.


April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFlowerLady

Deborah, what a wonderful post! Great instructions that I have taken permanent note of. I'm all about low maintanence but gorgeous display. The photo of the patio garden is what I'm working on in my front yard. I'm also incorporating a lot of mondo grass in my back yard. Great stuff! Your garden is beautiful, and your advise is wise.

April 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkimberly

Who told you I am lazy, lol. Must go along with the name, eh Deborah!
I am trying to ollow all your advice, planting lots of trees and shrubs now, very few perennials, and they are mostly in one area. Lots of mulch, I only get to weed when I an up at KG, so I need it. I am hoping when I move there full time in 5 years, that everything should be established and I can kick back.

Number seven caught my eye: "Accept that low maintenance does not mean no maintenance." How many people have I seen who mulch up their flower beds thinking that they'll never have to weed again?

I'm a lazy gardener in the sense that I don't like fussy plants that require lots of coddling to keep them alive. Anything that does not perform well doesn't get invited back into my garden. On the other hand, I actually don't mind weeding. I get into a meditative state of mind and then I dig and pull.

Your garden is beautiful, and you've provided great tips.

April 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah

wow.. I want to rest in your garden's bench. I bet it so nice and calm there. Do you grow any kind of bamboos?

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergarden maintenance

Hi Deborah,

I am writing from Brisbane Australia. I have tried to create a low maintenance garden but our climate is very unpredictable at the moment (climate change?). We have just come through the driest summers in 26 years. I agree with you that it is best to do some research in your local area and identify plants that are doing well where you live. That way you can guarantee yourself a successful garden landscape.

Many people steer away from native plantings but they can be one of the most amazing gardens. They are suited to the conditions and are usually plant and forget varieties. You have an amazing garden.

P.S. I am a gardening nut!


April 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Having a varied garden like you have in these pictures would be great. On the other hand, I'm like you and I don't want to be forever pulling weeds. I'll have to try my hand at mulch and hardscaping as well as flowering bushes and trees. They would make things really pretty without much effort on my part.

March 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Picket

It would be fun to have flowering trees and shrubs in our yard. While I don't have a complex knowledge of flowers, I think I can keep some pretty plants like that alive. If my yard could be beautiful and low maintenance, that would be perfect for me. I've never had a terribly green thumb.

April 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Picket

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