Basic Low-Maintenance Gardening Techniques
When: Fall is usually the best time for planting, but even then it’s still important to pick a time when you’ll be available to water the new plants over the next week, at least. And if you can, choose a day that’s neither sunny nor windy and when the soil is wet but not soggy. (Sure, I’ve broken all these rules myself but I haven’t always gotten away with it, either.) If the soil is very dry, soak the area well two days before planting.
How: Dig a hole the same depth as the plant but two to three times as wide. If the plant’s roots surround the soil in their pot, tease the roots apart with a knife, even slicing through them if need be to help them begin to spread out into the planting hole. Place the plant in the hole, making sure it’s level with the grade or slightly above-grade. Then stand back to make sure the plant is exactly where you want it and facing the right direction. Add compost to the soil from the hole, mix well (equal parts or at least a third compost), put the mixture around the new plant and tamp it down.
Aftercare: Mulch and water deeply. Inadequate watering is the number one cause of plant death.
How: Deeply, but infrequently. For example, a new azalea needs two or three gallons of water directly to its roots after planting. Shallow watering does more harm than good, causing roots to grow close to the surface, thus making the plant less drought-tolerant. Use the “drench” setting on your hose nozzle, or remove the nozzle and just point the hose end around the base of the plant.
How Often: Plants that were bought or moved in the spring or summer need serious coddling until winter just to keep from them dying in the heat and drought. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s not the cold that kills plants. Except in the coldest of climates, it’s more often the heat, sun and wind that kill garden plants. Other plants that need frequent watering are those in containers, vegetables, and most annuals. The rest of your plants, if you’ve chosen them for drought-tolerance, require supplemental watering only during long droughts. Oh, except for any plants you may have growing under the roof overhang where rain can’t help them — they’re easy to forget until they up and die on you.
Using What: Soaker hoses are considered the best choice in watering systems and with timers attached, they’re a low-maintenance solution that uses water efficiently. For more money, drip irrigation systems seem to work well, assuming they’re designed and installed correctly. Overhead sprinklers are wasteful and require lots of fussing to get good coverage in larger gardens. Hand watering, while time-consuming, is the method of choice by die-hard gardeners like myself.
Tips: Save time and possibly your plants by grouping the ones that need frequent watering. Also, for hand waterers, hose guides can save plants from decapitation by garden hose.
Why: According to my favorite gardening guru, HTGV’s Paul James, “The greatest labor-saving gardening product ever invented is mulch.” That’s because it works for weed prevention, water retention, temperature regulation, and soil improvement.
What kind and how: Leafmold (leaves that are chopped and aged) is great for improving your soil. If your soil is already good, then pine needles, shredded wood chips and bark all last longer and look fancier. Beware of “mulch” that’s really compost. Compost, the fully decomposed “black gold” we all love, is great for mixing into the soil as an amendment but it’s also an excellent growing medium for weeds. So on top of the soil make sure to place 2 to 3 inches of mulch (organic matter that hasn’t decomposed yet) to suppress weeds. Just be sure to keep the mulch away from any woody stems of plants — no mulch volcanoes!
When: At least once a year, in spring and/or fall, plus after planting anything new.
That’s the overview. Here’s much more about mulches and mulching.
The photo shows a planting area mulched and ready for summer.
How: Regularly. It’s much less work if you stay on top of it by weeding at least weekly throughout the growing season and preferably more often than that. At the very least, remove them before their flowers have a chance to disperse seeds.
Prevention: Since bare soil is the lazy gardener’s worst enemy, use groundcovers or 2-3 inches of mulch everywhere. Under paths or dry streambeds, weed barriers like landscape fabric can help prevent weeds.
When: It’s easiest when the ground is wet, but be careful not to compact the ground (stepping stones are helpful).
Tips: Rather than throwing the weeds on the ground and having to collect them later, get a container to put them in before you start. To save on back strain, use a weeding hoe. Hand-weeders should pace themselves — I try to stop or change tasks after 30 minutes.
That’s the overview. Here’s much more about weeds and weeding.
Why: Prune to eliminate crowding, to prevent disease by providing better air circulation, and simply to have better-looking plants.
A Big DON’T: Don’t prune shrubs into perfect — but unnatural, and very high-maintenance — shapes. If you let them be their natural size and shape, they’ll look better and be healthier, too.
Technique: Most shrubs need thinning, with older or wayward branches being removed to the ground or the next major limb. Old, overgrown or misshapen shrubs usually need renewal pruning, in which 1/3 of the branches are completely removed each year until they’re all gone. Some, like forsythia or weigela, can be pruned this way all at once and will come back quickly. Trees that share garden space with shrubs and perennials are usually better neighbors with their lower limbs removed and most, like dogwoods, still look quite natural that way.
What’s needed: A good pair of bypass pruners, loppers, and a small pruning saw. Hedge clippers usually do more harm than good.
To find specific advice for pruning specific plants, just Google “prune boxwoods” or whatever the plant is. Or read an actual book — my favorite on the subject of pruning is by Peter McHoy.
How much of what: Probably not as much as you think. Most plants are happiest with a yearly layer of organic mulch and at most, application of some compost in the early spring. If the plant is growing well, any extra fertilizer could simply result in excessive growth — and more work for you. And don’t forget that run-off of excess fertilizer, especially the synthetic, nonorganic kind, is a huge problem for our waterways.
Hungry plants: Vegetables, annuals and anything in pots need regular feedings.
Sorry-looking plants: If yours are suffering and haven’t been treated well for years, apply some organic fertilizer around their root zone once or twice early in the next growing season, in addition to an organic mulch.