Fact and reality check: There is no such thing as a maintenance free garden. For every garden bed that is prepared and every plant that is planted, there is a continuing burden (or joy if you are a real gardener), to maintain that which has been created. These maintenance chores (or delights if you are a real gardener) are year round, and exist as long as your garden exists. It all depends on how much you take pride in the appearance of your garden (which you do if you are a real gardener). A few common sense strategies include:
Not creating garden beds that you know you won’t have time to properly maintain. An uncared for garden often looks worse than no garden at all. This is the biggest mistake many gardeners make – biting off more than they can chew. We all long to maximize and expand our beautiful gardens but must consider the “hereafter” maintenance factor.
Careful choice of plants that will minimize maintenance problems and requirements. There are so many choices available beginning with native and adaptive plants that will grow well with minimal intervention. Understand a plant’s growth habit and what will be required to keep it in scale with your other plantings. Plant according to a plant’s ultimate size, not for a “here and now” instant effect. There are dwarf and slower growing varieties of many of our favorite plants which reduce maintenance.
Garden area design that facilitates necessary maintenance tasks – e.g. can you mow and edge easily around plants and beds, access bed areas easily for weeding and trimming, and place plants with similar maintenance requirements together.
Use preventative maintenance strategies that will minimize care requirement for plants and garden beds such as mulch in spring to preserve ground moisture and/or provide weed infestation barriers, use compost to build up soil health and nutrients so supplemental fertilization won’t be needed, and don’t put off any maintenance chore to the point it becomes a major project. Pulling a weed one at a time as they pop up is better than re-cultivating an entire bed that has become infested with weeds.
The best way to approach garden maintenance is to take a garden walk daily or several times a week to closely observe and note what is happening. An ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure if any problems are spotted early and treated before they become serious. As a fringe benefit, you get to enjoy seeing your garden in it’s fullest more often. Take a camera with you and look for that photo-op. An ornamental garden is meant to be enjoyed, stimulate your senses, offer tranquility and a sense of wonder about nature’s living plants and organisms, not become a laborious part of life that is dreaded. I’d much rather grow fewer things well, than try to grow many things poorly.
I know my own physical and time limitations and respect them in my gardening practices, making sure that the ability to properly maintain the beautiful gardens I’ve created is a priority, otherwise, why garden at all?