Weeding Out Work

Love your garden but hate the hassle? Choose your plants carefully, and plan ahead to eliminate the tasks you don't like.

March 18, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Now that it's almost spring, you may be looking forward to the pleasures of the garden but already dreading the work involved.

It's something of a paradox. Gardening is supposed to be Americans' favorite leisure-time activity, but a lot of us are too busy to be able to spend much time in the garden. What we really need is a yard that involves fewer of the chores we dislike - that's the real definition of low-maintenance.

Of course, one person's chore may be another's pastime. Pruning is a good example. Or maybe you hate to water but find dead-heading petunias soothing. If you enjoy planting, you may like putting in annuals each spring. Otherwise you need to focus on perennials for color.

"It's personal," says Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery in Roland Park. "What's high-maintenance to you may not be to someone else."

If you're really interested in an easy-care garden, you need to do some planning before you ever head for your local garden center. (And first-time gardeners, take note: Low-maintenance gardens are possible, but not no-maintenance. You are still going to need to fertilize and water; the question is how much and how often.)

"Self-assessment is important," says Janet Walker of the Virginia-based American Horticultural Society. "It's a battle between what you want and what you can do."

In other words, you may love roses, but do you really want to deal with the diseases and pests they are prone to?

Next, think about where you want to plant: You'll need to give the nursery professional-yes, you're going to consult someone from the beginning-all the information you can. How much sun does the area get? What about drainage? Low-maintenance gardening begins with finding the right plant for the right space.

"Plant selection is key," Walker says. "People need to really study their garden. Then take your requirements to the garden center. They'll help you pick plants for the spot you describe."

Books are good for general principles; your neighbor who gardens and a local nurseryman will be able to tell you what trees, shrubs and flowers are best for our area and specifically your yard.

Make it clear that easy care is a priority for you. Be sure to ask about new varieties of plants that are disease-, pest- or drought-resistant. Consider getting dwarf or very slow-growing varieties of shrubs if you don't like pruning.

Once you know what you'll be adding to your yard, take the time to prepare the soil well. Depending on what you're planting where, that may mean adding sand, compost or fertilizer. Your landscaping expert can tell you exactly what the spot needs.

"Plant at the right time," says Bieneman. "Early to mid-spring when the weather is cooler, there's a lot of rain and a lot of root growth. [Your plantings] will be low maintenance from the beginning. Otherwise you'll be watering the new plants a lot."

Making sure plants get a good start means less work later.

Although many new varieties are bred to be low maintenance, Bieneman also recommends some of the old-fashioned plants that have gained new popularity like lilac, hydrangea and peonies. As for shrubs, he says, Green Fields has had "tremendous luck" with juniper (so tolerant of neglect it's sometimes referred to as a "gas-station plant") and barberry, which is drought and sun tolerant and has wonderful fall color. Those old standbys, azaleas and hollies are also, he says, "very forgiving."

Mulch is a necessity in an easy-care garden. It keeps weeds down and can mean you'll have to water less during dry periods. Use organic mulch like pine bark. It improves soil quality as it decays.

As for spring and summer color, perennials are the way to go. Once they're in the ground they keep coming back year after year.

"Use annuals only to fill in the gaps," says Walker. "Think of them as fillers rather than the main show."

The experts don't always agree. Sheila Gallagher of Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville points out that diversity is one key to avoiding diseases and pest infestations-and the work they entail. In other words, if your whole garden is filled with azaleas and aphids arrive, you're going to have a lot of unhappy plants to treat.

But Walker suggests limiting the kinds of plants for easier care.

"Think of sweeps of plants," she says, such as a broad area of bulbs or ornamental grasses. "It makes it lower maintenance. And you only have to clean up once a year."

Gardeners' friends

Some plants tolerate neglect better than others. Some like this area so much they don't require much in the way of fertilizing, watering, treatment of diseases and insect control. Some don't need much grooming, such as deadheading or pruning. Here's our plant experts' list of easy-care plants:


crape myrtle

disease-resistant varieties of dogwood such as C. kousa and the cultivar `Appalachian Spring'

flowering cherry

river birch (a native)








skimmia (an evergreen)


ornamental grasses


daylilies (they come in wonderful colors now)

hellebores (it can bloom as early as February)






`Wave' petunia (doesn't need dead-heading)


Groundcover(less trouble than lawn)





For more general information on easy-care gardens, try these:

"The Low-Maintenance Garden," Susan Berry and Steve Bradley (Firefly Books, 2000)

"Low-Maintenance Gardening" (Sunset Books, 1998)

"Low-Maintenance Gardening : The American Horticultural Society Practical Guides," Alan R. Toogood (Dk Pub, 2001)

"The 20-Minute Gardener : The Garden of Your Dreams Without Giving Up Your Life, Your Job, or Your Sanity," Thomas Christopher, Marty Asher, Tom Christopher (Random House, 1999)

"Your Garden Shouldn't Make You Crazy! : The Secrets to No-Pressure, Low-Maintenance Gardening," C. L. Fornari (Parnassus, 1997)

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