So it didn’t turn out to be the hot dry summer that we expected. The lawns are lush and the weeds are growing like nothing else! Sadly there’s no such thing as a no-maintenance garden, only high and low maintenance gardens.
At this time of year every corner of the garden seems to need mowing or weeding or trimming or all three so it’s hard to imagine this low maintenance concept at all! I sometimes think of gardening as housework, whether you enjoy it or not, it’s just something that has to be done. You don’t have to be a gardener in the same way that you don’t need to be a cleaner to keep your house tidy. But if you really can’t keep up with the housework both inside and out, you can always pay someone else to do it for you OR live in an apartment. I don’t mean that sarcastically either. It's a legitimate option that the rest of the world has been doing for centuries but us kiwis struggle with the concept of not having our very own little patch of earth... but that's another topic.
The thing you need to know about having a low maintenance garden is, they take time to set up. A few years at least. Here’s how you do it.
Choose the right plants
- The right plant won’t need trimming to keep it to the size and looking good
- The right plant won’t need fertiliser or constant attention
- The right plant is less likely to get a disease or be eaten to shreds by a pest
- Won’t out grow the space you’ve given it
- The right plant will compete with the weeds
- The right plant won’t distribute it’s off-spring everywhere and take over the garden - aka becomes a weed in itself.
How? If you don’t know much about plants, feel free to ask an expert to help you pick plants that tick the following boxes.
Plant species that:
- thrives in the soil you have. In Timaru, that’s likely to be a clay based soil
- thrives in the conditions at your place i.e. full sun, occasional frost or snow, exposed to salty winds etc.
- has a fully grown height and width that will fit into the space you’ve got in mind for it. How big is that? compare the label to your own height to help you imagine how big the plant is going to be in a few years time. Check other sources of information too, sometimes the plant label at the nursery can be conservative.
- is not too promiscuous. Ask the plant seller if it produces lots of fruit or seeds that are likely to turn into more plants by themselves aka, behave like a weed.
One more tip: choose some low growing ground-cover plants. It might not feel like you’re getting much bang for your buck because of the size but trust me they’ll practically do the weeding for you once established.
Preventing weeds is the aim of the game. It can take many years of persistence to get on top of the war with weeds. Here’s a few favourite tips.
Don’t let them reproduce. Flowers turn into seeds, hundreds of seeds which turn into hundreds and hundreds of new weeds! This means regular weeding to remove them before they get a chance to go to seed. In this warm wet weather, that’s not an easy thing to keep up with. The most successful weeds can go from a tiny little plant to making babies within a fortnight! That means weeding every week! Who’s got time for that? At the very least you can try to pluck the flowers and seed heads and throw them in the bin, a whole garden can be done in just a few minutes. Failing that, I recommend getting in a gardener on a weekly basis to work on reducing the weed seed population. It really is the way of the future.
Hoeing the surface of the soil is a great way to cull hundreds of baby weeds far quicker that plucking them out by hand but be warned that disturbing the soil is bringing old seeds to the surface to germinate into more weeds. The deeper you dig the more seeds come up to the surface. After years of doing this, you will eventually exhaust all the seed resources buried in your garden. Sadly it won’t help if you live next door to a wild area or a neglecting neighbour because all of their weed populations will sail right over the fence anyway. That and the birds will bring in weed seeds from far and wide complete with a parcel or poop to get it started. So the war of weeds is never really over. It’s just a matter of a few years of persistence to get the population to a manageable level… i.e. a low maintenance level.
Spraying weeds is a last resort. It’s a desperate act of chemical warfare. In most cases the cons out-way the benefits. For particularly difficult weeds that have been let loose for too long it can be the only option. If you do spray the weeds, don’t let the weeds grow back again, use it as an opportunity to start your new maintenance program with the tips above.
Do not use weed mat as a permanent fix. It kills the soil and weeds grow on top of weed mat anyway. The only time you should use weed mat is for a short term (2-3years) to starve out a really difficult weed such as twitch grass, oxalis and ivy. It needs to be good quality weed mat or a thick layer of newspaper (at least 6 pages) or cardboard (2-3 layers).
Three tips for creating an easy care lawn.
- Create a shape with straight edges or big gentle curves so that the task of mowing is literally straight forward, no fussing with awkward corners and round-a-bouts.
- Have ramps instead of steps between lawn levels and where the lawn mower lives so that you’re less likely to procrastinate dragging out the mower.
- Install edging around the lawn to create a definitive boundary between the lawn and garden. It’s also essential to have a good mowing strip next to anything vertical like a step, the deck or a wall where the grass can escape the grasp of the mower. This is by far the best tip for any garden to make it look super smart overnight.
Hedges are double edged swords. On one hand, they can hide an eyesore like nothing else can. Small box hedging can also hide how much weeding you haven’t done lately as well as the perennial plants dying back for their rest over winter. BUT, hedges need trimming, depending on the species most hedges need to be trimmed 2-4 times every year. Generally I don’t recommend hedges for a low maintenance garden but if you really really want that look it’s best to invest in a good quality hedge trimmer and do your research on the plant species that you choose so you know what to expect.
If all this talk of lawns and plants just a bit overwhelming, go hardscape but not asphalt please. It’ll look shabby and need replacing sooner than you know. Think timber decking, paving, concrete, or compacted gravel chip. It pays to keep some small amount of garden to soften the edges of a hard surface. Concrete everywhere can get very depressing, not to mention hard of the eyes and hot on the feet. Don’t think that a hard surface is maintenance free though. Like any surface inside your home, it’ll still need to be cleaned and maintained every so often but perhaps not every weekend like my lawn!
In the same way that your house has a laundry and cupboard for your vacuum cleaner and mop, the garden also needs a functional service area to stash the tools, bins and a hose reel. The better these spaces are designed for usability, the more it will be used successfully and your garden will show the evidence. If it takes you just a few minutes to drag a hose around the garden to rescue some wilting plants and then put the hose away, you're more likely to do it somewhere between coming home and getting dinner on. But if it's in a tangle and on the other side of the house, chances are it'll wait til the weekend and probably be overlooked then too. It's human nature.
Gardens are made for people, so make it easy to maintain so you can spend more time enjoying it, less time cringing at the sight of it.