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How to create a truly low-maintenance garden

  • Marie Narlock
  • My father is not a gardener. Because of his distaste for all things horticultural, he installed what he considered the lowest possible maintenance: lots of lawn and a boxwood hedge. For the past 60-plus years he has mowed, clipped, and weeded. Finally, at age 89, he has decided that someone else can take over.

    You may think my dad isn't a quick learner, but he's not so different from many folks who complain about their gardening chores. Bottom line? If you are spending more time maintaining your garden than you want, then your garden is not low maintenance. Simply put, a low-maintenance garden is one that meets the needs and time constraints of its owner.

    For some, an hour a day working in the garden is glorious. For others, an hour every two weeks is all they can muster. Are there ways to reduce the maintenance requirements of your garden? Absolutely.

    If you want to reduce the time and effort that you expend in your garden, you can take steps to do so. One may be to call a professional gardener for weekly or monthly service. But that's not an option for everyone. Creating a truly low-maintenance garden is more about planning than it is buying the latest on-sale plant at your local nursery. A little sweat equity upfront is what it's all about. Here's how.

    • Get your infrastructure in place.

    It sounds nice at the time: hand watering with the hose or a cute watering can. But then a heat wave strikes while you're out of town and guess what? That so-called low-maintenance border of yours is going to be quite crispy. Getting an irrigation system installed is like buying an insurance policy for your garden. The peace of mind is huge, not to mention the piece of time.

    Take a look at your garden and decide what infrastructure items need attention. Fences? Drainage? Paths? Granted, this behind-the-scenes planning is not very sexy. But it will pay off handsomely.

    • Kill your weeds.

    A few weeds here, a few weeds there, who cares? Funny thing is, weeds have a nasty habit of proliferating wildly if left unchecked. Don't let your weeds take over. Instead, eradicate them and do what you need to do to keep them from returning. This often means cutting or pulling them out and then layering cardboard and mulch on top. Most weeds won't grow through this barrier. If in doubt, mulch. And then mulch some more. Use whatever kind appeals to you, just be sure you keep a thick (3-inch) layer on exposed soil.

    • Kill your lawn.

    Mow, dump, edge, seed, fertilize, aerate, water: that's what it takes to keep your green monster happy. It's amazing how many people think lawns are low maintenance. If you're not using your lawn and you want to reduce your garden maintenance, consider smothering your lawn and planting something less water-hoggish in its place. There are oodles of groundcovers and other ornamental grasses that will require a fraction of your time. And as an added bonus, they're a whole lot more interesting than grass.

    • Grow your soil.

    Compost, compost, compost. That's the simple soil-building secret. If you want your garden to thrive, focus on your soil. Dig in compost and keep a thick layer of mulch on top. It's the best thing you can do to keep your soil — and your plants — healthy. As a rule of thumb, a little compost and a layer of mulch applied annually in the fall is all you need to keep your soil humming. That's once-a-year maintenance to keep your soil in tip-top shape.

    • Get familiar with your surroundings.

    There's a reason why a hike on Mt. Tam feels good. Other than a killer view, it's because the plants native to our region remind us of the natural beauty surrounding us. These plants thrive, year after year, without fertilizer or equipment or supplemental water. How do they do that? They do it because everything they need to survive is right at their roots. You can replicate this no-care scenario by growing native plants in your own garden. To learn how, pick up a copy of Keator and Middlebrook's "Designing California Native Gardens" or Bornstein, Fross and O'Brien's "California Native Plants for the Garden."

    • Select plants wisely.

    Finally, we're at the plants. In addition to native plants mentioned above, there are a plethora of plants suitable for your microclimate. The UC Marin Master Gardeners have created a tool to help you select plants that are just right for your garden. Go tohttp://ucanr.org/sites/MarinMG/Water_Wise_Plant_Guide/Reports/ to use this handy online plant selector tool.

    In general, be sure to include a mix of plants that) have contrasting leaf colors and textures (keeps the garden interesting); are the right size and shape for your space (reduces pruning chores); and are primarily evergreens instead of herbaceous perennials (saves more pruning time). Of course, don't forget to put sun-loving plants in sunny spots and shade-loving plants in the shade. Messing with a plant's needs is the quickest way to stress it out. If you are unsure about a plant's needs or ultimate size, look it up in the "Sunset Western Garden Book." If there appear to be a host of potential pests and diseases, take a pass.

    • Take a stroll.

    Walk through your garden every day. Chances are you'll spot little problems before they become big ones. Enjoy the beauty and tranquility of your garden that should provide years of, yes, low-maintenance pleasure.

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.