Doing Less, Enjoying More

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Simplifying Garden Care

Recently a friend was bemoaning the fact that weeding her driveway takes more time than she likes. Though I’m generally a fan of weeding, which allows us to really see and savor our gardens, I admit that weeding a gravel driveway can be an exercise in frustration. In fact, weeding is the number one reason most folks say they don’t like gardening. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to make gardening more gratifying. The first is to make fabulous soil, adding compost several times a year to pretty much everything but the driveway. In Seattle, Cedar Grove offers a terrific source of organic compost, as do many places these days. We can replenish our gardens with our neighbor’s recycled wastes, mulching generously to enrich the soil, smother out weeds, and conserve precious moisture. When our soil is healthy, our plants grow better and gardening is far more rewarding.

Another key to happiness is to consider where and how we spend our time in the garden or on the grounds. This informal analysis can guide us to reduce or eliminate the repetitive chores that make gardening feel like drudgery. Nearly always, garden chores can be reduced dramatically by making a few simple changes in our garden’s basic design. Remove and/or avoid adding plants that need frequent clipping. Consider replacing overgrown hedges with a fence. Use a flame weeder to keep weeds from gravel paths. Reduce summer watering by clustering thirsty plants and giving preference to plants that tolerate dry soils wells.

Lose The Lawn

For most folks, the fastest way to reduce both the weekly workload and high resource use is by getting rid of the lawn. No ground cover or perennial plant you can name needs to be watered, mowed, and fed as often or as much as a lawn. If you have young kids, un-manicured play lawns are great, and some pets need a place to poop, but such lawns can be quite small. What’s more, we can often shrink or edit them out entirely as the kids grow up and pets pass on.

To make a start on the shrinking process, consider converting the sunniest areas to herb and vegetable plots. In some communities, battles over the right to grow edibles instead of lawns are being won by the foodies, so this is worth a try even where lawns are expected. Simple, clean lines and tidy beds go a long way towards earning approval even from the conventionally minded. Attractive trellises, arbors and pergolas provide year round structure and can host ornamental vines from grapes to roses. Plant plenty of bright annuals to bring in the bees and your edible beds will look good enough to eat.

Skirting The Issue

Where lawns include trees, give each lawn tree a wide skirt (to the dripline or beyond) of native or regionally adapted plants. This grass-free barrier helps our trees live longer, healthier lives, since weed whacker wounds are a leading cause of tree damage and death. It also protects the mowing person from getting poked in the eye by low hanging branches, which eliminates a great deal of regrettable language. Instead of planting fussy border beauties in these tree circles, use woodland plants that don’t mind the company of tree roots.

For year round good looks and seasonal interest, combine spring and summer bulbs (which prefer minimal summer water) with drought tolerant evergreen ground-covers that need only one annual trimming to keep them tidy. For instance, spring crocus and scilla, summer blooming Allium Schubertii, and autumn crocus can be carpeted with delicately textured Epimedium x perralchicum or sheets of Cardamine trifolia. To keep such an area looking great, tuck fading bulb foliage under the ground-cover and renew compost mulches in spring and fall. Over time, increase the size of these tree circles into low maintenance beds between wide paths.

Improve Paths

Excellent paths make a great difference to the looks and functionality of any garden design. The most common design mistake (which is sadly not confined to amateurs) is to make paths too small. Six to eight feet is a good width for a main path, while secondary paths can be four to five feet wide. This allows two people to walk side by side and permits passage of loaded barrows and carts (or strollers, walkers, and wheel chairs). Plants can spill comfortably onto the path surface, softening sharp lines and hard edges. Paths laid in big, simple curves evoke a feeling of ease and flow, encouraging leisurely travel. Straight lines and right angles create a more martial ambience and lose the sense of mystery lent by curves that disguise the full extent of the grounds. Tight angles are also more difficult to keep trimmed and edged, and annoying weeds seem to seek them out.

Instead of creating squared-off places where paths cross, make round-a-bouts with large pots tucked in the center. Let longer paths balloon out here and there to make sunny and shady seating areas. Make these large enough to hold at least a bench, or a table, some chairs, and a few large containers. Here too, big is better: Soft, simple lines and generosity of scale will make these areas easy to care for, comfortable to use, and visually attractive. When making service areas for compost, trash and tool storage, and so forth, pave them with crushed rock, never pea gravel, which is treacherous underfoot. Where soils are heavy, trench paths and fill them with clean, crushed gravel to allow excess water to drain away freely. I surface most paths with crushed quarter-minus basalt (our local rock), inserting pavers or flagstones to vary the look in different areas. Graveled areas can be kept weed free with flame weeders which are both entertaining and effective.

Replace Weeds With Winners

What shall we do with lawn remnants? Where such constructive alterations leave narrow strips of lawn between paths and beds, incorporate these grassy leftovers into beds (or paths). Now, take a look at your paths: Another very common design error is to create beds that are too small and out of proportion with the site and the house. Big, bold beds look best and are easiest to plant without resorting to pruning for size control (always a mistake). Following these simple steps will leave you with little, if any, lawn. In my gardens, everything that isn’t a path, a seating area, or a service area is part of a bed. Well filled beds are far easier to care for than lawn. If you have weeds, you don’t have enough plants.

As always, when making gardens of whatever size, my models are the meadows and woodlands where plants succeed each other in effortless waves throughout the year. Even now, when my beds are truly tiny, I’m filling them with a tightly knit matrix of annuals and border shrubs, perennials and bulbs. Are there any grasses? Yes indeed, handsome clumpers that provide texture and movement with every breeze. As a general rule, about about a third of the plants in each bed are evergreen, and half to a third are native. The others are chosen for drought tolerance, adaptability, and a long season of good looks. Once your garden is similarly transformed, you’ll be enchanted to have time to relax and admire the garden without a chore in sight. Onward!


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2 Responses to Doing Less, Enjoying More

  1. barbra boiser says:

    i have a client who has wide fine gravel paths in her (mostly shaded) large garden. she keep the weeds almost completely absent with rock salt (like you use for a water softener). i suggest weeding first because if you poison weeds you still have them, they are just yellow, and they’ve lost their integrity so you cannot pull them out.
    also/ another reason to make the grass free circles around trees is because trees are grown on a beneficial bacterial system and grass is a bacterial system (that’s why an old pile of cut grass has a really foul odor). they two systems fight each other & the tree spends a lot of it’s vitality standing up to the fight.
    but as far as weeding in general….i, too, am one of those weirdos that love to weed. it is so satisfying. i admit some are such a struggle it takes the fun out of it. bette angell once told me the easiest way to get rid of buttercup is move !! i love it when the soil is so damp you can pull them out by hand with the root !!

  2. barbra boiser says:

    OOPS !! big mistake ! i meant to say trees are grown on a beneficial FUNGAL system………NOT beneficial bacterial system. sorry !! barbra :o)

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