Nice Gardening: Your outside area, reimagined

Great Gardening: Your outdoor space, reimagined

Change is part of life, but over the past three years, change has been meaningful to many people. Changes can show up in how and where you work and eat, how you dress, your daily routines and social life, and whether or not you travel. You may have pets or hobbies that you didn’t have before. Your children’s schooling and care may have changed, as may the people living in your household. This may be the exact time to evaluate your ways.

Do your garden and yard still match your new reality?

Gardening enriches life, as does looking at (or eating) other people’s gardens. For emotional and mental health, gardening should probably be one of the last activities people give up even as life has gotten busier and more demanding. Let’s consider how we can adapt or simplify without sacrificing all of the goodness of the phrase, “I’m out in the garden.”

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Horticulture professionals often roll their eyes when they hear that a client wants “a low-maintenance landscape.” Then this client asks for neatly formed box and yew trees (cones, meatballs, spirals and hedges) and a sprawling, pristine lawn (with a tree or two stuck in the middle). Or maybe the client wants a long and dramatic sweep of solid color petunias or million bells or some other annual to keep it colorful and the same all summer long. Neither of these things are low maintenance; they only look neat and simple when someone does extensive cutting, mowing, weeding, topping and watering.

One route to low maintenance is to hire professionals to provide and maintain the garden you have in mind – after finding that person or company and talking at length about what you really want. But if you’re reading this because you’re the gardener or the person doing the gardening, here are ways to actually make it easier and less stressful.

1. Straighter Lines, Bigger Beds: To make edging, mowing, weeding and watering easier, the ideal landscape garden has straight lines or long curved lines, whether they are islands, borders or foundation beds. Wide foundation beds can be easier to maintain if they are several feet from the house and wide to allow for naturally formed shrubs that don’t need pruning. (Buy or plant based on adult size only.) Group small beds and layer plantings by matching compatible trees, shrubs, grasses, perennials, and ground covers. Well matched and spaced plants complement each other and block most weeds through selective mulching.

2. Fewer Species and Less Picky Plants: Depending on your strength, time, and energy, your new style of gardening may mean using more shrubs than perennials, more perennials than annuals, and more container plants than soil beds. This “easy” planting of annuals requires a lot of buying, planting, watering, and maintenance every season; Perennials usually come back in spring. However, as a longtime perennial collector I have learned to forgo many species with individual needs for thinning, transplanting, pruning, staking and pest control. I replace some with shrubs that are beautiful all year round and ones that don’t outgrow their place.

Also, consider downsizing to use many of a few simple species (sedum, purple coneflower, St. John’s wort, calamint, butterflywort, or oakleaf hydrangea) rather than just a few of many species. When choosing plants, don’t fall for the most beautiful genera or species in the garden center at the moment. Find out which species are really easy to care for and attractive for a long season.

butterfly herb.

Buffalo News file photo

3. Easier Hardscape and Edges: On your own or with a landscape professional, consider how to approach sidewalks, paths, and patios. Weeds will crawl between flagstones, bricks and other pathways unless they have well-built foundations. Mulched and gravel trails require raking and edge management. Using rocks, bricks (or artificial rubber or plastic) to edging beds or paths requires removing grass or weeds or weeds. The simplest solution is V-shaped trenches along edges. Or place level pavers, slate, or concrete just below ground level so mowers can keep lines clean. This is a big subject and mistakes lead to a lot of work. So talk to experts and plan carefully to have less work, not more.

4. Eliminate troublemakers: I’m the last one to give up plants. I have a high tolerance for imperfection and unattractiveness when a plant makes a pollinator or bird happy. But there is a time to let plants go. This winter may have shown you which trees dropped countless branches and endangered what is beneath them; Hire an arborist to prune or fell them. If shrubs have been smashed under the eaves or crushed by the snow plows – move or remove them. If certain plants overrun all neighboring plants every year, end the battle. If you don’t like pruning certain plants, spraying against powdery mildew, or cutting some plants to death, then out with it! The compost heap awaits.

5. How to use your lawn and garden: Life changes could mean it’s time to rethink the layout of your entire garden. The dogs may need large fenced areas or clear paths to run between the perennial and shrub beds. Check carefully if you have plants that are poisonous to pets or children. You may now want permanently built raised beds for the food and flower garden, more fruit trees, or a flat garden close to the house and water systems. You may need to install irrigation systems as pulling hoses and sprinklers has become impossible. If some plants are wilting in the summer heat and others are too wet all spring, group together plants with similar needs. To enjoy and enjoy birds and other wildlife, you could make part of the yard (6 or 30 feet?) look casual and natural with swathes of native plants and wildflowers (with water pools and bird baths). You can turn a backyard lawn into a lawn-like play or sports area, while carefully maintaining portions of the front yard as paths around flower beds or as a frame for your home.

Now that things are different, consider what is important to your situation and family, what you enjoy, and how best to use and enjoy your little piece of earth.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.