The Easy Garden – Spring 2006
by Mike Lee
Gardening is the favorite pastime of millions, whose efforts have made neighborhoods everywhere greener and more colorful. It is also healthful exercise in the fresh air, which we all need. But a garden can make its owner a slave to routine maintenance chores.
You can break this bondage to your garden. With some careful planning and close attention early on, you can end up with a very satisfying but undemanding landscape. You may eventually spend only a few days weeding and grooming a year, and do no watering at all.
Most of the steps to a low-maintenance garden are at the beginning. A careful, realistic plan is the starting point; the last big chore is the weeding and watering to get your plantings established. After that, there should be little to do in the garden but enjoy it.
1. MAKE A PLAN
A plan is a roadmap to the finished garden. With a carefully thought-out plan, you know where you’re going, what materials you will need, and how much of each. You can do the work in stages and know that everything will fit together.
Make sure you know your site. Measure it, of course, and also make notes about slopes, buildings, views, existing trees, pavement, overhead wires, septic fields. Check where the sun will travel during the year and where shade will fall. Look at views, both good and bad.
Once you have a site map, you are ready to start your plan, or have a professional draw one for you. Whoever creates the plan should have all the information you can bring to the project. Photos and magazine clippings of plants, materials and gardens you like and lists of elements you want in your garden- everything helps.
2. SKIP THE FORMALITY
Not all formal effects create work; crisp areas of paving, simple water features, decorative walls, sheets of neat groundcovers are about as carefree as anything. But tightly sheared hedges, topiary shrubs, long soldier courses of identically shaped trees demand regular attention. Also, when any of your matching plant sculptures dies, it may be impossible to replace. A garden in a softer, more natural style will forgive lapses in maintenance.
3. PLAN FOR DROUGHT
Here on the west coast, even in the rainy Northwest, summer drought is part of every gardening year. Even where droughts are only sporadic, plants must cope with them. If your landscape plants can take the dry weather without supplemental water, you save on water and probably time. You also make your garden less inviting to weeds, which thrive on the constant moisture.
If there are a few thirsty plants you can’t live without, give them a place of their own and water them as needed. Don’t mix them with drought-hardy plants and try to find a watering compromise. No one will be happy. Of course, if you have an area that is naturally moist all year, you will want to chose plants that like it wet.
4. CUT THE LAWN
Grass is built in work. It has to be mowed weekly for most of the year. It needs watering if it is to stay green through the summer. It requires fertilizer and eventually thatching, not to mention weeding.
Save water and work by planting only the smallest area of grass that you think you need. For many people, that is none at all. For those who need a sweep of neat, low greenery, there are many groundcovers that will work.
5. MIND THE EDGES
Where you do have lawn, keep it away from walls, fences, rocks and other immovable objects. When the mower can’t reach all the way to the edge of the lawn, you’ll have to edge by hand- a tedious and avoidable task. Border these objects with shrubs or tough groundcovers.
6. NO ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS
Plants that are well under the eaves where no rain will reach will need watering, sometimes even in winter. Don’t plant anything inside the roofline. Also, avoid planters that are not open to the ground below. Plants trapped in above ground containers will always need regular watering, a chore we’re trying to get away from.
7. GIVE THEM ROOM
Give your plants the space they need. Tall trees under wires, big shrubs in front of windows and rampant groundcovers in tight planters will all need regular taming. Eventually, the plants or the gardener, or both, will be worn out and ugly from the battle and the plants will have to go. Better to have started with something that won’t get too large for the space.
8. PLANT GENEROUSLY
Bare soil is a welcome mat for weeds. If the ground isn’t growing plants of your choosing, it will soon be colonized by unwanted ones, which you will be battling constantly. Plan your garden so that all soil is eventually covered by vegetation. It will look more naturally appealing and leave no space for weeds.
9. START RIGHT
Preparation and early maintenance are key to achieving a low-maintenance garden . Remove all perennial weeds, or kill them with cardboard sheet mulch, or plastic tarps (solarizing). Put plants into wide holes, with roots spread out. Mulch plantings well, using gravel rather than organic mulches around such Mediterranean plants as lavender, rockrose and grasses.
After planting, patrol for weeds regularly until your plantings have filled in. If weeding is done a little each week, like outdoor housework, it will never build up into an overwhelming chore. Meanwhile, your plants will grow without a struggle and soon fill the garden. Your weeding time will drop sharply.
10. PICK EASY PLANTS
Some plants are just easier to grow than others. To keep maintenance down, it only makes sense to rely on plants that are relatively free from pests and diseases and adaptable to a range of environments.
The list of low-upkeep plants varies from region to region. For the coastal Northwest, where so many plants grow well, the list is long. Surprisingly, many native plants are missing; many have exacting needs that are hard to meet. Other natives are star performers in landscapes and deserve first consideration. The rest of the list contains plants from similar, summer-dry climates and plants from elsewhere that just grow easily here.
You will find few perennials on the list. Lovely though they are, most perennials require more grooming than woody plants and most need dividing. Though even the laziest gardener will probably find room for a few perennials, not many of these plants are truly low-maintenance.
Finally, these low-maintenance plants will only really perform that way when all the other points above have been addressed. The right plants in the right places in a well planned and prepared garden, cared for until they are on their own, will make a landscape with high satisfaction and low stress.
100 EASY PLANTS FOR THE COASTAL NORTHWEST
These plants are adapted to our highest and lowest temperatures and summer drought. Most are flexible about soil and sunlight, though quite a few want sun and good drainage. None needs annual pruning or grooming and none are typically susceptible to serious pests or diseases. None are very invasive or weedy.
Acer circinatum/ vine maple
Acer ginnala/ Amur maple
Arbutus unedo/ strawberry tree
Armeria maritima/ sea thrift
Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’
Berberis verruculosa/ warty barberry
Calluna vulgaris/ heather
Calocedrus decurrens/ incense cedar
Camellia sasanqua/ winter camellia
Campanula poscharskiana/ Serbian bellflower
Carex buchannanii/ leather leaf sedge
Carex comans/ hair sedge
Carex testacea/ orange sedge
Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Repens’
Chamaecyparis nootkatensis/ Alaska yellow cedar
Choisya ternata/ Mexican orange
Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’
Cordyline australis/ dracaena palm
Cornus kousa/ Korean dogwood
Cotinus coggygria/ smoke bush
Cotoneaster dammeri and hybrids/ bearberry cotoneaster
Cotoneaster lacteus/ Parney cotoneaster
Cupressus sempervirens/ Italian cypress
Dierama pulcherrimum/ fairy wand
Elaeagnus pungens/ silverberry
Epimedium perralderianum/ barrenwort
Eriobotrya japonica/ loquat
Eucalyptus archeri/ alpine cider gum
Eucalyptus parvula/ small-leaved gum
Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp niphophila/ snow gum
Euonymus fortunei/ wintercreeper
Exochorda/ pearl bush
Grevillea victoriae/ royal grevillea
Helictotrichon sempervirens/ blue oat grass
Helleborus orientalis and hybrids/ Lenten rose
Iris douglasiana and hybrids/ Pacific Coast iris
Juniperus chinensis and cultivars/ Chinese juniper
Koelreuteria paniculata/ goldenrain tree
Lonicera nitida/ box honeysuckle
Lonicera pileata/ privet honeysuckle
Mahonia aquifolium/ Oregon grape
Maytenus boaria/ Chilean mayten
Myrica californica/ Pacific wax myrtle
Nandina domestica/ heavenly bamboo
Olearia x haastii/ daisy bush
Osteospermum barberiae/ African daisy
Parrotia persica/ Persian ironwood
Phormiun tenax/ New Zealand flax
Picea omorika/ Serbian spruce
Picea orientalis/ Caucasian spruce
Pistacia chinensis/ Chinese pistache
Pittosporum tobira/ tobira
Polystichum munitum/ sword fern
Potentilla- shrubby cultivars
Prunus lusitanica/ Portugal laurel
Pyrus callerayana and cultivars/ flowering pear
Rhamnus alaternus/ Italian buckthorn
Rhododendron ‘P. J. M.’
Rubus pentalobus/ Taiwan bramble
Sarcococca/ sweet box
Saxifraga umbrosa/ London pride
Schizostylis coccinea/ Kaffir lily
Sempervivum/ hen and chickens
Sequoia sempervirens/ coast redwood
Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin/ blue potato vine
Syringa microphylla/ littleleaf lilac
Taxus baccata/ English yew
Thuja plicata/ western redcedar
Tsuga mertensiana/ mountain hemlock
Ulmus parvifolia/ Chinese elm
Vaccinium ovatum/ evergreen huckleberry
Viburnum carlesii/ Korean spice viburnum
Viburnum opulus ‘Aureum’
Viburnum plicatum/ doublefile viburnum
Viburnum x pragense
Viburnum tinus/ laurustinus
Vitex agnuscastus/ chaste tree
Zelkova serrata/ keak
Mike Lee is a landscape architect and founder of Colvos Creek Nursery on Maury Island.