Ten ideas to save time and garden efficiently while conserving resources
“Low-maintenance” has a charismatic ring to it. It promises less weeding, watering, and other chores that some regard as the equivalent of house work.
There is a distinct possibility that the “low-maintenance” moniker is being bandied about as the latest, best way to garden, save the planet, or both. Biologically sound garden techniques do really reduce work and provide good habitat when properly done. Just know that maintenance is forever!
- tip #1: Choose the right plant for the right place. This mantra is one of the first principles of efficient gardening. Our summer-dry climate west of the Cascades means that besides our own natives, we can use plants native to the Mediterranean, California and other world regions. However, even native plants are low maintenance only if you plant them in conditions to which they are adapted, then water until established (3 years, tapering off in year 3)
- tip #2: Continuing with the “right plant, right place” principle, be mindful of the space plants will occupy at maturity. If a plant can grow into a space reserved for it, you won’t have to constantly to keep it smaller than it wants to be. When in doubt, measure the space; fill in gaps with annuals or plants you can easily move later when things mature.
- tip #3: Just because you CAN shear, doesn’t mean you HAVE to. Reduce effort, and your carbon footprint, by dispensing with landscapes that require shearing, mowing, blowing, and transporting debris. You can still have a hedge – use plants that need little or no pruning/shearing
- tip #4 You can have some grass – reduce the size and mow it with a push mower, mulch the clippings and sweep up by hand – more exercise, less time at the gym! And hey – you might discover interesting things going on in your garden, up close and quietly.
- tip #5 Before installing plants, start at the roots, so to speak. Soil is the foundation of productivity and health in the garden. Water conservation and lower maintenance is wholly dependent on healthy soil. Organic matter is the best thing you can add to any soil. Organisms and processes at work that keep our plants healthy are still being discovered – read about one at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/sep02/soil0902.htm
- tip #5: Plant properly. When the time comes to put plants in the ground, avoid pot-shaped rootballs that can’t grow properly by gently separating the roots and making sure there are no sharp boundaries between different soil layers by mixing the soil around the roots. Badly planted shrubs and trees will suffer – sometimes for years – and require extra water and maintenance (if they survive). Tree planting is a subject unto itself. More here.
- tip #6: Establish the right mix of plants. Covering the vertical as well as horizontal space in your garden is the best way to short-circuit weed life cycles and mimic natural processes. In vegetable or ornamental gardens, plants at various heights will shade the ground, offer shelter to beneficial organisms, and reduce weeding, watering and pest control. Diversity in the garden equals water and resource conservation. On the flip side, do not overcrowd your plants (a little bare soil will afford valuable native ground-nesting bees a home); if roots are too crowded, they will compete for water and nutrients to the detriment of all.
- tip # 7 Plant when the soil is naturally moist, for optimum root development. In the maritime Pacific Northwest, fall planting enables roots to take advantage of warm soil and rainfall, to grow deeper and support the whole plan when demand is low from above-ground parts. Late winter and early spring is a good choice too. Deep roots, combined with good soil and surface mulch will use available water efficiently.
- Tip #8 Water Correctly! First, check the soil to see if it’s dry in the root zone. If you need to apply water, water during the early morning or when it’s cloudy. This will slow down evaporation. Know your soil. Sometimes watering sandy soils requires a sprinkler, otherwise soaker hoses might be more efficient. After water has had time to soak in, check the root zone. Rule of thumb: one inch of water per week during the growing season. Remember that mature, well-chosen perennials, shrubs and trees need less of everything, and you might only need to water once a month, or not at all. New plants need more, and more frequent watering for shallow roots.
What’s an inch of sprinkler irrigation? Get out the tuna can, put it where you’re watering, turn on the sprinkler, look at the clock – when there’s an inch in the can, that’s how long it takes to put an inch where the sprinkler is. You might want to put 1/2 inch on twice a week. It depends on soil and sun exposure.
- Tip #9: Learn proper pruning technique or ask a professional to do it periodically. It will save a ton of work. Any pruning should be for the health of the plant, and for early training; not because the plant is too large, or “it’s spring so it must be time to prune everything”. If you don’t know what to cut, leave your plants alone; that’s better than making uninformed decisions. This will mean the difference between unwieldy, nasty-looking plants that seem to fight you for control every year, and nice-looking plants that can grow to their full ornamental potential in their own space.
- tip #10: Evergreens help keep the garden looking alive during summer drought and winter dormant season; they can also cover and shade a lot of ground.
Here are some faves:
California lilac (Ceanothus spp.)
California wax myrtle (Morella (formerly Myrica) californica) Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
Alpine water fern (Blechnum penna-marina)
Himalayan maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum)
Leathery polypody (Polypodium scouleri)
Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
*Non-dwarf Ceanothus commonly grow surprisingly tall and wide, so be prepared to leave enough room for them to expand.
Pt. Reyes Ceanothus (Ceanothus gloriosus) is a cultivar of a low growing west coast native that prefers full sun and dry soil conditions.