Low Maintenance Gardening

Most gardeners want a low-maintenance landscape.

There are two ways to achieve this objective.

One approach might be called “anti-gardening.” In this approach, the garden owner covers the soil with an inorganic material. Concrete has been widely used for this purpose; permeable concrete, which allows water to seep through into the ground, is gaining popularity. Other possibilities include asphalt concrete (“blacktop”), brick, flagstones, and other materials that provide a firm surface. Pebbles or Lava rock over landscape fabric might be used for a loose surface.

But to enjoy a display of living plants, it is necessary to engage in actual gardening.

If “low-maintenance” describes a garden that requires less time for repetitive tasks like watering, mowing, edging, weeding, replacing failed plants, etc., there are several methods that can be effective, when used in combination. Here are four important steps toward low-maintenance gardening.

1. Know your garden’s soil

Soil chemistry. An important measure of soil chemistry is pH, which indicates the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Soil pH influences the solubility of nutrients. It also affects the activity of microorganisms responsible for breaking down organic matter and most chemical transformations in the soil. Soil pH thus affects the availability of several plant nutrients.”

Soil pH is measured on a range from 0 to 14. The highest acidity earns the lowest rating. In the Monterey Bay area, most soils test around 6.5 to 7, a neutral rating that is best for most plants. Some plants, e.g., rhododendrons, prefer a slightly acidic soil and would need special fertilizers and soil amendments to thrive. Changing soil chemistry even a little can be difficult, so a low-maintenance plan simply would not include “acid-loving” plants.

A laboratory test could reveal a garden’s other soil chemistry issues that might deserve attention, but in this area the soil chemistry usually will be within an acceptable range and not a problem.

Soil Composition. The inorganic part of an ideal garden soil, or loam, would be about 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. This composition balances water drainage and water retention, and supports the development of plant roots.

In addition, this ideal soil will have organic material, i.e., decomposed animal and vegetable matter, amounting to 3 to 5% of the total volume.

If your soil has a higher percentage of any of the inorganic components, try digging in generous amounts of organic material, i.e., your choice of compost. Avoid adding sand or clay! If adding compost doesn’t help, consider building raised beds or creating mounds and importing topsoil.

Some plants will thrive in relatively poor soils. Coastal plants, for example, often will do well in sandy soils, so a low-maintenance response to less-than-ideal garden soil would be to select plants that are adapted to the soil that is native to the garden.

A few plants will thrive in clay soil: asters, Black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, daylily, viburnum, etc.

2. Know your garden’s climate and microclimates.

A typical garden could have shady areas and sunny areas, low areas that are often soggy, and spots that seem to catch whatever winds might be blowing. The gardener should become familiar with each of the garden’s planting beds. These microclimates will vary predictably with the time of the day and the time of the year, and contribute greatly to plant development. The gardener cannot modify these conditions, so the low-maintenance strategy is to select plants that are adapted to the conditions that exist in a given planting bed. This is the essence of the “right plant in the right place.”

3. Know your area’s seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns.

Gardeners who have lived through the Monterey Bay area’s seasonal changes in temperature and rainfall might note variations from normal patterns (like this year’s overdue rains), but still need to coordinate their gardening plans with those cycles.

Many gardeners are inspired by the early spring, when plants produce fresh green growth and colorful blossoms. These events might motivate trips to the local garden center to collect new annuals and perennials and a surge of planting activity.

While spring can be a delightful time in the garden, low-maintenance gardening has two other seasons of greater importance.

The summer months are important because central California has a “summer-dry” climate, which has also been called a Mediterranean climate. During the summer, plants that are adapted to this climate will become dormant and survive the dry spell naturally, but plants from many other climatic areas will need supplementary irrigation. The low-maintenance approach is to favor plants from summer-dry climates.

The most readily available and ecologically appropriate plants in this category are those that are native to coastal California, but many more good choices are plants from other summer-dry climates: the Mediterranean basin, South Africa, the southwestern coast of Australia and the central coast of Chile.

An alternative collection of, for example, tropical plants would necessitate a high-maintenance approach to gardening. Some gardeners might be willing to take on additional work to enjoy exotic plants.

The rainy months are the second season of importance to the low-maintenance gardener. In the Monterey Bay area, this season normally runs from mid-October to mid-April. The low-maintenance strategy is to install new plants just before the onset of the rainy season so that Nature will keep them irrigated as they establish roots and prepare for above ground growth when the temperatures rise.

4. Know your plants

Good familiarity with the planting bed’s soil and microclimate, and the garden’s annual precipitation and temperature cycles helps the gardener to select and install plants that will succeed in a specific location with minimum of effort.

There are more strategies in low-maintenance gardening, of course. Effective control of weeds, for example, can reduce significantly the gardening workload. In a future column I’ll review good methods for minimizing both weeds and hours of weeding.

Enjoy your garden!

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