Low Maintenance Gardening

Imagine…

Always knowing when to
plant, prune, and harvest.

All you need is the right checklist.

How to Make Gardening Easy By Growing A Low Maintenance Garden

Cheryl Spencer from Simply Smart Gardening
Inside: Low maintenance gardening ideas and how to get started.


You want a beautiful garden, but you don’t want to spend all your free time pulling weeds, dragging your hose around from plant to plant, or drowning Japanese beetles in soapy water to keep them off your roses.

Maybe you’re busy with work, a family, and piles of laundry, or you’re getting older and slowing down a bit, or perhaps you just want to join the lazy gardeners’ club.

The good news is you can have a fantastic garden and still have time to enjoy it when you grow a low maintenance garden.

All it takes is a bit of planning and a few smart choices.

Let’s get started!

Gardening happiness is about making the right choices in your garden.

gardening venn diagram of gardening happiness

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll get a small commission if you make a purchase. I only link to products I use and recommend.

What is low maintenance gardening?

Gardening should be relaxing, rejuvenating, and rewarding, not a burden. You can minimize the amount of time you spend on not-so-fun gardening tasks when you create an easy to maintain, low-maintenance garden.

But low-maintenance doesn’t mean your garden has to look like the landscaping in front of a gas station – a lot of concrete and a few sad plants. There’s a vast palette of low maintenance plants to choose from.

As you work your way through the steps of creating a low maintenance garden, each choice you make will free up your time for more enjoyable gardening tasks.

It’s all about the choices you make

Think about what you have to do in your garden versus what you like to do in your garden.

Low maintenance gardening is all about making wise choices now so you can reduce the amount of watering, weeding, pruning, and dividing you have to do down the road.

And you may not want your entire garden to be truly low-maintenance. Maybe you only want to significantly trim back the time you spend maintaining your front yard, parking strip, or side yard.

Or maybe you want to have a low maintenance backyard – a beautiful space where you can relax and not worry about everything that needs to be done.

If you’re a vegetable gardener, you may be wondering, “is it possible to create a low-maintenance edible garden?”

While it’s not possible to create a truly low-maintenance vegetable garden,  using an organic mulch and square foot garden spacing can help cut down on weeding and watering chores in your vegetable garden.

You don’t have to turn your whole yard into a low-maintenance garden to benefit from these techniques. You’ll learn ways to decrease the amount of time you spend on your least favorite gardening chores.

And who doesn’t want that?

1. How do I start a low maintenance garden?

The best place to start is with your garden’s microclimate.

By learning as much as you can about the climate conditions in your garden, you’ll be able to choose plants that’ll thrive where you plant them.

Understanding your garden’s microclimates isn’t tricky. It just takes a little time and observation.

To fully understand your garden’s microclimate, you’ll need to know:

  1. The length of your growing season.
  2. Your hardiness zone.
  3. Your heat zone.
  4. Your garden’s sun exposure.
  5. What the terms shade, part shade, and full sun mean.

Then you’ll be able to make smart plant choices. You’ll know what plants to purchase and where to put them in your garden.

Here are some basic rules about where you should put your plants:

  • Grow shade loving plants where they’ll be protected from the sun.
  • Grow full sun plants where they’ll get very little shade.
  • Grow thirsty plants where they’ll get plenty of water.
  • Grow drought-tolerant plants in hot, dry areas of your garden.

As a bonus, you can download a free sun mapping chart that’ll help you figure out how much sun your garden gets.

Once you know more about your microclimate, then it’s time to dig into your garden soil – figuratively AND literally!

2. Get to know your garden soil

Before you can choose the right plants for your garden, you need to know as much as you can about your garden soil. Your soil plays a huge role in the health and well-being of your plants.

You can improve your soil in three simple steps

  1. test your soil
  2. prepare it properly
  3. use the right fertilizers

When choosing plants, it’s important to know what type of soil you have. A good soil test will tell you that.

Once you know whether you have clay, sandy, or loamy soil, you can make better plant selections because not all plants will thrive in all types of soil.

And a professional soil test will get your garden off to a great start because you’ll know exactly what fertilizers and amendments to use.

 

Soil test kits and tools

 

3. Choose easy to care for outdoor plants

Once you understand your garden’s microclimates and know what type of soil you have, you can make smart decisions about what plants to grow in your low maintenance garden.

The good news is that there are loads of low maintenance landscaping plants to choose from. There are:

  • low maintenance bushes and shrubs
  • low maintenance evergreens
  • low maintenance flowering shrubs
  • low maintenance perennials
  • low maintenance trees
  • low maintenance vines
  • low maintenance bulbs
  • native or climate-adapted plants
  • and even low maintenance annual flowers (these can be hard to find, but some exist!)

So, what are the best low maintenance plants for your garden?

Start with what you know about your garden:

  • What type of soil do you have – is it sandy, clayey, or loamy?
  • How much sun does your garden get – full sun, part sun, or shade?
  • What are your hardiness and heat zones?
  • How much water can you supply to this garden bed?
  • Do you need to choose rabbit- or deer-resistant plants?

Then, move onto selecting low maintenance plants. The most significant factors to consider when deciding whether a plant requires a lot of maintenance are:

  • How often does it need to be deadheaded or pruned?
  • How often will it need to be divided?
  • Is it insect and disease prone?
  • Will it tolerate your garden soil?
  • Is it a garden “thug”?
  • How long will it live?
  • Does it “volunteer” – spread by seed all over your garden?
  • Is it rabbit or deer candy?

Rabbit and deer resistance might not seem like a maintenance consideration. But it’s easier to choose plants they don’t like than to repeatedly spray repellants to keep them at bay or replace plants that they kill.

 

Where do you find low maintenance plants?

There are lots of places online where you can find lists of low maintenance plants, but to get the best information about plants that’ll do well in your garden, you need to turn to gardening books.

Here are my favorite books that tell you exactly how high maintenance a plant is or isn’t.

Perennial Care Manual by Nancy J. Ondra

This book gives perennial care advice for 125 popular perennials. If you only own one perennial maintenance book, this one should be it!

50 High-Impact, Low-Care Garden Plants by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

This book is for gardeners who love plants but can’t spend hours in their garden. You’ll discover flowers, shrubs, fruits, and vegetables that have the most sought after low-maintenance qualities: toughness, beauty, and durability.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting and Pruning Techniques by Tracy DiSabato-Aust

One of my favorite things about this book is the lists of plants by maintenance requirements. Choose a plant from a list and then go back to the alphabetical listing to get detailed care information for that plant.

The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook by Penelope O’Sullivan

With a focus on selecting the right tree or shrub for the right place, this book includes more than 350 plant profiles. And you’ll learn how to care for your trees and shrubs.

 

And if deer like to dine in your garden, here are my favorite books on deer-resistant plants:

4. Low maintenance garden design

Begin your plan with the end in mind. Think about where you enjoy spending time in your garden and where you don’t.

Focus your low-maintenance planning efforts on those areas where you don’t spend a lot of time.

And keep your garden design simple.

More variety in a garden bed increases the amount of work you’ll have to do.

The first two things to consider as you plan your low maintenance gardens are your plant palette and your lawn.

Keep your plant palette simple

When you grow only a few types of plants, maintenance becomes simplified.

  • You’ll cut back or divide a large number of plants all at once, rather than spreading out those tasks every week as one plant dies back this week, and another needs to be divided next week.
  • This type of simplified planting scheme doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it’s one approach to low maintenance gardening that can work for some people.
  • And you may not want to use it everywhere in your garden plan. Front yards, parking strips, and unused side yards are good candidates for a simplified plant palette.

When choosing flowering perennials for your low maintenance garden, select ones that have a longer bloom time, that way, you won’t be tempted to plant high-maintenance annuals to fill the gaps.

 

Books to help you plan all-season bloom:

Consider ditching some or all of your high maintenance lawn

A lush carpet of green is a beautiful thing, but it can take a lot of time to keep it in top form. All of the time you spend mowing, weeding, and feeding your lawn could be put to better use.

Unless, of course, you like mowing, weeding, and feeding your lawn!

Do you actually use your lawn?

If you think about those places where you and your family enjoy spending time in your garden, your lawn may not rise to the top of the list unless you have kids or dogs.

If your lawn isn’t a place where you hang out, consider turning it into garden beds or replacing it with a low maintenance groundcover or a no-mow grass.

You can grow grass under trees, but is all the effort worth it?

If you’ve ever struggled to grow turf under large trees, you know that grass doesn’t thrive in dry shade. Why not plant easy-care, drought-tolerant shade-loving plants there instead?

Plan your paths

Plan paths through your beds so you can easily reach all of your plants without compacting your soil. Excessive soil compaction suffocates plant roots, especially when your soil is wet.

Paths can be as simple as a thick swath of mulch, or a series of stepping stones.

And wide paths will allow you to work comfortably amongst your plants and enable you to navigate wheelbarrows or small wagons through larger garden beds.

 

Make a low maintenance garden irrigation plan

Make watering your plants as easy on yourself as you can.

Start by hydrozoning your plants. Put water-loving plants near each other, and do the same with drought-tolerant plants.

How you choose to water will determine how much time you spend watering.

So, what are your options when it comes to watering your low maintenance garden? We’ll go from the most effective to the least.

1. Drip irrigation on a controller

Drip irrigation is the most effective way to water your low maintenance garden. You use less water than you’d use with a sprinkler system. And because you’ll place your drip irrigation lines under mulch, the top of your mulch stays drier, which discourages weed seeds from sprouting.

You can get a similar effect by using soaker hoses instead of drip lines.

The best way to set this up is with an irrigation controller.

My favorite is Rachio – it’s an easy-to-install controller that connects to your home Wi-Fi. You can adjust your drip irrigation or sprinkler system from anywhere in the world using your phone.

2. A sprinkler system on a controller

The next best way to water low maintenance gardens is with an automatic sprinkler system. It saves you from having to drag a hose around but can cause more weed seeds to sprout since your mulch gets wet when you run the sprinklers.

3. Watering with a manual sprinkler

This is a bit more work than the automatic sprinkler system since you have to set up the sprinkler, move it, coil up the hose, etc. And it also has the drawback of wetting the top of your mulch.

4. Hand watering

This is the least effective way to water a low maintenance garden. It takes a lot of time to drag your hose from plant to plant, and hand watering (like watering with a sprinkler), can cause more weeds to sprout in your mulch.

5. Get your plants off to a good start

Give your plants enough room to grow

After you’ve chosen plants that’ll thrive in your garden, and it’s time to plant, make sure you give each plant the space it needs to reach its mature size.

One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make when laying out a bed is failing to factor in the mature size of a plant.

It can be hard to give each plant enough room when it means there’ll be a lot of blank space around small plants.

But if you remember this adage “sleep, creep, leap” it may help you to feel less impatient when your plants are small.

  • Year 1 is when your plants sleep – this is when they’re setting down new roots, so most of the growth is underground where you can’t see it.
  • Year 2 is when they creep – you’ll see some new growth above ground.
  • Year 3 is when they leap – this is when they take off and start to look like their mature selves.

Use proper planting techniques

Plant at the right time of year. For gardeners in cold climates, this may be April through May, while gardeners in warmer climates can plant earlier.

And fall can be a great time to get a jump-start on next season.

  • When planting perennials, shrubs, and trees, proper planting depth is important. A leading cause of early tree death is planting them too deeply.
  • Don’t amend the soil in the hole you’ve dug for the plant. Either amend the entire planting bed or use native soil to backfill the hole. Amending just the planting hole encourages the roots to stay inside the hole and not venture out into the surrounding soil.
  • If the plant is root-bound in the pot, cut through the root mass to encourage the plant to put out new roots.

If you’ve ever dug up a dead plant that had a pot-shaped clump of soil attached to the base, it probably struggled to get established because it couldn’t send out new roots into the soil.

Give your new plants enough water

Even drought-tolerant plants are not drought-tolerant their first season in your garden.

Make sure you give all new plants plenty of water so that they can get established and grow a healthy root system.

Depending on the size of the plant and the time of year, you may need to water them once or twice a day when you first plant them. Cut back on the watering as they get settled.

And after you plant and water – mulch your garden beds.

6. How to mulch your low maintenance garden beds

Mulch helps suppress weeds and conserves water. And organic mulches feed your soil and help prevent plants from heaving out of the ground over the winter.

So, what’s the best type of mulch to use in a low maintenance garden?

The best type of mulch to use depends on your garden site.

An organic mulch will be the best choice for most gardens, but there are situations where an inorganic mulch like stone or rock is the better choice.

As a bonus, download a free mulch comparison cheat sheet to get mulch ideas and choose the best mulch for your garden in three steps.

While mulch can help suppress weeds, you’ll still need a solid weeding strategy to keep weeding to a minimum.

7. How to weed less often in your low maintenance landscape

Selecting and spreading a weed-suppressing mulch will help you spend less time weeding.

And if you can use drip irrigation in your garden, it’ll help keep the top layer of mulch dry, which will stop some weed seeds from sprouting.

But the biggest thing you can do to save time on weeding is to make a plan to get the weeds when they’re young.

  • Because weed seeds sprout throughout the growing season, you’ll need to check each of your beds a couple of times a week to get the weeds when they’re young.
  • Once you get into the habit of looking for weeds regularly, the amount of time you’ll need to spend weeding will decrease.
  • To make short weeding sessions here and there easy to do, store your weeding tools where they’re accessible. And get into the habit of putting them back where they belong so you don’t wander in circles looking for your favorite weeder!

And if you have a large garden, (or more than one gardener) you may want to keep more than one set of weeding tools handy. 

8. Keep track of what needs to be done when

Knowing when to prune or deadhead helps keep your garden low maintenance because some plants will become susceptible to disease or injury when pruned at the wrong time.

And this can mean more maintenance or plant replacement down the road. For example:

  • Winter is usually the best time to prune fruit trees because they’re less susceptible to disease transmission in the winter.
  • Some perennials need to be pruned back in the spring because leaving the foliage up over the winter protects the crown of the plant.

You can research and create monthly checklists of what needs to be done in your garden, or you can buy a set of ready-made gardening checklists and save yourself a lot of time!

9. Record what happens in your garden

A great way to keep your garden low maintenance is to record what happens in your garden in a garden journal.

A garden journal will:

  1. help you avoid mistakes
  2. keep you organized
  3. save you time, money, and stress

Keeping a garden journal is the fastest path to gardening success. You’ll have a customized guide for what works in your garden and what doesn’t!

Keeping your garden tidy and beautiful doesn’t have to feel like a chore

Spending some time now to plan your low maintenance garden will save you loads of time later!

When you have a low maintenance garden, gardening chores can wait until the weekend, and you can proudly say you’re a member of the lazy gardeners’ club!

Your Turn

Do you have a low maintenance garden, or are you thinking about starting one? Share in a comment below!

Hi! I’m Cheryl.

I believe you can grow your dream garden and still have time to enjoy it.

I’ll show you how easy it can be to have a garden that fits into your lifestyle, wows your neighbors, and makes your family say “more veggies, please!”

Cheryl Spencer, Certified Gardener Hi, I’m Cheryl. I’m a certified gardener, bird lover, and spreadsheet enthusiast. I believe you can grow your dream garden and still have time to enjoy it. I teach online gardening courses and write articles that help you save time and money in your garden. Join my mailing list, and as a bonus, you’ll get a helpful checklist that’ll tell you what to do in your garden right now.

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