How to Have an Attractive Garden and Have Time to Enjoy it too!
By Lyn Gannon, Sonoma County Master Gardener
You can have an attractive garden and still have plenty of time to admire it! By keeping the following simple principles in mind, you will reduce ongoing garden maintenance and free more time for enjoying what you have created.
Take time to assess your site
- Damage caused by downpours, heat waves and frosts can provide valuable clues about the weak links in your garden. Look for problem areas right after extreme conditions and grade, amend or avoid accordingly.
- Sun/shade matters when choosing plants. Study your site over the course of a day, a season, half a year—the more time the better—noting how shade patterns shift. Northern sites are the toughest; plants in deep shade during the winter often ‘fry’ when the sun is overhead in June. Take extra care when choosing plants for these areas.
- Plants on sunny slopes get more sun exposure in the fall—the time when plants are most easily stressed. Why? The sun travels in a lower arc in fall so its rays hit sloped ground more directly. Plan accordingly.
- Cold air flows downhill. The lowest area in any garden is most susceptible to frost damage. Any gap at the bottom of your garden, even a solid gate left open, will encourage cold air to pass through. Many frost-tender plants can be grown successfully in the County if placed properly. Plants that make it through the winter, especially if un-damaged, require less work when spring arrives!
- With few exceptions, most plants require good drainage. Address standing water, soggy soil and boggy conditions before planting.
Make reliable, easy-to-care plants the backbone of your garden
A healthy plant, even if ordinary, looks better than a fancy plant that’s struggling. Save the high maintenance plants for flourishes. If a particular plant works well in your garden, plant more of it. Not only does this mean more problem-free plants, it will give your garden a unifying theme. Don’t get sentimental about plants that look poorly. Find a new home for them, which sometimes means the compost pile! If you’re particularly fond of a plant that is struggling, try moving it to a different microclimate in your garden. To avoid constant trimming, pick plants whose mature size match your site.
Right plant, right place: consider each plant’s cultural needs when siting and planting. Take advantage of the many books and web sites that explain basic planting principles. Planting it right the first time pays off in the long run. Nurseries typically use fast-draining potting medium that dries out quickly. After planting, monitor moisture in the root balls, not the surrounding soil, until the roots have spread into the garden soil. If the root ball dries out, that’s the end of the plant.
Give your plants ample room to grow
Consider how large your plants will eventually grow when planting. Adequate spacing ensures good air circulation, strong growth, and minimizes competition for water and nutrients. If there is too much bare space once you have sited the plants, use annuals or short-lived perennials to fill in while the ‘permanent’ plants grow. All plants—even shade-lovers—need some light to thrive. Plants that are cramped and thus light deprived will eventually lose many leaves, leaving empty branches.
Mulch is one of the best investments you’ll ever make in your garden. Advantages include weed suppression, soil nutrient enhancement, root protection, moisture conservation and erosion control. It looks nice, too, and makes it easier to walk in the beds without getting muddy.
Plant more shrubs, groundcovers and succulents, fewer perennials and annuals
The good news about annuals: they often produce a season of flowers. The bad news: they are short-lived, weather sensitive and need to be replaced every season. These plants are best used in small areas or containers. Perennials live for years, not months. But they need to be trimmed periodically—in some cases several times per season—and many die back annually, leaving lengthy gaps in your garden. Overall, shrubs, groundcovers and succulents require less care than annuals and perennials for the volume of garden space they occupy. Evergreen shrubs and groundcovers can offer year round interest with variegated or colored foliage (e.g. silver, maroon, chartreuse). Deciduous shrubs can feature attractive and fragrant flowers, striking berries or stunning fall foliage. Nothing can beat succulents for their architectural look. Give them excellent drainage and they’ll thrive with very little care.
Use more evergreen plants (vs. deciduous)
If you really want to cut corners in the fall, choose needle or broadleaf evergreens. All plants shed their leaves eventually. But evergreens shed more slowly, reducing fall leaf clean up.
Prune at the right time of year
When in doubt, prune any flowering plant right after it’s bloomed. Your plants will look neat, and they’ll spend their next growth spurt preparing for next year’s flowers. Take into account the weather when trimming. Plants pruned in the fall will take longer to fill in than plants pruned in the spring. Cooler temperatures retard growth.
Keep after those weeds
Tiny weeds (under 1”) are most easily removed with a rocking (or Hula) hoe. When hand pulling weeds, they’re easier to grab when they reach 2”. But don’t let weeds get much larger—larger root systems require more effort to yank. Weed seeds need light to germinate. Try covering the ground—even temporarily—during the rainy months to block light before reaching for herbicides like Roundup.
Keep your plant palette simple
Massed plantings (large groups of similar plants) are surprisingly attractive. Repeating the same plant throughout the garden provides continuity, is more restful to the eye, and can make a space feel more expansive. It’s also easier to trim/clean up many of the same plant in one swoop.
Replace your lawn with groundcover
Reduce your water usage, your exposure to chemicals and lawn mower exhaust—not to mention your effort—by replacing your lawn with a groundcover. Many groundcovers can handle light food traffic and some grow only a half inch, requiring no trimming.
Fine-tune your irrigation
Use drip irrigation whenever possible. Drip uses much less water than overhead sprinklers and its use reduces weed growth and spread of fungal diseases. Deliver water only to roots of the plants. Watch those spray heads, and check periodically for leaks. A wet, mushy area is a dead giveaway that you’ve got a problem. Use a moisture meter. They’re cheap—only around $10 and sold in most garden stores. By sticking the tip in the ground, you can determine if your soil is dry enough to warrant watering.
Chip away at maintenance regularly
Many tasks are easier if done at the optimal time—weeding is the prime example. Laying out a rough plan of what needs to be done seasonally can provide a framework for identify priorities and using your time effectively. Make a reasonable assessment of your garden’s maintenance. Does it match the time you’re willing to invest? If not, it’s time to make some changes!