No matter how much we love gardening, most of us would rather admire our gardens than pull weeds or fight pests in July and August. Unfortunately, the hottest part of summer is when many garden problems are at their worst. If you’re feeling overwhelmed this season, here are some simple steps you can take now and next year to reduce your gardening chores and spend more time relaxing.
1. Go native
Choosing native plants is one way to reduce your summer garden chores. Because they’ve evolved in a climate similar to your garden’s, most native plants require less watering, fertilizing, and staking than their exotic counterparts.
2. Cut back on edibles
As much as we love the taste of homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn, no group of plants demands more care than vegetables and fruits. Unlike most ornamentals, which can be planted at almost any time in the growing season, vegetables must be sown or planted at a specific time to produce a successful crop. And when those green beans are ready for harvest, they won’t wait.
If you don’t have time to tend veggies but you’re not ready to abandon the taste of vine-ripened tomatoes and crisp cucumbers, grow a few of your favorite vegetables in large containers. You’ll spend less time planting, weeding, fertilizing, and watering. Any large pot with drainage holes will work, including those 10- to 15-gallon black plastic containers used for nursery-grown trees. To help retain moisture and reduce watering time, group large containers together and mix water-retaining crystals into the soil mix before planting.
3. Replace perennials with shrubs
Replace high-maintenance perennials with shrubs and small trees. Shrubs require less dividing, deadheading, watering, and fertilizing than perennials and annuals. Three to five medium-sized shrubs planted in a border will fill a space that was once devoted to many more higher-maintenance perennials. While you’re at it, reduce pruning time by choosing a suitable dwarf variety. It’s much easier to keep a shrub or tree in line if it’s already bred to be small. Avoid fast-growing hedging plants.
4. Avoid aggressive plants
These quick-growing “wonders” seem like a good idea when you have a large space to fill, but the long-term effects are usually not worth it. You’ll spend hours weeding out these bullies once they start crowding their less-aggressive neighbors. A better approach is to cover the bare soil with mulch until you can afford more plants or until the surrounding plants have a chance to fill in.
5. Stake plants early
Stake tall or fragile plants early in the season when the foliage is still emerging so shoots will grow through the supports and conceal the staking. If you stake a plant that’s already flopped over, the supports will look unnatural and obtrusive. Instead of installing several individual stakes that require a lot of tying, use inexpensive tomato cages to support bushy perennials such as delphiniums and yarrows.
6. Water in the morning
Encourage healthier plants and reduce your chances of fungal diseases by watering early in the day. Plants need water to face the day, but they should be dry—mulch, leaves, and all—before they go into the cooler evening hours.
7. Master the art of mulching
A properly mulched garden not only adds organic material to your soil, but also discourages weeds from germinating and conserves moisture so you don’t have to water as frequently.
For best results, use the right mulch at the right time. Spread organic mulches such as shredded bark, leaves, or well-rotted compost onto weed-free soil.
If weeds have already sprouted, mulch creates an ideal environment for their growth. Also, spread mulch at the right depth—if it’s too shallow it won’t smother the weed seeds effectively, and if it’s too deep your plants may develop stem and root rots. Two to four inches is a good depth for most mulches, although lighter materials such as pine straw and salt marsh hay can be spread a little thicker. Keep moisture-rich grass clippings, which mat down easily, to 2 inches or less.
8. Use the right tools
Pruning a small tree or shrub with the wrong tool can take twice as long as when you use loppers or a pruning saw. Make sure your tools are in good working order. A dull hand pruner makes an unclean cut that can damage branches, and you’ll end up making two or three cuts instead of one.
Don’t overlook unconventional tools. Instead of using a wheelbarrow to make several trips to the garden, invest in a tarp. You can use it to move heavy bags of soil amendments and haul leaves off the lawn.
9. Look for trouble
Spend 15 minutes once or twice a week walking around your garden looking for insect and disease infestations. They require less aggressive treatment when spotted early. Carry a plastic grocery bag so you can collect damaged leaves and fruits. To be sure you get an accurate assessment, get down to the plant’s level. Most diseases start on lower leaves and work their way up. Insects, which tend to prefer young, tender leaves, often hide on the undersides of leaves. Because insects and diseases are more common when you have rotten vegetables and fruits lying on the ground and hanging on the plants, dispose of these on your weekly walk.
10. Stay on top of weeding
Do a little weeding every day (or every other day). You can destroy most young weeds by simply scraping the soil with the side of a hoe or trowel—a technique much less time-consuming than digging. If you’re facing large crops of healthy weeds, pick off the flower heads of annual weeds before they go to seed. This will reduce your chances of facing the same problem next year.
11. Research plants
Research growing conditions and care requirements before you purchase a plant. For example, if you love the look of high-maintenance hybrid tea roses but don’t have time to care for them, choose shrub roses, which thrive with minimal care. Instead of fussing with floppy peonies, consider single or Japanese types. Their open flowers tolerate rain much better than the many-petaled, heavy-headed varieties.
12. Reduce mowing time
Cut mowing time by keeping the lawn shape simple—convert sharp-cornered, linear garden beds into smooth, shallow-curved beds. Avoid island beds in the lawn so you don’t have to mow around them. Place sundials and birdbaths on a patio or in a border instead of on the lawn. To eliminate edge trimming, add a mowing strip (a narrow edge of brick, gravel, or similar material set just below the level of the lawn to allow the mower to pass over it without damage to either).
Replace parts of your lawn—especially hard-to-reach strips of grass between sidewalks and buildings or grass in shady areas—with low-maintenance ground covers or shrubs.
Lynn Steiner is a freelance writer in Stillwater, Minnesota.