Let go of the lawn
Here’s a question I ask all my students: Where do you spend the most chore time in the garden, and which part of the garden is the most enjoyable? Rarely are these places the same. Identifying high-maintenance areas helps us to make smart choices about which garden features to alter or eliminate. We may replace a fast-growing hedge with a fence. We may add easy-going shrubs, herbs, bulbs, and ornamental grasses to a needy perennial bed with a short season of good looks. We may replace thirsty fusspot plants with drought-tolerant natives. Each choice will free up a bit more time and energy.
For most people, the fastest way to reduce both the weekly workload and high resource use is by getting rid of the lawn. No ground cover or perennial plant you can name needs to be watered, mowed, and fed as often or as much as a lawn. If you have young kids, unmanicured play lawns are great, but plan to edit them out after the kids grow up.
How? Start by giving each lawn tree a wide skirt (to the drip line or beyond) of native or regionally adapted plants. Don’t try to plant border beauties; instead, use woodland plants that compete well with and don’t mind the company of tree roots. For year-round good looks, combine spring and summer bulbs with drought-tolerant evergreen ground covers that can be mowed once or twice a year.
For instance, bulbs like spring crocus (Crocus spp. and cvs.) and scilla (Scilla spp. and cvs.), summer-blooming Allium schubertii, and autumn crocus (Crocus spp. and cvs. and Colchicum spp. and cvs.) can be carpeted with delicately textured Vinca minor ‘Miss Jekyll’s White’. For maintenance, just tuck fading bulb foliage under the ground cover and scatter compost on each bed in spring and fall.
Next, create deep crushed-gravel paths that deter weeds and allow excess water to drain away freely. Set pavers or flagstones within them to vary the look in different areas. The main design mistake made by amateur designers is to make their paths too narrow. Six to 8 feet is a good width for a main path, while secondary paths can be 4 to 5 feet wide. This allows two people to walk side by side and permits passage of loaded barrows and carts, strollers, and wheelchairs.
Carve out wide areas along your paths to create sunny and shady seating spaces. Here, too, big is better: Soft, simple lines and generosity of scale will make these areas easy to care for, comfortable to use, and visually attractive. Service areas for compost, trash and tool storage, and so forth can also be graveled. Use crushed rock, never pea gravel, which is treacherous underfoot. Graveled areas can be kept weed-free with flame weeders or with vinegar-concentrate products that alter soil pH for up to a year.
Finally, incorporate all narrow strips of grass into beds. The second most common design error is to create beds that are too small. Big, bold beds look best and are easiest to plant without resorting to pruning for size control. Following these steps will leave you with little, if any, lawn. Well-filled beds are far easier to care for than lawn. If you have weeds, you don’t have enough plants.
The models for the gardens I design are the meadows and woodlands where plants succeed each other in effortless waves throughout the year. I fill my beds with a tightly knit matrix of border shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and grasses. In each bed, about a third of the plants are evergreen, and half to a third are native. The others are chosen for drought tolerance, adaptability, and a long season of good looks.