Whenever I hear of gardeners who spend hours a day in their gardens, I get insanely jealous. As a mom and wife with a full-time career, I’m lucky if I get two or three hours a week during the summer to really concentrate on my garden. High-maintenance plants just don’t cut it. Mowing is a dreaded chore, and trimming and pruning are things I only want to do once or twice a year. I’d rather be spending my precious garden time introducing new plants to my garden, rearranging things to make cool plant combinations, and pulling a few weeds for therapy. I want to spend most of my time on the fun stuff and forgo the futile fussing. Here are a few tips that I’ve come up with over the years to reduce the toil and leave me more time to play.
Plant self-sowing annuals
Annuals are irresistible. They add invaluable color and interest, and they bloom for weeks—if not months. But they need to be planted every year. Dozens of annuals, however, plant themselves by reseeding, saving you time and money. They’re guaranteed to create combos next year that you never would have thought of. Be aware, though, that these plants reseed where they want, not necessarily where you want. Some of my favorite self-sowers are tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis*, pictured), flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), and purple perilla (Perilla frutescens* cvs.).
Trim your time on: Shopping for annuals; planting
Mulch, then mulch some more
Mulch is a true multitasker. It not only instantly dresses up a garden but also conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and insulates the soil. One application in spring is all you need. As it breaks down, this annual layer of mulch will also reduce the amount of amendments and fertilizer you’ll need to add to your soil. I like to get mulch delivered from a local nursery every spring. It’s less expensive and less work than buying and hauling bags home from the garden center. Two square yards are enough to layer 2 to 3 inches over the beds in my quarter-acre garden. Type, availability, and price vary from region to region. Experiment with a few to decide what you like best.
Trim your time on: Weeding; watering; fertilizing
Buy tried-and-true perennials
It’s fun to experiment with exciting new and unusual plants in showcase spots, but if you design with a foundation of easy-care powerhouses that always perform, the trial and error of the newest fads won’t have as much of a negative impact if they fall short of your expectations. Classic performers in my Northeast garden include ‘Aureola’ Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, USDA Hardiness Zones 5–9, pictured), ‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, Zones 4–9), and mildew-resistant ‘David’ phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘David’, Zones 4–8). The best ways to find sure performers for your area is to drive around your neighborhood and see what looks good in every yard, kempt or unkempt. My neighbors all seem to count on Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum, Zones 3–9) to put on a care-free show in late summer.
Trim your time on: Spraying; primping; filling in the gaps between straggly or unsuccessful plants
Plant winterproof containers
One of the most backbreaking jobs in my garden is lugging countless containers up the basement stairs in spring and back down in fall. All right, so my husband handles most of the work, but if he didn’t help, he’d have to listen to me worry all winter that my pots might crack from the freeze-and-thaw cycle of our crazy Connecticut winter. So to save my husband’s time for other items on the honey-do list, I’ve been adding to my collection some pots made out of concrete and good-quality fiberglass (pictured), both of which boast all-season sturdiness. Keeping containers on my patio also provides a place to add winter interest with some evergreen boughs and berries.
Trim your time on: Lugging heavy pots; nagging significant other
Rethink your lawn
Some people find maintaining a lawn a Zen-like experience, but if you are like me, it is brutally mundane. I have two ways to reduce repetitive mowing: Expand your garden beds to reduce your lawn, and hire someone else to mow it. If you choose the latter, be sure to show that person around your garden and communicate your expectations. You don’t want to wake up on Saturday morning to the horror of your prized peony being weed-wacked to the ground. It may take a few attempts to find the right person, but the payoff is more play time, which is priceless.
Trim your time on: Mowing; weeding
Invest in bigger plants
I love starting my own perennials from seed or buying inexpensive little starts from that cool nursery nearby, but in reality, I don’t have time to give those little babies the care they need to thrive. Three weeks after planting them—if I remember to check on them—they’re long gone. I’m not only heartbroken and feeling guilty but also left with a hole where I’d hoped they would have filled in. Nowadays, when I fall in love with a plant and just have to have it, I find the biggest one available. Plants that are more mature will require less time to fill in and make an impact in my garden. They also won’t commit suicide instantly if I neglect them from time to time.
Trim your time on: Watering; hovering; coddling; feeling guilty
Add a permanent structure
One stunning piece of garden art will disguise a multitude of garden flaws. Picture a beautiful obelisk or birdhouse, a well-crafted arbor, or a statuesque tuteur. Even an antique bicycle or a cluster of brightly painted bamboo canes strategically placed in a border will distract the eye and overshadow bare spots and weeds. It’s also something interesting to look at during the bleak winter months.
Trim your time on: General maintenance
Make your garden self-watering
Watering is one activity that you can’t eliminate, but you sure can make it easier. I use soaker hoses for my perennial borders, and watering systems with anchored emitters (pictured) on my patio packed full of containers. I set them up on a timer and barely have to think about watering. The only thing I do pay attention to is the weather so that I can adjust my watering schedule accordingly. Even the right system requires some care, but it sure beats frantically lugging watering cans around to water your plants before you leave for work in the morning.
Trim your time on: Watering
Choose shrubs that don’t need pruning
I love my yew hedge, but it never looks its best because I don’t have the time or the energy to keep it perfectly trimmed. When I finally get around to ripping it out, I plan to replace it with a shrub that will naturally stay compact and neat, like ‘Green Mound’ boxwood (Buxus ‘Green Mound’, Zones 6–9), which tops out at 3 feet tall and wide. There are lots of larger shrubs that also require minimal pruning, like doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum and cvs., Zones 4–8, pictured), spirea (Spiraea spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9), pittosporum (Pittosporum spp. and cvs., Zones 9–11), and ceanothus (Ceanothus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–10).
Trim your time on: Pruning; shearing
Lower your standards
We all have dandelions. I have so many in my yard that my neighbor harvests them and makes dandelion wine, which she shares with us come winter. Perfect! The only person who will notice your uneven edges, the weed patch in the far corner of your perennial border, or the plants you haven’t yet gotten into the ground is you. If you focus on loving your garden and loving the time you spend in it, you won’t care that it isn’t perfectly manicured. It’s a work in progress, like us and everything in our lives.
Trim your time on: Everything
Michelle Gervais earned her degree in horticulture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Photos, except where noted: Steven Cominsky
Get our latest tips, how-to articles, and instructional videos sent to your inbox.