Monday, September 19, 2011

Simplify your garden. Simplify your life.

Gardening and simplicity aren't usually associated, except in the minds of those who don't actually garden. We gardeners have a whole lot of work to do, but there's so much else outside the garden to do in life. Is there a way to simplify the garden to make life easier? The answer is "yes." But it takes planning. Gardening requires work; no doubt about it. We can spend hours deciding what to plant, where to plant, more hours keeping insects, diseases and weeds at bay, and even more time moving and transplanting, trying to find the right locations and combinations that work.

But, when it really comes down to it, gardening can be a simple thing. You do not need costly tools or much time to dig a hole. Plant a seed and wait for it to grow. Seems cheap and simple. But nature isn't what it's supposed to be, and we have our own ideas. So things become very difficult.

Nature drops seeds in the most inconvenient places. Acorns sprouting near houses grow into trees that ruin foundations. Jumanji vines grow where they are not wanted. Edible weeds aren't appreciated at the dining table. (Dad, these look like dandelions.) If we don't do something about the rampant growth, we might be visited by the municipality or home-owners association. It's all too much!

What to do? Simplify!

I heard someone remark, "After years of digging, planting, pruning, watering, composting, fertilizing, weeding, mowing, digging, planting, pruning, watering, composting, fertilizing, weeding, mowing, I'd prefer to move to a smaller place in the city about three floors up from the ground (with a few pots of herbs in my window) where I could walk out below and crush the weeds growing in cracks beneath my foot."

Small gardens are about that easy. Larger gardens take more effort, but it is possible to simplify them. If gardening is costing you dearly in money, time and effort, it may be that you aren't doing it in the most efficient way. Taking the right steps at the right time with the right tools can make your life significantly easier.

For example, you might want to consider cutting down on pesticide use. Not only will you save time and money, but you will help improve the environment while crossing another chore off your list. On the other hand, quick walk along the fence line with a herbicide sprayer is easier than whacking with a tool.

Instead of buying cheap tools, spend more for durable ones. Use the right tool for the job.

Simplifying will involve changing what you plant in your garden. Hybrid tea roses require much more time, effort and money than low maintenance landscape roses that are easy to grow. Plant resistant species rather than insect/disease magnets. (Plant insect magnets away from your garden to distract and keep them busy elsewhere.)

Reduce the size of your lawn. Ground cover plants usually require less effort than grass. Whether for sun or shade, dry or moist soils, there are many suitable ones.

Though apple and peach trees require a great deal of care, other fruit trees like pears, figs and cherry trees do not need so much. There many ways to reduce the time and money you put in the garden. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and others may or may not do well in your area. Consult with an expert at your nearest Cooperative Extension Service for good advice.

Some vegetables and herbs are easy to grow while others are not. Grow the easy ones. Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, peppers, broccoli, collards, okra and swiss chard are a snap. Cherry tomatoes are easier to grow than the whoppers. Mint, oregano, basil and italian parsley are simple. Learn from your own experience and that of others. If you have to work too hard for success, it might be easier and cheaper in the long run to buy the difficult ones at your nearby farmers market.

Plant more perennials, but fewer species. You can simplify by cutting down on the number of species of plants that you grow, but grow enough of each to fill the designated space. Instead of three daylilies, three irises, three phlox, three salvia and three dianthus, grow fifteen daylilies. To keep it interesting, plant five of three different varieties of daylily. Focus on a few plants that you enjoy growing, are good at growing, that require less work, and then grow lots of them.

Develop a landscape plan. Your plan can be simple or complex, but the point is to make sense of your landscape and focus your efforts. A plan will help you prioritize your work. Even if you have to put some things off for awhile, they will get done eventually. This step by itself reduces the stress of deciding what to do next. Divide your landscape into spaces for specific purposes: vegetable garden, fruit garden, shade garden, entertaining, etc. Decide where you want the spaces to be, how large, and how convenient to your home. Of course, some things will be pre-determined. If you live on a wooded lot, your shade garden may be larger than if your yard was devoid of trees. Slope and soil conditions will be determining factors.

Always consider future maintenance, whether you are planning the planting areas, patio or deck. If anything requires too much work, you'll probably put it off until a big and costly solution is required to fix it. A little care now and then will save you lots of time and money in the future.

Consider the water. Unless you own a private well, irrigation can be expensive. Not only that, watering can be restricted by your state or municipality during times of drought. Xeriscaping should be at the top of your list of possibilities. Xeriscaping describes a manner of gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental watering.  It involves selecting plants that require less water, devising methods to capture water for later use, and installing very efficient irrigation systems. If more water is needed, consider systems that can be controlled accurately. Dragging a hose around from place to place is not something you want to do often.

Use lots of organic mulch. Mulch made of hay, wood chips, straw and compost suppresses weeds, conserves water and recycles organic material back into the soil. In the last century, Ruth Stout, the "no dig-dutchess", was considered the mother of mulching. She authored several "no work" gardening books. Obtain copies and study them carefully.

Wood chips, pine straw mulch and landscaping rocks can also be substituted for grass, requiring less effort and cost while keeping things looking natural.

Install edging. Edging defines the contours of your planting beds, helps to keep mulch in them and grass out. Permanent edging also adds visual interest. I highly recommend steel edging. In lieu of permanent edging, a bedding plow can do a good job of defining the contours, but with a little more effort.

Select low-maintenance furnishings. Cast aluminum chairs, settees and tables can be quite beautiful and will provide years of service. Recycled poly lumber is a new material used for outdoor furniture. It should last a very long time. Teak and cedar woods don't last as long, but will surprise you with their longevity. In addition, they weather well to a natural patina. Occasional weatherproofing may be necessary, depending upon the material chosen. Cushions and fabric umbrellas may need to be moved indoors for protection during winter months.

Choose low-maintenance garden art. As lovely as they are, fountains and water features will require a lot more upkeep than sculptures and container gardens. Birdbaths are very attractive and easier to maintain than fountains.

Simplify with shrubs and small trees. If you want color, texture and diversity in your garden, plant shrubs and small, ornamental trees. There are many excellent ones that are handsome and easy to care for. They flower with different colors in different seasons, so you can have bloom almost year around. They provide an array of heights, foliage shapes and textures. Consider their mature sizes. Avoid those that require lots of pruning, and those that drop viable, enthusiastic seeds everywhere. Include them in mixed borders with perennials, ground covers and a few seasonal annuals for POP.

Do small, simple things while they are still small and simple. It's far easier and less expensive to pull a small, seedling tree up by hand than to remove a 30' tree from next to the house. Finally, there may be some tasks you can't get around to doing. Let them go for awhile. There is no reason to fret yourself into a lather with your garden. That's not what a garden is for. Life can be simpler.

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