Since the invention of the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher and self-cleaning oven, the time needed for household chores has been greatly reduced. Outside in the garden, however, there haven’t been many inventions to assist us in cutting down on time, with the possible exception of the lawn mower, and the dull task of cutting grass is one that I handed over to the experts when I first moved to the suburbs.
The truth is that, today, I surround myself in the garden with beauty and color from earliest spring to late fall, with very little time spent for labor. My method requires just one weekend of work at the beginning of the season and only a few periodic touch-ups, which I call my therapy, along the way.
This includes not only the planting and cultivation of plants, but also the onerous chore of keeping weeds, invasive plants and deer at bay.
My first teacher in easy gardening was Ruth Stout, the sister of mystery writer Rex Stout, who many years ago wrote my favorite book about gardening called “The No-Work Garden Book.” Stout’s mainstays for an easy garden were thick mulching and composting. No longer in print, I know that the title alone resonates with many reluctant gardeners who still flock to read her advice. Today, there is an original copy of her book selling on Amazon.com for $200.
Somehow this handy book was lost from my library years ago, and I suspect I gave it to a new homeowner who, like me, moved to a suburban home with a big yard from a home in the city with just a slab of concrete in front. ‘What do I do now?” all of us in such circumstances must ask.
To answer that question, I’ve developed an approach with a few rules of (a green) thumb, assisted by Stout -- and with some trial and error experimentation on my own -- for advancing the beauty of my garden from year to year while cutting back on the time required to maintain it.
Actually it’s a three-pronged approach. First, I have considered carefully which plants I put into my garden and which I keep out. On the “out” list are roses, which can kill you from the constant attention needed, and annual flowers for cutting which can be as intense a process from seedlings to the eventual cut as raising a child.
What’s “in” is anything that blooms every year with no attention from me, from the foundation planting of bushes such as azaleas and rhododendrons, to blossoming trees like cherry, apple and dogwood. My flowers are mostly perennials, such as phlox and black-eyed susans, which, if properly watered and fertilized, naturally or otherwise, will spread each year, along with bulbs and tubular plants.
Martha Stewart might cringe at my choices, but I do plant annuals that require no work at all once I stick them in the ground. They include impatiens, which actually do better in the shade than in the sun, annual geraniums, which thrive on bright sun and can take incredible abuse from weather and lack of water, and my beloved petunias which, while requiring frequent watering, perform gloriously all season long. To these I add many perennial geraniums. The latter don’t look like regular geraniums at all, but rather grow and increase their size on vine-line stems every year, without prodding, and have delicate little flowers that last from late spring to frost.
A side tip is that if you plant the annuals in clusters or in tubs and urns, they “pop” better in the overall landscape. My annuals take just one long day to plant and give a full season of colorful pleasure.
Step two of my no-work garden is to employ thick mulch doing its triple-duty miracle work of retaining moisture while inhibiting weed growth, plus adding nutrients to the soil as it decays. I have a money-saving trick in achieving a thick mulch look. Regular mulch can be quite expensive, so I ask my friends at Weber Landscaping, who cut and prune my trees, to drop a full load of really clean chips near my driveway, and I use them in all my garden beds as a first layer. Then, I cover that layer with a mere skin of the more expensive mulch.
My third element for easy gardening is to utilize certain products necessary to keep the invaders of the garden, both plant and animal, at bay. One is the fabulous Preen, those tiny granules keep weeds from germinating. Another is Round-Up, which kills those invaders like grout weed that are not destroyed by Preen (a recent gardening column advised readers that the only way to get rid of grout weed was to move!). I spray the Round-Up directly on the leaves of this garden predator and systemically, they die off.
And the third product, Bobbex, keeps the deer from wishing each other bon appétit over my hosta and most other plants with flowers. While Bobbex must be sprayed at least once a month to continue its effectiveness, it’s a small price to pay to assure that you won’t lose an entire bed of plantings to one evening of deer indulgence.
My vegetable patch went the way of the dodo bird maybe 25 years ago. Farewell and good riddance, I say, remembering the intense labor it required. I’ll get my daily five servings of vegetables at one of the many farm markets our area enjoys during the summer.
But I do smile to myself with vicarious pleasure when I see my daughter and my young grandson planting a vegetable patch, covered by wire netting on frames so that deer and rabbits can’t get to it. It’s delightful to see my grandson’s dedication to caring for the patch and eventually plucking that radish or carrot from the ground. If only I had the time to do the same.
Also, if I had the time, I’d probably plant annual flowers for cutting as well, but instead I stop off the A&P every week where I buy them cheap, already cut and bundled nicely, for my wife. It serves two purposes. It demonstrates to my wife that I am a sensitive cuss of a guy who thinks of her whenever I see flowers, but, forgive me, Honey, it’s also to eliminate the big gardening chore of growing them myself.
Bill Primavera is a realtor with Coldwell Banker and a journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions about selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly at Bill@PrimaveraHomes.com or call him at 914-522-2076.