Penny-wise Planting, Part 3 - Reducing Garden Maintenance

Thursday, March 19, 2009

By simplifying the plantings and turning to lower-maintenance plants, you will reduce the demands of the garden. Here are other steps to diminish the time and money involved in keeping up a landscape.

Weeding. This is the biggest single chore in the garden. Every time you pull a weed, you disturb the soil and bring other weed seeds to the fore to germinate. The conventional solution is mulch, and a thin two-inch layer of organic mulch will keep weeds back and conserve soil moisture. But mulch is generally over-applied, often to the detriment of both the garden and the wallet.

Landscape designer Larry Weaner offers another solution: ground covers. They will grow together and squeeze out the weeds. It's important to consider the light and soil conditions for a given area so you pick the right ground cover, and buy the smallest plants you can find to reduce the initial cost. Weaner recommends picking ground covers that naturally spread and colonize, rather than clump, so you can reduce the number planted and space them farther apart. Candidates include the white wood aster, lady fern and golden groundsel. Weaner likes to use a variety of ground covers, especially natives, instead of the usual mass plantings of pachysandra or vinca, which can be devastated by diseases induced by flood or drought.

The areas between ground covers are mulched at first, but after the first season "you don't buy mulch anymore because the plants are the mulch," says Weaner, who suggests going to a local nature center to see which plants have colonized the ground. I recommend Winkler Botanical Preserve in Alexandria, Fern Valley at the U.S. National Arboretum, and the native plant gardens at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

Getting help. Seeing the hidden beauty in an overgrown landscape takes a good eye, and sometimes a trained eye. Many landscape architects and garden designers do consultations, spending an hour or two going over a garden with the owner to suggest improvements. This might cost $200 and does not pay for design plans, construction, plants or anything else. But it can save you a great deal more money in costly mistakes or unnecessary embellishments.

Learning to prune. Big tree work should be left to a reputable arborist, but you can learn how to prune small trees and shrubs and use those skills the rest of your life. Peter Deahl, a certified arborist in Sterling, runs the Pruning School (, which offers four-hour field classes in pruning for $40.

For pruning advice online, check out the Web site of the International Society of Arboriculture,; click on "Tree Care Information." Another source is the Virginia Cooperative Extension (; click on "Educational Programs," "Home Gardening," then "Trees, Shrubs and Groundcovers."

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