Home & Garden

Gardening: Reduce yard maintenance

gardening by Mary Robson, Area Extension Agent,
and Chris Smith, Chair, Kitsap County

As leaves fall and winter sets in, taking inventory of garden activities makes sense. Many people thrive on outdoor chores, gaining energy from yard work. Others don't, and even for those who do, it's possible to think of ways to save time in the garden.
    The months of November through March are ideal for transplanting, adding plants, and making changes in the garden. Consider some of the following suggestions to reduce standard garden chores.
    1. Learn which plant varieties are frequently attacked by insects and diseases. Often there's a trouble-resistant substitute.
    If your Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttali) or Eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) suffers from the disfiguring foliar and twig disease "dogwood anthracnose," consider a substitute. The Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) resists that common fungal problem.
    Apple scab, another fungal disease which blights many apple trees such as "Gravenstein" and "Yellow Transparent," doesn't affect the cultivar called "Liberty."
    Rhododendron care can be easier if you don't have to contend with the messy notching of leaves caused by root weevil feeding (they make the leaf look as if a pair of pinking shears has chopped the edges). Dozens of rhododendron cultivars, including pink "PJM," blue "Oceanlake," and yellow "Crest" aren't damaged by root weevil feeding; the insect avoids them or feeds only lightly.
    Ask nursery personnel to recommend plants; constant research adds new resistant cultivars to nursery lists. Or check with WSU Master Gardeners for more information about resistant plants. (The call line for Master Gardeners in King County is 206-296-3440, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.)
    2. If a plant or planting makes outdoor life miserable, remove it. There's no law against change in gardens, and as Chris Smith says, "You don't have to take any guff from plants."
    3. Think about the eventual maintenance when planting. Be sure the plant is the right size for the space.
    Adorable Douglas fir trees in 5-gallon pots look great for the first two years they are against the foundation, and then turn into giant nuisances threatening to knock off the gutters and roof if not pruned. When selecting plants, measure the space and think before planting.
    Hedges cause similar maintenance grief, especially if a plant like English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), which is a tree in its natural state, has to be cut back constantly. Again, knowledgeable nursery personnel can help you get the right size plant in the spot.
    4. If mowing the lawn is no fun, think about replacing part of it with ground covers. Some of these perform well in full sun, such as kinnikinnick and evergreen strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis). Vinca (Vinca minor) and pachysandra will grow in nearly full shade.
    5. If you like lawns and don't mind mowing, but hate dragging bags of lawn clippings, leave the clippings where they fall. As the clippings break down, they add nutrients to the soil. "Grasscycling" works well if you mow often enough to remove only about 1/3 of the grass blade.
    6. Choose plants well adapted to local climate conditions. Some of these are native plants, such as longleaf mahonia (Mahonia nervosa) or vine maple (Acer circinatum). Other plants may be native to distant places, such as staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), but grow well here.
    7. Before planting, consider the water needs of the plant. Group plants according to water needs, and plan to water the garden in zones.
    Water deeply rather than frequently. Light daily watering, not a good practice, grows spindly plants with shallow roots that dry out too soon. Deep watering, with soaker hoses or other efficient irrigation techniques, soaks the root areas down to six or eight inches.
    8. Use organic mulches at a depth of two to three inches in shrub and flower beds. They conserve soil moisture, reduce or prevent weed growth (especially annual weed seeds), and can gradually improve soil structure as they break down. Make compost and spread it around!
    9. Check the "spreading" characteristics of plants. Use a concrete, metal or other edging to keep some plants contained.
    And if the plant has a terrible reputation for being a garden "thug" (true for spreading bamboo, lots of herbs like horseradish and mints, and other plants), think twice before letting it loose in the garden.
    10. Keep improving the garden soil. Grow green cover crops where possible (such as in winter vegetable areas), adding organic material of all kinds. Good soil produces healthier plants. Healthy plants withstand insects, diseases and weather extremes better than weak ones.
    Remember to appreciate the growth and beauty of the living world. Plants are to be enjoyed!