This article appears in Summer Home & Garden 2018.
If you hate yard work, you’re not alone. For most people the idea behind a beautiful yard is that you should actually be able to enjoy it. Here are some tips for homeowners who want to cut down the amount of time they spend working in their yards.
Do the work up front
“There is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden — that’d be just staying inside and letting things go. But our landscapes don’t have to be as much work as they are, regardless of what radio and TV commercials about mowers, blowers and bags of soil or mulch might lead us to believe,” said Benjamin Vogt, author and owner of Monarch Gardens, a prairie garden consulting and design firm in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Weeds in flower beds, gardens and yards plague just about everybody, said home improvement expert Danny Lipford, host of Today’s Homeowner television and radio shows. It’s well worth it to start the season by removing all of last year’s mulch. You can save it and reuse it, Lipford said.
Once it’s out of the way, get down and dirty. Physically pull all the weeds up by the roots, Lipford said. Be careful not to spread the weeds’ seeds by laying them on the dirt. Instead, toss them into a container or plastic bag, he said.
Next, lay down a layer of landscape fabric that will deny sunlight and prevent weeds from growing. Replace old mulch and top with new mulch, which will alleviate the need for chemicals and stop all but the most stubborn weeds, Lipford said.
Test your soil
Most plants thrive with a soil pH level of between 6 and 7, Lipford said. Unsure about yours? Doing a home soil screening involves a simple, store-bought test, Lipford said. Much of America’s soil is acidic, which is good for weeds, but can be improved by adding garden lime or limestone, Lipford said.
Aerating your lawn will allow air, water and nutrients to get down to grass roots and grow a stronger yard, Lipford said. Get together with your neighbors to rent an aerator from the local home improvement store and split the cost, Lipford advised.
After aeration is the time to add any amendments like fertilizer or weed prevention.
Match plants to the soil that exists rather than trying to “amend” to achieve “perfect black gold,” Vogt said.
“If you correctly site the plant — match it to the growing conditions at home that it evolved with in the wild — then any plant is lower maintenance. Native plants certainly evolved with the local climate and weather extremes, but they also are critical to producing young and adult pollinators” such as caterpillars and butterflies, Vogt said.
Most homeowners do not plant thickly enough in their urban landscapes.
“Plants are separated by large swaths of mulch, which actually invites more weeds,” Vogt said. “We need to be planting ornamental flowers and grasses 10-12 inches apart and in layers — ground cover, 2-4 feet tall, then 4-10 feet tall — in order to reduce mulch applications, conserve soil moisture and compete against weeds.
“Don’t just think how desirable plants shade out weed seedlings, but how their roots are stealing soil resources from weed seedlings, giving weeds no place to get going.”
Know when to call for help
If you can, hire a professional who knows how to design low-maintenance landscapes. A professional “can help you scale appropriately and tailor to your lifestyle and goals. I’ve talked to too many clients who tried to go it on their own, starting out only to spend years and years frustrated and wasting money,” Vogt said.