You Must Be Kidding!
Sorry. There is no such thing. I recently read a quote, “Where there is no gardener, there is no garden.”
However, you can work towards a lower maintenance garden by preparing everything correctly when you plant. First, amend the soil to invigorate growth. Second, choose the correct plants for your area, soil type, sunlight, and water conditions. Third, install a watering system. Fourth, mulch with the correct mulch for the plants.
The watering system for you will again depend on your conditions. Obviously, what system you choose will be much different if you live on rock rather than living in a marsh. Sandy ground loses water so rapidly, you may decide to only plant desert plants with few that need water unless your soil is properly amended (see Where It All Starts-The Soil).
We have many types of irrigation in our yard. The underground piping with the various emitters spraying or soaking each plant depending on its need may be the fanciest way to irrigate, but I always fear breaking the underground piping. I am always digging. Even if you blow out all the water from the underground line, water can seep back in and break the line. Then, try to find it when it is underground somewhere. I prefer soaker hoses. You can usually get 50 feet for around $10, connect a few together into a zone, and only have to move your hose a few times to get everything watered. Then, if you accidentally cut a hose (like my neighbor did when he thought mowing into the flower bed was smart), you're only out $10, and it is easy to replace (plus you're not too mad at the neighbor).
Throw some mulch on top of the soaker hoses, and wa-la, you're done.
Mulch helps retain water in the soil to allow for less watering. What no one ever told me, was that certain mulches also have their drawbacks.
- Roses do not grow in bark or wood chip mulch!
- Cocoa bean shells get moldy and are toxic to dogs (as is chocolate)
- Leaf mulch can get leaf mold, causing plant fungus
- Stone mulch collects plant debris that starts a new layer of dirt on top
- All mulches contribute to the soil characteristics
So, what do you use? I would only recommend one, wood chips. However, I also discuss stone mulch, as it is often chosen. First, you must choose whether or not to install a Mulch Weed Barrier.
Mulch Weed Barrier
All mulches can be place on some type of weed barrier. A weed barrier will stop existing weeds and their seeds from coming up from the soil underneath the barrier. However, it will not prevent weeds from growing on top of the mulch. If you currently have a lot of weeds, you may want to place black plastic on top of the soil to cook the ground, killing existing weeds and seeds. The plastic must be left in place, undisturbed for approximately one month in warm weather before beginning the planting bed. Some people use an herbicide such as Round-Up prior to planting, however this will leach into the water system and is not recommended.
A weed barrier can be made of plastic, paper, or fabric. Any barrier you choose should allow moisture penetration to prevent rot from below and to allow irrigation from above. Plastic is less likely to deteriorate over time and may be used around permanent evergreen plantings. Paper is biodegradable. New inks are usually non-toxic. Paper may work best in an annual or perennial flower garden, where you need many holes and eventually want the barrier to deteriorate to allow the plants to spread from new root shoots. Fabric barrier is most often used since it is most porous, allowing moisture and air to flow through, which is good for root growth. However, fabric does not deteriorate quickly, making it a poor choice for a flower garden.
Wood Chip Mulch
My personal favorite for mulch is a natural looking wood mulch. Wood mulch deterioration rate depends upon the size of the mulch used. Chips can be large or small. Shredded bark or wood deteriorates most quickly and typically needs to be top dressed every year. It is easy to install, fairly inexpensive, and most plants do well in it. However, roses do not like wood mulch, and will provide few blooms if used. I prefer no mulch on my roses, only lots of annuals to cover the ground.
For low maintenance, I would never recommend stone. Grass clippings, leaves, dust and dirt from the air, and droppings from the garden itself need to be removed constantly to keep from accumulating and eventually covering the stone. In trying to create a maintenance free front of the house planting, I planted a few spreading evergreens, covered the soil with a very sturdy fabric, and laid 3 inches of stone on top.
My first mistake was using limestone. Evergreens like acidic soil and the limestone constantly leaches the opposite, alkalinity. My second mistake was thinking the stone would sit on top of the fabric without collecting dirt. Within 10 years, the 3 inches of stone was gone. OK, it wasn’t gone. When I tried to dig up the “soil” around one of the bushes to plant something else, I had a huge mess of about 50% dirt and 50% stone. The weed barrier fabric was still there, but weed barrier only prevents things from growing from below, not growing in the dirty stone above. The weeds were growing plentifully. Now, I had to get rid of that stone and filter fabric to get my plants into good ground. And, what do you do with dirty stone, anyway?
I should have known better than to think that weeds will not grow in stone. I had a stone driveway, which not only grew weeds, but the grass always seemed to grow better there than in the yard. If you are going to use stone, know that it is probably the highest maintenance mulch you can use.
Isn't it a shame when even mulching is not maintenance free? It's ok, though. An avid gardener is full of excuses instead. Mine are "Gardening keeps me from housework" and "Gardening is my therapy...I can pull weeds for hours in a mindless daze."
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