Anyone who knows me, knows that I love my garden. It’s the perfect place to entertain, play with the dog, or just sit and read a book.
What I don’t love (or have time for) is all of the work that can come with having a garden. That is why I try to have the most low maintenance garden possible.
Over the years I have learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t…and thought I’d share them with you.
Read on to see find my tips for creating a low maintenance garden.
1 | Buy Plants For Your Zone
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The first thing you need to know is what gardening zone you live in.
Your zone is determined by your area’s high temperatures in the summer and low temperatures in the winter.
Find your location on the map above, and then look up the color in the grid on the left.
The number on the grid will tell you your zone.
Note that if you live in Canada, the zones will be one higher than is listed on the USDA map. If this map says you live in zone 5, that is considered to be Zone 6 in Canada.
The tag on most perennial plants, bushes or trees you buy will list the zones that it can survive in. And if it doesn’t a quick google search will tell you.
To create a low maintenance garden, buy plants that are supposed to grow in your zone.
If the plant has a range of zones, it’s better if your zone is in the middle of the range.
The zones in the middle of the range usually have an easier time growing the plant than the zones at either end of the range.
2 | Pick The Right Plants For Your Location
Before you buy anything, make sure you know where the plants are going to go, and what the conditions are in that spot.
Is it a full sun or full shade spot? The rule of thumb is:
- More than 6 hours of sun a day is full sun.
- 4 – 6 hours of sun a day is part sun.
- Less than 4 hours of sun a day is full shade.
Does the soil in the location tend to be dry or wet? Many plants do better in one or the other.
Then look at the plant labels to make sure that what you are buying matches the conditions of your location.
3 | Pay Attention to Plant Size
Most gardeners have had this problem at some point in their gardening experience.
You buy some plants when they are little and plant them fairly close together because the garden looks too bare with all of those little plants.
Then a few years later, you have to dig up half of those plants and move them somewhere else because they are too crowded.
And what used to be a sunny border, may now be a shady nook. Which probably means a lot of the plants that are left are no longer suited for the space.
If you don’t want to do that extra work of digging plants up and moving them, pay attention to the plant size on the label.
Make sure to leave enough space around the plants for their future size when you put them in the ground.
If the label says the plant will be 6′ wide, that means it will need 3′ on all sides of it.
If you don’t like all that bare ground, try filling up the spaces temporarily by planting some annuals or installing some move-able garden art.
4 | Use A Lot of Bushes And Trees
Bushes and trees come in all kinds of shapes and sizes with all different colors of flowers and leaves.
By planting different sizes of bushes together, you can create planting layers that give your garden a lush look in the summer.
Since most of them don’t die back to the ground, they continue to provide some structure in the winter.
Most bushes live for many years and don’t take a lot of work to keep them looking good…perfect low maintenance plants!
Just make sure to keep the last 2 tips in mind when you are choosing the bushes to plant.
Buying ones that don’t suit your location, or are going to be too big for your spot will lead to more work in the future!
5 | Plant Native Plants
Native plants are the ones that grow naturally in your area. Since they grow naturally in the area without requiring extra care, they usually require less watering and maintenance than other plants would.
Native plants are available in many pretty colors.
You can even help to keep some of the species that are endangered in the wild from becoming extinct.
6 | Mulch!
A 2″ to 3″ layer of mulch over all of your garden beds is a low-maintenance gardener’s best friend!
Not only does it make your garden beds look neater, it keeps water from evaporating (less watering!), keeps the weeds down (less weeding!), and regulates the soil temperature (happier plants!)
If you buy an organic mulch that breaks down, you will also get an extra benefit.
The mulch will help to improve the condition of the soil as it disintegrates. Buy ground bark or hardwood mulch if you want to have this added benefit.
One thing to watch out for with mulch: Don’t let it pile up over the top of your house foundation.
Because it keeps the ground moist and cool, it also provides good cover for termites. So make sure that there is at least 6″ between the top of your mulch layer and the bottom of your siding.
7 | Schedule Watering
Creating your own automated watering system is a great gardening time saver.
You can buy watering timers* that aren’t very expensive and hook to standard hoses.
Set them up to turn on automatically a couple of times per week and your garden will thrive all summer…with no extra work for you!
It takes a little time to get your system set up at the beginning of the season.
But once it’s in place, watering is one less gardening activity you have to think about.
If you live in a fairly warm climate (like I do in South Carolina), you can leave the hoses in place all year round.
I do disconnect the timers and bring them in over the winter. They tend to break if they freeze.
8 | Avoid Invasive Plants
For this tip, you will need to do a little research on your plants before you buy them (you can find more information on invasive plants HERE).
There are a lot of very pretty plants that are very invasive (like the bamboo above).
If you plant them in your garden, you will be trying to get rid of them for your years to come.
The easiest way to avoid all of this extra work is not to plant them in the first place.
9 | Use Man Made Materials
As much as I love using natural materials for outdoor furniture and decks, the man made alternatives are much less work!
These stamped aluminum chairs and table have been outside year-round for more than 12 years, and are still going strong!
This wood bench started to show its age after about 5 years (it’s not as sturdy as it used to be!), and requires an annual coating with teak oil.
Real wicker furniture disintegrates really quickly when it is used outdoors, whereas the man-made resin version (like these chairs and side table) lasts for years.
Wood decks need to be cleaned and waterproofed.
Decks made of composite materials still need to be washed, but that’s all the maintenance they require.
And they last longer, too.
Same goes for these man-made deck tiles when compared to their wood counterparts.
Wrought iron arbors and trellises rust and need to be maintained regularly.
This (relatively expensive, “rust-resistant”) arbor looks very pretty over my side walkway.
But after a couple of years, it still developed rust spots that have to be sanded and painted pretty much every year.
Rust isn’t an issue for plastic arbors, like this one.
If you want to use a plastic arbor but don’t like the color, spray paint it with a metallic finish. We used hammered silver spray paint* to make this white arbor look like metal.
You get the picture…if you are looking for low maintenance, man made is the way to go.
10 | Avoid Painted Surfaces
Any painted surface that is exposed to the elements must be repainted every 2 to 3 years.
Paint fades, chips and cracks due to the heat, moisture and cold…and there really isn’t anything you can do about it.
Which is why I try to avoid outdoor painted surfaces whenever possible.
However if you do need to refresh some outdoor accessories (or furniture for that matter), spray paint can make it look much better!
If you follow these tips, it is possible to have a garden without spending all of your time maintaining it!
Other gardening ideas you might like
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This post was originally published on June 15, 2016 but was updated with new content on May 31, 2022.