Weed, Water, Mulch: A Low-Maintenance Perennial Garden Strategy
I’m not a gardener who loves to work in the garden. I love to enjoy the garden – sitting in the garden, walking around the garden, drinking in the beauty of the garden. So it was important to me to find a strategy for maintaining my perennial garden that requires a minimum of effort during the gardening season. This strategy, which involves a fairly big investment of time and energy early in the season when not much is blooming yet, can be divided into three basic steps.
The first step is to weed the flower bed. I don’t do this until all my perennials are up out of the ground. I am beginning this year with the new fence border because it is the only flower bed that has neither hosta nor balloon flower (Platycodon), and those plants have not all put in an appearance yet.
Sometimes I do spring clean-up just before weeding, raking fallen leaves out of the flower bed, cutting away old spent foliage, etc. What is important now, though, is to remove any weeds that have come up in the flower bed (like these grasses that accidentally got seeded here when my septic system was replaced last fall). If I can, I’ll weed after a rain when the ground is soft and yielding and the weeds pull up easily.
At this point, I’ll also add any new plants, move any plants that have grown too close to their neighbors, and remove any volunteer seedlings that need to be relocated to a more suitable home.
The next step is to put my watering system in place. I use soaker hoses to water my perennial beds, and I usually prefer these round, porous black rubber hoses that are made from recycled automobile tires. Water simply seeps out along the surface of the hose. These hoses work best when they can be laid out in straight lines or fairly big curves, because they tend to kink if you try to maneuver them around tight curves or corners. They are particularly prone to kink if the rubber is cold and stiff, so I like to spread them out in the sun for a couple of hours to warm them up and make them more supple before I put them in place. (I’ve found that for tighter spaces, the flat soaker hoses with holes on one side are a better choice.)
I snake the hose back and forth through the flower bed so that it passes by every plant. For bigger flower beds, I can connect two or more hoses end to end. I don’t usually have any trouble getting the soaker hoses to stay where I want them; but in problem situations, landscape staples can be placed over the hose to anchor it in place. I make sure that I lay out the hose with the open end that will connect to the water source at the side of the flower bed closest to the house. I have two spigots on the outside of my house, one on the front and one on the back, and I have a long garden hose attached to each. Every flower bed can be reached by one of these hoses, which is simply connected to the open end of the soaker hose for watering.
At this stage of preparing my perennial beds for the summer season, I also put in any needed plant supports. I find that it’s easiest to put stakes in before I lay out the soaker hose, but I insert peony hoops after the hose is in place.
The final step is to cover all bare ground and the soaker hoses with mulch. Because my sandy soil tends to be low in organic matter, I use compost as mulch; the compost gradually works its way down into the soil over the year, adding precious organic matter. My one-person household can’t possibly produce enough compost to meet my needs, so I order it by the truckload from a local nursery. Happily, commercial compost is readily available in Maine, where it is created from the waste products of three important Maine industries: agriculture (manure), forest products (wood chips and sawdust), and seafood (shells and other uneaten mollusk and fish parts).
I spread the compost about 3 inches deep, which means that a cubic yard of compost will mulch about 125 square feet of perennial beds. It’s important not to get compost in the crowns of the plants, so I find it easiest to pile compost in spaces between plants and then get down on my hands and knees to spread it around, keeping it away from direct contact with the plant stems.
The thick layer of mulch both suppresses weeds and keeps the soil moist. I don’t expect to weed again until next year at this time, and I will not have to water very often. If it has not rained recently, I will turn the soaker hose on at low pressure for about an hour after I finish mulching to get moisture down around the roots of all the plants. If we have extended periods without rain during the summer, I will water each flower bed once a week. If we get at least one good soaking rain during the week, I won’t water. In a typical summer, I will water each flower bed once or twice a month.
Unless I’m digging new flower beds, I won’t do much garden work for the rest of the garden season – just deadheading, hand-removing some harmful insects (like Japanese beetles and aphids), and cutting flowers for the house (hardly work). This system gives me what I consider the best of all possible worlds: neat looking flower beds full of flourishing, healthy plants and lots of time to enjoy them.
(I should note that I don’t usually have this much mulch showing in my flower beds; because this is a new planting, the plants have not yet grown to their mature size and there is still a lot of space between them.)