Low-Maintenance: Myth or Reality?

I go back and forth about the notion of a low-maintenance garden and The Middle Sized-Garden’s recent post about it rekindled the internal debate. Is it really a realistic goal for a natural space- even when planned and tended to by humans- to be low-maintenance? Should it be?

She mentioned some things that I think make for good advice regardless of maintenance levels (limiting plants- but that isn’t ever any fun, using shrubs and trees, ensuring year-round interest). But even in total, do these really make for a low-maintenance garden?

I do think shrubs and trees are genuinely on the lower-maintenance end of the spectrum. Aside from regular first year watering and the occasional pruning, they are great investments that more than pull their weight in the garden (providing you pick the right ones for your space and conditions!). I also think they are criminally under-used in most gardens. Nothing (I mean, NOTHING) gives presence, permanence, stature and weight to a space like a well-chosen tree. I sneak shrubs and trees into every space that makes sense for them and have never been sad about it. However, there is the inevitable leaf clean up that can be a sizeable endeavor and pruning is usually required, even if only to maintain plant health.

I also agree that hardy perennials aren’t really low-maintenance in any sense of the word. They need clearing in the spring, dividing every few years, and staking. They are a hands-on addition to the garden, but their utility and longevity aren’t to be rivaled by anything other than trees and shrubs.

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Pots are also the antithesis of low-maintenance and anyone who argues otherwise is just lying. Of course they do wonders to liven up dull or bare spots, but they require constant watering and feeding, not to mention overwintering in my climate.

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I’ll cautiously wade into the deep water and make the claim that literally no ground cover is low-maintenance. Not grass. Not gravel. Not paving. Not wood chips. Not decking. They are all high-maintenance, albeit in different ways, and the only work around is having a surface you enjoy and don’t mind giving it whatever unique TLC it needs.

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But the bigger question, for me, is who are these low-maintenance gardens for? I suspect they aren’t for gardeners but rather people interested in attractive outdoor spaces without needing to learn and do all that is necessary to have a garden in earnest. And there’s no shame in that! I can absolutely appreciate wanting your outer real estate to look as good as your interior, and I get that investing time and energy into hardcore gardening isn’t for everyone. Or alternately aging gardeners that don’t want to work as hard as they used to, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone of this vein that doesn’t also want some perennials or a beloved-but-high-maintenance plant in the mix.

Don’t you think, as a gardener, the maintenance is part of the “fun”? It certainly doesn’t sound fun when you call it maintenance, I’ll give you that. But the tending to and caring for, the nurturing and getting stuck in is what gardening is for me. The beautiful spaces are the rewards for the pottering and tinkering, the permanent dirt under my nails, the sweaty brow, the farmer’s tan, and the unruly stash of well-used tools.

What say you?

3 thoughts on “Low-Maintenance: Myth or Reality?”

  1. Your last paragraph is exactly what I think. The tending is what it’s all about. But even in my garden, I try to keep some areas less time-intensive in terms of care. The only garden area the former owners created was on a slope, go figure. It’s pretty hard to weed on this slope, so I’m trying to make it lower maintenance: shrubs, ground covers, and bulbs. The less weeding I have to do with one foot uphill and one foot downhill, the better.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good discussion of this issue. I do believe there is “lower” maintenance, but rarely “low” and never “no maintenance”. I’ve thought about what I would do for someone who really needed a garden that required less attention. I would emphasize understory trees appropriate to the site, compact and low-growing varieties of woody shrubs, and shorter grasses (no mowing) and groundcovers. For socializing space I would install patios made of pavers that could be replaced as repairs are needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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