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Growing Together: Better yards and gardens with less work

Preen prevents many types of weed seeds from germinating in flower beds. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 4
A well-sharpened hoe easily slices through soil. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 4
Don Kinzler, gardening columnist 3 / 4
Reduce perennial flowerbed labor by including long-lived types like peony and bleeding heart.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 4

Wouldn't it be fun to have a yard that looks like the grounds of Buckingham Palace? Unfortunately, most of us don't have a head gardener with an entourage of laborers at our disposal.

Gardening magazines and online sites are filled with low-maintenance yard suggestions and tips for what they term "lazy gardeners." But many of the tips risk turning a yard into something that invites a visit from the local weed-control officer.

Instead, let's explore suggestions that reduce work, yet keep our lawns, gardens and flowerbeds looking pleasant and well-tended.


• Eliminate trips to the yard waste collection site by composting bagged grass clippings in a bin in an unused yard corner or quit bagging altogether. As grass cuttings decompose, the nutrients released are equivalent to one application of fertilizer.

• Reduce reliance on weed spray by increasing the lawn's mowing height to three inches. Grass competes better as roots stay cooler, less exposed and moister.

• Conserve time and resources by watering less frequently, but deeply. Lawns grow healthiest with one inch of water per week, applied at one time. Deep watering encourages deep, healthy roots. Use a straight-sided soup can to monitor water applied.

• Eliminate spring lawn fertilizing. Research continues to prove healthiest lawns are fertilized in the fall, around Labor Day. Spring fertilizing is secondary.

• Reduce lawn size by adding shrub borders around yard perimeters.

Vegetable garden

• Overhead sprinkling can spread disease so lay soaker hoses around tomatoes and disease-prone vegetables early in the season and leave in place for convenient watering.

• A smaller, well-tended garden yields better than a larger, unkempt plot.

• Save hours of work by spending a few minutes sharpening a hoe with a file.

• Cultivate weeds when they're tiny instead of rescuing an overgrown garden. Weeds grow quickly from small to large.

• Be militant about late-season weed control. A single weed plant can spread millions of seeds that remain viable in the soil for decades, adding to future work.


• Plant long-lived varieties to eliminate frequent replacing. Choose peony, daylily, gas plant, hosta, bleeding heart and similar types requiring infrequent care.

• Mulch between plants with shredded bark, wood chips or last year's leaves. A three-inch-thick layer reduces weeds and conserves moisture.

• Layers of newspaper under mulch provides additional protection and improves soil as they decompose.

• Apply Preen preemergent weed preventer before weed seeds sprout. It doesn't prevent quackgrass, dandelions or thistles that grow from roots and rhizomes.

• Mix lower-maintenance shrubs like hydrangeas and spireas with perennial flowers.

• Don't overfill newly planted perennial beds, or they'll overcrowd sooner. Fill gaps the first season with annuals.

• Reduce perennial winterkill by covering with leaves in the fall. Spread out leaves in spring for a soil mulch.

Trees and shrubs

• Mulch trees with a circle 3 feet wide, 3 inches thick and kept 3 inches away from the trunk to conserve moisture and eliminate the need for trimming next to tree trunks, which can damage bark.

• Ask locally owned garden centers to recommend varieties that are most reliably winter hardy and well-adapted.

• Stop tightly shearing shrubs. Unless it's a formal hedge, most shrub branches are best selectively pruned in random fashion to shorten.

• Reduce pruning labor by studying mature shrub size when purchasing, to locate the right type in the right spot.

Questionable labor-saving tips

• Perennials aren't necessarily less work than annuals. Although they don't require yearly planting, long-term weed control is often challenging. Use both annuals and perennials.

• Groundcovers instead of lawn might sound enticing, but they're not maintenance free. In many ways, grass is still the easiest groundcover for large expanses.

• Instead of replacing lawn with a non-mowed meadow, reduce the lawn's size and replace with shrub borders around the edges.

• Be wary of self-seeding annuals and wildflower mixes. They might sound lower maintenance, but they aren't equivalent replacements of annual or perennial flower beds in the long term.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as a horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

He also blogs at " target="_blank">