Many urban and suburban families dream of having a lush, green paradise where they can enjoy a sunny Sunday surrounded by bright flowers and bustling butterflies.
We flip through Better Homes & Gardens or This Old House and drool over spectacular gardens…but when we dig into the details, we see that the homeowners are retired with grown children, or they have gardeners to come help.
Where are the gardens for busy people with rambunctious kiddos?
You can have a low-maintenance, family-friendly garden. It just takes a little planning and consideration for the way your crew enjoys the outdoors.
Before stepping foot in the local garden store, you need to consider your family and their needs.
If you have kids who love to run around playing soccer or tag, you’ll want to keep a healthy patch of grass. If your kids are more interested in The Hunger Games than grass stains, you may be able to Xeriscape — or at least minimize your lawn. The less grass you have, the less mowing you need to do.
Next, assess your light levels.
If you have a large oak tree that keeps the yard in shade most of the day, full-sun plants won’t be options for you. Instead, you’ll need to look for plants that like low light, like ferns or hydrangeas.
On the other hand, if your yard gets full sun all day, delicate blooms will burn up. You’ll want tough plants that can withstand the sun’s rays.
Finally, you need to know your climate zone. Different zones represent different growing conditions. Trying to force a Zone 8 shrub to grow in Zone 3 is a recipe for frustration. Use this tool to find your USDA Hardiness Zone, and look for plants that will thrive in your area. Here at Barton Hill Farms, we’re in Hardiness Zone 8b.
Once you’ve decided how much yard you’d like to dedicate to a garden, assessed how much sun or shade your space gets, and established your Hardiness Zone, it’s time to think about your soil.
Different soils have different compositions and acidity levels, which make some plants easier to grow than others. There are additives you can buy to adjust the pH of your soil, but we’re trying to keep this garden low-maintenance, right?
Because of the heavy limestone content, soil in the Austin area tends to be alkaline. So to keep things simple, Austin gardeners can choose plants that thrive in alkaline soil.
Often, working with your soil type means you have plenty of native options. Choosing native plants is a great way to keep your garden low-maintenance! In hot, dry Texas, our natives tend to be drought tolerant. In the Pacific Northwest, the native plants like less sun and lots of rain. And on the coasts, the plants can thrive in the salty sea air.
Working with the surrounding environment instead of against it will make your garden maintenance so much easier!
Mulch is Your Friend
If you want to spend your time enjoying your garden rather than weeding it, mulch is your new bff.
A thick layer of mulch spread around your plants will keep weeds at bay, saving you hours of kneeling and crouching to clean up your garden beds. Mulch also acts as natural insulation, keeping soil moist and cool during the hot months, and preventing roots from freezing over the winter in the warmer zones.
What to Plant in Your Low-Maintenance Garden
So now that we’ve done some planning and are well-armed with some ground rules, let’s talk about what to plant.
We can’t tell you specific varieties, since we don’t know your light levels, climate, or soil type. But we can give you some guidelines for how to make your garden both easy to manage and welcoming to the whole family.
Think Hardy Thoughts
If you’re planning a garden that the kids can enjoy, resilience is the name of the game.
Avoid the delicate, wispy tendrils that fall apart at the thought of a breeze. Look for hardy, flowering shrubs like salvia, or tough climbing vines like confederate jasmine. Long grasses are also pretty kid-tolerant, since they’re used to being nibbled on by deer and other fauna.
And keep your rainfall in mind. If you’re in a dry climate and you don’t want to water your garden daily, you’ll need to stick to drought-tolerant varieties. Don’t think this means you can’t have beautiful flowers! There are plenty of bright blooms that can thrive in near-drought conditions.
Plant Bug Repellants
A swarm of mosquitos will turn your backyard oasis into something to escape from, instead of a place to escape to.
Repel them naturally by choosing plants they don’t like. Planters full of aromatic lavender, lemongrass, and citronella grass help to keep mosquitos at bay and look and smell delightful.
Some herbs also deter the little blighters. Fresh chives, basil, bay leaves, and mint are the scourge of many bugs, including ants, spiders, and Japanese beetles. Plus, you can teach the kids how to grow herbs for the kitchen.
Plant in Pairs
Some plants play particularly nice together, naturally repelling pests that feed on their companions, or returning important nutrients to the soil.
Tomatoes and cabbage, for example, are fast friends. Diamondback moth larvae like to chew big holes in cabbage leaves. But when tomatoes are nearby, the larvae skedaddle.
Garlic and roses are also good companions. Garlic and other onions can keep aphids at bay, and are said to make the roses smell particularly fragrant.
When you plant in pairs, you can reduce your pest control work.
Mix Up Your Perennials and Annuals
At first glance, it seems like a garden full of perennials plants would be easier to maintain than one with annuals, since perennials come back year after year.
But perennials aren’t maintenance-free. They have to be separated now and then to prevent them from getting overgrown. And they may not have the same pops of splashy color as annuals.
For a good mix, plant a foundation of perennials, and leave a few beds for fresh annuals each year. You’ll get the joy of a spring planting, without the work of starting from scratch each year.
Create a Living Space
The most important part of any garden for the family is giving yourself a place to enjoy it. An outdoor living space where you can lounge among your bounty is a must!
Make sure you’ve given yourself some shade, so you can still soak it in during the summer months. You could also add a cooking space and dining space for summer dinners with a grill, smoker, or even a pizza oven.
Less Working, More Enjoying!
Working with your environment and soil lets you spend more time enjoying your garden, and less time wrestling with it.
Get the whole family involved in bringing your garden to life. There’s nothing like dirt under the fingernails to teach the kids the joy of nurturing a healthy garden!