Great gardens, less work


How to keep the yard looking good when your body says, “slow down!”

Gardening doesn’t get easier as you age, as your creaky bones and sore back might remind you after that first yard-cleanup weekend of spring.

Pretty much everything involves getting down, getting up, bending over or lugging items around. AARP-aged backs don’t tolerate that as well as 30-year-old ones. “Experienced” gardeners, though, can compensate by gardening smarter instead of harder.

By doing necessary jobs more efficiently and skipping a few unnecessary ones, it’s possible to maintain a nice yard with less stress. And that’s a good goal no matter your age.

A few general labor-savers

Pace yourself. It’s OK to take breaks. Split jobs over several days instead of one-day marathons. You may even be able to spread work into the off-season, such as clipping spent perennials or edging beds during a winter thaw.

Zone it. Carve the landscape into zones (front, back, vegetable garden, etc.) and worry about just one of them at a time. Tackle each by priority.

Vary the work. Don’t overdo it repeating the same motion hour after hour. Do a little digging, a little weeding, a little watering. Variety reduces soreness, blisters and repetitive-motion injuries.

Simplify. Walk the yard and assess which plants or gardens are causing an unacceptable amount of work. Bite the bullet and replace them with plantings that need less care.

Re-evaluate. Does the lawn really have to be totally weed-free? Can the hedge grow looser instead of being tightly clipped three times a season? Is that fresh coat of mulch really needed every spring?

Get help. Hire out the toughest jobs first. Spreading truckloads of mulch might be a good place to start.

Jobs to skip

Save raking work by mowing light to moderate layers of leaves into the lawn.

Tilling. You’ll probably need to till a new bed and work in compost, but after that, regular tilling is counter-productive. It stirs up weed seeds, kills earthworms and harms soil structure when wet soil is tilled.

Raking. No need to rake every last leaf out of the yard. Leaves insulate plants over winter and feed the lawn when they’re mowed in rather than raked off. Rake only if there are too many leaves on the lawn to effectively mow them.

Spraying. Be more forgiving of temporary, cosmetic plant damage. Few bugs and diseases are plant-killers. For plants threatened by repeated potentially fatal problems, consider replacing them rather than constantly rescuing them.

Mass-planting annuals. Cut back on planting and watering annual flowers by spotting them in smaller clusters. Or switch to using them just in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes.

Bulb care. Skip braiding bulb foliage after the flowers bloom. Interplant bulbs with perennials so the emerging perennial foliage will hide the decaying bulb foliage or lean toward short, small-leafed bulbs whose foliage fades away.


Prevention is the best medicine. Keep 2 inches to 3 inches of bark or wood mulch over beds. Or

Close planting with plants you want defends your gardens against weeds elbowing in.

use granular weed preventers over garden beds in early spring before new weeds begin to sprout.

No openings. Plant closely so that your plants occupy all of the space. Low, spreading groundcover plants are especially effective. Remember, weeds love bare soil.

Get weeds when they’re little. You’ll save a ton of trouble by stopping weeds before they go to seed or fruit. Better to police for weeds often than to try to undo a massive invasion.

Weed when wet. Weeds come out easier in damp soil. Hoeing is more effective in dry soil since cut-off weeds are less likely to regrow.

Right weapons. Switch to long-handled weeding tools if bending over is too hard on your back. Or spot-spray weeds with an herbicide or vinegar.

Watch what you plant. Some plants become weeds by rampant re-seeding (i.e. morning glory, Johnny-jump-ups, nigella, sweet Annie, borage, snow-on-the-mountain). And some “pass-along plants” given by friends and neighbors (i.e. ribbon grass, bishop’s weed, houttuynia, lamiastrum, mints) become invaders since people tend to dig up and give away what’s getting out of control in their garden.

Lightening lawn work

Cut high. Longer but level grass still looks neat, conserves moisture and shades emerging weeds. Cutting short just encourages faster growth and more mowing.

Stop bagging. Let grass clips lie. It saves work and cuts landfill costs, and decaying clips return nutrients to the soil. Cut often enough that clips don’t form clumps.

Fertilize less. Organic or “slow-release” nitrogen fertilizers give you good but slower-growth results and can be done just twice a year.

Overseed to keep lawn thick. Dense grass is a great defense against weeds. There’s no room for anything else.

Other labor-savers…

Prune when needed. For plants already outgrowing the space you’ve given them, it’s better to prune them lightly each year than to let them overgrow for several years, then try to whack them back into submission.

Let perennials stand over winter. It’s easier to rake off semi-decayed perennial plants at winter’s

Eliminate bed-edging work by laying two sets of stones – one up and one flat.

end than to cut still-rigid ones in fall.

Eliminate edging. Lay stone or brick around bed perimeters. Set one upright and butt a second

one against it, flat and level with the ground on the lawn side. This holds in mulch, keeps grass out and lets you run the mower wheels over the flat course.

Switch to more ergonomically designed tools that are comfortable to use. You may need to switch to power tools from people-powered ones as you age. Keep tools sharp.

George Weigel is a Pennsylvania-based horticulturist, garden consultant, author and newspaper garden columnist. His website is Courtesy of Penn Lines.