hacks for low maintenance lawn and garden
June 4, 2017 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to figure out how to hack my lawn and garden for minimal maintenance and care. My chaotic gardening methods lead to periodic hack back all-the-thingz growing out of control. What's the best that can happen here?

I grew up in a suburban house where massive attempts to create a landscaped yard environment resulted in a monumental failure. I carry that experience with me as a sort of touchstone of what not to do, yet still have not yet reached some form of detente with my yard
Benign neglect just doesn't work very well. I'm too budget-minded/cheap to pay for mow-and-blow people plus my partner is honor bound not to allow any form of pesticide to be used on our sorta/kinda permaculture influenced landscape which includes lots of fruit trees, raised beds and chickens.
I'm torn between the opinion that yard work generally is a massive waste of time (mowing the carpet?) and the need to impose some form of utility, aesthetic and maintenance on our patch of ground. Our area is rich, fertile valley soil so instantly blooms a variety of vegetation when it isn't nurturing grass in every nook and cranny.
When I look around our hood, I see three or four basic types of yard. Fk-it let it grow wild yards, mow and blow weed and feed yards (vast majority), Taoist lawn/home mergers, and beauty patches (tightly controlled) oases of total overkill gardening). There's one other yard you don't see much of, a xeriscape that completely eliminates all grasses.
If I had my druthers, I'd have a Taoistic merger of lawn and garden plus Xeriscapes that eliminate all the damned grass and need little or no maintenance.
Are there any hacks for lawn and garden maintenance? I'm about to purchase mass quantities of landscape cloth, gravel and mulch chips and basically pave anything that looks like grass so I can progressively reduce the mow thing. Any sites that promote the joy of minimalist yard maintenance techniques would be useful.
posted by diode to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here are my experiments in progress. They are going well so far, but just started a month ago:

1) replace some lawn with mini/micro clover. It stays short and needs no mowing. Thus far I have eliminated a need to mow where these adorable little clover are growing.

2). Replace some lawn with a wildflower patch. So far, I have seedlings of about 3" height that look like they are intentionally planted, not weeds! I think! This is more area I don't really need to mow.

All of these experiments are for the purpose of avoiding mowing.

Note that I have heard that anything other than "grassy lawn" of mow and blow variety decreases resale value of your home. I'm taking my chances.
posted by slateyness at 2:38 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Where are you geographically? In my yard in Maine, the vinca is slowly overtaking the front yard. No maintenance. A patch of daylilies does erosion control in one area, and I'm planting low- and high- bush blueberries, though their progress is slow. At my old house, I reduced mowing are with rhododendrons, daylilies again, and a lot of hostas a neighbor was removing.
posted by theora55 at 2:48 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The best advice will come once you share your location. For example, I tried clover (it's so lovely and builds soil quality), but my area is too dry and it requires more water than I'm willing to use. Now I'm looking at Kurapia ground cover as it's heartier and can thrive in low-water conditions.

I'd also recommend properly installed decomposed granite. Done properly with a good base prep, it blocks weeds very, very well, allows for water drainage, and decomposes if it gets into soil (as opposed to gravel). It performs way better than landscape cloth and mulch.

A combo of decomposed granite areas coupled with xeriscape is what I'm aiming for. I grow native plants and am planning to grow a ground cover that's no-mow.
posted by quince at 3:00 PM on June 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Cut your own lawn, and use a bagger.

If you see something you don't want to grow, cut it down to the ground and cover it with a thick layer of grass clippings.

If you want to create a mowable edge between a planting bed and the lawn proper, use those grass clippings. pile them along the edge of your planting bed. The mower will ride over it just fine.


- put rings around trees. You've seen them. Rings of "edging" around a tree (sometimes looking like a bunch of little headstones), and the circle filled in with mulch of some kind. This is the most horrible thing people do to their trees (aesthetically, that is).

- leave any bare ground exposed. Either plant something you want, or cover heavily with grass clippings.

- tolerate a non-wanted plant to live. Kill it, cover it.

Basically, use those grass clippings to map out exactly what you do and don't want to live in your yard. A couple of weeks of heavy grass mulch cover will kill anything. Then you can plant what you want.

Your yard should consist of only these things:
- plants you want
- grass you want
- ornamentation and objects as desired
- heavy natural mulch (your grass clippings)
posted by yesster at 3:32 PM on June 4, 2017

Where do you live? If it's somewhere naturally verdant I don't think a xeriscape is going to be as low maintenance as you think. Life, uh, finds a way.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:23 PM on June 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I did now and blow with NO fertilization. Well, not theirs. I used worm tea.
posted by tilde at 5:01 PM on June 4, 2017

What kind of research have you already done on this issue? It's not a unique issue. There are many people who travel and who can only do limited or periodic maintenance on their grounds, or people with physical or financial challenges. I've seen several books on the subject.

One hack I remember from one of them was to line the edge between all planting beds and lawns with brick paving, making it very simple to ensure that it was dead simple to mow the grass and to trim the plants without causing any damage to the other, and to limit on area from growing into the other. You could easily tell and you could use machines rather than having to get down and in close to trim carefully.

You might search key words to do with low-maintenance gardener, weekend gardener, gardening for the mobility challenged etc.

Another hack I remember involved planting the classic corn-beans-squash triad which quickly turned into an impenetrable thicket. You couldn't weed it because it was way too thick, but then again, the weeds couldn't grow either because of the thickness. You knew when it was time to harvest when the whole thing suddenly withered and collapsed after it grew cold, at which time it had gotten crunchy and withered enough to tear apart and find the corn, the bean pods and the pumpkins and carry them into the house.

Do you have a large garden center with knowledgeable staff? They might be a good place to get information. If they are not a chain that hires random warm bodies with retail experience they will be the expert in what plants work well in your area. They can advise what ground cover works - Kudzu!! You can't kill it with a flame thrower or Agent Orange! and what ground cover to avoid: Kudzu! You can't kill it with a flame thrower or Agent Orange!
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:42 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

1) Are you in touch with the permaculture community in your area? Low-input (of time, of money) is one of the principles, and they will probably have ideas for you / a permaculture certificate class might be interested in drawing up some plans for your yard as part of their training. You could also try calling your Master Gardener line, your local extension office or soil and water conservation district probably has resources to help you.

2) Landscape cloth + chips might not sufficiently kill your lawn. You may want to start by solarizing it (cover in black plastic for a couple weeks) or cutting the sod and flipping it roots up.

3)Depending on where you are, putting in some prairie of native grasses and flowers may be a good option and is great for pollinators - you can add some later season blooms to balance out the fruit trees.
posted by momus_window at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live in the south, and a soaker hose + timer TOTALLY changed the game for me this summer. Check Amazon; my small garden's summer wilting problems got solved for like $40.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:08 PM on June 4, 2017

Writing from a verdant region -- landscape cloth and gravel don't work for long. Life finds a way to creep across and germinate in and through. Then you have to fight the tatters and gravel while weeding. I recommend against both. 4" of woodchips is also temporary, but IME lasts as long as landscape cloth and will mix gracefully into the soil when it's broken down. Doing decomposed granite correctly where I am would involve digging down a foot and using a soil compactor and I'd have to add drainage, but it can be weeded with a flamethrower much of the year, so is worth it for showplaces.

Basically, mowing a lawn is one of the lowest-effort ways of keeping an open green space in a green climate -- mow high, mow often, leave the clippings on the grass, have a lawn shape with minimal edges, don't water. Hire someone in spring to mechanically poink out the dandelions and dock. You can reduce the work of a shrubbery by putting in well-chosen natives and helping the prosperous ones ebb and flow so no soil is bare, but it takes attention and will never be zero-maintenance. (This is the permaculture approach, depending on how edible you want it to be.) The zero-maintenance plants are by definition almost all horrible invasives and will get into the rich watered garden beds and be there forever: kudzu, English ivy, multiflora rose, ranunculus, Himalayan blackberry... no.
posted by clew at 7:11 PM on June 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding what clew said. Don't listen to anyone who says anything other than grass is "low maintenance" unless they've lived with that low maintenance landscaping for 5-10 years. You can have a mostly mowable lawn without getting into the whole fertilizer/weed killer/leaf blowing rigamarole. I find it much easier to mow a couple times a month than pick weed seedlings out of a mulched or gravel area a few times a year. It helps if you spread out new wood chips each year if you go that route, but then you've got to spread wood chips every year which is also a lot of work. It may be too late if you've got all your annoying obstacles in place but if you can plan thinks out so that you maximize open expanse of grass and minimize crap you have to mow around, then a small riding mower will make quick and almost zen-like work of the chore.
posted by drlith at 8:52 PM on June 4, 2017

My experience has been that wildflower beds and xeriscapes are much, MUCH higher maintenance than a grass lawn.

There are slower growing, more xeric turf grasses that you could look into.
posted by medusa at 9:11 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

mowing a lawn is one of the lowest-effort ways of keeping an open green space in a green climate

Depending on how much lawn you have, how green the climate is and how good your fences are, owning grazing animals can work too.

Guinea pigs are voracious little nibblers and if all you ever get is females they won't get out of control.
posted by flabdablet at 6:46 AM on June 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know many people who have the pains-taking temperament to keep animals but not plants, but I like the cut of your jib, flabdablet. You could have a ha-ha tall enough to control guinea pigs and no trouble to people at all.
posted by clew at 12:50 PM on June 5, 2017

Response by poster: Been avoiding my own thread due to a dread of lawn maintenance. All kidding aside, I live in the middle the Willamette Valley, in Oregon. It's a verdant area, river nearby, great soil for growing stuff. Mixed cloudy, rains and sun most of the year. Basically what I am reading is mow high and mulch with grass clippings which I pretty much do already. Some nice suggestions on this thread that I can try out. Thanks.
posted by diode at 7:24 PM on June 14, 2017

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