No mulch, lots of plants

A friend of my wife recently remarked that our large garden must require truckloads of mulch each year. I don’t know how my wife responded, but she should have told her that no mulch is added annually, and most parts of the garden haven’t been remulched since they were first planted (twenty some years ago). I have nothing against mulch, and some of the garden is top dressed with shredded leaves each autumn, but I’m cheap. I’d rather buy plants instead of mulch. I figure that plants look a whole lot better than open areas of mulch, and a covering of plants is just as effective as a heavy blanket of mulch in discouraging weeds.

There is a real benefit to mulch. It conserves soil moisture, keeps soil temperatures more even, and to some extent it keeps weeds down, but I’m willing to sacrifice these advantages to purchase a few more plants. In many parts of the garden there is bare soil, but it’s hidden beneath a cover of shrubs and wide spreading perennials.

I don’t know if my garden fits into the ideal of low maintenance, or if it’s a maintenance nightmare. I don’t give it much thought, but I know there’s always something that needs tending to, and there are a bunch of things that are never accomplished. There are times when there’s way too much to do, and times when I sit back and enjoy, even if a few weeds don’t get pulled. It’s certain that the garden’s not no maintenance, and I suspect that there are few gardens that could truly be considered low maintenance.

I’m certain there are times in the spring when most people would turn and run rather than face the tasks that are absolutely necessary to make the garden barely presentable. I don’t claim to have a greater work ethic than the next guy (or gal), but the choices are to do the work myself or pay someone to do it. No question, I’ll get it done, not that I’m having fun. I hear gardeners say that they enjoy it all. I’m sorry, but weeding and raking leaves are not my idea of fun. These tasks are time consuming and monotonous. I’d rather be doing something else, even nothing.

There are times in the spring when it’s great to be outdoors after a long, dismal winter inside. The sun’s shining, the sky’s blue and it’s pleasant enough to enjoy being outdoors doing anything, even weeding. But, after a week or two of long days it gets old, and I’m pretty sure I could never learn to love weeding and spring cleanup.

Usually, by early April (or a week or two later) the worst of the chores is over, and from then on the spring’s a joy. Through the late spring and summer, every time I’m out in the garden there’s a little something that’s done, but it’s at a leisurely pace. A few weeds are plucked out, a few fallen twigs are picked up, or a stray branch or two is pruned. This is not work. When the leaves fall the work begins again, though there’s little hurry as winter approaches.

There are five ponds in the garden, and one day a year in March I enlist some assistance in cleaning out the leaves and debris that have blown in over the winter. But after an initial spring cleanup I do nothing, or almost nothing the remainder of the year. Yes, there are a few times when I have to get after the string algae, but that’s usually minor. Occasionally there will be a blockage in one of the pumps, but most months I spend  more time feeding the koi than I do maintaining the ponds, and many months I do nothing.

I rarely bother with pests, though I devote fifteen minutes every month to spraying a deer repellent to protect the garden’s hostas and other treasures that deer would eat to the ground if given the opportunity. There are bugs in the garden, and occasionally they’ll chew enough to make plants unsightly for a while, but I don’t spray anything to prevent bugs of any sort. At least almost never. Five or six years ago I sprayed a dwarf crapemyrtle with an insecticidal soap to hold down the aphid population. I’ve been tempted to use a systemic insecticide to be rid of the lacebugs that plague the pieris, but I haven’t gotten around to it and probably won’t.

In the end, I’ve found that damage from bugs is usually fairly minor. One of the weeping golden chain trees was recently defoliated by caterpillars. I caught it before the last leaf was chewed (though most branches were naked) and flicked the caterpillars to the ground. They didn’t make their way back up into the tree, and several weeks later the tree has leafed about halfway, so there’s no long term damage. It doesn’t look great, but it’s not too bad, and it will be going dormant in another five or six weeks, so who cares?

Every once in a while there will be some tent caterpillars or fall webworms, and one of the blue spruces once had a bagworm problem. These can usually be managed by hand or by using a stick to break up the caterpillar tent. I don’t bother at all with Japanese beetles. They chew a little, and most definitely they’re a bit of a nuisance, but they do little damage.

Why not spray to prevent bugs? I’m content with a garden that is less than perfect, so a few scattered plants with damaged leaves don’t bother me. I spend nearly as much time in the garden enjoying the bees, butterflies, and birds, and I’m concerned that even an occasional spray of insecticides could be harmful. I understand that there are people who want their gardens pristine and unblemished by weeds or insects, and pesticides are appropriate for them. But, I’ll suffer a few weeds (or a bunch) and bugs, and for a few weeks I’ll work like a demon to keep up so that I can enjoy the garden for the rest of the year. I don’t know if this is low maintenance, but I really don’t care. The reward is worth the effort.

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7 thoughts on “No mulch, lots of plants

  1. Looks great! I have just begun replacing the grass in my front yard with ground covers and perennials. Until it fills in and even after that in places where the plants are not evergreen, there will be bare spots in the winter. Generally I have mulched in early spring. Do you have areas like that in your garden, and how does it work out when you don’t mulch?

    • I have areas where perennials are planted that are open from late autumn until early spring. I must be more diligent in open sunny areas to keep weeds in check, but it’s not usually too much of a problem. In shady spots weeds aren’t nearly the problem.

      With the past winter abnormally warm I had many more winter weeds than usual, so this was a much bigger problem than most years. I spent a few extra hours pulling weeds.

  2. That’s really great looking garden. Thank you for sharing your gardening tips with us. Maintaining such a big garden as yours must be more than hard work. Especially now the autumns is coming. But the preparation is indeed important as we are getting ready for the busiest month of year in gardening. But I am sure it’s not only about hard work, but also about joy. Mulch aside, I wish you luck with your gardening efforts.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. There are times when I need it, but most often just thinking about the pleasure that’s ahead is enough motivation to work through the worst chores.

  3. Well Dave, you’ve convinced me to back off on fertilizer and pesticides, now mulch, for all the right reasons. Now if only you could come up with a real deterrent for my life long pond nemesis, the so called Great blue heron…
    I’ve used netting, but it detracts from our enjoyment. Even placed a life sized lookalike in my pond to no avail. My koi are long gone, must be tastier than goldfish, but the heron
    continues to visit our 1200gal pond nestled in the corner of our house in a bustling development

    • I’ve had my issues with herons, and this was part of my motivation to construct the large swimming pond. Now I have no fish in the four other ponds, and too many koi and goldfish to count in the large pond. I tried tieing fishing line across the smaller ponds, and this helped, but I noticed it even if other people didn’t. My large pond solves the heron problem because it’s a little over three feet deep at the edges, and herons stand in shallow water to hunt their prey. The pond is too deep for them to stand on the bottom. I see our local heron flying overhead occasionally, but he doesn’t stop off here anymore.

      I’m afraid that I don’t have an answer to keep the herons away from a shallower pond except for the common devices that are sold for this purpose but are objectionable to the eye. It’s a shame, because herons are beautiful creatures and it seems wrong to wish them ill fortune. But, the koi and goldfish have been placed into an artificial environment under our care, and we owe them more protection from predators.

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