Spring ferns
Gardens, House and Home

The Low Maintenance Garden Experiment: Planning a Garden for Senior Living

As we grow older and outdoor spaces become more work than we can handle, many gardeners feel the need to downsize. They sell their homes and move into smaller apartments or maybe a condo – some place that won’t require lawn and garden chores. As a result, they save themselves the work, but they lose all of the beautiful spaces that they have spent years, often decades, creating. That is not a path I hope to ever choose.

I think it was sometime around 2009 when I got the idea for the low maintenance garden experiment. Knowing that we would someday find a long lists of garden chores impossible to keep up with, my husband and I began to recreate our gardens into senior friendly spaces.

A well established front garden requires little maintenance.

 I began by removing high maintenance plants in the bed below my front porch windows. I replaced fussy flowers with large leaf hostas, tall, airy ferns and a ground cover of sweet woodruff. My husband added a few flowering shrubs — spirea, rhododendrons, and an azalea. He added a white flowering crab apple tree outside the dining room window. I finished off the bed with a couple low maintenance perrennial flowers and a metal trellis where I planted a twining clematis and hung a bird feeder.

The porch garden requires little care.

I planted things close together. Much closer than the plant tags recommended. I won’t say the new garden planting provided immediate relief. For the first couple of years, when plants were small, there were a fair number of weeds to pull. The first year, I put down a layer of pine bark mulch. After that, I no longer felt the need. Soon the large leaves of the hosta cast enough shade and the roots of spreading ground cover made the bed unfriendly to all but the occasional weed.

When I began I had no idea if my plan would work. Now, twelve years later, the low maintenance garden experiment has proven to be a success. I do little to maintain the porch garden. I don’t even cut back the hosta leaves or ferns in the fall. The first heavy frost flattens them to the ground where they become a place for birds to forage for a winte meal. In the spring I hire some younger people to rake out the leftover debris. The growth begins again. My low maintenance bed does not have the masses of colorful blooms of a cottage garden. In the spring the shrubs burst with color. The rest of the summer, it is the different textures and shades of green that make the bed interesting. A few scattered blooms add pops of color throughout the season.

Another low maintenance bed is anchored with a giant Blue Angel Hosta and Goatsbeard.

I am not a fan of highly manicured modern landscapes where single shrubs are equally spaced and then surrounded with mounds of artificially colored mulch. When you see that kind of planting around a house foundation, you can be pretty sure that the homeowner is not a gardener. No, gardeners like plants. I like lots of plants and plants are sometimes messy. Planting my low maintenance gardens have made things easier, but they are only half the battle. I found real success when I chose a new “attitude” and accepted that my landscape is not always going to be perfect. Walking through my yard and gardens on a summer evening, I might stop to pull a weed or deadhead a few flowers. But if I don’t get them all, I don’t sweat it. I’ve learned that a few weeds is not a crisis. As long as there is something interesting to look at, no one will notice the weed peeking out from under the fence. I have even allowed Mother Nature to take back some spaces. I am impressed with what she does with them. The weedy patch behind the barn was a sea of purple wildflowers this past spring thanks to her. Nothing my human hand could ever do would improve on that.

wildflowers in the spring
Mother Nature does her own thing behind the barn.

It’s a relief to know that downsizing as we age is not mandatory. Seniors can continue to enjoy their outdoor spaces. Whether young or old, you should make a habit of throwing out your cares and enjoying life each day. Smell the roses and pick a green tomato to fry for lunch. There will be time to worry and pull the weeds tomorrow.


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