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Too mulch garden? Trim it back!

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Plant groups of flowers that have similar watering and fertilizer needs, such as petunias in this New Market, Va., garden. It will save a great deal of time and effort, plus add visual impact.

If you’re gardening more but enjoying it less, maybe it’s time to add some labor-saving ideas to that list of New Year’s resolutions.

Those can range from downsizing to mulching, from using native plants to switching to raised beds.

"There’s no such thing as ‘no-maintenance’ gardening. All gardens require some effort," said Christopher Starbuck, an associate professor with the University of Missouri’s Division of Plant Sciences at Columbia. "But one good way to reduce the workload is consolidation, and you can do that by going with raised beds."

More crops can be grown — and grown more easily — when concentrated in small areas, he said. That simplifies adding organic matter to the soil, and it also makes plants more accessible for watering and weeding.

"Start in one corner and put in a few raised beds per year. Just peck away at it," Starbuck said. "You’ll find it takes a lot less energy and produces higher yields in the end."

Other smart, low-maintenance gardening suggestions include:

» Using less fertilizer. Recycle as many nutrients as possible by leaving grass clippings on the lawn or foliage over plant beds. Base fertilizer use on soil tests, Starbuck said. "Overfertilization leads to excessive growth that needs frequent pruning or mowing."

» Mulching. "Mulch is the ultimate low-tech, high-impact gardening tool," said Doug Welsh, a professor and extension horticulturist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service at College Station. "It conserves water, cools temperatures in summer and warms them in winter. It also keeps the weeds down."

» Native plants. "Choose plants adapted to your environment," Welsh said. "Don’t try to grow bluegrass in Texas or rhubarb in the South. You can always be a pioneer, but it takes more effort to grow plants not native to your environment."

» Containers. You can manage water and fertilizer use more easily in containers, Welsh said. "The biggest mistake people make with containers is getting them too small," he said. "Start almost at the whiskey barrel size and then scale down to what your plants really need."

» Xeriscaping. Choosing drought-tolerant plants saves on water and watering time, two big pluses for busy gardeners. "All plants within a (planting) zone should have the same water requirements and be watered as a group," according to a Clemson University fact sheet. Avoid high-maintenance plants, or put them where they can be reached easily with a soaker hose. Choose day lilies, irises and other perennials that require little attention.

» Reducing lawn size. Replace it with perennial beds, decks, trails, sidewalks or mulch. "Grass is one of the highest-input plants that we grow," Welsh said. "Turf means watering, mowing, fertilizing and pest control. Do you really need 5,000 square feet of grass?"

» Naturalizing. Incorporate your surroundings and let plants grow wild, said Sydney Eddison, author of "Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older" (Timber Press, 2010). "If you even own a scrap of woodland, you can make an extension of your garden by edging it with a few berried and flowering shrubs," she said.

» Easing up. If all else fails, simply relax your attitude about gardening, Missouri’s Starbuck said. "Training yourself to enjoy a more chaotic look is the single most important thing you can do to reduce the amount of time you spend in the garden."

On the Net » For more about low-maintenance gardening, see this University of Missouri Extension fact sheet: extension.missouri.edu/p/G6902.

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