How to Build a Low-Maintenance Garden

Woman in Garden

If you love the taste of fresh garden tomatoes and ripe watermelons, but hate the work involved in growing them, here's some good news: you can enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables you crave without hours of garden work. All it takes is some preparation.

These seven spring tasks will eliminate garden stress all summer long:

  1. Choose the Best Location for Your Garden
  2. Prepare and Test the Soil
  3. Tackle Weeds
  4. Install an Efficient Irrigation System
  5. Choose the Best Plants
  6. Give Your Plants a Good Start
  7. Keep an Eye Out for Pests

If you want to grow fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, choose an area that gets a full day of sunshine. For root and leafy green vegetables, choose an area that gets an equal amount of sun and shade.1

To keep heavy rains from drowning your plants, avoid creating your garden in an area that collects water, such as at the the base of a hill or in a dip in your property. Also steer clear of areas that are sandy and drain fast; quick drainage prevents plants from absorbing the amount of water they need to thrive.

Finally, consider both convenience and your neighborhood wildlife. Vegetable-loving critters, from squirrels to deer, might consider your garden an open buffet. Choose a site close to your house to discourage wildlife 2 and to provide you quick access to your bounty.

The condition of soil plays a large part in determining the health of your garden. First, check soil conditions by grabbing a handful and examining the texture. The best garden soil is workable: it easily breaks down into smaller pieces when you rub it between your fingers. Heavy, sticky soil indicates too much clay. To remedy, add sand and organic matter to create a workable mix.

Next, test your soil to determine nutrient levels and needs. In most areas, you can collect a soil sample and, for a small fee, have your local Cooperative Extension office 3 analyze the soil. Or, you can purchase a soil test from most garden supply stores. Remember to follow the test instructions carefully. If the results indicate that the pH level of the soil is low (below 6), add lime or iron to amend. Counter deficiencies in key nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, with fertilizer, such as Lilly Miller Ultragreen All Purpose Plant Food II 10-10-10. Work the fertilizer into the soil right before planting.

Rake in Garden

Step 3: Tackle Weeds

The key to easy summer weed control is weed prevention in the spring. First, you'll need to get rid of weeds already growing in your garden space. Use the removal method that is easiest for you: tilling with a hoe or rake, or pulling by hand.

Next, prevent future weeds with a thick layer of mulch. Mulching keeps sunlight from reaching the soil. Because almost all weed seeds need sunlight in order to germinate, preventing light from reaching the seeds effectively prevents most weeds from growing.4

Once your plants break through the soil, put down a three-inch layer 5 of straw topped with mulch between them. Use compost as mulch directly around the plants, leaving a gap of about two inches between the stems and the compost. A compost layer of two to three inches will feed growing vegetable plants while also preventing weeds and water loss.6

Hands in Mulch

Wrangling with a hose is frustrating, and sprinklers tend to be insufficient. For ease and efficiency, install an automated drip irrigation system.

Drip irrigation sends a controlled amount of water to the soil 4, allowing plant roots to absorb all the water you determine they need. Drip irrigation also makes it easy to send water directly your plants, reducing water loss.4

When shopping for a drip irrigation system, look for one with a timer, which will allow you to 'set it and forget it.' Or, if you're a weekend DIY warrior, assemble the system yourself.7

Gloves in Garden

Choose the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that will grow best in your garden by identifying the plants that are perfect for your region's growing or 'hardiness' zone. The growing season for non-hardy plants might be too long for your area, preventing a harvest before cold weather comes. To determine your growing zone, refer to a hardiness zone map. Then match your zone to the zone information on plant seed packets or tags before you buy.

When shopping for seedlings, look for signs of good health. You want to see vibrantly colored and evenly shaped leaves. Avoid buying plants that are lopsided, spindly 8 or show signs of disease, such as rotten or discolored areas of the stem, or insect damage, such as torn or spotted leaves.

Your zone information will tell you the best time to plant. Cool-weather plants, such as lettuce, broccoli and onions, thrive in cooler soil and can tolerate frost, so you can start seeds or even plant seedlings before the last frost date indicated in your zone map. Warm-weather crops, such as tomatoes, corn and eggplant, need warmer soil and temperatures, so planting after your last frost date is crucial.

Because plants need room to grow, spacing requires thoughtfulness. Bushy plants, like tomatoes, need room to spread; climbing plants, such as peas and pole beans, can be planted closer together and trained to grow up a trellis.9 Check the seed packet or seedling tag for the recommended spacing for each plant type you plan on growing.

When transplanting seedlings, don't attempt to separate the seedling from the soil it grew in; doing so might damage the fragile roots.9 To help establish new seedlings and reduce transplant shock, use a plant-starting solution, such as Pennington Ultragreen Plant Starter with Vitamin B1. Water immediately after transplanting and continue to water daily until seedlings begin to put on new growth.9

Edible Rewards

Healthy plants are better at resisting insect damage. With all you've done to create a healthy garden, you're off to a great start in the fight against pests, but even the healthiest plants might need some help now and then.

Look regularly for signs of pest invasion, including sticky residue and holes in fruit or damaged leaves. If you see insect damage, determine the type of pests that are invading your garden. Once you know what you're dealing with, you can choose the best pest control product.

Both Sevin and Worry Free product line solutions are available in liquid and dry form. Sevin brand is a trusted name in pest control; Worry Free products are botanically-based and effective on over 250 pests. Always follow package instructions carefully.

It takes some serious gardening smarts to achieve a large bounty with just a small amount of preparation. Once these seven spring tasks are completed, you'll be all set to relax and enjoy the fruits of your (easy) labor.

Always read the product label and follow the instructions carefully.

Sevin is a registered trademark of Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc.

Worry Free, Lilly Miller, and Ultragreen are registered trademarks of Central Garden & Pet Company.

Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc.