Guest Rant: Valerie Easton



Y'all please welcome Val Easton, here wade into the oh-so-tricky discussion over low-maintenance gardens.   Don't gardeners want to garden?  Isn't that the point?  What say you?  Say it with enough eloquence and spirit in the comments and we'll send you a copy of Val's book. Okay, here's Val:

Since Garden Rant is “flabbergasted at the idea of a ‘no maintenance garden’, I feel pretty lucky they let me on here to offer up a free copy of my fresh-off-the-presses book “The New Low Maintenance Garden: How to Have a Beautiful, Productive Garden and the Time to Enjoy It,” from Timber Press

Okay, this title wasn’t exactly my idea anyway. Turns out authors don’t get to pick their own titles anymore…that’s up to the marketers. I preferred “The Simplified Garden: How to Love Your Garden, Save Your Back and Get a Life”, and not just because it didn’t set me at odds with the Garden Rant Manifesto….

Can we agree that just about any garden has the potential to be at least lower maintenance? Maybe not maintenance free, but also not the great devourer of time and resources that so many of us are tied to tending….

And in that spirit, we’d love to hear about the stupidest, least necessary, most high maintenance task you’ve discarded along the way to enjoying your garden….an autographed copy of my book awaits one liberated gardener.

To kick start your maintenance memories….here’s a short list of things you never, ever, need do again:

· Double-digging, which used to be held up as the mark of a superior gardener (and one with an aching back) has been proven to damage the tilth of the soil. Better to simply layer compost and mulch on top, and let it filter down all by itself to improve the soil.

· Dig a deep hole for new plants. In fact, they suffer from soil amendments lovingly mixed in around their roots. This can stunt a plant’s growth long term– it needs to buck up and get used to the native soil it’ll be growing in. So dig a nice wide hole, no deeper than the root ball, and back fill with native soil. Really. You still need to water the plant in.

· Use a leaf blower. Raking leaves is good exercise and blessedly quiet… don’t worry about getting every leaf up. Your garden is outside, for goodness sake.

· Put pebbles, or the shards of a terra cotta pot in the bottom of a container to help drainage. Nope, not ever. Nor any Styrofoam noodles – just good soil all the way through is best. Water pools up where one material meets another, so sticking stuff in the bottom of pots is a sure way to drown your plants’ roots.

Let us know the best decision you’ve made to simplify your gardening life ….

Me? I’ve banished iris or any other perennial that needs dividing at the blink of an eye, and whittled my rose passion down to a single specimen (‘Westerland’) that’s so iconic, so deeply fragrant and ruffled, that it mutes my rose lust.

An autographed book awaits the cleverest/funniest/most likely to be widely imitated entry…..can’t wait to hear from you….


  1. this is lame, but indicative of my Ockham’s Razor approach to simplifying my garden:
    i cut off all but 11 feet of my 25-foot garden hose, because i only needed 11 feet, and got tired of rolling up the extra 14 feet…now i have to use my thumb over the raw end of the hose (too lazy to fix it, but it is now much easier to squirt the neighbor’s cat).

  2. I already have a copy (yay!) so this isn’t a contest entry but I’ve GOTTA say: Mowing the lawn. Ditto watering, weeding and feeding the lawn. I got rid of my lawn and the replacement plants (clover and a creeping sedum) needs absolutely nothing. They also bloom and are often covered with pollinators. Only down side: they’re not tough enough for hard play.

  3. I’ve gone native. By replacing “fussy” plants with versions of what likes my Ohio climate and soil, I don’t spend time on coddling. I still weed, prune, and otherwise encourage my garden, but I’m not pushing the rock uphill to keep alive temperamental stars that are borderline hardy, pest/disease prone or otherwise labor intensive extreme.

  4. My garden is survival of the fittest. If I want to try a plant I put it in the garden and pay close attention to its water needs the first week. Then I get distracted and move on. Except a few times in August there’s not much watering going on in my garden. Plants either survive the season and stay on (and I may add more the next year) or they don’t, and we part ways. That’s how I have the mainstays of my garden – they survive and I buy more, or they don’t and I don’t.

    I also live in a tiny row house with no lawn to mow, but that wasn’t really a gardening choice ;).

  5. I guess the oddest trick I employ to simplify my time in the garden is to literally “eat the weeds”. Chickweed throughout the winter – the internet is full of recipes; tastes like lettuce to me; requires no effort and recovers quickly from harvest; and makes a great wintertime filler plant (not that you have to plant it, it just shows up). Purslane in the summer – not the best flavor but not harsh either; nice crunch texture and a great source of Omega 3’s. Once you start nibbling while toiling in the garden you view the green invaders in a whole new light.

    Now that I have your attention, I was just kidding. I moved off the 1/2 acre garden, and I am planting many more shrubs than I did before. No more delphiniums, roses (sigh), nor anything that needs deadheading. Epimediums, Hellebores, grasses, ferns,viburnums, does this mean I am maturing as a gardener, none of the new things are flashy. But to sit and admire the little flowers of an epimedium, well, that is pretty much heaven (of course with a glass of wine).

  7. Eliminated weeding, almost. Put desirable plants where weeds grew. As Janie V. says, ‘If there’s room for a weed, there’s room for a plant.’ The right plants will shade out weeds or crowd them out, as evidenced by long borders of Lantana montevidensis.

  8. This sounds like the opposite of what most folks would think, but I simply replaced the low-/no-maintenance plants my home’s builder put in with plants I enjoy maintaining … or don’t care if they look messy. For example, I removed the flax & photinia which have a high maintenance-to-joy ratio & replaced them with shrub roses, and fruit trees & shrubs. Sure, there’s still work involved, but it’s picking, eating or preserving the fruit, and minimal pruning – & I use as much of the trimmings from that as is possible for compost, or trellises, hiking sticks, doll houses & crafts. Going organic cut out so many “chores” it was a revelation. I still spend the same amount of time in the garden, but now it’s enjoyable, the kids can be right beside me no matter what I’m doing and they often want to join me in my tasks because they can see Mom is smiling while she works.

  9. Want to rid yourself of plants that are fussy, time consuming, and delicate? Adopt two Border Collie puppies and let them live in your beautiful Garden. HA! I had originally designed my fenced back yard for a older quieter pair of dogs, lots of shrubs with enough space between them for the dogs to wander, big Hostas, and large drifts of perennials in huge wrapping borders shaded by Birches, all easily navigated by the older dogs. When they passed we got new dogs. One of the pups took to pruning any branch that she found offensive, and neatly chewed off all the lowest branches along the fence line creating a full throttle sprinting zone. They ran down most of the perennials that I had allowed to get too big crowding the paths and making squirrel harrasment difficult. By their third Summer, what had survived gave me pause to recreated the yard in a simple more flowing and maintenance free attitude, and still have some perennials that keep the garden colorful. Placing tomato cages and hosta rings into the crowns of some larger plants like Hostas and Lillies does help deter being run down during bursts of high energy. Still haven’t worked out what I will be replacing the little patch of lawn with, but still, the yard is Still beautiful and a lot easier to take care of… Patrick

  10. Planting at different times to avoid attracting the cursed japanese beetles. They love green beans. Beetles are done by end of July, as are my peas. Green beans are now my second crop after the peas and beetles. One less attraction for the critters. Getting rid of plants they love and I am so-so about. Kept the raspberries, yanked the true geraniums.

  11. Instead of a veg garden I have mixed edible/ornamental beds on each side of the sidewalk. Basically on my way to the car I can grab a handful of weeds or throw down some blood meal and on the way back I harvest what we’re gonna eat. It’s just right there as I’m passing so why not keep it up?

  12. This was not by choice but by the boss’s orders. I know everyone makes fun of them but I used to be one of those poor saps on a landscape crew – and one of the most back breaking things we had to do was use a three pronged cultivator and break up by hand bed after bed (on estate and large suburban gardens) of shredded hardwood mulch which had formed impenetrable crusts. Unfortunately, it was necessary sometimes otherwise the water and the nutrients couldn’t get down there.

    I told myself if I ever got the chance to work for myself I would never ever do that again. And now that I do work for myself (hurray!)I use pine bark mulch or any other type of chipped mulch or compost which breathes on its own so no hand cultivating and no power equipment (like a small rototiller)is necessary and most importantly no more sore aching backs.

  13. I’m with you on the double digging! I did that my first year in a tropical climate. Turns out it muct better to make a raised bed and fill it with pure compost. Just throw compostables in there: some good banana stems, some organic ash, some balo leaves, horse manure and kitchen scraps. Let it sit for a week until it settles then add some more. In a tropical climate composting takes all of a month. Then you can plant and your neighbors will wonder how you got pumpkins that big.

  14. Me again (the weed eater), I just wanted to add that I approach chores of all kinds the same way I view weight control – the easiest way to happiness is to lower your standards! Accept what your garden is, rather than try to bend mother nature to the latest fashion. All gardens have weeds. All gardens have dumpy areas full of junk. No garden is perfect all the time. You look fine just the way you are.

  15. I think the best solution after reading the list of maintenance memories is to use the book for compost.

    Really now.
    Let’s just take that first one about double digging.
    To make a blanket statement that you can improve your gardens soil structure by simply plopping a layer on mulch is a deformed in theory.
    Many properties have had their top soils scraped off to the hardpan. If the hardpan is not pierced it will not drain. You can load a foot of compost on it and all you’ll get is root rot.

    A tip to simplify my gardening life : in the field experience vs. sitting on my arse and reading nonsense.

  16. Great suggestions . . . I learned a few things too. About digging the hole bigger, adding soil enhancers and the broken pottery at the base of our potted plants. You sound like my old dear Smith College retired gardener/assistant genius, who would say the plants should adjust to the soil and make it on their own. It makes sense and fit in perfectly with my sometimes lazy nature in gardening. When there is so much else to do, why bother fussing with fluff.

  17. Having worked for 25 years as a professional gardener / groundskeeper, I guess I believe that to garden is to maintain. The word itself–maintain–comes from the word for ‘hand’. To put your hands on something.

    That said, here’s a prose poem detailing the last word in garden maintenance.


    My first wife and I rented a little bungalow in the center of town. We were young. Our furniture was nothing but apple crates.

    The backyard butted up to a Ford dealer. There was a wall of new pickup trucks at the end of our garden. We planted everything we could dream of, even rutabagas. She had sweet peas climbing the downspouts; I grew peanuts in buckets on the back porch. She brought home two kittens, Basil and Sage, but they both died and we buried them under the juniper.

    Before anything was ripe, the Ford guy bought the place, evicted us, bulldozed the house, and paved the yard. Thirty years later, I still think of those cats buried under that asphalt. And who knows what else.

  18. Plant lots of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Once established, they pretty much take care of themselves. Pay attention to foliage and structure, and they’ll be beautiful all the time, not just during a fleeting bloom season. For spring color add bulbs that return, like daffodils. For summer color add pots, but make sure they’re near the house and hose or you’ll never water them. I like watering. It’s godlike.

    Use a mulching mower and forget hauling bags of clippings around. It’s also better for the lawn, assuming you have one. A small lawn takes minutes to mow, and remember that clover is a nitrogen fixer and good for you lawn.

  19. I’ve stopped using any chemicals, or more to the point I’ve stopped trying to get rid of pests and letting nature take it’s own course. If a plant is prone to infestation, like the Hibiscus with white fly, out it goes.

    What I have noticed so far is that nature is really good at taking control of itself. An infestation of aphids is followed by ladybugs. And I am seeing a greater variety of insects – I counted at least five different types of bees when the oregano bloomed.

    I’m striving for an edible landscape with a large biodiversity and letting nature create the interconnected “web of life.” I know I’ll loose some things along the way, but I think in the long run I’ll have a garden as low maintenance as possible. I say “In the long run” because I’m spending most of my time now digging out the damn Bermuda Grass.

  20. Two words: sheet mulching. Fabulous if you have clay soil and works for established and brand new gardens alike. For a modest investment in time up front, you get excellent weed suppression and healthy, happy soil like buddah.

  21. Hi Val! Loved your presentation at the Late Show and can’t wait to get my hands on your book… Great tips offered here…I’m a big proponent of lowering the maintenance level of gardening and really try and shy away from planting TONS of perennials (that so many clients seem to think they want, until they realize how much maintenance they require). So much year-round beauty can be gained by evergreens, and have found that once folks are introduced to them they love them just as much as those iris! Well…not everyone, but you get the point…

  22. Okay, I may be missing something, but I don’t think anyone’s mentioned leaving the leaves yet. This year, instead of blowing the leaves and taking them out, I flipped my electric leaf blower around so it became a leaf vacuum, but rather than attaching the bag, I shot a jet of shredded leaves into all my beds that needed mulching. Gotta love a jet of shredded leaves.

  23. I gave away my tiller and use a deep layer of mulch. Our 6000 square foot garden thrives on a combination of spoiled alfalfa hay (free from horse farmers) and an occasional sprinkling of horse manure.

    And I bought a drip system that is regulated for equal pressure throughout. Now the garden is just for fun and food and flowers.

  24. Mix it up and fill it up (your garden beds, that is)! And any space that you can’t fill with plants, cover with deep mulch. Leave no soil uncovered – that’s the simplest way to less work.

  25. As a “keeper” of an acre hillside garden I have learned that anything that simplifiies routine tasks is good. I have learned the hard way of the benefit of a wider paths so I am not drenched as I enjoy the morning walk-thru and I must admit to enjoying the death of very aggressive weeds like mint but gardening still remains work anyway you look at it

  26. Years ago, when I was young and garden illiterate, we moved to a house on 3 acres in the woods. For years I would trim all the “weeds” off the fence and from around the trees and use Round-up there too. I finally saw the light (or got lazy) and decided to let those areas return to nature to provide food and shelter for the wildlife. A win-win situation for everybody:)

  27. As a landscape designer, I have seen far too many perfectly low maintenance landscapes denied their true nature and ability to be such because people just won’t stop over-maintaining them! Here are a few of my laundry list of rants about low maintenance landscapes made high:

    1. If you shear it into a ball or a box shape, it will continue to need to be sheared regularly and often. Plus it’s going to be ugly. (acknowledging that, yes, sheared plants are sometimes appropriate)

    2. If you don’t plant something there, nature will. And you probably won’t like it. Best way to cut down on weeding is to stop leaving empty soil surface area.

    3. Every fall you have free compost literally falling out of the sky. Then you rake or blow it, pay your city to take it away, and come spring you head to Home Depot to buy compost in a bag. Your lawn’s gonna die out over the winter, and don’t think for a minute that your improving your house’s winter time curb appeal by uncovering that dried up, yellow husk of a lawn.

  28. my way to reduce maintenance is to significantly reduce my use of mulch. Unlike many of my neighbors, I was never one to have a big pile of mulch delivered each spring, but now, I only use store-bought mulch in rare circumstances.

    Saves a lot of time AND money!

  29. Such great suggestions…I’m pondering how to use the Ockham’s Razor principle (see Felder Rushing’s comment) to simplify my task of figuring out the winner of the contest..meanwhile enjoy all this clever, hard-earned advice on simplifying your gardening life…
    Val Easton

  30. Compost piles. Never turn them, never water them, just keep piling leaves and veggies on. Three years later, lift the top off and dig in for good old compost.

  31. Way to go with the new book.

    I’ve been teaching a class called The Liberated Gardener (and have been tinkering with a blog of the same name for a year–due to come up this winter)
    so I applaud your approach.

    It’s really not necessary to feel enslaved by your garden.

  32. Well… I am learning a lot from recent findings by Linda Chalker-Scott, some of which are mentioned here. I don’t have always have a lot of time to garden (small-child syndrome) so I do appreciate hints to help me get the most out of the time I do have. Can’t say I have any great tips other than attitude adjustment! I.e. it is what it is, it will never be perfect or magazine-ready, and that’s okay.

  33. I worked with Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott for years at the University of Washington and have learned much from her research and common sense. Her book “The Informed Gardener”busts many long-held gardening myths, and she writes regularly for the blog “The Garden Professors”….
    Val Easton

  34. The best decision I ever made was to have an enormous, old, standard apple tree cut down. This tree was planted inappropriately by a previous owner and only caused me grief as it grew into it’s old age. Not only were it’s copious apples not any good for eating, but it became too wide for our narrow side yard and kept trying to grow into the upstairs windows. Two years ago, I’d had enough and decided to have it chopped. My punishment was a new, unsightly view of an ugly electric pole and a deep sense of guilt. Come spring, I ammended the soil and planted multiple packets of sunflowers of all kinds in my new sunny spot. This was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself and my garden! Not only did the these happy, bee and bird filled flowers entertain me one whole summer/fall, they came back from seed the following spring to do it again, only better! They are soley repsonsible for converting me into a habitat gardener. Now, I only plant things that make birds or bees happy. I no longer judge my garden solely by how it looks, but by how many winged friends are visiting.

  35. Sheet composting/lasagna bed gardening. Whatever you call it, I love it. Pile all that stuff up (and it doesn’t really seem to matter how you do it!) in the Fall, when I’m overrun with “stuff” anyway. Let it sit through the winter, plant in Spring, and voila — those are always the best producing plants in my garden.

    Also, I totally agree with Andrew. I scored a brand spankin’ new $700 chipper/mulcher at Lowe’s for only $100. I put (my husband) to work picking up all the leaves all over everywhere — including our neighbors. The leaves all get dumped right into the walkways between the garden beds. WAY less weeds. Other bags of leaves go into the lasagna beds.

    Yey for leaves!

  36. This is going to generate a few “well, duh!” responses, but anyway… After years of frantic compost preparation/turning every three days/manure hunts/extra water/extra blood meal/ even more turning etc from the first thaw of spring (April for my zone 6a) so that I could achieve well rotted compost for the garden before late July, I finally woke up to the fact that I can take my own sweet time, turn the pile once a month or less, use the whole summer and still add well rotted compost in December. Sure, the first year you go without (or buy some). After that, the compost you add in early December stimulates absolutely nothing to grow until the spring (at least in my garden, tested for the last two years) when it is washed in by the melting snow and gives everything a nice boost right when the plants need it. The compost slowly disappears altogether by September, just in time for everything to start preparing for winter, and the new lot helps decompose the fall leaves underneath it in the spring. I collect scraps for compost all year now and get by with only one bin and spend more time admiring (or planning solutions to textural indiscretions in) my garden than frantically trying to prepare compost to feed it. I know, you probably woke up to this a while ago, but I can be a little slow at times…

  37. My climate permits me to never water. I allow volunteers. I eat weeds. I let things go to seed so I don’t have to bother planting them again. I compost the lazy way: a big pile that I throw stuff onto and occasionally turn if I am in the mood if something hasn’t volunteered in it. This year it gave me 140 lbs of winter squash and weveral lbs of potatoes with zero effort on my part. I play nice with beneficial insects like wasps who will gladly eat each and every cabbage worm to rear it’s ugly head. I’m trying to work more perennials into my system to save on planting time. At this point, I plant a few things in the spring then wander outside and eat for the rest of the year.

  38. For the last year and a half I have been sick(recently diagnosed with Rheumatiod Arthritis) and was unable to toil in my garden the way I had for many years before. In that time anything considered high maintenance was tossed to the wayside, from weeding for hours to plants to tender to handle Texas summers. When I feel good enough to dig a bit, I pick up a plant I take a liking to and find a bare spot to plant it in. If it survives and thrives it stays. The funny thing about planting like this has been how many people stop and ask about a plant or if they can have a clipping to try and start. People driving through the neighborhood will stop and compliment our garden if we are outside. There is everything from a LSU fig, sweet potato vine in purple and light green, yellow and purple lantana and gardenias. I fill in with random herbs like basils, rosemary and creeping thyme. I rarely bypass a plant I fancy and, even in truly icky soil, have a garden that makes just sitting and looking at it, instead of working on it, a little easier for me.

  39. I traded a 100 foot perennial border and another 100 feet of Roses for flowering trees and shrubs that are pretty and attractive to wildlife – mostly natives. I run the leaves over with the lawnmower so that they shred and stay put (almost the only use the lawnmower gets) and I haven’t sprayed an insecticide in at least 25 years. Ma Nature does a great job of dealing with her own if you let her.

  40. Suffering from small-child syndrome. Good one. I remember those days. Dashing out and working at break-neck speed during nap time or before they woke up in the morning.

  41. I worked at a Botanical Center one summer, and was basically paid to deadhead. It’s really not necessary-many plants look better without it. I steer away from plants that need it to look nice like some salvia and coreopsis. Deadheading can turn into a full time job if you let it.

  42. Succulents.

    If you don’t water, they don’t die. No pruning. Colorful flowers and colorful foliage. Hummingbird attractors.
    Architectural forms. Living sculptures. No pollen. Nothing to rake up. Water bill has dropped 50%.

  43. I must mention one insane thing I still have not given up, picking up every last Cercis occidentalis seed pod I can find before the darn seeds sprout.

    Because they always sprout right at the base of a rose or shrub, and because they have a nasty tap root. If I don’t find and yank them before that long tough tap root gets down about 2 feet, the “victim” plant gets half dug out in the process of removing the volunteer Cercis.

    It’s a native plant here, and it’s prolific. I’ve spotted seedlings spewed forth from my trees coming up in my neighbor’s yards and run over to discreetly yank them. I get out in summer with a ladder and a scissors and hand cut them from the trees before they mature.

    Yes, this is insane.

    I keep a 5 gallon bucket by the front door and fill it with seed pods several times before summer is over, and dump the bucket in the trash, not the compost.

    The solution is to cut the trees down. Soon.

  44. Checkout Peter Smither’s book “Adventures of a Gardener” and the list for creating a garden. One of them is (paraphrased) “A garden should be constructed to grow old along with its gardener” I highly recommend his book.

  45. I used to have an area with bark paths, with little beds for vegetables in between. After two weeks, it always looked awful, because I’d have to weed at least a hour a day to make it look decent.

    So: I raked it all up and put down sod. Yep. When I remember, I use a hand spreader to put out organic lawn fertilizer. We mow every 10 days or so. It’s prettier and much easier to maintain.

  46. Oh, jeez, I do still have lots of beds surrounding said wee lawn–from the above, it sounds as if I obliberated my entire garden! I manage to cram in about 140 different varietals of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, leaving no room for the weeds.

  47. I love roses and grow more than 300 bushes, consequently I have to simplify their care. I never prune them within 8 inches of their lives, even hybrid teas. I let them grow for several years without pruning anything except dead canes. Once they become 5 to 6 feet high, I might take them down to 3 feet in the spring using a hedge clipper. On bigger bushes there are more flowers and the larger shrubs are showier in the garden.

  48. When my hubby and I moved into our house the front garden grass was trashed from an 80ft white oak coming down so there was a lovely swath of brown dirt. Shortly thereafter the town enlarged the brown swath after digging up the road/yard to work on a burst main. (I won’t mention here the weed-laden soil that they spread all over the lawn.)
    I guess I’m waffling around saying that for a year or two I was overly-obsessed about changing dirt patches in to green grass and having “a nice lawn”.
    And then I thought to myself, bugger that. I think this was around about the same time that I asked for Paul Tukey’s book for a Christmas present.
    So now I do two things with my lawn: I top-dress with compost and I cut the grass long (4″ or more – the highest my mower will go). I have a little “biodiversity” as they say but I no longer stress over my lawn, over-caring and poisoning it and all the critters with yucky fertilizer products. And guess what? It’s green and healthy and lush and teeming with worms. I do not miss all that stressing over the lawn at all, after all, it’s just grass.

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