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Plan a Low-Maintenance Garden Before Spring

Take advantage of a blank canvasThe blank slate of winter makes it easy to get the lay of the land and form a mental image of your ideal garden. Walk around your property with an open mind, taking pictures and noting any problems (also known as potential) that you see. That soggy patch of grass might fill up with weeds and rainwater, but it also offers the possibility of a rain garden where irises and daylilies can thrive in the moist soil. The dry shade beneath your evergreen tree could easily become a whimsical garden of hellebores, nandina, and spring-blooming bulbs like snowdrops and Spanish bluebells. And those boulders might be impossible to remove, so why not cover them with succulents, moss, or alpine plants?Create your personalized landscape profileMake a rough outline of your garden (a square will do) on a sheet of paper, mark any major landmarks like trees or sheds, and draw loose circles to indicate any areas that stand out as different: moist, low-lying areas, the shady area under a tree, or the sunny part of your yard where the family dog likes to make his daily rounds. Write down the lighting, drainage, and soil conditions in each area so that you can choose plants that tolerate those conditions, and even thrive there.Simplify your lawnYou love your lawn, but not the persistent weeds, weekly summer mowing, and exorbitant water bills. The solution? Choose quality over quantity, and reduce your lawn to a size that's cheaper and easier to maintain. Simplify its shape so that it has more impact but is still easy on the eyes. Elevate your landscaping and invest in a hardscaped border to create a crisp, pleasing division and speed up your mowing chores. The amount you choose to spend is up to you. Install a brick mowing strip to get a formal effect without spending too much money, or surround your lawn with an entire patio to create a cozy outdoor living room.Get excited about the right plantsUnless you're working with a new and treeless lot, each part of your yard is unique. The north side of your home probably isn't the best place for that rose garden you envisioned, because it receives hardly any direct sunlight. Instead, grow plants like plantain lily (Hosta species) and cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) that thrive in full shade. If that mailbox garden seems to sizzle and suffer no matter what you do, stop watering those poor, misplaced ferns and replace them with plants that thrive in dry, sunbaked conditions. Once you know the amount of shade, drainage, and moisture your areas receive, perform a quick search to find entire lists of plants that will thrive in your garden.Keep it convenientThat back corner might be the perfect place for a vegetable garden, but not if you're too busy to make it back there. If you have the sunlight to pull it off, plant flower and vegetable gardens near your walkways, where you can easily water and weed them. Otherwise, set up an irrigation system and connect areas of your gardens with paths so you can pick vegetables and cut flowers without tracking in mud and weed seeds.Weedproof your gardenKeep weeds from returning in spring by smothering them with mulch or groundcover plants. To mulch your beds, remove any existing weed roots, put down a layer of newspapers, and top it off with at least an inch of mulch and replace it every year. For a longer-lasting and more attractive solution, plant low-maintenance groundcovers like border grass (Liriope spicata), monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), and carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans). You'll still need mulch for the first year or two, but the plants will soon form a weed-blocking carpet of green that rarely needs replacing. By simplifying your landscape and filling it with a palette of plants that thrive in your unique conditions, you can create a low-maintenance garden that really works for you.

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