The best way to beat summer gardening chores is to plant more plants. This is not actually the insanity it sounds.
Ground that is already occupied cannot easily be occupied by weeds. Weeds are always looking for the open niche. I try never to give them any. Do this by spacing plants closely. This does not mean overcrowding, but giving each plant the optimum spacing it is likely to need between plants of similar habit. When perennials are young, it means being ready to fill in with annuals such as impatiens or nasturtiums as the perennials pass their peak flowering period.
Growing a succession of blooms is also a good strategy, as when ornamental grasses and summer-blooming flowers follow spring bulbs, and day lilies follow iris. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you don't fill one up, it will, though probably not with something you like.
A quick garden "fix," for the present, is to use mulch if you are not already doing so. And if you decide you don't like it after all, you can just till it into the ground next spring (which will be good for the soil anyway), or even rake it off in the fall if you decide it truly offends you.
Straw mulches are excellent and easy to apply in the vegetable garden, and all summer vegetables can benefit from them. Grass clippings from chemically untreated lawns are fine, too. Grass should be laid in 1-inch layers, and not quite touching the base of the plants. Successive layers can be applied to a depth of 4-6 inches. You will be surprised at how quickly it breaks down into the soil in the heat.
For flower beds and other ornamentals open to public view, pine-bark mulch makes a handsome and tidy appearance. Medium-size is usually a good choice to start with, as the chunks tend to look a little clumsy around flowers, and the fine chip seems to disappear into the soil so quickly.
Besides reducing your chores, mulch will also improve the soil and conserve water by cutting losses from evaporation. Your plants will stay cleaner, too, because mud and dirt will not be splashed back onto them when it rains. As an added bonus, it feels nice underfoot and keeps your shoes from getting muddy.
Another strategy is to stop cutting your lawn so much. (Did I hear a sigh of relief out there?) The shorter the grass is, the more susceptible to drying out it is, because close cutting shortens root growth. So, then, the grass needs more water. Raise the mowing height on your mower if possible. Even better is to let the grass grow 4 to 4 1/2 inches long before cutting it back to 3 inches (never cut more than one-third of the length the grass at one time or you'll starve the roots).
If you are at all interested in reducing the size of your lawn, which is after all a very high maintenance material, consider ground covers and permeable hard-scape (such as loose laid brick, slate and gravel). It is not too late to plant ground covers, although they will not do much before next spring except establish good root growth, and you will have to keep them well watered until they are established. English ivy, pachysandra and vinca minor are low-maintenance, popular ground covers for our area.
Third, concentrate your efforts where they count the most -- in parts of the yard and garden open to the public eye and that you yourself spend the most time looking at. Forget the path behind the garage, the weeds around the compost pile, the semi-ornamental invasions of wild strawberry, the lettuce that has gone to seed in the vegetable patch.
Other recommendations involve a little more planning and commitment.
Minimize high-maintenance materials. This applies to plants that have to be babied along, coaxed like recalcitrant children, or those with nutritional or watering requirements radically different from most of the plants around them. Instead, try to choose plants already well suited to our climate and geographic area, and to their neighbors in the garden. Choosing rudbeckia (which include black-eyed susans) rather than dahlias will go far toward making the garden easier to manage in summer.
Avoid complicated designs and plants that require frequent attention. Topiary, plants that constantly need to be deadheaded and small and oddly shaped planting beds are examples. Try not to have to resort to a lot of specialized tools and time-consuming hand trimming. Unless you like to do that kind of thing, in which case well-kept knot gardens are indisputably gorgeous.
Make sure your garden equipment will fit comfortably everywhere you will need to use it. This is akin to making sure your furniture is placed so that you can get the vacuum cleaner around without resorting to a lot of attachments or furniture moving.
In a garden, it means having paths wide and smooth enough to accommodate mowers, carts and wheelbarrows, and possibly using ramps instead of steps for some changes of level. Give your equipment plenty of turning radius, and remember that you will be attached to one end of it, too.
Keep your equipment in one place, preferably convenient to the garden. I keep my hand tools, string, scissors and the like by the back door in a plastic workman's tool box, which I can easily take around the yard with me, and wash off with a hose.
Last, reduce clutter. If you have to move a lot of furniture, statues, ornaments, potted plants and so forth before you can start mowing the grass or weeding the flower beds, it will take much more time and a lot more patience than if you keep these things out of the main traffic pattern.
Ary Bruno is a master gardener volunteer with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, and manages an organic farm, Koinonia, north of Baltimore.
Pub Date: 8/11/96