The house. The yard. It's all a part of the American dream, right? But after a few seasons with raking, mowing, fertilizing, watering, weeding, pruning, and more, having a yard can feel more like an endless fever dream.
Having a yard doesn't have to suck up every a moment of your life. The trick is picking plants and landscaping materials that don't need tons of help from you to look good. Here's what to plant so you can reclaim some time.
For being everywhere, grass is a lot of work. "It's high maintenance," says Abra Lee, a University of Georgia extension agent. "It needs a lot of mowing, fertilizer, and water. It's prone to disease."
Even so, it's kind of a must for most yards. To make your life easier, go with as small a patch of grass as you can get away with, and plant these types:
Grass for Northern Climates
- Fescue: It's disease resistant and slow growing, so it needs less mowing and fertilizing than other types. You can also grow it quickly from seed, cheaper than buying sod.
Grass for Southern Climates
- Bermuda: It grows in poor soils and can withstand kids and dogs romping on it nonstop. It's nearly impossible to kill — good if you've no interest in caring for a prima donna lawn.
Pick bushes you don't need to prune constantly. The time you spend trimming boxwoods into tidy little balls is part of your life you'll never get back.
- Azaleas: They look best when you let them grow into natural, unpruned drifts. There are more than 10,000 named varieties, so there's an azalea for your yard and climate. They can live for a century so you may die before they do. If you live in colder climate, go with rhododendrons, azaleas' larger, tougher cousins.
- Emerald Green Arborvitae: It's a fast-growing evergreen that can stand up to heat and humidity. It's a good choice for a hedge. They're tidy, Christmas-tree shaped plants you'll never need to prune.
- Hydrangeas: They're fast growing and covered with fab blooms from spring till fall. Prune a hydrangea and it will not make flowers, which defeats the purpose of having them. There are hundreds of varieties so you'll find one that will thrive in your area.
- Cryptomeria: This one's a fast-growing evergreen that tolerates neglect. It's also called a Japanese cedar. It's tall, tapering, and elegant.
Perennials are the lazy gardener's friend. Plant them once, and they'll come back year after year.
- Coneflowers: They bloom all season and come in a rainbow of colors, but the varieties with purple or white blooms are the sturdiest. An added bonus: They're great for bouquets. Cut them and bring them inside. Fresh flowers from your own yard! What's not to love?
- Black-Eyed Susans: These yellow flowers look like the ones kids draw. They bloom from last frost to first frost and they can take almost all the heat, drought, and neglect you and Mother Nature can dish out. Also, they will plant themselves, dropping lots of seed so you'll get new plants each spring.
- Russian Sage: Don't fertilize it or water it too much, and it will reward you with a mound of silvery foliage and spires of violet-blue flowers that last all summer.
First, buy the largest young tree you can afford, because a tiny switch of sapling might not become a big tree until you're eligible for AARP. Second, don't plant a Bradford pear. Ever. They crack and fall too easily. Instead, plant these:
- Oaks: They're strong and can live for a century or more. They can take a long time to become majestic giants, so if you're looking for shade, prepare to be patient. Pin oaks and sawtooth oaks get big the fastest; they can grow as much as two feet a year.
- Crepe Myrtles: They make flowers in the summer and their leaves turn in the fall, so you get two seasons of color. Best of all, they grow very fast, going from sapling to mature tree in five years.
- Tulip Poplar: They grow to a regal 90 feet tall, and make tons of shade. You'll get tulip-shaped flowers from it in late spring, and bright yellow leaves in the fall. They're disease resistant and strong enough to withstand winds that would take down other trees.
- Cherry: They're little — 20 to 35 feet tall — so they won't overpower a small yard, and they make white or pink flowers in the spring. Stick with the non-fruiting types because they're easier to grow and less messy.
- Eastern Redbud: This is a small, hardy tree that grows fast, and has spring flowers and fall foliage. Birds eat their berries, so you'll make new feathered friends
Plant some instead of grass in places where there's not much foot traffic. They'll smother weeds, and they grow just fine with no help from you.
- Ornamental Grass: It makes fountains of wispy, slender foliage in reds, greens, golds. Varieties that are short and grow in clumps — like blue fescue, mondo grass, and liriope — are the best choice. And yes, there is grass in the name, but, no, you will not have to mow it.
- Golden Moneywort: This creeping vine grows fast, and once established, looks like a carpet made of tiny green-gold leaves. It keeps its color through the winter unless you live in Fargo.
- Ajuga: Another creeper (the plant type, not the human type who lurks at malls), this 2-inch tall plant has shiny, dark green leaves and, in the spring, blue flowers. It carpets the ground and will even grow in shade.
Mulch is your friend. Put it around your plants, and it will put the smackdown on weeds, you won't have to water as often, and it'll enrich the soil when it decays into the earth. Enriched soil means healthy plants. Healthy plants don't get sick and die.
- Hardwood or Pine Bark: These are the longest-lasting natural mulches. You'll need to replace it once a year because it decays into the earth. Wait, you say, can't I use some of that awesome rubber mulch that will still be there when my kids are in college? Yes, you can. But rubber mulch does a poor job of stopping weeds and will not feed your soil, so you'll need to fertilize your plants and pull weeds regularly. Also, research has shown rubber mulch contains chemicals that can leach into the soil and eventually kill plants. Note: Rubber mulch is great for areas where you just want to cover the ground, not grow plants.
OK, it's not a landscaping material, but how you feel about your yard makes a big difference in how you feel about caring for it. Here's the right approach: It's your dang yard, so pick the plants and landscaping materials you'll enjoy spending time with.
"The reason we have a yard is so we can get joy in reconnecting with nature and lose the stress of our everyday lives," says Patrick Beasley, a landscape architect. "Plant things that make you happy, and taking care of them will be a part of your life you enjoy."