Life is busy. Outside of work, family is a big commitment, especially if you have children who don’t drive. The house needs cleaning, food needs preparing and clothes need washing. Then come friends and hobbies. If you don’t take some time to enjoy yourself, what’s the purpose in life?

Who has time to make sure the grounds around the house look good? The answer: almost everyone.

While no-maintenance gardens are as rare as unicorns, minimal-maintenance gardens are much easier to create.

First consider what garden chores come to mind. While creating a garden is hard work, you do it only once. By building up the soil with a lot of compost, you’ll save a lot of work later because you’ll need to do less fertilizing and watering.

Planting is work, but – I might be biased here – that is like saying dancing, skiing and swimming are work. Yes, they take energy, but they’re fun.

When it comes down to it, the garden chores most people want to avoid are weeding, deadheading and pruning – and if you ask me, the worst of these is weeding.

Mulch is the first step to suppressing weeds, although mulch does a lot more than keep weeds down. It preserves moisture and moderates temperature, and over the years breaks down to enrich the soil with organic matter.

My wife and I use aged, dark-brown bark mulch, which looks natural. Black mulch has become trendy, but most of it is dyed, which I dislike. Fresh wood chips are OK if they come from small branches and if you are certain the plants chipped up didn’t contain a disease.

Red cedar mulch, thankfully, is becoming rare – the glowing orange color attracts attention away from the plants, and people who think cedar mulch will last forever need to realize this is Maine. Mulch in Maine gets covered with fallen leaves, plowed up and scattered by squirrels. It is never permanent, no matter its color.

Straw and chopped leaves also work as mulch, but to me they look messy.

Mulching shortly after the snow melts, before most perennials emerge from the ground, goes faster and easier.

Even with mulch, weeds will sprout – but mostly in the garden’s naked places. The next step is to banish nakedness by putting in lots of plants.

With low maintenance as your goal, skip the annuals. They have to be planted every year, and while I said earlier that planting is fun, it is less fun when what you plant is going to die with the first frost.

Begin your garden with a backbone of small trees and shrubs, which give the garden its year-round structure. Read the plant’s label to learn its ultimate width, and give each plant just a bit less room than that. A garden is friendlier when the “woodies,” as gardeners call small trees and shrubs, mingle and touch each other, and the shade suppresses weeds.

If you are working to make an existing garden less work, add small shrubs between the existing, presumably larger shrubs you already have. Consider using plants with bright-colored variegated foliage, which adds a focal point. At our house, we planted two ‘Golden Shadows’ pagoda dogwoods last summer, and they sparkle in what had been a dull, very shady section of our garden.

Other shrubs with colorful foliage include spirea such as ‘Magic Carpet,’ Japanese maples, physocarpus (in both reddish-brown and gold foliage) and all kinds of golden chamaecyparis and arborvitae.

In between and under the small trees and shrubs, add perennials – but not just any perennials. Go with ones that don’t require you to deadhead – which has nothing to do with Jerry Garcia fans, but is simply removing spent blossoms.

Non-deadheader examples include astilbe, amsonia, cimicifuga, baptisia, aruncus, Joe Pye weed, catmint, fall sedums and peonies. Fussy people might spend time deadheading Siberian iris and daylilies, but they look good even if you ignore that task. Both expand over the years and compete well against weeds, so they are perfect garden plants for time-stressed people.

You also want foliage plants in bright colors. Hosta is excellent, especially if you don’t have problems with deer eating your garden. Other good candidates are heuchera, ligularia and all sorts of ornamental grasses.

If you still have bare ground – and this might seem obvious from the name – add ground covers. One of our favorites is lamium, with striking silvery white and green foliage in addition to flowers in shades of pink and in white. Others to consider are thyme, short sedums and lamb’s ears.

A warning about ground covers, however. Some catalogs still sell bishop’s weed, emphasis on the weed, as it will take over a garden. Don’t plant it. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with ajuga, pachysandra and vinca, though vinca is more easily ripped out, if necessary.

You can avoid pruning if you use proper planning and planting. When putting in trees and shrubs, make sure their ultimate size won’t cover your windows, doors, walkways and driveways. To repeat, it’s OK if they touch each other, but you don’t want them to interfere with your day-to-day life. You’ll still have to cut out broken and dead branches, but that isn’t hard.

The most important thing to bring to a low-maintenance garden is the right attitude. Look at the good things in your garden – the bright blooms of your tree peony, the glorious magnolias of spring and the bright shades of foliage.

If there are also a few weeds, feel free to pretend they aren’t there. They deserve snubbing.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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