The holiday is over and with decorations put away or soon to be, it is the time when we seem to have very little to do after being too busy with our gardens and then the holidays. However, it is a great time to start thinking about gardens again and to plan for the upcoming year.

Unfortunately, I have reached the age where keeping several gardens from falling into disarray has caused a frenzied effort at maintenance. What to do? I need to take time this winter to re-evaluate each of my garden areas and consider changes that will allow us to spend much less time on chores, but still have a lovely landscape and have the energy to enjoy.

A book, recently purchased for the Master Gardeners Library, “The Right Size Flower Garden” by Kerry Ann Mendez, proved to be very helpful to avoid my garden from taking me hostage. While I don’t have the space in this article to cover all the simple design changes, low-maintenance plants and practical tips, I can give you a few of the time and energy saving shortcuts that can help both beginner and experienced gardeners.

One suggestion that we get smarter in our “old age” and make perennials the focal point in our gardens, plants that will come back year after year with little care. Then eliminate or reduce the annual flowers, which have to be replaced every year. Not all perennials are less work than annuals, so we have to choose carefully those that reduce the workload.

Native plants are unequalled for their stamina and self-sufficiency. However, no matter how terrific it is, you will need to plant it in the right light condition, in the plant’s preferred soil condition, and give it the amount of water it prefers. So spend time learning about the plant before planting it in your garden. Many perennials will spread quickly, but that only means you have to divide them more often. Again, research to find those that don’t have to be divided frequently.

Don’t fret the fertilizer. Take a soil sample to a laboratory to determine if you need to add fertilizer and how much to add. If your soil is lacking in organic matter, an organic source of fertilizer such as compost can serve both purposes.

Deadheading can be a drag. Research what is required of the perennial you are planting and eliminate the neediest requiring regular deadheading, while selecting those that are self-cleaning or that have cool seed heads that birds enjoy. Some can be cut back to the ground after the first blooming, and you will get a second bloom.

Additionally, don’t forget groundcovers, as they create a lovely weed-smothering, erosion-controlling environment where little else will grow and basically take care of themselves once established. Flowering shrubs, ornamental trees and evergreens might also be your perfect choice to replace your time consuming garden, as they require less water, fertilizer and routine maintenance. These woody plants can also add year-round structural interest, produce flowers for pollinators and food for birds, and are workhouse gems in your easier to care for landscape.

If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a Master Gardener volunteer at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.

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