by Pat Munts

Whether you are a gardener or not, there is something almost magical about a garden on a warm summer evening. The air is sweet with the fragrance of flowers and earth. Bees and birds will be creating a little evening music. The breeze may add some rustling notes to the song. Cares of the day slip away and you can feel yourself slowing down. This is the simple joy a garden can bring to our busy lives.

I know, I know, I hear you. "Simple" and "gardening" can't possibly exist in the same sentence. How can you possibly enjoy the evening in the garden when the grass is so long that renting a cow is a serious option, and the weeds just laugh at the weed whacker? Gardening equals work. However, if you could get rid of a lot of the work, wouldn't it be nice to just be able to walk out your door and hear the music?

The split between these two lines of thinking is apparent. How can we have the time to sit in the garden when it's a mess? The key to resolving this lies in how you think about the garden as part of your lives. Ask yourself, why do I do what I do in my yard? If the answer is because it brings you joy and peace, then you don't need this article. Get out there and relax.

If however, you answer that it's to make sure your house looks good in the neighborhood or that is what you are expected to do because you own the house, let's take another look. In her book The Simple Living Guide, Janet Luhrs "Simplicity is not so much the outward trappings of your life, it is the inner you making decisions."

So let's start making some new decisions about how you approach your garden. First, ask yourself what is really important to you in the yard. Do you need all that lawn? Would a small space for some chairs or a place for the kids to play work just as well? Why do you keep those shrubs along the back fence when they require a lot of work to keep in check?

First, the lawn. If all you want is one or two places to sit or play, why keep it? Figure out sometime how much time you spend aerating, thatching, mowing and treating it for weeds and other maladies. I'll bet it's a serious chunk of your free time.

There are other reasons to cut back on lawns. Research has shown that traditional lawns use huge quantities of pesticides, fertilizer and water to maintain. The pesticide and fertilizer residues leach through the soil and end up in groundwater at unhealthy levels. Water supply allocation is becoming a critical issue for many communities as they grow and drought conditions persist as they have for several years in parts of the U.S. You can replace the lawn with more drought-tolerant varieties of grasses that also require fewer mowings or with beds of low maintenance plants watered with a drip irrigation system.

Get to know the plants you have in your garden. If you don't have a clue, find out who the gardening guru is in your neighborhood or visit the Master Gardener Plant Clinic at the Spokane County Extension Office (222 N. Havana). These passionate folks are always willing to share their knowledge and experience. They can help you analyze what is happening in your garden. Start watching the papers for workshops on gardening as we head into spring. Check out some of the hundreds of good books on gardening at the library or bookstore. Knowledge is power when it comes to making sense out of simplifying gardening.

Once you have a handle on what is in your yard, start thinking about what you really want to keep. Think of your yard as a series of zones. Put your high maintenance plants or beds close to where you can easily take care of them or appreciate their beauty. An Inland Northwest classic is the hardy rhododendron. They require steady moisture and some protection from winter winds. Plant them close to where you can water them easily and where you can see their spring flowers. As you move to less frequented parts of the yard, put in progressively lower maintenance plants. Pay attention to areas with special problems like shade or poor irrigation system coverage and put in plants that will tolerate the limitations. Experiment. If a plant is doing what you want in an area and is thriving, put in more of them. If the plant takes up too much time, effort or money, yank it out and try something else.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. This was the response given by a group of Spokane County Master Gardeners who were asked about the key to cutting back work in the garden. Mulching prevents weeds from starting and conserves water. As the mulch breaks down, it also adds organic matter to the soil, something plants appreciate. A two- to three-inch layer of compost, bark, shredded leaves, pine needles or even dried grass clippings applied in the spring can make weeding later in the season no more than a pleasant patrol through the garden.

If you have an irrigation system, check it out to make sure it is working properly. Lines and fittings can break or loosen. Heads can break or become clogged with debris or hard water deposits. Shrubs can grow up and block spray patterns. Consider converting some of the lines to drip irrigation, which puts water right on the plants that need it instead of throwing it everywhere. (It is estimated that half of the water applied by overhead watering can be lost to evaporation.) An added bonus of drip irrigation is that if the weeds aren't getting the water, they don't grow. Consider installing a device on your sprinkler system that senses when water is really needed and then turns on the system. There are several very affordable types on the market. The water you save can easily pay for the sensor.

Be tolerant of pests that show up on your plants. You are never going to get rid of bugs completely anyway, so why expend the energy and money needed to buy and apply pesticides when only a few bugs show up? Besides, there are simple, noninvasive ways to deal with garden pests, even if they do show up en masse.

Be creative and innovative. There are no hard and fast rules in gardening, so you are free to create your own if you choose. If an idea seems a little nutty but fun, try it. You don't have to satisfy anyone but yourself and maybe the significant other who may share your garden. It's your garden and it's your peace of mind, so go for broke. You might just add the laughter of your friends and you to the evening's garden song.

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Saturdays, 4-6 p.m. Continues through Dec. 26
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