Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

A Low-Maintenance Garden for the Cottage

If you’re a laidback gardener, you probably find that maintaining the landscaping around your home is already enough effort. But many homeowners also own a summer cottage that also has a landscape that requires maintenance. And their double-residence life can be hectic. First they have to hastily mow the city lawn on Friday after work. Then they need to rush off to mow what is often an even vaster lawn the next morning. I keep hearing horror stories of cottages with lawns that need 3, 4 or even 5 hours of mowing! That’s enough to keep any laidback gardener from even dreaming about owning a cottage one day!

Fortunately it’s possible to reduce maintenance at the cottage at least enough to be able to really enjoy your weekends in the country… without having to sacrifice an attractive cottage landscape. It’s simply a question of  learning to think a bit more like a laidback gardener!

Let The Forest Be Your Friend

Almost everywhere in temperate climates, there’ll be some area well beyond the city designated as “cottage country”. It’s generally an area dominated by lakes and hills … and forest cover. So, if the land around your cottage is indeed wooded, simply leave it alone!

Path through forest.
You have forested lot? Just ad a mulched path and settle down in to relax! Photo: Alex Stemmer, depositphotos

A forest, in fact, needs essentially no maintenance. There is no lawn to mow. No hedges to trim. Not even any leaves you need to pick up (just let them decompose where they fall). And yet it’s naturally beautiful!

If you’re lucky enough to have a wooded lot, take advantage of it. Just add a path or two in the wood so you can enjoy its quiet beauty. And if you want, then insert a few shade-tolerant plants here and there for extra color. To that add a small flower bed in front of the house. You can fill it with shade-tolerate species such as coleus, begonias, ferns and hostas. That could also add a more colorful note to the cottage itself.

Small bridge over a brook, leading to a path through the woods.
On a wooded lot, just let the fall leaves lie. They only make the effect more attractive! Photo: PIXNIO

If the forest has been damaged by blindly cutting trees or many years of “fall cleanup” (an act of severe violence that disrupts the forest’s natural balance), leave just leave it alone. It will regenerate all by itself… and much faster than you’d think, too.

From Lawn to Meadow

The worst nightmare for the laidback cottage gardener is lawn maintenance. After all, a lawn is artificial and therefore unable to survive without help. At the very least you have to mow about once a week. To make things worse, cottages often have vast lawns dotted with stands of trees and big rocks. And every obstacle slows down the mowing process. You can understand why so many cottage owners complain they spend most of their  weekend on a riding mower trying to keep the lawn in check.

Mown path through a young prairie.
Mow a simple path through the “lawn”, then let the rest return to a meadow! Photo: Jonathan Billnger,

I’d like to offer cottage-owners overwhelmed by their lawn a radical but laidback solution: let it grow into a meadow! And that is so easy to do! Simply stop mowing it, other than for a grassy path or two for access purposes. Even the very first year it will create an interesting prairielike appearance. And many of the plants you thought were lawn weeds will start to bloom and – goodness gracious! – will turn out to actually be wildflowers!

Field of yellow wildflowers with cottage in background.
Over time, more wildflowers will join the mix, turning your grassy meadow into a flowering one. Photo: depositphotos

Over time, more wildflowers will join the mix, their seeds carried in the wind or by birds. Or you can oversow with a wildflower mix (hint: make sure it contains plenty of perennial wildflowers and not just annuals, otherwise the effect won’t last!) for even faster color. You can even install a few taller perennials here and there if your meadow is not blooming as heavily as you had hoped: daylilies, coneflowers, queen-of-the-prairie, butterfly weeds, etc. Just dig a hole and plant!

Note that a meadow garden doesn’t need to be wall to wall flowers. Let grasses fill in around the bloomers for the best meadow effect. And “weeds” are much less visible in a meadow. Thistles, burdock, and other plants that may be thugs under other garden conditions fit right into a meadow garden and just become another attractive wildflower!

One final question. Do you want to keep the meadow going or are you willing to let the forest move in and eventually take over? In drier climates, a meadow is pretty much self-maintaining. However, most cottages are in moister climates and that means forest is the natural cover. To retain a meadow effect, you’ll need to mow it down once a year. Do this in the fall to stop any shrubs and trees that try to colonize the site. (You’ll probably need to rent a heavy-duty mower or brush trimmer.) If you don’t (and take the even more laidback attitude of letting nature take its course), the forest will slowly grow back.

By Rivers and Lakes

Illustration showing proper management of a waterside buffer strip.
Make sure you leave a buffer strip along the waterfront. Ill.: ROBVQ

To prevent erosion and pollution of watercourses, you need to leave a buffer strip – about a 30 foot (10 m) band of natural vegetation – around lakes and rivers. In fact, make that 50 feet (15 m) on steep slopes. You’ll find that many states and municipalities now have rules about maintaining vegetation in shore areas near any new constructions and may even be forcing you to renaturalize the shorelines of established cottages.

Wooded area leading towards a lake.
Be especially careful how you garden near a body of water.

To hasten the regeneration of a damaged, eroded or cleared shoreline, plant perennials and shrubs that tolerate wet soils or occasionally inundated soils, such as dogwood, alder, Siberian or blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, right near the shore. On higher ground, go for shrubs and perennials tolerant of drier soils, such as ninebark, wild roses, coneflowers, etc., not to mention trees such as arborvitae, spruce, maple and birch.

In order to see the lake from your cottage, allow yourself a “window” of only short vegetation (shrubs and perennials, no trees).

If the buffer strip is presently lawn, just stop mowing it and let i grow at will. Soon riparian wildflowers will establish themselves, brought by the wind, currents and birds.

Trailer Gardens

Trailer camp with small flowerbeds.

For some people, the “cottage” is nothing more than a trailer in a mobile home park (many have an area set aside where small trailers can be set up for the summer or even permanently). With very little land around each trailer, maintenance will be decreased, but there may not be much room for a garden. Often, you can only find space for a few flower boxes or a single container garden.

If there is a lawn however, remember that, of all the elements of a landscape other than the vegetable garden, turf requires the most care. If having to pull out a mower out to maintain such a small lawn annoys you, see if you can get permission to convert the space to a well-mulched flower bed composed mainly of long-lived perennials and shrubs: maintenance will be almost zero and yet the effect will be absolutely charming.

So there you go! Solutions for an attractive cottage that allow you to relax instead of working constantly to maintain the landscape.

Have a nice, laidback summer!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “A Low-Maintenance Garden for the Cottage

  1. Ha! We have no choice here. We live among the tallest trees in the World, so do our gardening where we can, in the spaces in between the trees. The forest dominates.

  2. claire sullivan

    Love this piece, Larry. Thanks for a voice of sanity re gardening.

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