Five Tips for a Low-Cost, Low-Stress Yard

There's nothing lazy about summer if you're constantly working in the yard.

If the thought of a weekend conjures visions of backbreaking work pushing a mower in the hot sun or trying to coax reluctant plants with gallons of water or fertilizer, maybe it's time to change the relationship you have with your yard.

It is possible to have lush, green inviting outdoor spaces with less mowing, watering and work.

With a few easy steps, you can cut the hours you spend on lawn care and have more time to enjoy the great outdoors. Not only will you have a yard that's inviting you to come out and play, but it will be less expensive to maintain.

Here are five ways to make it happen.

Keep Grass Longer

Want the lawn healthier? Let it grow a little longer, says Susan Littlefield, horticultural editor for the National Gardening Association. "It doesn't give you the putting green look, but the grass stays healthier," she says.

Not only does it hold moisture better, but the taller grass also "shades out" germinating weeds, giving you natural weed control that you don't have to pay for or apply. But you won't necessarily be mowing the lawn less. Ideally, she says, "You don't want to cut more than a third of the grass blade" each time you mow, she says.

Just how long you want to keep your grass will vary with where you live and the type you've planted, she says. The cool-season grasses, popular in Northern climes, typically do best at 2� to 3 inches, says Littlefield. The warm-season grasses favored in warmer regions do better "a little lower," often around 2 inches, she says.

But if you want to get the ideal length for your lawn, find out the exact species you're growing and do a little research. Two good sources are the National Gardening Association and your local cooperative extension office.

Leave the Cuttings on Your Lawn

Want to skip some stress when you mow? Leave the clipping bag in the garage, drop that rake and leave those clippings where they fall.

Research at the University of Connecticut has shown that you can cut your use of nitrous fertilizer by 50% or more, just by letting the grass clippings do the work for you. "It's kind of a no-brainer, but people don't do it," Littlefield says. "They will decompose and the nutrients in them will return to the soil," she says. "It's recycling."

You also don't have to worry with emptying clipping bags and leaving more yard waste bound for the landfill.

A lot of homeowners worry that those clippings will contribute to thatch and endanger the health of their lawn. Not so, says Littlefield. Because you're letting your grass grow longer, you're only taking a little off the top. And that's not going to get matted or cause problems, she says.

Make the Plants Do the Work

Want to minimize your labor, costs and stress? Plant for the yard conditions you already have.

"You make the plants do the work," says John Greenlee, author of "The American Meadow Garden," and owner-founder of Greenlee Nursery in Chino, Calif., and Greenlee & Associates. "If you have a shady area that is wet all the time, you don't install drainage," he says. "You plant something that likes shady and wet."

"When you try to partner with nature, gardening is so much easier," he says.

His tip is to look for regional plants native to the area and conditions.

Three sources include local native plant societies, local and regional horticultural gardens, and independent gardening centers.

It may mean a little detective work to investigate the growing conditions in your yard, then to discover what plants would do best there, he says. "Based on a lot of the research coming out, Americans really don't know what they're doing," Greenlee says. "They're trying to change their gardening world, rather than acknowledging their gardening conditions."

Once you plant for your actual conditions, he says, "you would be amazed at not only how beautiful your garden is, but how you now have all this time on your hands."

Get the Most Out of Your Water Dollars

Looking for a cheap way to save water, prevent weeds and help plants thrive? Use mulch. "It's one of those things people overlook," says Liz Primeau, author of "Front Yard Gardens."

Her formula is "No less than 2 inches (deep) all around plants." And don't mulch right up to the plant itself, she warns. "That will suffocate them." Instead, stop about 2 inches from the stem.

If you (or a neighbor) have a tree or stump removed, ask the workers to leave the resulting wood chips for your yard, Primeau says. Not only does it save money and landfill space, but you'll get a ton of garden-ready mulch.

When Primeau recently had a dead tree removed, the result was 12 yard bags of wood-chip mulch -- enough to cover "the whole garden," she says.

Another key to less stress and smaller water bills is to use a network of drip hoses. They use minimal water and soak roots, which is exactly where the plants need water, Primeau says. Instead of buying a couple and moving them around, get enough for all of the areas you water regularly and leave them in place for the season.

Break up That Lawn

Love summer but hate mowing? Consider reducing the lawn space in your yard.

"Lawns take a lot of work," Primeau says. "They also use a lot of water." And homeowners "try to make it look like a golf course, and that's a lot of stress," she adds.

Large expanses of lawn also aren't that visually interesting, and often don't add much to curb appeal.

For a simple approach, establish (or extend) planting borders around walkways, patios, decks, trees or the footprint of your home. Select native plants (or their hybridized versions), so that you don't have to spend much water or time, Primeau says. Perennials will come back next year, reducing the cost of new plants.

For a lush green that requires zero care, try meadow grasses or -- if you need something low and green -- fast-growing ground cover.

Don't be afraid to personalize your yard with outdoor living spaces, Primeau says. Create a small Zen garden or meditation area with pea gravel. Or, craft a cozy relaxation space with some seating and a water feature or birdhouse, paving stones and some low-growing ground cover.