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How to make a Low Maintenance Garden - With or Without Weed Mat

Low maintenance garden ideas on weed supressing

​How do I make my garden low maintenance?

"How do I make my garden low maintenance?" When I have this conversation with landscaping clients, talk often turns quickly to their plans to lay down weed mat. In garden circles a fierce debate rages on this topic and whether weed mat is wicked, or a wonderful low-maintenance garden solution?

Those who sit in the wonderful camp might say weed mat suppresses the growth and spread of noxious weeds and so it reduces the need for spraying, which provides an environmental benefit that balances out the use of plastics in the garden.  Interesting idea. 

Perhaps if you are looking for an easy-care or low maintenance garden outcome, and you don’t want to spray nasty chemicals about, weed mat is the perfect solution? It sounds like a cunning plan. Just lay a sheet of plastic over the top of all those pesky weeds and voila ‘weed free garden’. Right? 

Well, what I’ve seen when weed mat is used as a weed suppressor in a garden or planted situation is that several things happen :

Low Maintenance Gardening - or just causing more problems?

1. Weeds just grow on top of the weed mat.

What happens is that over time finer materials such as dirt, dust & leaves build up on top of the weed mat, or a garden mulch is used on top of it to hide it, such as fine bark chips or compost mulch. This topping makes a perfect environment for weeds, which germinate on top of the
weed mat. Tiny little weed roots push through the fine weave of the fabric and anchor into the soil below, which makes them much harder to remove – so rather than low maintenance it becomes slow maintenance!! Try to pull them out and you can even cause disturbance to the weed mat. That’s point 2. 

2.The weed mat is compromised by disturbance  

If you like to tinker in your garden, intend to add more plants over time (like adding a bit of seasonal colour with annuals) or will need to divide and move perennial plants, then weed mat is definitely not for you as these activities will disturb the weed mat. Even in low-maintenance plantings or untended areas, disturbance can still happen as when larger plants like trees and shrubs grow, they push their roots up out of the ground.

All of these things can disturb or tear weed mat, compromising its effectiveness by letting light and moisture in below.  Any dormant ‘seed bank’ in your soil will spring to life, creating a growth of unwanted weeds at the base of your plan. Agreed this may still be more low-maintenance in the matted areas. This is because the mat will create an impermeable barrier -which is where the issues of point 3 arise. 

3. Plants are starved of moisture and nutrients

Unless you use a porous type of weed mat for your low maintenance garden, the impermeable barrier it creates means water and nutrients can’t easily penetrate it. Instead of soaking into the soil when it can be accessed by thirsty plants, water either runs off or evaporates on the hot plastic surface, starving your plants of valuable moisture.

This barrier also prevents organic matter from breaking down into the soil over time, which is what increases the amount of microorganisms and nutrients that are needed to provide healthy nutrient rich soils for your plants to thrive in. So over time soil becomes dry, compacted and sour and as the soil health declines, so does that of your plants.

Low-maintenance garden ideas - 3 tips:

So, some serious negatives there, but if you still think weed mat is the best option to make your garden low-maintenance, then here’s 3 tips:

1. Buy good quality!

This usually has green, blue, or white grids or lines stitched into it, and it will likely have good UV resistance. Cheaper weed mats are often very thin with poor UV resistance, so are prone to failure. They will break down in more quickly (sometimes within a couple of years) especially if they are exposed to sunlight.

2. Pair it with the right plants!

Plants that are naturally resistant to poor or acidic soils, such as many NZ native plants, or acid lovers such as camellia, rhododendron and azaleas, will have an inherently better chance of survival in a weed-matted garden than plants that are moisture lovers and gross feeders.  

3. Don’t use with plants at all!

Just use it under areas of stone or stone mulch or gravel, such as on driveways or paths, anywhere where without weed mat the stones might sink into the soil, becoming messy and unsightly.  

Other low-maintenance garden ideas

Still on the fence? Consider these other low-maintenance garden ideas and alternatives that will suppress weeds, allow your plants to breathe, let water through, and they will break down naturally over time without leaving nasty plastic in your soil.

Mulch is a healthy and positive way to get a low-maintenance garden. It does a fantastic job of suppressing weeds and feeding your soil at the same time.  Healthy, thriving plants will shade out and out-compete those unwanted weeds. Apply at least 100mm of compost mulch but keep it away from the base of your precious plants so they don’t rot or suffocate.

Use it alone or in combination with other mat-like materials for the ultimate in organic low-maintenance weed control.

Cardboard, coir-fibre matting and even old carpets are ideal. Laid down over the soil, these will work in a similar way to weed mat. If you want carpet to rot down over time, make sure its wool and not synthetic though.  

Wool Plant Mats are a great idea for small scale areas, such as at the base of trees


Low maintenance garden design ideas

Low maintenance garden design ideas can be customised to your site and lifestyle by engaging a professional garden designer to help with a low maintenance garden design.

 DIY Designs can help. We are an Auckland landscape design company, located in Titirangi, West Auckland. We work online providing a range of affordable fixed-price landscape and planting plans and have lots of ideas for your low maintenance gardens