Gardening Tips – Easy Ways to do Tasks and Stay Out of Overwhelm

I know some people thrive on doing things at the last minute, but I’m not one of them. I also know that there are times in life that pressure can’t be avoided. Some things end up having to be done at the last minute.

Fortunately, with a little planning and self discipline, most of the time jobs can be accomplished before they get out of hand and make us miserable.

I’ve literally spent my entire life coming up with all kinds of easy ways to get jobs done before they turn critical and give me that sick feeling of overwhelm in the pit of stomach.

The strategies that I’m going to talk about here, are ones you can tailor to fit your own circumstances. They’re flexible and you can adjust them to suit whatever mood you’re in or whatever your circumstances are from day to day. I know I do.

In order that you can better understand how much can be done using these strategies, following is a summary of how much I  tend and what I have to do over the course of a year in the flower borders.

The Amount I Have to Tend

I have good sized borders around a little over an acre of property. Island beds are scattered about the property and there’s a 2400+ square foot vegetable garden.

Food Gets the Priority in the Growing Season

I pay very little attention to any of the borders in the growing season from about May through at least mid-September, because I’m doing other things pertaining to growing food.

In the fall as the vegetable garden winds down, little by little I begin work on the borders.

Although there’s nothing hard about what I do, it’s a lot for me, especially as slow as I am in moving about. Waiting to the last minute to do almost anything in my borders would mean not getting it done. What a mess that would be!

Some of the things that need doing over the course of the year:

  • adding mulch when necessary
  • edging and mulching that edge
  • removing invasive roots that come from our neighbors property
  • cutting back dead foliage of perennials
  • pruning hedges and various bushes
  • cutting back the ornamental grasses
  • cutting back various perennials in the spring so they won’t get too tall in the fall
  • thinning various perennials
  • weeding out those common place spring weeds (like chickweed and henbit)
  • propagating various perennials
  • reevaluating and making adjustments to perennial placement
  • sowing seeds of annuals (Poppies, Sweet William, etc.)

How Long Do I Work?

I try to work outside from 30 minutes to 2 hours every day that weather conditions allow. All tasks for the borders, island beds, and the vegetable garden have to be completed in this amount of time on any given day. (3 hours is the max if I have the time and am feeling great.)

It takes me from fall through late spring to complete the various tasks necessary for border maintenance. I start in the fall and work a little each day until the ground finally freezes. Fortunately, here in Virginia, the ground doesn’t usually stay frozen very long. When the ground thaws, I start again and by spring everything is done and it seems that I didn’t do anything.


June – front borders

Mental Preparation for Each Day

I have specific things in mind to be accomplished when I go out each day.   I do the most pressing things on the list first. If I have time remaining when I finish what I had in mind to do, I allow myself to do whatever tasks I would most enjoy.

Working in Layers

One of my favorite ways to work could be called grazing or working in layers. I walk around the borders and do a little of whatever  seems (looks) the most urgent. When I’ve completed that layer, the next “layer” becomes the most urgent. And then the next and the next and next.

I don’t spend too much time in anyone spot. This works, because I work a little on a lot, so all gets attended to although it’s not instant.

Here’s an example of what I mean by working in layers:

I have sedums throughout my borders. It’s one of the perennials that “ties the borders together”. Sometimes I leave the dead foliage until early spring before cutting it back. (Sedums can be nice for winter interest.) But most of the time they’re the first thing I cut back.

I’ll walk around the borders and cut only sedums. (The decision to do this frees me mentally not to have to bother with any thing else but the sedums.) Because I have a lot of sedums , once they’re cut it looks like I’ve really accomplished something.

If I haven’t finished when my time outside is up, I’ll finish another time.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be the next time out.

Another Way to Work in Layers

Other times I’ll just walk around the borders and do whatever needs doing that I really feel like doing. I especially enjoy this strategy when I don’t feel like working.  Somehow, this makes my time outside seem like a stroll around the yard. And yet, when my walk is complete, I’ve accomplished some things that needed to be done anyway.

Using the Work in Layers Strategy in a Certain Area.

I never finished the maintenance on my back border last year because the ground froze much earlier than it usually does. The cold lasted a lot longer as well. By the time the ground thawed it was time for me to put my small amount of time to food growing rather than borders.

(There is no way I could handle even the small amount of maintenance by borders require if it stayed cold like that every year. One of my secrets to maintaining a lot of borders is to work on them a little almost all year except in the vegetable growing season.)

I final got back to the borders this fall. I spent about 5 days at the end of September working on an area approximately 15 feet by 50 feet. Working in that area was my priority for the five days.

I did a variety of things as I walked around that section. I pruned bushes, removed a bush, decided on what else needed to be planted in that section, dug out several spots of wire grass, removed creeping charlie that had come in from the neighbor’s, removed phlox, chopped out part of sedums and daylilies that had grown too big, cut all the dead foliage down, and mulched where needed.

By the time something else more pressing came up to take my attention, I had accomplished a good bit. It looks really good, although not finished.

Breaking Big Jobs into Small Jobs

For the past few days I’ve been working on cutting back the 8 leather leaf hedges on the property line in the back side border. They grow about 12 to 15 feet tall each year.  I cut them back to waist high each winter.

It’s a major job for me, so I break it down into small “doable” tasks.

My instructions to myself are that I “have to” cut at least one bush a day. (I usually end up doing more.)

I break the job into sections like this:

  • I cut the limbs off with loppers then the
  • next step is to cut all the twiggy stuff to make the base look  presentable.
  • Next step is to cut up all the small limbs using my hand snips and leave them as mulch to decay in that area of the border.
  • Then I cut the bigger pieces into smaller pieces with loppers and leave those to decay,
  • placing ones that are “too big” to cut in a pile.
  • Out of that pile (which ends up being very small), I choose the sticks that would make good supports for my peas this spring and place those in the garden.
  • I don’t have a shredder, but I try to find a use for any sticks (limbs) that remain.

Same Approach When Cutting Ornamental Grasses

When I cut my ornamental grasses, I take a similar approach.

I allow myself a lot of freedom with this so I won’t dread doing it.  For example, although I like to work on these everyday until they’re done, I tell myself that I can take a day or so off and do something else if I want to.

If cutting the grasses is part of the agenda for the day, I tell myself that I “have to” do at least one.  After that I know I’m free, but I usually end up doing one or two more.

The cuttings stay where they fall and make great mulch for the borders that will feed the soil as it decays.

3 more examples of how I get not-so-pleasant jobs done without making them a chore.

There are always jobs that we don’t particularly enjoy doing.  Those are the ones we usually put off until things are critical.  But there are ways to trick yourself into getting the job done sooner rather than later.

Example #1

If I have assigned myself a job for the day that I don’t particularly like, I’ll do that first. (Like digging out a couple of pieces of poison ivy.) When I’m finished with that, I have fun doing the jobs that are more pleasurable.

Example #2

Same way when I’m weeding the parking area and front walk each year. My instructions to myself are: I “have to” work 10 minutes.  Then I can quite if I want to. What happens most of time is that I don’t quit and work for at least another 30 minutes.

I take that approach again and again over a period of time, until the parking area and front walk becomes free of weeds.

(Tip: Weed graveled parking areas and walks after the rain to make it easy.  If you try to accomplish the task when the ground is dry as a bone, you’ll dislike it even more.)

Example #3

If Bill is able to “weed-eat” the edges of my borders, I don’t have to edge very much during the year.  In years when he can’t get to it, I have to go along the edge with a tool and take out grass that is over laping into the borders.  Then I mulch the edge to help keep it weed free.

When I edge my borders my “have to do” amount is 3 to 5 feet. Not very much. But 90% of the time I do twice that at least.

It’s a job that I would hate if I had to do it all at one time.  But by breaking it down into easy amounts, it’s rather pleasurable – especially, if the ground is moist.

Make This Strategy a Habit:

  • Have something in mind specific to do when you go out each day.
  • Assign yourself a “have to” amount no matter how small. (Never underestimate the power of a little.)
  • You can quit once you do that amount, but if you want to work longer on it you can. (But not too long.)
  • If you still have some time after that, do a few easy things that you enjoying doing or want to do.

Too Busy to Think?

That’s a bad situation to be in, but we’re all there at some time or other.

If your life is currently such that you haven’t had time to think about what needs to be done in the borders or garden, you can still get a lot accomplished. When you’re outside without something specific in mind, walk around and do a few things that you see need doing.  You’ll still get a lot done that way.

One More Suggestion

Make sure you try to ALWAYS carry a hand tool with you when you go around the borders. This can really increase the amount you get done.

Why? Because if you need a hand tool and don’t have it, more than likely you won’t go back to get it.  Then the task will have to be postponed again.  (I keep a tool in my basket at the backdoor so I can pick it up whenever I go out.)

Final Thought

The idea is to get things done sooner rather than later.  Working consistently tiny bit by tiny bit gets everything done. I know, because I’ve done it that way for 36 years.

Once you find out how true that is, you won’t fret over all that has to be done and you’ll stay out of overwhelm and enjoy your borders and garden even more.


Related Posts:

Never Underestimate the Power of a Little

A Principle for Insurmountable Tasks
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4 comments to Gardening Tips – Easy Ways to do Tasks and Stay Out of Overwhelm

  • Jack

    Thanks Theresa for this post, you got me motivated again. My flower beds are a mess.

  • Betty Dotson

    Boy did I need to read this today!

    I needed to finish planting my bean and corn seed yesterday. Instead I spent all of the time I had to garden planting flowers inside the vegetable garden fence and in pots to place in the vegetable garden.

    I will try your “have to” strategy first. Alfred will love you for it!


  • Bonny

    You are right on!! That’s how I work. My lists stay on the table until everything is crossed off. If not , it goes to the top of the next list. My first pass in the gardens usually includes a cup of coffee, which often means I leave cups around the property as I get involved in some small task. But that cup usually gets me started even if I don’t feel especially motivated. Thanks for a great post!!!

  • Margaret

    Awesome website and I loved this post. I can’t wait to browse your whole site! Have a beautiful day!
    Margaret, Illinois Gardener

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