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Low maintenance garden

by Kate Gould

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credit: snowmentality

Modern life is increasingly hectic and, paradoxically, the more we need the solace of nature, the less time we have to spend outdoors. When we do finally get out there, tending the plants might not be the first thing on our minds. Here, though, Chelsea gold-medal winning garden designer Kate Gould has plenty of tips and tricks for creating a great garden without the graft.

Low-maintenance gardens

One of the most important questions I ask when meeting prospective clients for the first time is: are you interested in actively looking after your plot and if so, how much time do you want to spend doing so?  This can be in terms of personal gardening time or the amount of money available to pay a maintenance gardener.  More and more, the answer is that gardening isn’t as high on their list of priorities as it used to be, as modern life, with its stresses and constraints on time, has created too many more pressing engagements.  That said though, clients still covet a garden that looks good through the window, with interest all through the seasons, and is a lovely space to be in when the sun does eventually shine.

Gardens are of course living, breathing, constantly changing organisms that thrive on care.  However, through the careful selection of hard and soft materials, you can manage the amount of time you need to spend outside.  Think ‘low maintenance’ rather than ‘no maintenance’ and you might find that your gardening / life balance is achievable and gardening is a pleasure rather than a chore.

The seasonal gardener

I am probably best described as a ‘seasonal gardener’.  From early December I check the weather forecasts, pore over seed catalogues and am champing at the bit by the New Year to get outside and garden.  My enthusiasm doesn’t simply die out after the spring but the available time I have is cut very short as my clients’ demands for their gardens take over.  So, I garden hard and fast from January to March, moving and dividing plants, feeding the soil and applying an organic mulch which helps to retain moisture in the soil and cuts the time required for watering in the summer.  Usually by the time the clocks go forward, I have finished tweaking and I let nature get on with what she does best for the next few months.  Admittedly, if I had the time I would do more in the garden, and there is always a list gnawing at the back of my mind, but over the years I have come to terms with doing what I can and not beating myself up that I cannot do more.  In order to cut down the time I spend tending my plants I have refined the palette primarily to perennials and grasses that I know will stand well without support, put up with the vagaries of the British weather and provide a long season of interest without too much human intervention.  These plants, tried and tested in my own garden, make their way into clients’ schemes for that very reason; Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, all manner of Sedum, Brunnera, Geranium, Miscanthus and Hydrangea.  Larger plants have their place too and I would not be without Persicaria polymorpha, Eupatorium maculatum and Anemone japonica. Grown in bold blocks, these plants can be easily maintained when time is short. I often deal with a single variety at a time, knowing that I won’t have to do much more until the following spring, as these plants also provide a framework for the garden in the winter, saving on having to tidy it up in the autumn- another rather hectic time in a garden designer’s world.

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credit: daryl_mitchell, Céili & Bowery, Rachel Ford James

The ‘little and often’ or Sunday gardener

If the seasonal gardener bolts out of the blocks in the spring, the ‘Sunday gardener’ takes a more leisurely approach.  Gardening as and when time allows and the mood is right suits many people, and there are several ways to streamline the tasks you have to do so they fit into the odd moments you have available. Selecting the right hard landscaping is one way to reduce your workload – limestone is particularly difficult to maintain so opt for a man-made paver or a sandstone. Consider too products such as Brintons Patio Magic, which with one application in late spring will go on to clean your hard surfaces all through the summer so that you don’t have to.

Shrubs can be a boon for the Sunday gardener as they require very little care and can offer colour and interest for long periods of time.  Including a proportion of evergreens will also ensure the garden is interesting to look at in the winter even if you don’t want to go out into it. If you create quite generous borders, the shrubs can grow to their maximum size without a great deal of input from you. And if they are under-planted with swathes of Vinca, Pachysandra or other evergreen carpeting plants, borders will be relatively weed-free as these groundcover plants clothe the soil and make it difficult for weeds to germinate and take hold.  Larger shrubs will also grow so that your boundaries are screened, reducing the need for anything high-maintenance – a simple fence will do.  Climbing plants can be added to the fences but these take time to train in place and shrubs will often do the trick on their own.

Lawns are always an issue for low-maintenance gardens. A green sward, striped and edged neatly, is the perfect foil for the English garden but daisies, thatch, dandelions, clover and plantain all vie for space with the grass and maintaining a perfect lawn can defeat even the most enthusiastic of gardeners. If you’re finding yours a burden, there are companies that specialise in offering ongoing care for your lawn and it’s worth considering hiring one of these.

General cleaning and tidying tasks can be speeded up with few key pieces of equipment. Using a blower or garden vacuum, for example, will be much quicker than brushing by hand when collecting fallen leaves and debris (they are also very useful for getting round the back of containers) and a pressure washer will clean a terrace in a shot.

The no-time-at-all gardener

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© iStockphoto / Terraxplorer

If the ‘less is more’ approach is the type of gardening you prefer, then a textured hardscape with focal points such as art, sculpture or decorative pots set over a paved or gravel surface would be a good way to go. Good quality astroturf is really very realistic these days and can be blown clean or ‘hoovered’, providing a green and perfect lawn without the hassle. These spaces won’t necessarily change with the seasons as a conventional garden would but there will be a shift in atmosphere from day to night which can be enhanced by lighting. Choose your materials carefully to link inside with outside and you’ll soon have an outside room that extends your home without needing to be gardened.  That said though, a sculptural evergreen such as Dicksonia antarctica, Fatsia japonica or Phormium in a large and spacious container will add to the shadows created at night and will take next to no time to care for. Even though these spaces are simple in design, they will of course benefit from a quick spring clean and a tidy-up of fallen leaves in autumn but this should take no time at all.

Some general tips

Other things to consider for a low-maintenance scheme:

  • Irrigation – there are many pressurized leaky pipe systems that can be purchased off the shelf and they are simple to install and inexpensive to run.  Regular watering will ensure healthier plants resulting in less time tending.
  • Design-wise, one of the most important requirements for a low-maintenance garden is access.  If you have to bag and carry rubbish and clippings from the garden through the house, this will take up time and potentially create more mess.  A side entrance or access to rubbish bins direct from the garden is a real boon.  If there is no direct access, then compost what you can if you have the space to do so.
  • Plant in bold blocks in odd numbers to create maximum effect for minimum effort.
  • Avoid herbaceous borders and pots brimming with annuals.  These take time and effort so try hardy perennials instead such as Echinacea, Salvia or Aster or a small shrub such as Hebe ‘Sapphire’ which will create colour and interest for long periods of time.  The result won’t be as colourful as a big herbaceous border, but it won’t be nearly as time-consuming either.
  • Don’t introduce plants that self-seed generously such as Verbena bonariensis, Lythrum virgatum, all Thalictrum and Stipa tenuissima.  These are light and airy plants that all add valuable movement to a scheme but only plant them if you are willing to spend time removing the many seedlings they’ll produce.

Everyone can have a garden but it doesn’t have to be a conventional space and it doesn’t have to run your life.  Hard and soft landscaping material choices are vital but the most important part of maintaining a garden is to prevent it turning into a chore. If the weather is awful and you don’t want to go out, don’t go out – the task will still be there another day and somehow when the sun is shining and the weather is warm it won’t seem quite so daunting.

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