Simple and stylish
Alice SpenserHiggs revises her opinion of low maintenance gardens
AS A gardener I tend to believe that low maintenance gardens are bland, unimaginative and static. I stand corrected, having seen a garden consisting almost exclusively of foliage plants yet is full of colour, texture, and movement that, most important of all, makes me wish that I owned it.
Talking to the designer, Craig de Necker, of The Friendly Plant, I realised that the success of a low maintenance garden depends on marrying strong design with the correct choice of plants. While this is true of garden design in general, knowing the characteristics and growth habit of plants is particularly critical for a garden that pretty much needs to look after itself.
As de Necker explains, ”Many clients who want a low maintenance garden will ask for lollypops (clipped standards) or for plants like Duranta or Syzygium paniculatum that need to be rigorously trimmed and trained because by nature they are trees.
“The kind of plants that one needs are those that keep their structure and form without needing to be trimmed regularly and yet still look lush and appealing, especially if they are being used as a substitute for lawn.”
The other misconception about low maintenance gardens is that paving is the easiest way to get rid of lawn with its hassle of weekly mowing and lawn mower maintenance.
That was the option that de Necker’s client was considering, being at a loss for what to do with the long, narrow space at the back of his home.
“I persuaded him that paving would be visually hard on the eyes and create an enormous amount of heat. I did not believe that paving would add value to his home in the same way that a planted garden would.”
What the client wanted was a contemporary look with a minimalist feel and year-round colour without having the high maintenance that annuals would demand.
Describing this as one of his more difficult assignments because of the small, narrow space at his disposal, de Necker started by deciding what elements he wanted to include and then experimented with different options so that the design developed almost organically.
In all his gardens he likes to include features using water or fire because of the life that they bring into the garden, adding to its sensory richness.
In this garden, a stone edged pond with small fountain balances a small pool and open air seating area at the other end of the elongated space. A curving pathway of flagstones links the two areas, so that there is a sense of destination, which de Necker believes is important in every garden plan.
“Having a place to go in the garden gives one a feeling of ownership and there is a purpose for going into the garden and by walking through it one also experiences the garden, rather than just observing it,” he says.
The most appealing aspects of the garden are the movement and texture of the swathes of ornamental grasses that echo the sinuous curve of the pathway as well as from the grass itself swaying in the breeze.
Tall growing Mondo grass borders the pathway, while dwarf Mondo grass is planted in-between the stepping stones.
A tip from de Necker is to remember that Mondo grass is not uniform, but varies in height. When using it between stepping stones always opt for the dwarf Mondo that does not grow higher than 10cm to 15cm.
In contrast to the dark green Mondo grass, de Necker has planted the yellow-lime green Acorus “Golden edge” en masse. For further contrast, and height, he has grouped three statuesque, deeppurple cordylines within the Acorus. Spiky leafed Juncus is used for additional texture and height.
The same deep purple of the cordylines is repeated by New Zealand flax (Phormium) that is densely planted in a raised bed that runs the entire length of the boundary wall.
The particular variety was chosen because it remains compact. A line of Cocus palms rises out of the phormiums to add further height to the garden and complete the grassy, airy effect.
The only flower in the garden is the small, shrubby Felicia, an indigenous, blue daisy that surrounds the natural pond. Its rounded leaves stand out in stark contrast to the spiky leaves of the grasses and phormiums.
The point that de Necker makes with this garden is that foliage can be just as colourful as flowers and, unlike flowers; it retains its colour year round.
The design is also flexible enough for annuals to be incorporated should the client change his mind.
The final result is a garden that requires almost no maintenance, apart from watering (via an automatic irrigation system) weeding and an occasional cut and thinning out. Only the Felicia may need to be replaced every two or three years if they are not cut down annually to prevent them from becoming woody.
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The curving pathway around the water feature leads the eye and gives the garden its wonderful sense of movement.