Creating a Low-Maintenance Garden
If you’re ready to down tools and enjoy your garden rather than devoting long hours to its upkeep, landscape designer Paul Hervey-Brookes explains how
Landscape designer Paul Hervey-Brookes explains how to stop being a slave to your new garden and enjoy the greenery
Low maintenance gardening has had long appeal as a magical answer to having a stunning garden without the work. It can be achieved, however, with planning and careful selection of hard-working plants and durable materials. Follow these rules and you can create a stylish garden packed with interest, without hours of back-breaking work and care.
pre-planning is vital
If you are a self-builder starting from a blank canvas, it is a lot simpler to plan and install lots of labour-saving gadgets, such as timed watering systems, raised planting beds, alongside easy to care materials like porcelain paving.
If you intend to use a landscape designer they can really help you maximise planting schemes to reduce your gardening workload, too. However, with a little time and research you can achieve a low maintenance garden either on your own if you are an able DIYer, or with the help of a landscaper to lay paving and other skilled jobs. As with any project, get quotes from at least three professionals and always insist on a fixed price. Remember to detail what you are expected to provide and what’s included in relation to materials, waste removal and labour.
Start by thinking about using easy and durable materials. High-quality porcelain paving which is not oversized is easy to care for and will last a very long time with minimal effort. Traditional materials like aged oak will last an exceptionally long time, and if budget is a consideration then consider composite materials. They will give a timber effect without the short lifespan and maintenance of some softwoods.
Raised planting beds with built-in irrigation are going to be easier to care for in the long run. They are often a really sensible idea if you are planning a garden for the long term. We know that gardening can increase your lifespan but less bending over beds and more easy-to-maintain heights are not a bad thing either! These beds and borders can be planted with a good range of shrubs and some hard-working perennials, which flower year after year. When fitted with an irrigation system, these beds will be largely maintenance-free if given a good feed and mulch at the beginning of the year.
If you have inherited small areas of grass then consider replacing them with aggregates laid over a geotextile, paving or a good quality artificial lawn professionally fitted. This often looks better than small, worn patches of grass and, what’s more, only requires an occasional hoover! This will cut down on hours of labour trying to maintain hopeless pieces of grass, which will probably always look slightly harassed.
Choosing the right plants
With an established or inherited garden, minimising labour and making it easier to maintain is a slightly harder process which requires dedication to the long-term goal. Here, editing planting towards large swaths of shrubs with flowers and good autumn foliage and perennials will cut down on weeding. Installing a ground covering geotextile and topping with a mulch will also reduce weeding and improve water retention, thus cutting down work. Look out for plants which are described as ground cover. They tend to root as they go and will create a thick mat of planting which will look good and stop weeds. Consider Pachysandra and Sasa, both hardy woody plants that will spread and fill. When combined with Geraniums, Artemisia and Ajuga (all seasonal perennials with long flowering periods), they will add interest and still cover the ground well.
When researching or selecting key plants, consider those that offer more than one season of interest. These include shrubs which flower and fruit or have interesting autumn foliage, and perennials that do a job such as covering ground with a long season of flower. Again, these plants will knit together over time and remove the need to weed. Evergreens can also be used and will give good winter cover but they shed old leaves in June so can, if over used, look unsightly and generate work.
Pots and containers are not particularly low maintenance unless you install a watering system. So if you can, stick to planting in the ground which will give the plants a chance of tapping into the water table and supporting themselves in the long run. However, large empty pots standing in planting can add a sculptural feel, so don’t rule them out completely in your plans. You could even add visual interest by using large containers as a water feature with water gently lipping over the sides with swaths of green planting below. It’s easy and a good alternative to lots of busy flowers and
“It’s really about selecting durable materials that look after themselves, combined with clever design”
Remember, too, that you can edit and adjust a garden to suit your needs over time. The largest amount of time spent on ‘work’ in a garden is mowing the lawn and tending the borders, and these are two jobs that can be extremely intensive. Both can be cleverly reduced in terms of workload at any time in a garden’s life. Well-designed gathering spaces like terraces for tables and chairs and nooks hidden away, for instance, will require little work to keep them going, and adding in an irrigation system can be done almost any winter you like.
putting it all together
Low maintenance doesn’t mean boring. It’s really about selecting durable, long-lasting materials that look after themselves or at least require minimal effort, combined with clever design: editing out awkward corners, small lawns and impossibly sized planting beds that are either too small for plants to grow well or so large you get lost trying to weed. Selecting the right plants for the right area will also save time and money: shade lovers in the shade, for example, or plants that suit dry soil if the soil dries out quickly. A decent mulch and, if newly planted, a membrane to reduce the chance of weed germination while plants are growing, will reduce your involvement significantly on all planting beds. Longer term, a watering system will mean you can leave the garden to its own devices. However you do it there are many ways to minimise the work in the garden and maximise the time spent enjoying and relaxing in a green oasis. Next month: How to make the most of small gardens
Paul Hervey-Brookes Paul Hervey-Brookes is an award-winning landscape designer who lives in the Cotswolds.