Tips for a low maintenance garden

Let’s face it, nobody has ever asked me to create a high maintenance garden.

This post is about steps and attitudes to take if you want to feel that you’re ruling your garden and not the other way round.

First of all, a low maintenance garden is a know maintenance garden. You need to get to know the plants in your garden and what they require. Imagine having to service a car, without knowing anything about the engine parts (I still can’t remember how to open the bonnet on mine), well, it’s going to take time to work out how to change the oil.
Often people are unsure about what they should do and when, such as pruning or dividing plants, so any foray into the garden means that there is much hand-wringing as opposed to real hands-on action.

Of course, a low maintenance garden also assumes that you will have planted the right plant in the right place. This is about knowledge of what plant is best suited to your growing conditions and the space available. There is no point in shoehorning a shrub which will ultimately get big in a tight spot, or having plants who love dry free draining soil into a boggy area.

Once you know what plants will work best in your garden, then keep it simple. Planting in blocks will be easier to look after and have more impact than a myriad of different plant species.

Use ground cover plants (whether shrubs, grasses, herbaceous perennials or ferns) to basically, err, cover the ground. The less bare soil, the less weeds will be able to take hold in between your planting. And on the subject of weeding, a little and often is a good policy to adopt.
I appreciate that this is not always that easy, and that you may have a long running feud with tough weeds like Horsetail or Ground-elder, the latter will thrive on disturbed soil, meaning that the more you try to dig it up, the better it will do. This may be where some areas of the garden are managed more passively, accepting the presence of these plants and focusing on their qualities, Ground-elder is a good nectar source for a variety of insects, Horsetail is a British native plant, rich in anti-oxidants and silica, which could always be made into a herbal tea (well, yes, sometimes, you have to search harder to see the benefits of some plants).

When deciding on the layout of the garden, remember that clean lines for paths, patios, lawns and borders will be easier to maintain. It does not mean that there has to be a lot of hard landscaping. A wide straight grassed path can be a beautiful feature and much easier to keep on top of than a small twisting curved path. Curves are not essential to soften a garden’s appearance, they can be difficult to maintain. The planting will do the softening.

Don’t have pots (or not many, at least). Growing plants in pots is the highest risk, highest maintenance strategy. And if you don’t believe me, then check out James Wong’s article

And on a related subject, some of us have a tendency to accumulate ornaments and artefacts in the garden. This can be a powerful design statement, and if you are that way inclined, you may find inspirations from Le Palais Idéal of the Facteur Cheval or some of the gardens by the Bannermans. But for most of us, a lot of ornaments will just look like clutter, and be more things to look after or move around when you are trying to do some weeding.

When caring for your garden, be mindful that you are indeed looking after an outdoor space and not your house interior. We are so accustomed to high levels of cleanliness nowadays that I am often amazed at how clean some people’s houses are – you can pretty much do open heart surgery on the kitchen floor. If this is the level of cleanliness you’re aiming for inside your house, well, don’t let me stop you. However, there’s no need to pursue this ambition outside. The lawn does not have to look like a bowling green (this would require a LOT of maintenance) and you can give the pressure washer a rest (your neighbours will be relieved). More about garden dirt in this blog post.

Be honest about the time you can devote to your garden. Maybe this isn’t the right time in your life to have to look after borders. If you want to do the very minimum of maintenance, you could consider grassed areas and trees, or have your own mini re-wilding project in your back garden.

And finally, gardens are always evolving. Maintenance is not about keeping the natural world still. Like all living things, plants will die and may need replacing or will be taken over by another plant spreading nearby. Garden maintenance is about having healthy plants that give you pleasure and contribute to sustaining the overall web of life in your local area.

My favourite secateurs

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All photos and artwork are my own.

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