There’s no such thing as a no-maintenance garden, but with careful planning you can keep maintenance chores to a minimum
Story: Catherine Stewart, FAILDM
A busy lifestyle and always being on the go can make us feel too stretched to maintain our gardens properly. This is a real pity as pottering about in the garden, nurturing life and getting close to nature can be the very thing to recharge your batteries.
Boring and repetitive maintenance chores can spoil our outdoor enjoyment, so follow a few simple rules for designing, planting and working in your garden to keep it looking good without feeling over-loaded.
Remember, though, that no-maintenance gardens don’t exist — just like the housework-free home. Not even a concrete yard gives you that. Every garden will require some weeding, pruning, sweeping, occasional replanting and supplementary watering.
A garden is a place of living things and, if you expect them to behave as if they were made of plastic, you will be disappointed. Don’t be a neat freak who can’t bear seeing a few fallen leaf. Abandon your demands for complete perfection and many garden chores will disappear.
Garden designs often feature neat shapes with clipped hedges and plants. This is not low-maintenance, requiring quite a lot of effort to keep it neat and establish the hedges. Instead, go for informal screens and borders that can be cut much less often.
Including deep garden beds means that when some plants are not at their best, there will be others there to look good; also, falling leaves will drop within the garden rather than on paving or lawn. Give beds and lawns a solid edging or mowing strip.
Keep the shapes of the garden’s voids (open areas) strong and simple, using rectangles, diamonds, circles and ellipses. Fill in garden beds with simple and informal planting schemes with mass plantings of a limited number of different species. De-clutter, getting rid of pots and any plants and pavers that are set in lawn.
Unifying all your hardscape elements (paving, edging, walling and fencing) by using the same materials or colours will help create a sense of order even when your plants have got a little out of control. Avoid pale colours in your hardscaping (such as cream paving), especially if you have overhanging trees, as it will look dirty faster.
Keep in mind that decorative gravels require time-consuming removal of fallen debris. Also, timber is higher-maintenance than masonry, needing regular repainting.
Using good-quality materials and building things properly in the first place will greatly reduce ongoing maintenance.
You can have lots of plants in a low-maintenance garden, even varieties with pretty flowers. Choose drought-tolerant species but don’t succumb to garden fads; many old-fashioned shrubs such as Abelia, popular before the arrival of micro-irrigation in the 1980s, survive perfectly well without extra water.
Understand your growing conditions of sun and shade, soils and drainage, as the fastest way to give yourself a maintenance headache is to choose plants that can’t grow well in your garden. Grow open plants with smaller leaves under trees that shed a lot, such as eucalypts, so the debris from above falls through.
Select plants that will eventually grow to fill the spot and so don’t need to be constantly pruned. Don’t over-plant — a common failing with impatient gardeners — and avoid plants that self-seed or are known to be prone to pests and diseases.
Groundcovers that spread by growing roots into the soil become a maintenance nightmare if invaded by weeds, or they can become the invasion. Surround groundcovers within garden beds with flexible edging.
Choose lawns that require less mowing, such as miniature buffalo varieties or Empire Zoysia. Conifers shed a lot of fine leaves and palms are not as low-maintenance as you might think, needing old fronds removed or damage control where the self-pruning species have dropped their fronds and flower heads.
You can make your garden chores faster and easier if you follow these simple tips:
Little and often: Ignoring today’s single weed means hours of work after it’s seeded everywhere. Try to do a quick five minute nurse’s round every few days to keep an eye on things. Take with you a spray bottle of pre-mixed herbicide for a few quick squirts on pesky weeds.
Don’t let anything get out of hand: Leaving pruning until the plants are growing through the back door will make your job much harder as you have to cut into older wood (from which some plants won’t recover) and have large amounts of green waste to deal with — not to mention a plant that needs watering and fertilising to re-grow.
Mulch does matter: Thick, chunky mulch (pieces of more than 2cm) will help prevent weed growth while still allowing water through. Wood mulch needs extra fertiliser to stop the soil losing nitrogen.
Don’t overdo feeding and watering: The more you encourage your plants to grow, the more you’ll have to prune them. A little slow-release fertiliser and minimal water will keep them healthy but not vigorous. Use a soil-wetter on water-repellent soils.
Get the right tools: Don’t wrestle with secateurs to prune thick branches. Equip yourself properly for each job, storing small tools and gloves in a handy carry-all. Clean tools after use and always put them away.
Green waste disposal: Have an easy-access place for your green waste. A compost bin is ideal — run over the smaller prunings with the mower first and put the heavier wood into the council green waste bin.
Top 10 plants
Here are 10 high-performance, low-maintenance plants for warm climate zones:
1. Trachelospermum jasminoides ‘Variegatum’ (variegated star jasmine)
2. Pentas lanceolata (Egyptian star cluster)
3. Origanum (both the species oregano and the golden marjoram variety)
4. Rondeletia amoena (rondeletia)
5. Raphiolepis umbellata (yeddo hawthorn)
6. Liriope muscari (lily turf)
7. Acacia fimbriata ‘Dwarf’ (dwarf fringed wattle)
8. Syzygium luehmannii (lilly pilly)
9. Acmena ‘Allyn Magic’ (dwarf lilly pilly)
10. Camellia spp.