All gardens need some degree of maintenance, but you can keep it to a minimum
Story: Georgia Harper, MAILDM
It seems that the days when spending a couple of hours pottering about in the garden was considered relaxing and therapeutic are becoming a thing of the past. With all the pressures and distractions of modern life, many people are finding they have less time to spend in the garden than ever before. This is not to say we don’t enjoy time spent in the garden; it’s just that most of us want this time to be about relaxing with a cool drink and a book rather than fertilising, pruning and pulling up weeds.
The popularity of low-maintenance gardens has never been higher. And while there is no denying more people are making the decision to go low-maintenance, we need to ask ourselves what does this really mean? In some people’s minds low-maintenance means no-maintenance, but is this realistic?
Well, the short answer is no. Every garden needs some degree of maintenance. The goal, then, is to create a garden that meets all your needs while requiring minimal effort to maintain. As with anything worthwhile in life, effort is required — and a garden is no different. This is something you just have to accept, but with good planning and the right selection of plants and materials, it’s possible to make any ongoing maintenance a lot easier.
Some design tips
There is absolutely no point in creating a garden where every element is designed to be as low-maintenance as possible if you don’t like how it looks. The key to doing it well is to think about what you want to see and feel when you walk outside, then planning to achieve that look using plants that are suited to where you live and the style of garden you want.
Tropical, Asian, Mediterranean … any style of garden can be adapted to be low in maintenance, although some styles will always need more effort than others, such as the formal garden with lots of hedges and topiary to be kept trim, and the cottage garden with its masses of flowering plants.
The golden rule for any low-maintenance garden is to pick the right plants for the space. If a plant is right for the area it’s going into, it should require very little attention. Most plants need a lot of care only if they are under stress, which is usually caused by being placed in the wrong location — for example, a plant that requires sun being planted in the shade (and vice versa).
If you don’t want to be sweeping flowers away, strappy-leafed plants like cordylines are always a safe bet, but remember: the fewer flowering plants you have the less spectacular the show! The same principle applies to trees. Deciduous trees drop their leaves in winter, so you might want to avoid them. The downside is that deciduous trees planted close to the house or entertaining area are great for sun protection in summer and for allowing natural light during winter.
As a rough guide, when selecting plants for a shady or damp area, look for those with thick, wide, fleshy, dark-green leaves, while if you’re in an exposed area that’s dry, start with plants with thin, needle-like leaves, hard leaves or white/grey foliage.
Lawn of any type requires lots of maintenance, but the benefits can outweigh the effort, so keep lawns to a minimum and enjoy.
Paving and decking
Paving instead of garden beds (or lawn) might sound like a great idea, but it heats up, can get slippery and requires maintenance (sweeping and sealing) to keep it looking its best. So choose carefully — plain, solid-coloured pavers show every mark and leaf drop, and you’ll be sweeping them often to keep them looking good. Natural stone’s irregularities disguise any marks, leaves or debris resting on the pavers, keeping them looking good with much less effort.
In damp, shady areas, decking may be the answer, as it’s elevated above ground level. This means rain, leaves and debris can pass through more easily. Of course, timber decking needs to be oiled and stained to prevent it going grey. The other option might be one of the decking board alternatives made of recycled wood and plastic, which don’t require anything but the occasional wash or sweep.
Points of interest
Sculpture is a great alternative to a feature plant for giving some vertical interest, and birdbaths, garden benches, colourful mosaic plaques, decorative walling and sundials make for personalised features that don’t need pruning, fertilising or watering. (For more on sculpture, turn to page 24.)
There’s a multitude of irrigation systems on offer for the coordinated gardener but drip line is the most water-efficient. By installing a drip irrigation system under a layer of mulch (or a sub-surface system beneath an area of lawn), connecting it to your rainwater tank and linking it all to a seven-day timer, you need never think about watering the garden ever again! Include a rain sensor that automatically switches the system off when it rains and you’ll be low-maintenance and water-wise.
Mulch is by far the very best tool in keeping maintenance in any garden to a minimum. It means less watering, less weeding and, as it breaks down, mulch is an excellent soil conditioner for ongoing plant health. If you also ensure the soil is properly prepared before any planting takes place, which might mean the addition of nutrients in the form of compost along with some water-saving crystals or liquid, your plants will become established faster and be healthier, which means less ongoing care.
The ‘little man’
If all else fails, consider a “little man” to help you from time to time with the bigger tasks, such as re-mulching each year, pruning wayward branches, trimming hedges or aerating the lawn. You’ll be helping the economy as well as your back!
Gardens can be a great support to our mental health and, with a little bit of careful planning, low-maintenance gardens don’t have to be boring and sparse. You can still have the lush oasis you desire and as much plant texture and colour as you can handle. All you need to do is plan ahead and then accept that every garden needs some form of maintenance from time to time. The important thing is to make sure the results are worth it!
About the author: Georgia Harper is a Melbourne-based landscape designer and founder of Georgia Harper Landscape Design.