There is no such thing as low maintenance gardening

Sadly, dear Reader, there is no such thing as low maintenance gardening. There is extremely high maintenance gardening, moderately high maintenance gardening and some maintenance gardening. But low maintenance? I very much doubt it.

If you want a truly low maintenance outdoors you have three options that I can think of. The first is no maintenance at all. Ignore anything outside and let it become a wilderness. Your neighbours will hate you and talk about you lowering property values but you can let that wash around you. The second option is to have only grass and mow it occasionally. That is low maintenance but not to be confused with gardening. And do not expect to have lawn. Lawns take a surprising amount of work to keep looking good. You will have grass, invaded by weeds, with dead patches and rank areas where the mower doesn’t quite reach but it is generally easy care. Alternatively you could pave the entire area and get away with sweeping or using a blower vac from time to time. A solid sheet of paving (concrete or tar seal) is considerably less work than pavers or cobbles. Weeds will miraculously appear in all the gaps between the pavers.

Anything more in the gardening stakes requires maintenance to some degree. Plants grow. Leaves fall and accumulate. Weeds appear. Wind and rain spreads debris. Just as carpets do not vacuum themselves, showers fail to clean themselves and even self cleaning ovens still need attention, so too do gardens need regular maintenance if you want them to look good.

Were I a landscaper, I would despair at the number of people who request a low maintenance garden. The late nineties gave us the minimalist garden – a few strategically placed boulders, large pavers interplanted with mondo grass to soften the look, one expensive piece of sculpture, and a few spiky plants such as sanseveria with a pebble mulch below. It is minimalist in the use of plants, but not minimal maintenance. This stark look relies on pristine grooming and very tight maintenance. Weeds will still appear and leaves will blow in from further afield and it all rather spoils the look.

This train of thought came about because I spent last weekend reworking a border immediately by the house. This one was about 40cm wide and 9 metres long. It is very hard to know what to do with an area which is only 40cm wide and bounded on one side by a path that is used constantly and on the other by the house. I am sure that the idea behind such house borders is to soften the hard lines but conditions tend to be tricky. In this case the garden is under the eaves, rarely gets any direct rain and bakes in all the morning sun. Over the years the level of the soil had built up so it was higher than the path and retained by assorted rocks which narrowed the border even further. Referred to as “the veltheimia border”, its main inhabitants were two patches of these very large South African bulbs which are coming into growth now. The veltheimia, for those of you that don’t know it, resembles a lachenalia on steroids. The common form (capensis) is pink but we also had a goodly patch of the prized rosalba form which is predominantly pale yellow. But the problem with the velthemias is that while the foliage looks wonderful when it first comes up in autumn, the slugs and snails, which I am sure hibernate in the dry under the house, also appreciate the foliage and move out in force to munch it. When the flowers appear in late winter, this border has a second coming and is much admired. For the rest of the year, it looks tatty and bitsy as we have tried to add more interest by planting other random plants.

I gutted the whole area and lowered the level. Now if you do your maths, 40cm by 9 metres gives a total area of 3.6 square metres which is not much at all. But it took me the better part of the entire weekend.

I had contemplated going in with a row of the popular burgundy black aeonium Schwarzkopf underplanted with a green or blue grey succulent. They would have been quite happy in the conditions and it would have given a two tiered display and all year round foliage and colour. What is more, I had the plants available. But we are not into mass planting of any description really. And I can’t get excited about succulents. In fact, as I dug out the sempervivens which I had planted in there a few years ago, I decided they must possibly be the most boring plant I know.

No. We seem to subscribe to the school of super high maintenance gardening in a number of areas and that is why it took me all weekend to renovate three and a half square metres of a seven acre garden here. I did a quick count and I ended up using around 27 different plant varieties to try and restructure this border to give year round interest and to showcase some interesting plants. I couldn’t believe how many it took to give manageable layers of height and variation in foliage and flowers appropriate to a confined space. I could have done it in two hours flat if I had stuck with the aeonium idea. But then where would I have put the veltheimias?

The rule of thumb in planning a large garden for manageable maintenance is to think in terms of radiating circles. The circle immediately near the house is the intensively gardened and closely maintained area. The next circle out should be manageable on a seasonal circuit – cleaned up and tended to around four times a year. The outer areas will still need your attention once or preferably twice a year. It seems wonderfully self evident when you think about it.