“What do you think is the lowest maintenance form of gardening?” I asked Mark.
His response was immediate: “Plant shrubs and spray the ground beneath with RoundUp.”
He is right. All outdoor space needs some maintenance just as we routinely maintain indoors. Even if you concrete or deck most of your area, it still needs some attention. The concrete will need sweeping and probably some attention to moss growth with weeds finding purchase in any cracks or natural build-up of litter. Using pavers or cobbles requires quite a bit more attention as there are many more opportunities for weeds to get established. And lawns – or mown grass if that better describes your green sward – needs regular mowing even if you ignore all the other interventions and care that many lavish on their lawn.
How about wild gardens? Yes, that is a lower maintenance style of garden but it also takes a much higher level of skill to find the right balance. There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness. The same goes for cottage gardening. It is a fine line and quite a bit of skill that differentiates a cottage garden from a wild garden. The wild look will not appeal to many (most?) people who just want a tidy back yard. Wild gardens are an acquired and thoughtful taste.
Vegetable gardening is anything but low maintenance. Don’t believe any of the trite commentary that you can have a productive vegetable garden with very little effort. You can’t. Getting a decent crop and some continuity in supply takes a whole lot more work on an ongoing basis. What about trendy food forests? It takes an even higher level of skill to manage a productive food forest. You actually need to know what you are doing if you want regular harvests. In less skilled hands, a food forest will soon morph into a wild garden on track to becoming a wilderness with very little food produced for humans, although the birds, insects, rats, mice and rabbits may thank you.
Shade gardens tend to be lower maintenance because plant growth is much slower in areas without sun and the soil is not cultivated to the same extent. The shade and woodland areas here are the lowest maintenance areas we have and I can say that confidently with decades of experience. They are less demanding even, than the sunny meadow. But they are not no-maintenance, just lower maintenance and that is all dependent on tree cover. New Zealanders are not known for a love of trees in domestic gardens – maybe because our housing stock is not generally of high quality and we want all the solar warmth and light we can get.
The risk with trees is greater if you get the selection wrong in the first place, or the placement wrong and then fail to carry out maintenance as required to ensure that it is a good shape and in good health. The cost of remedial work or removal of an established tree is a whole lot higher than a shrub. That is why Mark recommends keeping to shrubs if you want low maintenance.
If money is no object, you can have what you want. You can pay a good designer and then pay a skilled maintenance crew to come in and do the work but it will be an ongoing commitment. Just as houses need cleaning, attractive outdoor spaces and gardens need attention too.
If you are operating on a lower budget, my advice given in earlier posts stands: plant a formal garden with a very limited range of plants. It is all about the look, the photograph. In practical terms, it takes regular attention to maintain the pristine level of care a formal garden requires but there is no great skill in carrying that out. You don’t need a competent gardener to maintain that, just somebody with a penchant for tidiness.
If you can’t afford to pay somebody to come in and do your outside maintenance that you don’t wish to do yourself, and you live in a city, then buy an upper floor apartment. The body corporate will take responsibility for all the shared outdoor space. If you buy an apartment that looks out over green space and trees, the view may be all you need.
Or plant shrubs and buy a sprayer and a good supply of glyphosate. Not that I am recommending this as desirable, but it is a lower maintenance option. Shun detail and shun underplanting.
This train of thought came about because I am much absorbed by our perennial gardens – the new summer gardens, the semi-wild Iolanthe cottage garden and the Wild North Garden. We have a new part-time gardener. This is very exciting for us – a strong, young person with some skills is like a breath of fresh air in our ageing establishment. His first project is working in the Wild North Garden to get it to a standard that we think necessary before we open it to garden visitors. Meantime, I am taking apart and completely replanting the perennials in a little-noticed shrub and perennial border that edges the sunken garden area. It was anonymous because it wasn’t working very well and I want more visual oomph.
I came to the conclusion that the highest maintenance form of gardening that I can think of is in fact gardening with sunny perennials. It is taking a lot more work than I thought it would. Fortunately, we are of the Christopher Lloyd (he of Great Dixter) school of thought. To paraphrase him in a comment we once saw on TV, “I think you will find that the higher maintenance your garden is, the more interesting it is.” In high maintenance gardening, you notice the detail and the changes, not just the single snap-shot big picture. That is what keeps us absorbed here, even if as it keeps us busy.
I just issue the general warning that if you want a low maintenance garden, don’t go down the track of gardening with sunny perennials. At least not in our climate with its benign growing conditions and rampant growth.