Written by NDA Garden Design tutor Gill Lotter
Expectations upon each of us to have the perfect garden to match our picture postcard life and home are as demanding as ever, but how do we rationalise this with our needs? Instead of feeling a sense of overwhelming panic when we step out of the back door, how instead can we create a sanctuary from chaos? Below are some tips on the design approach you can take in your use of space, materials and plants to create a low maintenance garden.
Take the Outdoor Living approach by thinking of the garden as an outdoor room or a series of zones, each with a different use: dining, relaxing, play, home office, storage, barbecue, etc. You could even section off a part of the garden, out of view of the house, where you can leave things to nature and let go a little! Above all, keep the layout simple and decide upon a strong focal point.
This home office is an attractive feature in its own right | www.manomano.co.uk
Don’t be afraid to make a statement with your horizontal and vertical surfaces and remember that colour can be introduced through the materials you use.
Although the lawn and hedging will need regular maintenance, there are no borders. Interest and movement is created through the use of dramatic concrete paving that appears to be random and yet has been meticulously planned. | www.fosterconcrete.net
L’arbre Corten Garden Screen – for division and decoration | www.screenwithenvy.co.uk
Retractable fabric screen in zingy orange for an exotic atmosphere | http://www.aristocratawnings.com
Use Low Maintenance Materials
When selecting materials for hard landscaping and features, select those that need little attention. Sophisticated choices of composite decking avoid the regular treatment necessary for softwood to prolong its life. Even some hardwoods will need to be oiled if a certain ‘look’ or colour is desired. Well-laid gravel is low maintenance when compared to a lawn but high maintenance when compared to paving slabs. Resin-bonded or bound gravel offer low maintenance alternatives that give a similar appearance but should always be laid by an expert in that field. Consider what jointing is required with the paving you select. For open joints, the new generation of cement and resin mortars can take pressure washing and are less likely to crack. You might like instead to consider close jointed surfaces. These too can be pressure washed but would need jointing sand brushing in to ensure continued stability.
Baba Outdoor Dining Chair by Domitalia – with a sculptural form, these chairs are a feature in their own right and are constructed from plastic. | www.wayfair.co.uk
Composite Decking by www.duracomposites.com
Things to avoid: greenhouses, ponds, too many pots and containers. The latter is really a question of lifestyle – you may find drip-feed irrigation systems to be troublesome.
Ditch the Lawn
Artificial lawn is becoming increasingly popular but heed these words by artificial grass experts, Turf King:
“Remember – poor quality, badly installed artificial lawns are a cost and a constant disappointment. High quality properly installed artificial lawns are an investment and will bring many years of use and enjoyment.” – www.turf-king.com
Edging is vital for artificial turf but also a blessing if you are determined to retain a living lawn, for which your local wildlife will be eternally grateful! Edging will remove the need to edge-trim and preventing the lawn from creeping into the borders. It can either be discretely hidden or ornamental, e.g. paving slabs, brick or timber sleepers. If wide enough, it can double up as a path.
Artificial lawn by www.turf-king.com
Depending upon the fertility of the soil and the species used, wildflower meadows often only need to be mown once or twice a year so although on the surface they appear to offer a solution, they are not without their problems. It is an area that will not necessarily look attractive all of the time so maybe more useful for the outer reaches of larger gardens or a ‘wildlife’ zone in a smaller garden. Furthermore, they can take around five years to establish from seed and mismanagement can result in a weed-ridden disaster zone. If budget allows, wildflower meadow turf offers a fast track to maturity.
This charming example of a wild lawn was achieved simply by allowing a square of standard lawn turf to grow. The mown edging strip provides definition and containment but a similar effect could be achieved with a path. In larger expanses, paths can be mown through the middle. | www.community.rspb.org.uk
When planting for a low maintenance garden, be ruthless. Make practical decisions based upon the roles each plant plays in punctuating the design, creating rhythm, making a statement, softening the hard landscaping or creating cohesion in colour, texture or form.
Be bold: use a limited number of different species and repeat them in large groups.
Structure: create strong structural planting by ensuring that at least one-third of the plants are evergreen.
Award of Garden Merit: when selecting plants for low maintenance, look out for the RHS Award of Garden Merit logo. This is given only to plants who have gone through a rigorous trial and assessment programme, is found to be strong, stable in form and colour and resistant to pests and diseases.
Mulch: use a mulch, e.g. gravel or bark chip, laid over a weed suppressant membrane to keep the weeds at bay but do make sure that you dig out any pernicious perennial weeds by the roots first.
Plant for the Given Conditions: don’t try to go against nature as you will ultimately create work for yourself: those Alliums in damp soil will rot and the Lavender in the shade will grow leggy!
Types of Plants to Avoid or Reduce:
- Plants requiring dead-heading, training or fussy pruning
- Fast-growing hedges
NDA Favourite Low Maintenance Plants
All of the following plants have the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM):
Alchemilla Mollis (Lady’s Mantle) – will give very good ground cover and happily self-seed itself about to combat weeds.
Choisya × dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’ (Mexican Orange Blossom Aztec Pearl) – less common than its other Mexican Orange Blossom cousins but with finely divided palmate leaflets.
Echinacea purpurea ‘Ruby Giant’ (Cone Flower) – a trouble-free herbaceous plant with daisy-like pink flowers, loved by bees and butterflies.
Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ – slow growing but ideal for ground cover or to grow up a wall
Hebe ‘Great Orme’ – Very popular with pollinating insects, this Hebe will give you a rounded evergreen shape and white/pink flower spikes during summer/autumn.
Hemerocallis ‘Pink Damask’(Daylily Pink Damask) – flowering from mid to late summer, this herbaceous perennial needs no support and will give you trouble-free salmon colour flowers with yellow centres.
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (Climbing Hydrangea) – it may take time to establish this self-supporting slow grower but its lace-cap flowers will brighten up a north or east-facing wall.
Lavandula angustifolia ‘Nana Alba’ (Dwarf White English Lavender) – a compact and very reliable plant if grown in full sun and well-drained soil.
Passiflora caerulea (Passion Flower) – thrives on neglect and grows best in full sun and poor soil. At its best, it will reward you with flowers during summer, followed by exotic looking fruits in autumn.
Sarcococca confusa (Sweet Box) – plant near a door or window where you can be uplifted by its delicious scent during the dark of winter.
Sempervivum calcareum ‘Sir William Lawrence’ (House Leek Sir William Lawrence’) – House Leeks are wonderful for pots and containers, raised beds or gaps in paving/walling. Protect their lower leaves from damp soil to prevent rot.
Three single standards distract attention from and soften the fence. This shape is picked up in the rounded Box on the opposite side of the garden, in the concrete or stone ball, and in the Alliums in the raised border at the end. | www.rhsblog.co.uk
While an existing garden can be honed to reduce required input, there’s no doubt that the creation of a low maintenance garden is more straightforward if you are in a position to start from scratch. A garden designer could certainly bring their experience to bear but it is very clear that degrees of maintenance are a highly subjective issue. It is important to delve deeper by asking more revealing questions. Are there any jobs in the garden that you enjoy? What tasks do you most dislike? What will lead you to procrastinate? Honest answers to these questions may in fact lead you to a garden that is more realistically within your scope.
Did you know that we offer two courses on designing for the outside world? To find out about our Diploma in Professional Garden Design and BA (Hons) Design for Outdoor Living, visit our website.