You might be starved for time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an attractive or exciting garden. Here’s how.
Lawns, shrubberies and big, blousy borders full of summer-flowering perennials are great if you’ve got time to look after them, but for those who lead busy lives, the thought of mowing, pruning or deadheading is a complete turn off. Yet even if you’re short on time, you can still create an outdoor space that has plenty to shout about. With skilful planning, along with a careful choice of plants and materials, you can create a bold garden that will largely take care of itself. A low-maintenance garden is perfect for anyone who would rather kick back their heels and enjoy their outdoor space than spend countless hours maintaining it.
Consider your space
The design of a low-maintenance garden largely depends on how you want to use the space. For instance, singletons and couples may want somewhere to chill out, to party or to use for alfresco dining. You may even want a combination of all three, so plan the space carefully to ensure you get the maximum use out of it. Family gardens are a compromise between what adults want and the need to provide an exciting space for children. To prevent this from becoming cluttered with lots of toys, you will need to incorporate some clever storage solutions and avoid plants that might harm kids, such as spiky exotics.
If your space is largely shaded by buildings or neighbouring trees, make the most of any available light by placing your outdoor dining furniture in that area. Conversely, if you have a sunny, south-facing space, you may want to put seats in the shade to give you respite from the sun when you eat. If you don’t have natural shade, create it by erecting a shade sail.
A great consideration when planning a garden is how much time you can spend maintaining it, whether it’s 10 minutes a week or an hour every month. If you can only spare a few minutes, choose easy-to- clean, hard landscaping materials and avoid too many plants – all will need the occasional trim to remain in good health.
To ensure your garden is easy to look after, pick hard landscaping materials carefully. For paving and patios, large slabs of natural stone are ideal, such as slate. Indian sandstone is another popular material, but much of its production is considered unethical – landscape supplier Marshalls has signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative, ensuring there are better wages, safer working conditions and no child labour in the production of the stone it imports. Stone does not require more than the occasional sweep with a broom to remove leaves or debris – if the stone is butt-jointed to create a seamless floor it is even easier to clean.
Decking makes a durable, attractive and tactile surface. Go for hardwood, rather than softwood, which discolours quickly and becomes slippery due to the build-up of algae and moss over winter. Western red cedar, oak or other hardwoods from a certified scheme, such as that run by the Forestry Stewardship Scheme, are ideal. Alternatively, try Eco Decking Tiles. These are made from ipe, a South American hardwood that is resistant to lichens and moulds due to the density of the wood. The tiles are mounted on a weatherproof polypropylene base and originate from a certified scheme in Bolivia. They can be easily slotted together and cost £78 per sqm.
Gravel is often suggested for low-maintenance gardens, as it can prevent weeds from growing if spread across a weed-suppressing membrane. However, it can soon turn into an outdoor cat litter tray or need raking to stay looking sharp. To avoid this happening, use resin-bonded gravel – the stone is scattered on to wet resin, which then holds it in place. You can lay the material yourself (£15-£20 per sqm) or pay £35 per sqm for a contractor to lay the resin and the gravel. Resin-bound gravel, where the aggregate is mixed with the resin before laying to prevent stones from ever becoming loose, costs £60-£70 per sqm for a specialist to lay.
Lawns are not ideal for those pressed for time. They need cutting, weeding, feeding and watering on a regular basis. However, if you have children and feel the need for a verdant sward, try fake grass. There are many styles available, and they make a passable alternative to the real thing. Honest! When laying, fake grass is unrolled like a carpet and held in place with staples. You can even choose from a variety of piles, ranging from 17-38mm. Expect to pay between £32.50-£55 per sqm.
Flowering plants need a lot of TLC, but there are many plants that don’t need regular deadheading, cutting back or staking.
Perhaps the ultimate low- maintenance plants are sun-loving succulents. These thrive on neglect and are naturally tolerant of drought. Ideal if you forget about watering as they will not turn up their toes and die. Architectural, shapely and evergreen, succulents rarely need attention. Among the best are aloes, echeverias and agaves, such as the statuesque Agave americana. Choose carefully – there are many varieties and not all are hardy, although some can be left outside all year round as long as you protect them from excessive rain that can rot the roots.
Bamboos provide all-year-round interest, but select clump-forming varieties or those that spread slowly. Try golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), the zigzag-stemmed Phyllostachys aureosulcata ‘Aureocaulis’ or black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Although most can be left with the minimum of care, spare 10 minutes to strip foliage from the bottom 90cm of each plant and you’ll reveal their showy stems.
The strong shape of hardy palms are perfect if you want a specimen plant in the garden. Chusan palm, or Trachycarpus fortunei, has graceful fan-like leaves and will survive winters down to -20 ̊C. Others to consider include the dwarf fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, and Trachycarpus wagnerianus.
Although many plants can be grown in well-prepared soil, some are perfect in containers, making them ideal for really tiny gardens. Choose pots that suit the plant, your style of garden or hard landscaping materials. Black or white terrazzo, galvanised steel in geometric shapes or glazed terracotta suit sleek, modern spaces. If you only have a balcony and need a lightweight container, try one of many on the market made from fibreglass.
Low-maintenance doesn’t mean you can forget about plants altogether, and even the most drought-tolerant specimen will need to be watered occasionally. Make life easier by setting up an automatic watering system with a timer fitted to an outdoor tap. Ask the experts If you’ve never done it before, designing a garden from scratch can be difficult. It is often best to employ a garden designer to help pull all of your ideas together, and to recommend the best materials and plants for your space.
So how do you find a designer? A recommendation from a friend or neighbour who has had their garden designed could make the decision process easy, but it is still worth having a look at the designer’s portfolio to see whether or not you like their work.
If no one can suggest a designer, visit the Society of Garden Designers website. It represents 180 leading designers and has a handy online search tool that allows you to find one in your area.
Alternatively, if you have put a design down on paper and need a landscaper to bring it to fruition, visit the website set up by the British Association of Landscape Industries. This trade association has 700 members who you can track down via its online search device.
Images: Polly Eltes