A high maintenance garden changes rapidly throughout the seasons. There will be a lot of plants that flower throughout the spring, but then once they finish, you’re relying on other plants coming through, then something else, then something else.
It’s a cycle of growth and die back and in order to make it look lovely, you have to keep tending it to make it all happen and keep it smart. Low maintenance gardens are generally planted with plants which are slow-growing and usually non-flowering, as generally speaking, if you’ve got a lot of flowering, it creates a lot of maintenance. I tend to put in evergreen plants as much as possible. That doesn’t mean it’s boring – you get all these lovely textures, colour and form in evergreens, which can be just as interesting and certainly have more longevity than a garden full of flowers.
Evergreen climbing plants are good, like trachelospermum jasminoides which is a slow-growing jasmine. It has flowers in the summer with a lovely perfume. It doesn’t cling on and scar walls like ivy does - it needs a trellis or wiring for support. It’s a great foil for putting plants in front of it, as it doesn’t grow rampant or too far from the wall. You can plan a garden where you’ve got some feature shrubs, palms or trees as a focal point, then use under planting.
"Not putting in too much is often more effective."
The under plants could be a variety of grasses, which are evergreen, like carex oshimensis evergold, which is a low-growing yellow and green striped grass. If you plant those in a clump, it creates a nice display at the base of a palm tree for example. Or if you like black grasses, for something of a real contrast, plant the ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens. It provides a lovely carpet that’s really striking. Or there’s festuca glauca elijah blue – there’s a whole variety of low-growing evergreen plants you can put into the garden. Not putting in too much is often more effective.
You don’t want a load of plants all fighting each other and you have to keep going in and clipping stuff back so you maintain the space for each one. If you just put one thing in, you can always add some bulbs to come up for some seasonal interest. Less is more. There’s also box hedging or yew hedging, which are both slow growing and only need clipping once or twice a year to keep them looking neat. They have good texture and provide a good backdrop and boundary to put at the edge of borders, then you put something less neat and tidy like a lavender behind them. It’s very traditional but very effective.
"If you just put one thing in, you can always add some bulbs to come up for some seasonal interest."
Lavender is fairly low maintenance if the conditions are ideal for them –ie: south-facing, free-draining, sheltered usually. You can let them grow, flower, cut them back once and if it’s a long summer, they may well flower a second time. Then we come to your architectural plants - palms, yuccas, chamaerops, trachycarpus and also phormiums or New Zealand flax.
Phormiums are substantial - they can grow to two metres plus in all directions so you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Plant one of those at the front of your border and you might have a horrible surprise in a couple of years time! It is very much a feature plant. However, there are varieties that are smaller and if you have limited space those are the ones to choose. If you don’t have a garden designer or horticulturalist involved in choosing your plants, you’ve got to do your own research. Always ask at the garden centre or at the very least check the label to see what the eventual height is.
Don’t make the mistake of just going to a garden centre, see something you like the look of then plant it next to something else you like the look of. You have no idea if one is going to grow to six metres in all directions and another is only going to stay at half a metre. It’s so important that you understand the soil and PH conditions they need.
There’s no point planting ferns which prefer damp shade and moist soil out in a front border in full sun in sharp-draining soil. It won’t be very long before you lose it. The key for a low maintenance garden is to do your research - know what your plant will do and what conditions it loves, have a sensible combination of plants and don’t try to do too much in small spaces. You’re always going to have to do some work, but if you plant well, it’s only periodic work. Even if you put down an artificial lawn, you’re still going to have to sweep it every so often!