How to design and plant a low maintenance garden

By Andy McIndoe

Adapting your garden for an easier lifestyle

I originally wrote my book, ‘Losing the Plot’ (AA publishing 2009) for those gardeners that once had a large garden, but had now reached a stage in life where it had all got too much to cope with. Either they had to make changes to their existing gardens, or downsize to a smaller, more manageable plot. What I have found is that the book is popular not only with the more mature gardeners, but with anyone that is short of time to dedicate to their back yard. I think most of us want a beautiful space to look at and enjoy without the need to spend hours on it on a regular basis.

Also it’s a fact that we find it challenging to adapt to a different space. You have a large garden and when you move to a small one you think you still need a lawn, a shed and you take your favourite plants with you, regardless of whether they are the best choice for the space. It can all be rather a negative experience, unless you see it as an opportunity for a new beginning. Start again and design your garden for your new situation.

Here are my top ten tips for designing the planting in a good looking small garden; one to enjoy with the minimum of hard work from you.

Think twice before you include a lawn. Lawns need mowing and care to keep them looking good; and you need a mower. Perhaps paving, gravel or ground cover planting with stepping stones would be a better choice. Take the lead from Japanese gardens; minimal planting equals maximum effect.

 1. Japanese garden

When choosing plants select hard working ones that deliver more than one season of interest. Avoid those plants that produce a brief flush of flowers and contribute nothing for the rest of the year. Spiraea japonica ‘Firelight’ is a small shrub which looks good from the time the coppery leaves unfurl in spring, right through autumn when the turn shades of pink and gold.

Plan carefully where you position those things you have to have, but don’t want to look at. The rubbish bin, washing line and shed if you have one. Often the far end of a small garden is the most visible place when you view it from the house; not the best place for utilities! Draw attention away from them by creating strong focal points elsewhere in the garden. Yellow-leaved shrubs such as Leycesteria ‘Golden Lanterns’ are good at doing this; they always attract attention.

Make your planting areas large enough to accommodate your chosen plants. If you have to keep cutting things back to keep them in bounds it just creates more work and rarely looks good. In narrow borders make the most of slender shrubs and climbers. The deciduous climber Actinidia kolomikta is a stunning choice for a wall in sun or semi-shade. The soft green leaves are white and often pink at the tips; they look as if they have been dipped in paint. The curling shoots carry pink flowers beneath the leaves in early summer.

Try and get your spacing right, particularly when planting shrubs. Think about the spread of a shrub in five years and position them accordingly. If two shrubs each have an eventual spread of one metre, three feet, then space them one metre (3ft) apart.

5. Spacing hebes

All gardens look more appealing with height in the space. When choosing a small tree select one with small leaves that do not cause a problem when they fall in autumn. Sorbus aucuparia varieties, robinia, gleditsia, small-leaved prunus, Japanes maples, malus and some birches are all good choices.

Choose small shrubs and evergreen perennials that look good throughout the year for pots and containers rather than using seasonal bedding plants. Although they may be more expensive at the outset they are more economical in the long run. Also there is no down time between plantings. Shrubs such as Leucothoe ‘Lovita’ and Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ look great throughout the year, particularly in winter.

7. Leucothoe 'Lovita'

Group pots and containers together to make watering easier and also reduce the frequency of watering. The containers shade one another keeping roots cool in summer and helping to protect them from frost in winter. Use loam-based compost which is more efficient at holding on to water and nutrients.

8. Group pots together

Choose low-maintenance herbaceous perennials and ones that flower for a long period. Achilleas flower for several weeks in summer. Iris sibirica has sharp vertical lines and rarely needs dividing. Geranium ‘Rozanne’ flowers from early summer through to autumn.

9. Achillea terracotta

Make the most of ground cover shrubs and perennials that look good throughout the year. Winter flowering heathers are a good low-maintenance choice and they are in bud and flower for about three months. The secret of success is to clip over them with shears when the flowers fade. This promotes low, bushy growth that really smothers the ground.

10. Erica carnea

Do let me know if this post is helpful. I would like to do more posts on planning a low maintenance plot to prove to you that it doesn’t mean losing your interest in gardening; you just focus it in a different way. Also do take a look at my book: ‘Losing the Plot’ Publisher: AA Publishing. Buy on line:

Losing the Plot cover

Andy McIndoe

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