Independent of which climate you live in, there are 10 characteristics to keep in mind when choosing plants that will thrive for you with minimum input. Here is a list of considerations that will affect how much time you will get to spend relaxing in your garden:
Image: Bamboo and Portuguese laurel, both as a hedge and in lollipop shape (‘half standards’, as horticulturists call them) provide an easy-to-maintain evergreen structure.
Right plant right place
This refers to the environment a plant will thrive in and relates to sun exposure, climate, soil conditions and water requirements. Matching your plants with the natural conditions of where they will be planted will reduce the amount of supplemental care they need from you to thrive. The right plant in the right place will result in sturdier and healthier plants, which are less susceptible to diseases.
Select plants whose eventual size and habit match that of the space you are trying to fill. It is all too tempting to select the most vigorous plant you can find in the hope that it will cover that fence or fill that bed as quickly as possible. However, fast growth rates for shrubs and climbers mean that you will have to control them by pruning several times a year, and because many of them grow to a considerable size, you will have to continue pruning frequently and forever more. Furthermore, plants usually look best if they are allowed to grow to their natural shape and size.
Some plants also naturally have a neat habit. If left alone, a choisya or skimmia for example will form a perfect dome-shaped specimen in a spot they enjoy.
Some perennials and shrubs have a short lifespan, which means they start looking woody and untidy after a few years. You may find that, by the time they have finally reached the required size, they will look so untidy that you will have to replace them.
Read up on plants you are considering, to find out if they are annuals or bi-annuals, in which case you will have to plant new ones every year or ensure they are good self-seeders and allow them to do so. Keep in mind that many plants do not come true from seed so you might end up with a different flower colour the next year. Your seeds may not settle exactly where you had intended but if you don’t mind, this is an easy win.
Many perennials need to be divided every few years to keep looking their best, others don’t. Choose the latter for low-maintenance schemes.
If you are looking for climbers you can choose between climbers that need a framework their tendrils can use to wrap around as the plant grows or which you can use to train branches. For less attention, you can opt for a self-clinging climber, of which the most famous is ivy but there are others, that you can easily prune like a hedge.
Some plants enjoy poor soils or only need moderate feeding, in fact, they thrive in such conditions. Admittedly, these won’t be the bulk of a lush, green garden, however, you can avoid overly demanding plants and grouping together plants of similar needs to minimise and optimise feeding.
Some flowering plants require regular deadheading to continue flowering, which is a lot of work. Instead, add colour with geraniums or flowering shrubs that don’t require deadheading.
Leaves, berries and seeds
Sweeping can become a seemingly never-ending task if your garden contains a large quantity of deciduous shrubs and trees that shed their leaves in autumn. Others may have berries or blossoms that stain paving, shed millions of little seeds or prickly seed capsules in large quantities, and possibly several of the above at different times of the year.
While not all of these can be avoided and a garden without seasonal change would be missing much of its charm, it is possible to be mindful of where debris is least troublesome and where the effect of the planting outweighs the added maintenance. An Amelanchier with spring blossoms, summer berries and autumn foliage will be well worth sweeping up after for the joy it brings outside your window, whereas messy plants that don’t ‘earn their keep’ visually can be avoided.
Some plants are well-known for being susceptible to pests and diseases; smelly mildew on viburnum or caterpillars and blight on box, to name a few. If you know you won’t have the time or inclination to monitor these plants and apply treatments in order to keep them looking their best, select something else. For instance, there are plenty of alternatives to box that can be shaped into topiary such as Japanese Holly (ilex crenata) or naturally grow in a spherical shape such as pottosporum ‘Gold Ball’ or some hebes.
There is something to be said about plants that can be multiplied without much fuss if you want more of the same. Pinch a clump of leaves off a campanula or aster and stick it into the soil wherever you want more and that’s all you will have to do.
Tips for creating a successful low-maintenance planting scheme
Assuming you have found this article because you would like to create a low-maintenance garden because gardening is not a hobby for you or you would simply rather enjoy the garden from a lawn chair as opposed to kneeling in flower beds with gardening gloves, here are a few more tips:
Limit the number of plants you select and create a professional look by boldly grouping and repeating plants across several areas- you will have to research less and it will be easier to care for larger areas of the same plant and remember a regime for fewer types of plants.
Ensure you have a good evergreen structure, in particular in areas that you can see from the house year-round. These form an easy-to-care-for backbone, for instance, prune Portuguese laurel after flowering, which will shape the shrubs at the same time as removing spent flowers and messy avoiding berries later…
Where to find information on specific low-maintenance plants
In general, the choice of plants today is vast- there is truly a plant for every effect and location that you can dream up. Spending a bit of time researching their characteristics before you include them in your garden is time well spent and the information is available for free on websites such as the RHS (RHS.org.uk).