Maintaining your garden can be very time consuming, leaving little time to enjoy the beautiful haven you have created.
Jane Vyse, Lecturer in the School of Horticulture at Bicton College shares some of the tricks of the trade to help reduce the workload.
Low maintenance gardening
…starts with soil preparation before planting. Careful and complete control of all perennial weeds is critical. Digging over the soil is a good way to spot and remove all the parts of perennial weeds e.g. the thick, white roots of bindweed; tough matted wiry underground stems of couch grass; yellow nettle roots and deep tap roots of dandelions and dock. It is easy to miss small portions, so regular squirting with glyphosate (Roundup) on new shoots that may appear will help to finish them off! (It is important to aim straight as any glyphosate that touches your plants may kill them off too!
Whether you garden on clay or sandy soils, they all benefit from the addition of organic matter when digging the ground over before planting. Well-rotted farm yard manure if you can get it, garden compost or composted green waste are all good sources. Organic matter helps in two ways – it opens up heavy soils and can improve drainage, while on sandy soils, it works like a sponge and helps to retain moisture in the soil – essential with the increased threat of dry summers.
Digging over the soil to at least the depth of the blade of your spade helps in breaking up compacted areas, getting air into the soil and helping drainage – all good news for your new plants. Once planted, a layer of mulch on the surface will finish off the job with a nice appearance and help to seal in the moisture – so long as the soil is moist before you mulch! Suitable mulching materials are leaf-mould, chipped bark, mushroom compost (but not around acid loving plants like Rhododendrons and Camellias) or recycled green waste from the local authority. Beth Chatto, renowned for her fabulous gardening in difficult conditions in East Anglia recommends deep digging with the addition of much organic matter, followed by planting quite densely, then mulching generously. For the first two or three years, regular weeding is needed, but once the plants have settled in and joined up with their neighbours, very little attention is required other than spot weeding now and again.
The use of ground cover planting is invaluable in reducing the need for regular titivation in your beds and borders. This means choosing plants that are fairly self-sufficient and will grow to provide a dense canopy of foliage that starves the soil surface of light. This prevents the establishment of most annual weeds, thus reducing the need for regular weeding or hoeing. Ground cover plants may be only a few inches high, but the most effective are up to 1m tall, so long as they develop the dense foliage to prevent weed growth underneath. Of course there will be occasional brambles, elder bushes and hollies etc ‘sown’ by birds, but if caught while young enough they can be removed relatively easily. The best plants are those that will thrive in the soil and climate of the garden – it is hopeless to grow plants that need lots of TLC or special conditions if you cannot provide them, but there will still be lots of choice specimens to make an interesting or low maintenance garden.
To convert an existing garden is not too difficult either. Careful and thorough weed control is the rule followed by removal of unsuitable plants and replacement with others having good ground cover characteristics as already described will be a good start. Mulching is the final task to ensure the surface of all soil is covered (while it is wet) providing an attractive and hopefully weed free garden.
Many people plant through a ground cover fabric then mulch with gravel or pebbles. This is a suitable technique to reduce maintenance, but looks best when used with plants that would naturally grow in hot, dry, stony areas. Check out your holiday snaps or magazines for good ideas; many garden centres will have displays of suitable plants or visit a garden for good ideas. RHS garden Rosemoor near Great Torrington is good for some real inspiration, as is Holbrook Gardens, Sampford Peverell - they have lots of areas planted in the ways I have described. Paul Champion, the Garden Manager at Bicton College makes use of many of these methods to keep maintenance to a minimum, allowing more time for staff to keep high profile areas looking good.
The college is holding a series of one day practical gardening masterclasses, in a variety of topics including creating new lawns and wall shrubs and climbers. For more information about the classes visit or call 01395 562400.
By Jane Vyse

Lecturer in the School of Horticulture at Bicton College, East Budleigh, Devon. Check on some course dates on our news page.

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