During my 14 year career I have worked with hundreds of clients. The majority of them have asked me for exactly the same thing you’re looking for: a low maintenance garden.

In the past, a low maintenance garden was associated with something sad and boring, a kind of unattractive desert with rolling tumble weeds blown by the wind. So, EVERY TIME, my internal reaction to this request was something like this:

 

Then I used to count to 10, smile and keep doing my job. Until I found that I was wrong.

Jobs after job I did some research and found out that a low maintenance garden can be fun, beautiful and interesting if you make the right choices.

 

So, today is like Christmas and my gift for you is this step by step guide that explains what to choose and why for achieving a low maintenance garden. Merry Christmas and keep reading!

 

If you want to design a low maintenance garden, you have to keep an eye on these elements:

  1. Plants
  2. Hedges
  3. Lawns
  4. Materials

 

PLANTS

Plants are with no doubt one of my biggest loves. Bigger than pizza, and I am Italian, so this confession means a lot. Anytime somebody asked me for a low maintenance garden I felt like they were putting me on a low-carb diet…Truly outrageous!

At a certain stage of my career I became interested in gardens that don’t contemplate plants. Some of them are beautiful, poetic and divine, exactly like their planted cousins. For example look at this sunken garden designed by Isamu Noguchi for The Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza in the 60’s:

 

Many Japanese gardens don’t showcase plants, but they have the power to conjure an entire landscape by using few powerful elements.

 

Then I had my creative moment, and I started to study art and garden installations. In particular there are two stunning International Garden Festivals, one at Métis in Canada and the other at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France. Here, designers from all over the world come to build avant-garde gardens that often don’t use plants.

It’s where, for the first time, I heard about Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot, a well know duo famous for creating stunning landscapes by using inorganic materials like glass, wire mesh, crystals, etc. In this garden for example they hand-sculpted wire mesh in the  form of giant suspended clouds and they embellished them with tons of crystals mirrored in a reflecting pool:

 

At this point you should be thinking: ‘You’re f***ing crazy Carlo, I am not going to dismantle grandma’s chandelier and put it in the garden!!!!’

Lol, I know you won’t, I just wanted to show you something different.

 

Now let’s go back to traditional gardens and let’s talk about plants. You already know that the most time consuming tasks when we deal with plants are essentially three:

  1. Pruning
  2. Fertilizing
  3. Treatments for pests and diseases

First, you should always plant a plant in the right spot according to its needs. If the spot is wrong and doesn’t match the needs of the plant, it may easily get sick and become a true nightmare needing constant treatments to fight any sort of pests and diseases. Check every time by consulting experts, nurseries or valuable websites like the page of the Royal Horticultural Society to understand the conditions required by the plants you are using.

Now you have to decide which kind of garden you want to create in your house: more formal or more natural?

Obviously a formal garden requires more maintenance than a wild and natural looking garden. But if your heart says desperately formal, I can share with you a couple of tricks that will cut down the amount of maintenance required:

  1. Use slow growing plants. Buxus is surely the most used plants when it comes to create a formal garden. Other than being dense and tolerating constant pruning, it’s also slow growing and requires less maintenance compared to other plants. BUT you have to be really patient and wait for the plants to grow. How can you learn patience? By reading this article!
  2. Once established, reduce the amount of water you give to your plants: they will grow slower and require less cuts
  3. As much as you can, use plants that once mature have a size that matches the height you want to achieve: for a 2 m tall hedge, why would you use a tree that becomes 20 m tall?

 

A natural-look garden allows you to be more relaxed in terms of maintenance. Just follow religiously these rules:

  1. Choose plants according to their needs
  2. Choose plants that have a dimension at maturity that matches the height you want to achieve, otherwise you need to prune them constantly to contain them
  3. Avoid some plants that are beautiful but a maintenance nightmare, like tea roses hybrids, grandiflora, floribunda and polyantha roses or azaleas.

Not sure about how to choose the right plants for your garden? Read this article 🙂

 

HEDGES

Usually, when clients call me for their gardens, one of the things that they ask me first is for fast growing hedges:  they want privacy RIGHT NOW. I totally get that: sometimes I like to stay naked at home, and I find annoying when I see my neighbors staring at me while hiding behind the curtains:

 

What you maybe don’t know it’s that fast growing plants usually grow big. Very big.

And very big means difficult maintenance or frequent pruning which is exactly what we want to avoid. Also, we want to avoid to be shot and killed by our neighbor who is annoyed by our hedge, as happened to this man in UK .

So, if you want to stay alive and reduce the maintenance of your hedges, follow my rules:

  1. Choose plants that don’t grow over than 2 meters tall otherwise maintenance gets difficult
  2. If you need a hedge taller than 2 meters, choose plants that have a  columnar, narrow shape and allow them to grow naturally if it suits the style of your garden
  3. Choose slow growing plants and once established reduce the amount of water you give to them

 

LAWNS

Lawns are so beautiful…and so much work!

Mowing and spraying to get rid of the weeds are the most frequent and time consuming tasks, but when our lawns are good looking it’s incredibly rewarding: they add light and depth to the garden, so it’s hard to even think of getting rid of them.

And last but not least, lawns make us happy, it’s a matter of fact!

 

Valid alternatives?

Some clients ask me to use artificial turf in my projects instead of lawn. Today there are many products similar to the real stuff, however I am not a big fan for a couple of reasons:

  1. artificial turf always has a plastic look
  2. in summer it gets incredibly hot because it doesn’t allow transpiration, so if you want to lay down and avoid to sizzle like a slice of bacon, you need to use a towel or something similar

If these aspects don’t affect your love for artificial turf, go ahead: it surely makes your garden maintenance free.

Another alternative could be to plan a natural looking garden and consider a scruffy lawn achieved by reducing the frequency of cuts. Or you could convert the lawn into a wildflower meadow, easy to grow because it thrives in poor soil, well-drained soil and even dry soil (obviously not recommended if the soil in your garden tends to retain water!). In this sense I particularly admire the works of Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design, Urban Horticulture and Vegetation Technology in the Department of Landscape at University of Sheffield. He designs meadows that beautifully grow and flower in the most different conditions:

 

If you think this is too much for you, why don’t you reduce the amount of lawn by mixing it with paving? Look for example at this garden:

 

You could also use a lawn-looking ground cover like Convallaria that stays short and doesn’t even need cuts.

Or you could get rid of any problems due to maintenance by simply using timber, reconstituted timber, stone, concrete or ceramic in place of the lawn.  Which one is the best? Keep reading because I am going to reveal it soon 😉

 

OUTDOOR MATERIALS

The right choice of the material for your outdoor space can make a big difference in terms of maintenance: timber is beautiful but sometimes it doesn’t age well. Some stones are indestructible, but others get chipped or stained easily.

So what should we choose and why?

Outdoor materials can be divided in these categories:

  • Timber
  • Reconstituted timber
  • Stone
  • Concrete
  • Ceramic

 

TIMBER

Not all the types of timber are the same in terms of characteristics, durability and obviously cost.

Timbers for external applications are usually very hard and dense like Teak. Softer timber can be used outdoor only if adequately treated with preservatives, like for example Pine. Obviously Teak lasts longer than Pine and that’s why it’s more expensive. Teak also looks better if you don’t treat it as often as Pine: season by season it gets a grey chic look that keeps being interesting even after 10-15 years, while Pine starts to look ready for retirement.

Whether timber is hard of soft, all types need painting or oiling, they all can get scratched and they all can get rot or mould, so if you are looking for reducing the maintenance of your garden, probably timber is not the right choice.

 

RECONSTITUED TIMBER

Plastic and wood pulp are the ingredients for this interesting material that has become more popular in the last years. Reconstituted timber comes in several finishes, colours and looks, and also has some interesting features that take us closer to our maintenance-free dream garden:

  • Water, stain and mould resistant
  • Split and scratch resistant
  • Rot and decay resistant
  • No oiling or painting required

In the past reconstituted timber tended to fade, but now it’s treated with an anti-UV technology, so this problem has been solved. In summary, it’s a good alternative to timber and definitely a great choice for achieving a low maintenance garden.

 

STONE

Stone it’s great: versatile, luxurious, durable. But.

Not all types of stone are the same: some are less porous and harder than others, which makes them more durable and less subject to breaks, scratches and stains. Granite for example is one of the most durable stones: it ages really well and looks stunning even after 30 years.

Stone can be sealed to reduce the porosity, but if it gets easily chipped the integrity of the sealing gets negatively affected.

So, if you’re looking for a low maintenance stone, check out these aspects:

  • Hardness and durability
  • Porosity and Absorption
  • How it changes and looks in 10 and 20 years time

Gravel is an economic alternative to stone, but it can be a nightmare if you don’t install it properly and avoid weeds to grow: you need an anti-weed membrane and a thick layer of gravel to stop the light getting through.

 

CONCRETE

Concrete is cool, especially if you are giving your garden an industrial or contemporary look. It’s also a low maintenance material: sealed concrete floors shrug off dirt, grit, stains, spills, and hard impacts.

However it tends to crack, so it doesn’t age very well. Plus, it needs periodic cleanings and sealing, so it’s not the right choice if you are lazy like me!

 

CERAMIC

Why Outdoor ceramic?

Because of:

  • Wide range of patterns and textures (concrete, brick, rock, wood etc.)
  • Water resistant
  • Highly Resistant to scratches and chips

The range of options in terms of costs is very large, and I don’t see any reasons why you shouldn’t choose ceramic for achieving a low maintenance garden.

In conclusion, Ceramic and Reconstituted timber are the best choices if we want to reduce the maintenance of our gardens, followed by stone, concrete and timber.

 

Now it’s your turn to share your experience: how have you reduced the maintenance needed to keep your garden look great?