Brilliant low-maintenance plants for beautiful gardens
Low-maintenance plants are difficult to kill and look good in your garden for a long time. They don’t require complicated pruning or feeding regimes, and will forgive a little ignorance.
Having seen professional gardeners wince at the phrase ‘low-maintenance’, with its connotations of neglected, dusty shrubs in municipal borders, I hadn’t thought too much about the concept. Then I started doing monthly video garden tours of our garden on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel.
I found myself talking about some of the same plants for months on end. And they were often plants that needed the least care, or were most admired by visitors. I’ve picked out 10 for two videos on my Plant Heroes.
Plus expert advice for time-poor people
I also asked RHS award-winning garden designer and fellow garden Youtuber Lee Burkhill, of Garden Ninja garden design, for his top low-maintenance plants.
‘My client base are in their late 20s and early 30s,’ says Lee. ‘They’re looking at their gardens as an outdoor room, and they do want plants they can get involved with. They’re willing to do things in the garden. However, they are time-poor, and need fuss-free plantings. So I provide a maintenance schedule with all my plantings, so they know what to do when.’
Grasses are super low-maintenance
While shrubs have generally been considered low-maintenance plants, Lee prefers grasses: ‘You don’t have to do anything to them, apart from cut them down once a year. They provide evergreen interest and can sort out a few problems. They’re good for marking out the space, and be used as edging. That helps deal with the problem of plants flopping over.
And while a small garden full of shrubs could feel ‘hemmed in’, grasses are airy and transparent. ‘If you plant ornamental grasses, you get structure, foliage and seedheads. And they don’t get diseases.’
His favourite grasses for a low-maintenance garden are Carex ‘Evergreen’, Stipa tenuissima and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’.
Avoid annuals (bedding plants) for an easy-care garden.
A friend of mine recently described herself as a ‘garden owner rather than a gardener.’ She wants to spend her time in the garden relaxing and enjoying it, not working.
But she wants her garden to look as stylish as her house, and for the colours to link up. In May she buys bedding plants, then she feeds, waters and dead-heads them over the summer. In September she digs them up.
Lee says he never designs around annuals unless a client particularly wants him to. Annuals are the highest maintenance plants, he says, because they need growing from seed or purchase as young plants, they need to be planted, protected from pests and diseases, dead-headed and then dug up.
Shrubs, grasses and perennials are all low-maintenance compared to annuals.
Reduce the number of different plants and cultivars
Reduce the number of species if you’re planting perennials for the time-poor gardener, advises Lee. Firstly he draws up an initial plant list for a garden. Then he reduces the number of different species of plant by about a third. ‘Groups of plants look good in bold blocks of colour, and if you have a few tatty plants, it’s less likely to show,’ he says.
‘People often say they want a cottage-garden style, but that they also want it to be low-maintenance. But a cottage garden style with lots of different plants is a lot more work ‘
Lee’s top low-maintenance perennials include geums and geraniums. Both fill awkward corners because they ‘don’t mind a bit of shade’. And ‘if you chop them back in summer, you’ll get two flushes of colour from them.’
He also recommends salvias and the tough daisy-like flowers of the Aster family. (Asters were recently divided into Asters and Symphyotricum – see my post on botanical plant names for an explanation).
And although I think we rarely see them in show gardens, he also rates Mahonia, astilbe and fuschias as good low-maintenance plants.
Don’t leave gaps
There is a certain style of gardening where plants are spaced out carefully and you can see earth between the plants. However, Lee says that will encourage weeds. ‘Pack plants in – you can always thin them if it gets over-crowded. It’ll discourage weeds’ (which means less weeding).
He also says that paths are easier to maintain if you plant right up to them. ‘Don’t leave a gap between the path and the border,’ he says. Every gap can fill with weeds.
And Lee’s excellent Garden Ninja YouTube channel has practical gardening advice, some specially aimed at beginner gardeners, plus ‘before-and-after’ garden makeover videos (don’t we all love a ‘before-and-after’?).
More low-maintenance plants on YouTube
I’ve done two videos on my ‘plant heroes’ for The Middlesized Garden YouTube channel. I do a ‘garden tour’ video of the garden every month, and noticed that some plants cropped up again and again. They either looked good for an exceptionally long time or in two seasons.
It was only when I’d finished making the videos that I also realised that these plants were also amongst the easiest plants in the garden to care for. Here they are:
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