Gardens: Cut back to cultivate

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FOR time-poor or physically challenged gardeners, the idea of being able to create a beautiful outdoor space in less than an hour a week seems like a pipe dream. Yet that is what gardening writer Jackie Matthews promises in her new book, Quick & Easy Gardening.

Like its title, the 64-page book offers a quick and easy read with chapters on low maintenance landscaping and plants, ideas for special features and a list of easy care plants.

Matthews says the book is suitable for anyone from a novice to more experienced gardeners who need some help with whatever outside space they have.

“The general message is that any area, no matter how small, can be made into a lovely spot to enjoy as you leave and enter the home, sit and relax – even in a backyard, or look out of the window. The Quick & Easy book is there to help those who can’t or don’t wish to spend a lot of time working in the garden, but still want something that looks good and they can enjoy.”

Rather than cutting down on what you grow, low maintenance gardening is about the types of plants you choose, imaginative design and landscaping.

Matthews says the most important thing is to assess the jobs you like and don’t like doing in the garden and modify your space accordingly.

“If you enjoy propagating, but hate weeding for instance, you need to eliminate the weeds, and if you don’t have time to mow the lawn you need to install other surfaces,” she says in the book’s introduction.

Gardeners also need to take into account the existing shape and design of their garden and select the right plants to suit the soil and aspect of this space.

However low maintenance a garden might be, it will still need some work and one way to cut down on time is by investing in some labour-saving tools such as a powered hedge trimmer or a lawn mower with a wider cutting width and clippings collector.

Installing an automatic watering system will also save hours of your time over the year and will allow you to go on holiday without having to worry about your plants.

While the condition of the soil is important in any garden, for the low maintenance gardener the addition of compost or manure to a weed-free bed will give plants a better start and reduce the likelihood of pests and diseases.

And feeding your plants with slow or controlled-release fertilisers means you only have to do this job a couple of times a year.

The back-breaking and much-hated job of weeding can be reduced with a blanket of dense planting and ground cover.

Plants such as prostrate cotoneasters provide excellent ground-cover in front of other shrubs, hostas are good for moist, shady areas and euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold’ grows well in sun or shade with its brightly variegated leaves providing colour in winter.

Alternatively you can apply a loose or sheet mulch to suppress the weeds and preserve moisture in the soil.

Organic mulches, such as chipped bark, garden compost and rotted manure, have an added advantage in that they rot down to improve the soil’s structure and fertility.

Matthews hopes her book will encourage people who have previously been put off the idea of gardening to get outside and get their hands dirty.

“I’m really not sure why people are put off gardening,” she says. “I’m sure time has a lot to do with it and the idea that it could become time-consuming or onerous. And of course some people may have the time, but find gardening a bit of a physical challenge. It may also be a matter of confidence.

“Also when people do have a go they sometimes just do the wrong thing for the situation or time of year and when things don’t work they probably become dispirited and just go back to having a patch of grass rather than try to make something more out of their plot.

“With just a little bit of help and advice and encouragement they can make something beautiful and rewarding for everyone to enjoy.

“And once people are outdoors working in their gardens, even if it is just deadheading, there is satisfaction in having achieved something and an improved sense of wellbeing.”

An easy care garden doesn’t have to be unimaginative, with the book showcasing examples ranging from a minimalist space with very little planting to a wildflower garden full of bright yellow cowslips and vibrant lavender cornflowers. There’s a Japanese garden of stones, pebbles and water features and a hot and colourful Mediterranean garden.

More traditional gardens with a lawn can be made easier to maintain by eliminating beds with curved edges and edging the grass with brick or paving to cut down on the amount of trimming you have to do.

Alternatively, the lawn can be replaced with gravel, paving or a grass substitute such as clover, thyme or chamomile.

Meanwhile borders should be filled with low-maintenance plants including self-seeding annuals which can be sown in spring to flower in summer, bulbs which flower year after year, herbaceous perennials and shrubs for foliage and structure.

Low maintenance plants like ferns are perfect for moist, shady areas while heathers provide year-round colour in open, sunny areas, especially when combined with dwarf conifers.

For a little extra interest, special features – for instance a pond, decorative containers or a simple herb and salad patch – can be added to the garden.

“Even the smallest area can be made into a lovely place with the right plants and the right information,” says Matthews.

“In fact the smaller the space, I think, the more encouraged one should be as a good outcome is more easily obtainable. And with plants in containers you can just go to the garden centre and choose from a vast selection virtually at any time of the year.”

• Quick & Easy Gardening, by Jackie Matthews, is published by Lorenz Books, £3.99.