Gardens: Low maintenance gardening

Low maintenance gardening is a phrase that will arouse either hope or scepticism in gardeners.

Those who love to garden and are physically able to do so will wonder why on earth anyone would want to cut short the gardening chores they regard as pleasures. At the other end of the spectrum, the person with the high-pressure job, demanding family or garden that's become too big for them will be eager to find a way of turning their green space into a place to relax rather than another item on a long to-do list.

Gardening author Andi Clevely says that low maintenance gardening "often seems to be an idea without a home". Despite this, he's chosen the topic as the title and subject of his latest book. He stresses that being unwilling or unable to undertake some of the tasks you find in other gardening books is no reason to give up gardening altogether. Clevely says that in recent years, there's been a relaxation in many people's approach to gardening – the old cottage garden ideal with rough edges, wildflowers and a more carefree approach replacing the need for perfectly manicured rosebeds and lawns. He also points out that popular science has thrown cold water on some laborious garden tasks that used to be seen as essential. Tests have shown that digging, for example, can in many respects be detrimental to the soil's structure and its population of resident organisms.

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"Keeping the soil surface bare and weed free is pointless," he adds, "except to maintain appearance, because nature abhors a vacuum and empty ground invites more weeds." As for plants, breeding has created varieties and cultivars that are highly resistant to pests and diseases, meaning less work for us. "Combine these with an awareness that nature generally looks after herself quite successfully without much encouragement or interference on our part, and all the elements are there for a fresh and more sustainable approach to gardening," Clevely argues.

In his book, Clevely outlines a structured approach to transforming your garden into one that's easier to look after. He says it's vital to be selective about what you want in the garden and also to realise that working with your garden's conditions is far less time-consuming than trying to dominate them. He describes concrete, pesticides and herbicides as ways of coping with symptoms rather than removing the causes of a demanding workload. In changing your garden he suggests you identify the things you enjoy most and then re-plan the garden around these activities, reducing or simplifying everything else that competes for your time.

Practical steps to cut down on gardening tasks include a list of features to reduce: fussy, demanding or over-vigorous plants; tender bulbs and annual bedding schemes; fragile or disease-prone plants; perennials needing support or division and formal and quick-growing hedges. Features you might want to increase include: shrubs with low pruning needs; permanent or naturalised bulbs; favourite crops in beds or containers and permanent mulches.

There's no denying that growing plants in containers can involve some hard work – watering, feeding, potential re-potting are all tasks that will have to be carried out, but despite this, Clevely says it can be an excellent way of adding colour and interest to a space. To reduce the management they require he suggests grouping several plants in a large tub or planter, as larger containers stay moist for much longer. Soil-based composts are more stable than soil-less mixtures and adding water absorbing granules can help reduce watering requirements. Raised beds are another good option – keeping soil moist for long periods and allowing any weeding or maintenance to be done quickly without a lot of bending or exertion.

"Much of the work we assume needs doing in the garden results from growing plants in the wrong place or forcing them to behave in unnatural ways," says Clevely. "We can often save a lot of time and effort if we study their requirements and make realistic choices. This change in emphasis is a practical first step towards an effectively self-regulating flower garden."

In Low Maintenance Garden, Clevely provides lists of easy-to-look after plants for different situations. He highlights shrubs, saying that a single specimen can fill a large space with attractive colour and shape in return for just a little attention. If you're planting several, he suggests you aim to produce a balanced and visually exciting group with a sequence of flowers, fruits and fragrance. Clevely also says that roses can play a part in a low maintenance garden, despite their reputation for being fussy. He says that the least demanding ones include Rosa rubrifolia or R. xanthina 'Canary Bird'; shrub roses such as 'Penelope', the English Roses series or the numerous R. rugosa hybrids.

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Grasses by and large look after themselves and perennials have a role to play – some of the ones Clevely recommends include astrantia, Dicentra spectablis, Echinacea purpurea, Iris sibirica and Sedum spectabile.

Bulbs require minimal care and even resent disturbance, making them a good choice. Then comes the lawn, with its weeding, spiking, scarifying, edging and all those other tasks. Clevely points out that the more grass is mown, the faster it grows, so "extending intervals between cuts and raising the finished height to about 4cm can dramatically reduce the amount of mowing required." He says there's no need to get rid of a lawn altogether, you might just have to accept a more natural finish and reduce mowing by streamlining the shape and abandoning any fussy beds.

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As far as Clevely is concerned, even fruit and veg can be incorporated into a low maintenance garden, as long as you choose reliable crops (such as beetroot, carrots and Swiss chard) and ensure that the final size of any fruiting plant fits the allocated space to avoid unnecessary pruning further down the line.

By the final chapter of the book, you'll be convinced that an easy care garden really doesn't have to be dull. Clevely ends with the important point that looking after yourself is just as important as looking after your garden, saying "focus on what you have achieved, rather than what remains to be done – that's for another time."

Low Maintenance Gardening by Andi Clevely (9.99, Frances Lincoln) is out now.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 09 January, 2010.