Having reached the stage in life when many of my contemporaries are selling their family homes and moving into villas or apartments, I find myself at times pondering the future of my garden and how I can manage it for quite a few more years to come. Last week, I participated in a lively discussion with some other keen gardeners as to how we can reduce the maintenance in our plots so that gardening remains a joy rather than becoming an overwhelming and unpleasant chore. The time we are able to spend in the garden before we get exhausted definitely diminishes as we get older: no longer can I work from dawn to dusk as I used to in my younger days! So it is worthwhile thinking how to best spend the time we have available to us.
Just what is regarded as 'maintenance' (which has the suggestion of boring drudgery) and what is 'gardening' (which is more of an enjoyable activity) is very subjective, so not all will agree with the ideas put forward, of course. In our group, everyone agreed that weeding isn't much fun and that mulching really does reduce the amount of time we have to spend doing it. Mulch also holds more moisture in the ground (thus requiring less watering) and improves the structure and health of the soil, so that plants grow better and need less added fertiliser. To create mulch for my garden, all our prunings are put through a large mulching machine, composted with some cow manure for a while then spread on the garden as a thick blanket. An alternative is to use packaged cane mulch. The use of groundcover plants so that there is no bare soil will also help to reduce time spent weeding, especially in dry, shady areas under trees where larger plants won't flourish, due to root competition and poor soil. Rhizomatous Begonia were mentioned as one example; there are many suitable groundcovers (see here for some more ideas) and they can be an attractive solution that needs little work to keep an area under control. It's best to avoid rampageous types that will need to be watched vigilantly and regularly reined in, requiring more work in the long run!
Plant choice is probably the most important consideration when we are looking to reduce maintenance in our gardens, and it has many dimensions. When time and energy were in abundance, the pruning, regular division and staking of many of the gorgeous herbaceous perennials weren't daunting jobs for me, nor was the often twice-yearly cutting back of the magnificent tall, shrubby Salvia specimens that I once loved. However, these days, I am looking to plants that need a bit less work through the year, so I am quite selective as to which of these sorts of plants I am keeping in my garden. I don't really grow many annual plants these days, apart from those that self-seed from year to year. Massed, evergreen, clumping perennials that only need to be divided occasionally have greater appeal to me these days, as do shrubs that keep their shape compared to those requiring constant trimming. If you dislike pruning, it's probably best to avoid formal hedges and topiary in your garden. The need for constant deadheading of spent flowers is another consideration - if you find that a bore, avoid such plants as Dahlia and Buddleja. I actually find deadheading quite soothing!
A related point on plant choice is perhaps to rethink growing plants that require a lot of spraying to help them keep looking good. For one thing, it's not really good for the health of our gardens to be spraying lots of chemicals around, even if they are eco-friendly. And it all takes time. During our discussion, Abutilon was mentioned as a shrub that does seem to require spraying to get rid of both the horrid leaf-rolling caterpillar and the insidious flea beetle that can ruin the leaves. Roses can require a lot of spraying for pests and diseases in Sydney: it's worth considering cultivars that have been bred for our climate, such as Treloar's 'Fairytale' Series, with 'Fairytale Magic' warmly recommended by a member of our group. Old tea roses are also often suggested for Sydney gardens as they tend to need less pruning, deadheading and spraying than other types.
Plant selection is, of course, a very personal matter, but it can be instructive to keep track of how much time is spent on particular plants on a yearly basis, to determine which ones give more value overall. Choosing plants that suit our climate is also another important point: I have come to the conclusion that those that need less cosseting, because they are at home in our conditions, are the way forward, rather than trying to nurture some precious perennial that really would prefer to be growing in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, than in suburban Sydney. Cosseting takes up precious gardening time! It does take a certain amount of courage to get rid of plants that we would love to grow but just aren't working for us, but in the long run, it will make gardening easier.
Plant spacing is an important consideration in garden maintenance. Close planting can reduce the opportunity for weeds, but plants crammed too close together can mean that they swamp one another, requiring diligence to make sure that one is not taking over too much space or even killing other plants by smothering them. Giving plants the space that they need seems important, especially for larger shrubs and shrubby perennials such as Salvia and allows them to reach their full potential without having to be constantly cut back.
Nipping problems in the bud before they get out of control was another suggestion to reduce maintenance. Walking round the garden once a day is not only a delightful thing to do, to check on how everything is going, admire flowers that have opened, and generally keep us connected with our garden; it also can reveal problems that can be dealt with earlier rather than later. I always think it is a good idea to do the stroll with secateurs in hand, for a bit of judicious pruning as I go. In fact, doing a little bit of gardening every day can achieve a surprising amount over time!
Having too many potted plants to look after can be another headache at times. Decreasing the number of pots can help reduce the job of daily watering especially in hot summers, if you find this a bore. Excess potted specimens can be planted into the garden or given away. Alternatively, the installation of an inexpensive automated dripper system can effortlessly water the pots if a tap is not too far away from the pots and they are grouped together.
Having good tools to tackle gardening jobs more easily was also mentioned as a way to make tasks less onerous. Regular sharpening and oiling of secateurs means they will work more effectively. Tools such as battery-operated pole hedgers, hedging shears and edging cutters can significantly reduce the time required for trimming. A miniature chainsaw on a long pole can make pruning tall shrubs much easier!
Getting help in your garden, if feasible, can also ease the burden when it all seems too much. I have a wonderful helper who assists me every few weeks for a morning, and it makes a big difference to what can be achieved. We also now have someone in to cut our hedges and large shrubs. With powerful machines, these tasks are quickly done. Friends helping one another in their gardens can also be such a boon. It's fun to garden together and to chat companionably about plants as well as all sorts of other topics; the time passes very quickly!
At the end of the day, gardening should be fun. It has so many benefits for us as a form of physical exercise and relaxation; a way of taking our mind off our worries; a means of connecting with the beauty of nature; and an avenue to achieve something creative and tangible every time we step outside. We need to regularly assess whether our garden is becoming a burden and what we can do to make sure we continue to love our hobby. Eventually, this may mean downsizing to a smaller patch, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear any tips you can offer! Thanks to my gardening friends for all their suggestions.
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