"Reducing garden maintenance"

Here are some suggestions!
Sunday, 18 April 2021     

This area in my garden needs little maintenance

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.

 Reader Comments

1/18  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

A very informative morning and your blog has enforced the fact that we gardeners should really think about ways in which to enjoy our gardens, without this enjoyment becoming a chore. All suggestions are relevant, as the benefits the garden offers certainly aids our health and well-being. Thank you! Thanks, Margaret. Thanks for the tips you gave the group. Deirdre

2/18  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

I hear you! I do believe though that two good clean ups a year & just an hour or 2 a week is all you need, at least for my cottage style garden. I too have a young guy come in & help from time to time with pruning & heavy lifting or difficult jobs.

3/18  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

I've never understood those who complain about paying for help in the garden. It's not much effort to do the easy stuff or to create a lower maintenance garden as you said & then you don't need the paid help as much. It only costs the equivalent of a good meal out & a movie & I'd much rather live with my beautiful garden than in a flat. I agree re getting help in. It was very hard for me to admit I needed it but once I did, it was liberating. Deirdre

4/18  Janice - 2069 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

So many great ideas Deirdre! Your garden is so large and beautiful, luckily mine is smaller and with the easy plants, begonias, aloes,salvias, acanthus we are still able to manage! Thankyou, Janice 2069 That's great, Janice! Deirdre

5/18  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Excuse me taking up so much room, but in desperation I once listed 14 rules for reducing labor in my garden: 1. Dont keep things in pots. 2. Mulch between plants (bare earth means weeds). 3. Dont buy plants unless you have a particular place for them already. 4. Dont buy anything that is not suited to the climate, but with the idea of giving it a go. 5. Replace perennials with shrubs. 6. Use ground covers, but choose carefully; they have to be good smotherers.

6/18  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

7. Dont feel the need to fill all spaces with plants. If something dies dont rush to fill it. 8. Avoid high maintenance plants such as roses and grapes. 9. Get rid of plants that need excessive watering and care. 10. Avoid having too many species; if something works in a place, go with it. Less is more. 11. Dont plant or transplant in summer or late spring; it means a lot of watering. 12. Have a reliable shade house or shade area for cutting, new purchases etc.

7/18  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

13. Remember that it is not essential to have every plant that exists. 14. Dont battle with plants that are already there and cant be eliminated eg Adiantum. Think of incorporating them into the garden design. I love all your ideas. Thanks for sharing them! Deirdre

8/18  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Thank you for your very timely suggestions. Hereafter my strategies. Its ok to have weeds as long as you dont let them go to seed. In your next life do not buy a house with a kikuyu lawn. EVER. Try really hard not to collect plants and if you do,then at least put them into bigger pots. Agree with those ideas!! Deirdre

9/18  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Thats here are. Sneaky spell check. One more thought while Im here. Practice driving past nurseries instead of driving into the car park. So hard re nurseries but I am getting better! Deirdre

10/18  Susan - 2430 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Oh what a timely post! Ten years ago we bought a 2 acre paddock with dam, and built a house and large garden. My dreams come true! But now we are both staring into our 70's and the physical labour is getting harder. So recently we started with someone once a fortnight for the heavy stuff. It's liberating and worth it! That sounds great to get help in. Makes a big difference. Deirdre

11/18  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Been doing a garden blitz lately so this blog is so very timely & helpful including responses, all of which taken on board!!! Yes we must not let gardening become a chore-may it remain a joy especially the chats one has with plants shared from family and friends which urges me on when feeling the maintenance is all too much. Thanks again . Yes I agree that one of the joys of gardening is those plants we have grown from cuttings from friends and family. I treasure them. Deirdre

12/18  Lloyd - 4060 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 19 April 2021

Very timely topic! My garden, more a collection than a splendid design, needs some culling and re-arranging. But who to ask? The gardening service providers seem to be hardscaping landscapers in disguise, or just operators of lawn mowers, trimmers and blowers. I need advice, not a designer wanting to use graphical software programs. Is there such a role/category as a 'plant whisperer' to come and advise on re-arrangements, re-location, de-selection? I'll pay - but please, who to ask? It is tricky. I think there are some really knowledgeable horticulturists out there. I find the best 'plant whisperers' are my gardening friends, who make quiet, astute suggestions when we walk around the garden. I hope you can find the right person. Deirdre

13/18  Ruth - 3185 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 19 April 2021

Your plant of the week, blue ginger is growing well in my bayside Melbourne garden. It is accompanied by a dark pink lapageria in a tall pot in front of the blue ginger. Flowering together making a very attractive tableau. How wonderful to grow a lapageria - one of those plants I used to dream of growing. I am intrigued the blue ginger grows well in Melbourne - is it sheltered by trees? Does it die right back in winter? Deirdre

14/18  Virginia - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 19 April 2021

Hi Deirdre What a great blog . It gave such an insight into how I'm sure most gardeners feel when the years progress and there were a wealth of good suggestions. By the way I don't spray my abutilon. I prune it when it is attacked by leaf curl etc. and that seems to do the trick and also keep it to a reasonable size. No leaf damage this year and hence the bush is getting too big! That's a good tip re the abutilons. I don't think the leaf grubs were so bad this summer, fpr some reason. Deirdre

15/18  Jean - 4035 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Deidre your thoughts about gardening maintenance was timely for us. We love our garden but just this week (in our late 70s) we began thinking about reducing heavy maintenance. Trees are the challenge so we will get help for sure. Going to plant Rex Begonia as fillers and more Dahlias. Have beautiful Salvias growing to 6ft but theyre easy maintenance. Adore these plants. You were the inspiration for us getting them! Thank you. Hope all goes well for you in your garden. Glad you are enjoying your salvias!! Deirdre

16/18  Robin - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Such a timely and helpful blog, Deirdre. Loved all the comments, esp Bren's 14 rules for reducing labour. Have put those in my garden journal but perhaps they should be on the fridge... Those rules were fab! Deirdre

17/18  Kay - 2170 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 21 April 2021

I have plants between knee high retaining walls and fences, at a level higher than ground level. Weeding etc becomes so much easier when I dont have to squat or bend. A great tip! Deirdre

18/18  Jennifer - 2100 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 April 2021

Hi Deidre, Thanks for this mornings blog it was very helpful. I am wondering if you have a mulching machine or if you hire one? Also do you ever have people like myself visit your garden? I live in the Northern Beaches and have been subscribed for around 10 years now. Warm regards, Jennifer Sorry for my late reply to your comment. We do own a mulcher but you may be able to hire one. Re my garden, I have had visits from other garden clubs in the past but these days I only open it to my own local garden club occasionally. Sorry! Deirdre

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