No Mow May has been disastrous for some this year, the initial idyllic scenes of flowery meadows having been soon overtaken by long, battered grass that not all find easy to live with. Lots of gardeners are asking about how to downsize their garden so that it is easier to manage yet still gives them enjoyment and engagement, without that feeling of being on the back foot all the time.
Here are some suggestions.
Can you just relax your maintenance?
A lot depends on your attitude and the garden design. I remember interviewing the late Dame Miriam Rothschild, who was in her late 90s at the time, in her garden. It was wild, really wild, with climbers strewn over the house, covering the windows, and paved areas swallowed up by wildflowers and weeds. She adored sitting watching the birds using the myriad of bird feeders hung around the house and had totally relaxed her maintenance regime, but I would find that degree of “rewilding” impossible to live with.
Dame Miriam’s garden was in stark contrast to the garden I visited recently in the Lake District, where the owners had spent 40 years growing and developing a beautiful, fairly formal garden that was their passion; but now it needs to be less full-on. It is in apple-pie order, with lots of hedging and topiary, but just demands too much attention. If more formal gardens become slightly neglected, it shows more than in those that have a wilder, looser design.
Streamline your maintenance
I maintain my garden myself one day a week, and my gardener Dave also does one day a week, and through the winter Dave does building work. I like to be heavily self-sufficient in veg, totally self-sufficient in meat and eggs, and I also grow some fruit. I am always trying to streamline the efficiency of my maintenance, so I regularly review my garden to remove the more mundane jobs, so that the bulk of my gardening is the more enjoyable, fun parts.
Get rid of the duffers
Many of the ideas I suggested for the Lake District garden, which covers two acres or so, I have used in my garden. First off, I suggested removing troublesome plants that were not performing and needed too much tending, starting with the box. A lot of the Buxus sempervirens hedging and topiary was starting to get the dreaded blight.
Whereas it is treatable with Signum (a fungicide for professional use, i.e. you need to have passed your PA1 and PA6 spray exams), even I have found that last year, the massively wet conditions over winter meant that previously healthy box succumbed and looked more grotty than good. Some I have cut down, and the regrowth, which comes back remarkably fast, is clean for a time. Others I have replaced with the blight-resistant box Buxus sempervirens ‘Heritage’ from BetterBuxus, and some I am just ripping out and replacing, mainly with yew. This forms a brilliant dwarf hedge.
Replace problem plants
I am removing four beautiful quince trees, Cydonia oblongs ‘Vranja’, which I planted almost 40 years ago. They are for a good part of the year stars of my courtyard, with their beautifully well-developed eccentric branch formation, fabulous velvety white leaves when emerging, pinky-white flowers in spring and stunning fruit that are a great aphrodisiac and highly palatable when dried. I had not realised 40 years ago that many varieties of quince get quince blight, especially in wet summers.
The leaves dropped steadily this year from early August onwards and are severely spotted, as are a fair proportion of the fruit. Not a good look. More recently, I realised that C.o. ‘Serbian Gold’ (also known as ‘Leskovac’ ) is blight resistant, so I am now replanting with these. I will clear up as many diseased leaves as possible to avoid contamination. You can spray the blight with Signum, which is highly effective, but awkward on a 13ft-high tree.
Invest in hedge cutters
Hedge cutting has been a big issue this year, due to phenomenal growth rates. I got behind big time, so I called in my local tree surgeons, Rutland Tree Care, who came to my rescue and hit it in a couple of days. If you are doing it yourself, having good kit really does make a difference; with all the cordless ranges available now, which are lighter but highly efficient, hedge cutting is far easier work. My Stihl HAS 56 hedge cutter is a favourite of both Dave and mine.
Rationalise your planting with long-performing, easy plants
Plantaholics love borders with many different types of plants jostling together, but really if you restrict the number of different types of plants, the maintenance is much easier. There is also less opportunity for a vigorous thug to swamp a tremulous treasure. Of course, you then do need plants that perform well for long periods.
Tough stalwarts such as Geranium ‘Patricia’, with its strong, deep-pink blooms, flowers for months with a lot of impact. Rosa ‘Mutabilis’ is probably the longest-flowering rose, though it may be too big for some, at around 6ft. It puts up with shade and competition and even thrives in quite dry shade. In the Lake District garden, Rosa ‘Wild Edric’ is a star and is also disease free, flowering for months with deep-pink-to-mauve, richly scented flowers.
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ is extremely popular, for good reason given its long performance and easy culture in many places. For a low planting, Erigeron karvinskianus with its daisy-like flowers produced for around nine months a year, is easy for covering sheets of soil, and Nepeta ‘Summer Magic’ is the longest-flowering nepeta I know, flowering from May to September. It does not flop even after torrential rain.
You can still pep up planting with bulbs such as alliums and tulips. I would never be without dahlias either, but I grow them hard, don’t stake them or feed them, and certainly don’t lift them in winter, but heavily mulch them before the cold months. I do deadhead them, but you could not call a little deadheading hard graft.
Reduce the need for weeding
Perennial weeds are a nightmare and can take five years to remove by covering with matting, for example. The quickest and most effective way is to use the herbicide glyphosate, but if your weeds are among your plants it does mean painstakingly applying the herbicide with a small misting bottle that enables you just to target the weeds. If you inadvertently spray a treasure, remove all affected leaves asap. If you have no perennial weeds in your borders (never plant a border before you have removed them) mulch with a good depth (4-6in) of digestate all over the soil in autumn/winter to ward off weeds.
Everything grows better, the soil benefits massively and you save your muscles. It is difficult to get a trailer-load of digestate if you don’t live near a digestate plant, but spent mushroom compost is good (and no more alkaline than digestate – usually around pH 7.5). Another good option is ramial, or well chopped-up or shredded young branches and leafy material that tree surgeons often have in huge quantities from their tree work. I prefer it made from deciduous trees and my local tree surgeons often drop off a load for my clients and me free of charge when they’re passing.
Keep hard surfaces free of weeds
This year my gravel areas were germinating a lot of weeds in the damp conditions. Next year, instead of the odd spot treatment with glyphosate combined with hoeing and pulling, I am thinking of adding a residual herbicide into my sprayer too. Chikara can be mixed with glyphosate and lasts for a good five months, so a late-spring application should get you through the growing season easily. It is sold for professional use only, though. Another professional option is Pistol, which is a premixed residual herbicide with glyphosate.
Be clever with pots
My pots number more than 80, but the vast majority are baseless, so there’s no feed or watering needed. I would hate to garden without pots; they elevate your favourite plants and turn them into real show-offs.
Reduce your plot
Sometimes people with a large garden decide to divide it up and sell off part of it for another dwelling or dwellings. Over the years, I have amended garden designs to divide up plots, creating visual screens with planting and hedges, and it frequently surprises me just how quickly you can create privacy. Ideally, we do this four or five years before the new building or buildings go up, so that we can plant inexpensive, young trees at a high density, which will establish quickly and make an effective natural barrier.