When you first set up in business, the temptation is to take any work you can get.

One of our first gardens was a ‘design and build’ project, and it went very smoothly. We left behind a happy customer, and that made us happy. We discussed visiting again in the spring to arrange garden maintenance.

“I don’t think we’ll need any maintenance,” says our client.

But as promised, in the spring, we got back in touch. Our client was no longer a happy bunny.

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” exclaimed our client.

As we hadn’t done anything between the garden installation and this telephone call, we were at a loss to understand.

“The plants. They’re all overgrown!” says our soon to be ex-client.

“Really? Over the winter?” we replied.

“That’s not what I wanted! I didn’t want to have to look after the garden. I wanted low maintenance!”

As a garden designer, you very quickly become familiar with the term “low maintenance”. But this particular client didn’t want that.

Well yes, he said he did.

But what he actually wanted was “no maintenance”.

What low maintenance means, and what it doesn’t

We understand the desire for low maintenance gardens. Time is short; people are busy. We’ll be honest – we don’t even have the time to look after our own garden!

But gardens are not like pieces of furniture or hard landscaping. Gardens are living things – they grow and change with the seasons. Plants require pruning; lawns need cutting, and weeds want pulling up and mulching over.

When we meet prospective clients, “low maintenance” is by far their most popular requirement. I’d say at least 80% of our clients ask for it.

Strangely, their next most popular request is “year-round colour and interest”. That’s a tough ask for a low maintenance garden, but it’s one we still manage to achieve for our customers. Here’s how:

  • We design using perennials, rather than annuals which require high levels of attention.
  • The perennials we use are hardy plants. We don’t specify tender perennials that need digging up and over-wintering somewhere, e.g. Dahlias.
  • We use shrubs that don’t require a lot of care and attention, e.g. Fatsias or Box.
  • We specify a planting density that allows plants to grow and spread over 4-5 years before they need firm cutting back or division.
  • We use the right plants for the conditions.
  • We veto the use of requested plants that are not sufficiently disease resistant, e.g. certain types of Roses.
  • We always specify weed-resistant mulch under our planting.

Low maintenance is not no maintenance

Even with all this effort to make our clients’ gardens low maintenance, there’s no getting away from the fact that, unless you want plastic plants, some work in your new garden is going to be inevitable.

Since the days of our ex-client above, we’re a lot more discerning about who we work with. We now take great care to explain that a low maintenance garden still needs attention a minimum of 2-3 times a year. In an ideal world, a small amount of maintenance every month would be best.

Whether the client does this work themselves or pays a gardener to do it is a matter for them.

But if you’re not prepared to invest 2-3 days per year in maintaining a garden that could cost you a five figure sum to design and build, you’re probably wasting your money.

Unless that is, you really do want a plastic garden.

Image credit: © Mark Bonica