We all want our gardens to look great throughout the year, but few of us have time to spare to keep them that way. However, use some clever design, combined with careful planting, and you can have an outside space that looks fantastic without taking up all your time. Gardening, shows you how.
1. Get tooled up. Make the most of your labors by getting the best tools for the job. A stainless steel spade the right length for your height may not turn digging into a pleasure, but it will get it done more quickly and easily. A good rake will do the job in half the time, and sharp secateurs are better for the plant as well as the gardener. Treat yourself to a large, manoeuvrable wheelbarrow that will hold all your tools, plants and rubbish as you traverse your plot – see how much fetching and carrying time you save.
2. Add carefree colour and style. Don’t rely on plants alone to keep your garden looking good. Replace that bedraggled collection of pot plants on your patio with attractive all-weather furniture or a stylish statue. Add colour by painting your shed, fence, trellis or plant supports in bright or subtle tones.
3. Do less watering. A lot of gardeners water far more than necessary. Watering little and often can be counterproductive as the plants start to rely on this extra water instead of developing a widespread root system so they can look after themselves. Most established plants don’t need routine watering, and most will survive even dry periods perfectly well. When you can water, focus on newly planted trees and shrubs, newly transplanted vegetables, and crops that are getting near to their harvest time.
4. Use carpeting plants to suppress weeds. Ground cover plants produce a tight-knit, low-growing carpet that deters weeds. While you do have to clear the ground of existing weeds first, you should only have to do it once. Aim to plant in autumn, which will give you a head start on next year’s weeds. Put young plants in 40-60cm apart, and fill the gaps between with a 2.5-5cm layer of bark. For the first year, you may need to water in dry spells and pull up the odd weed. Thereafter, it will need an annual tidy-up in late autumn and maybe a bit of a trim in July. Try plants such as low-growing cotoneasters, pretty-leafed epimediums or ivies, especially variegated ones such as ‘Glacier’.
5. Win the weed war – with mulch. Like all plants, weeds need light to thrive. An easy way to prevent them growing is by adding a layer of mulch to exclude light. Mulches can be organic, in which case they will break down slowly, adding nutrients to the soil. These need topping up from time to time. Inorganic mulches, such as gravel, stay put for many years. Bark chippings of small chunks 10-40mm across are ideal, or for fruit and veg areas Black polythene is a good choice, and can be covered with shingle or bark. You can also try grass clippings, old carpet or felt underlay or woven polypropylene.
6. Don’t weed or water the lawn. If you never weed it again, your lawn will still provide a perfectly practical and attractive green space. And you may actually enjoy the pretty flowers of daisies, speedwells, cat’s ears and clovers – they’ll certainly attract wildlife. Never water your lawn – even if it turns brown in a drought, it won’t die and will soon recover once it rains. Watering just wastes time and precious resources – and means more mowing!
7. Beds with boundaries. For plants that only occupy the ground for a short time, such as veg, and flowers for cutting, consider building raised beds with permanent paths instead of taking a traditional allotment approach. This immediately brings a sense of order and can be very decorative if you shape and arrange the beds to create a pattern. It also makes maintenance much easier. The paths give good access whatever the weather and raising the soil means jobs like weeding and sowing are quicker and easier.
8. Fuss-free fruit. If you fancy tasty, healthy, home-grown fruit, start with easy-going apples rather than pears, which need specific conditions to grow well. Try raspberries, which are straightforward to grow, rather than strawberries that need lots of attention. Blueberries are easy to grow in pots – few gardens have the really acid soil they – and have pretty flowers and good autumn colour to add to the display.
9. Sprayers on the spot. Keep a ready-to-use spray weedkiller and general-purpose insecticide to hand to deal with problems as soon as you spot them. If you control pest outbreaks when there are still only a few individuals about, and kill weeds before they flower and set seed, their impact should be short-lived.
10. Keep it simple. If you want your containers to work for you rather than you working for them, choose large, deep containers that are attractive in their own right, and will make a feature even if they remain unplanted. Resist the temptation to scatter lots of small pots around different parts of the garden. They’re a watering nightmare and, even when looking good, may not add that much impact to the overall picture.