Make it easy

Now even the Royal Horticultural Society offers short cuts for the busy gardener
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An easy garden to maintain
© The Garden Collection
Limited plant range make gardens easy to maintain
Consult the Royal Horticultural Society’s how-to-garden volumes and you will be given chapter and verse on correct procedure, from clematis pruning to double digging. However even the experts at the RHS acknowledge that, for many of us with time-poor lives, short cuts and quick tricks are the reality. Thus a new book, The Easy-care Garden (Dorling Kindersley), bears the official stamp of the RHS yet is packed with ways to plan, plant and maintain a garden on limited time and effort.

The good news about weeding, for instance, is that the less you disturb the soil, the fewer weeds appear - so the official advice is to keep digging to a minimum. Rout out weeds when they first appear and you save on labour later, when they will have gained a foothold - or stranglehold. And make less weed work for yourself by avoiding plants that self-seed, such as flowering annuals.

To keep plants healthy, add bulky organic matter - well-rotted manure, spent mushroom compost - to enrich the soil in late winter or early spring, but even then you need do no digging. Instead, take the organic route and simply spread it on the surface, smug in the knowledge that the earthworms will do the work for you by pulling it down into the ground.

'The good news about weeding is that the less you disturb the soil, the fewer weeds appear, so keep the digging minimal'

Lavender and Verbena bonariensis
© The Garden Collection
Lavender and Verbena bonariensis are all that is needed to create an impressionistic effect
If you don’t have time to look after the lawn, be realistic and replace it with easier-care paving, decking or gravel. Or, if the grass hasn’t been dosed with weedkiller or fertiliser, convert it to a flowery mead. Low-nutrient lawns, left to grow, are likely to produce low-growing wild flowers from daisy to speedwell and will give you the perfect excuse to mow infrequently, in between flower flushes.

You could also let the grass grow long, first spot-weeding thistle, dock or dandelion, and mow a path or two through. Not only does it look great but you need only cut the grassy meadow once a year, in early autumn. Turn it into a warming sight in spring by planting daffodil bulbs.

Pruning can be tricky and time-consuming but you can cut it out by avoiding high-maintenance plants such as early, large-flowering clematis, mock orange, forsythia, kerria and weigela. Choose instead evergreens such as choisya and skimmia that only need an occasional shape-up or shrubs that just require one hard chop each spring. These include buddleia, lavatera, mophead hydrangeas and the easy-going, later-flowering viticella group of clematis.

Geometric grids in paving stones
© Dorling Kindersley
Pavers laid in a geometric grid create a modernist feel
The most sensible pruning advice of all from the RHS. Give plants space to grow and you won’t have to keep cutting them down to size. A quick chop with shears is all you need do to keep groundcover and lavenders tidy. Groundcover roses - the Society’s Award of Garden Merit goes to pink-flowered cultivar Surrey - will give you a mass of summer flowers and suppress weeds. They are also a breeze to prune: all you need do is attack them with a hedgetrimmer in spring.

A small herb garden is indispensable for any patch. The RHS low-maintenance method is to plant through a weed-suppressing membrane and cover with a layer of slate or gravel. To plant through membrane, cut a cross and fold back to allow for planting.

Bulbs are your standby for easy, pop-up colour year after year. Plant dwarf and low-growing crocus, scillas and small daffodils for spring, and alliums and shorter lilies that need no staking for summer. For speedier work, dig one large hole to house several bulbs at a time; the finished effect looks more natural, too.

New-wave prairie planting relies on billowing grasses - miscanthus, stipa, calamagrostis - and airy perennials (rudbeckias, heleniums, achilleas) that need no deadheading, staking or frequent division. Many have long-lasting flowers or sculptural seedheads that keep the garden looking lively through autumn and winter. Ornamental grasses only need cutting back hard in spring.

The RHS suggestion for a small-scale prairie, 2.5m by 2.5m, that you can leave to die down naturally every year is five Stipa gigantea grasses, nine Verbena bonariensis, seven Salvia sylvestris Mainacht and seven foxglove Digitalis lutea. Watering plants can take ages but you can slash that time by using drought-tolerant plants in pots and borders. Restrict planting in the ground to autumn or spring, so you can cut down on watering while the plants are getting established. Several large pots have more impact than many small ones and are easier to look after. Fill them with herbs, succulents, evergreens and drought-lovers that need little watering, feeding or deadheading. Save on regular liquid feeds, too, by using a slow-release fertiliser just once or twice a year. And to avoid wielding a watering can altogether, install automatic irrigation. Just set the timer and sit back.

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