Low-maintenance plants and useful ideas for the weekend gardener

We all want our garden or balcony plants to look their best but not many of us have much time to spend on maintaining our plants. Even those who can afford to pay someone else to weed and water can’t completely avoid getting involved unless they want their garden to look (at best) like a public park – tidy but impersonal. As with the interior of your home, your own personal touch is what makes the difference. So when designing your garden or choosing plants for your balcony, bear in mind a few simple guidelines so that minimum effort will result in maximum benefit. The more soil is exposed, the more weeding will have to be done. One solution is ground cover, whether plants, gravel or paving (discussed on this page on February 23). Fleur Pavlidis has a large garden at her home outside Athens. «I have only irregular help for heavy work, that’s why I don’t want to have to weed, so ground cover is important,» she said, adding that even self-seeding annuals helped to keep weeds down. «And you don’t want to bring in soil from elsewhere. Wherever you can, keep builders from disturbing the soil, since undisturbed soil doesn’t have the larger weeds, such as nettles,» she added. «We have a lot of gravel paths. At first we had to weed them all the time, so we put down cheap black porous plastic cloth (available in nurseries) underneath the gravel, to prevent light from getting through.» Pavlidis said time is also saved by having automatic watering everywhere, both battery- and computer-operated. Landscape designer Jennifer Gay, author of the excellent handbook «Greece, Garden of the Gods» (Athens News Books, 2005), emphasizes the importance of mulch – a layer of usually organic matter on top of the soil that keeps it cool and prevents moisture from evaporating too readily. «This protective covering – usually a material such as decaying leaves, bark or compost – is as relevant to the owner of three pots on a balcony as it is to the owner of a huge garden,» writes Gay. «Mulch also simplifies weeding – it lightens the surface soil, making weeds easier to pull out, so you are less likely to damage plants.» Making choices A useful reference book for saving time in the garden is «The Weekend Gardener – A Guide to Low-Maintenance Gardening,» by Valerie Swane (Angus and Robertson, 1990). Swane, a horticulturist who runs a large nursery in Australia, emphasizes the importance of choosing the right kind of plants for each environment. As parts of Australia have a Mediterranean climate, this is another English-language gardening book that is more useful to us here than others written for gardeners in Britain (as long as you remember that the seasons are at the opposite times of the year – hence when September is mentioned, switch it with March – and that the summer sun shines down from a northerly direction in the Southern Hemisphere). «Plants that are happy in their environment will require less care from you. This is the foundation of your low-maintenance garden and if you seriously want to reduce work, this becomes your first constraint,» writes Swane, who advises that one should first calculate the time one will have for gardening, and plant accordingly. «There is little point putting down a lawn that takes three hours a week to mow if you only have two to spend on the whole garden,» she points out. The book has an exhaustive list of low-care plants divided into categories such as shrubs and trees for privacy, foundation planting around the house, trees for shade and windbreak, climbers, trees for fruit and foliage, colorful plants to fill in corners, and swimming pool plants. It also includes clear explanations of pests and nutrient deficiencies, how to recognize them and how to treat them. In the section «Manageable Garden Maintenance,» Swane gives detailed instructions on how and when to water (infrequent but deep, thorough watering being the goal). She advises against pots and hanging plants as they heat up too fast and so need more water. But balcony owners can note the exceptions she makes to this rule – succulents such as agaves, yuccas, jade trees, geraniums and pelargoniums and hardy plants such as agapanthus and abelia. Hydrangeas, however, of which there seem to be a large number in nurseries this year, need frequent watering. Small section Remember, if you have a large area you don’t have time to maintain, it’s best to focus on a small section of it. You could plant the rest with a species of grass (not lawn, that needs lots of water and regular mowing) that is suitable for dry climates and looks fine when left to grow – it can be cut short in spring to reduce fire hazards. But even small spaces can be demanding unless the right plants are chosen and even the most drought-resistant plants need extra water in the hottest months if they are to look attractive. It is best to group plants according to their water needs. For example, succulents and cacti can be combined in one area that is watered less frequently than the rest of the garden. A slope furthest from the house is a good choice for this. So if you are going to get an automatic watering system, it is worth investing in one that can supply different parts of the garden with water according to their needs.