The Best Plants for a Low Maintenance Garden

The Basics

The request for a garden to be 'low maintenance' is the most common we receive from clients (even for those who have a gardener). So, in this piece, we're going to be looking at the best plants for a low maintenance garden.

First thing to note is that there is no such thing as maintenance free when it comes to plants but clearly not all plants were made equally. We can divide plants into four categories: trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals. 

Perhaps counter-intuitively, one of the best things that you can do to save time on the garden is maximise the number of plants with foliage throughout the growing season. This helps suppress weeds. Then minimise the number of varieties so that keeps your job list more efficient.

Our top tip would be to invest a little effort into personalising your garden. You may not like the garden that you've inherited and, in our experience, that's when resentment about doing garden jobs builds! So take time in the beginning to make the garden yours and the jobs will feel more joyful. 

Annuals

Annuals are often over looked and we suspect that this is due to the belief that there's a lot of work in getting them started or the perception that, as the name suggests, they only last for one season. 

On the contrary; there are plenty of annuals which can be sown directly outdoors from early summer and they are often prolific self seeders. This means that, whilst you may not see the same plant in the same spot the following year, you can be sure there'll be at least two others in a nearby location. An added bonus being that this creates a very naturalised look.

Some examples include: Linaria purpurea - try sub-species L. p. 'Canon Went' for something different - a soft pink set of flowers and a great plant for a little height;

Nigella damascena 'Miss Jekyll' - can be sown directly in autumn allowing for early summer interest in the garden. Great too for flowering arrangers.

Ammi majus has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. This looks like Cow Parsley with similar architectural flower heads and growing to approximately 1.2m. 

Digitalis ('foxglove' and technically a biennial) has stood the test of time and is happy in sun and shade. Mainly in available in variations of purple and white.

Annuals can be sown directly outdoors from early summer and they are often prolific self seeders.

A purple digitalis or foxglove
Digitalis (foxglove): a great plant for early summer colour

A large bonsai pinus watereri
A bonsai Pinus 'Watereri' creates a clear focal point. With a 2 metre wide spread, this one plant takes up the space of several smaller plants

Trees

As a rule, trees and shrubs tend to be a lot less work than perennials. Partly this is due to their size. A small tree such as Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy' will typically take up ground space of 100-120cm. Compare this to perennials such as Digitalis (Foxglove) which take up much less room at a mere 30cm meaning many more are required for 'fill' the same space.

Furthermore, trees and shrubs have presence throughout the year - even if they are deciduous - leaves my fall but stems and structure will remain. Small trees which have interest after their leaves have fallen include: 

Prunus 'Kojo-no-mai' - A small tree (1.5-2m) with contorted stems flowering very early in the year.

Acer davidii 'Viper' or Acer Griseum - both deciduous but wonderful bark for winter interest.

Sorbus - another smaller tree which produces a mass of berries in autumn.

If you have a small garden and only room for one or two trees, try and incorporate a tree which has interest even once the leaves have fallen.

Shrubs

Viburnum - these prefer life on the moister side and are happy in shade. White or white flushed pink flowers brighten things up and often at an otherwise glum time of year. Sadly I'm giving up hope on one of my old favourites, Viburnum davidii, as I rarely see it without the nibbled edges thanks to vine weevil. 
However, there is still hope and once again, this genus offers up multiple options for your needs: 

Viburnum opulus grows to around a metre in height and spread and we recently used it for an informal hedge. 

 A client once commented that she loves Viburnums for the berries that the local peasant feeds on in the winter. I think she meant pheasant but this job really does yield no end of surprises. 

Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' is a small shrub to approximately 1m in height and spread and has Hydrangea like flowers but these arrive in spring. Pretty to look at and I've yet to do anything to mine which has been happily going for 15+ years. 

Cornus (or Dogwood) - Once again, this genus will surprise you with the myriad of forms they take. They don't like being moved or being too dry.

The most well known is Cornus sanguines 'Midwinter Fire' which is often planted next to the brilliant white stems of a Betula (Birch) tree so that, in the depths of darkest winter, the red stems really jump out. Cornus sanguinea is a good alternative to the 'norms' for a hedging choice although it will sucker so consider putting in a root barrier to save work in the long term.

For ground cover, try Cornus canadensis which is evergreen and will spread up to 1.5m once established (which can take a few years so underplant with as many as you can afford). According to The RHS, it originates from Alaska so no worries about our British winters. On the other end of the scale, Cornus kousa is a large shrub/medium tree or, if you've lots of space, go for Cornus controversa 'Variegata' (the Wedding Cake tree) which puts on a show like no other.

Perovskia - a little 'roundabout and car parks' these days but for good reason - THEY LOOK GREAT AND ARE LOW MAINTENANCE! Easy to grow from cuttings and will grow up quickly. Easily occupying 1.1m in  height and spread; they have a wonderful way of taking over just as their friend, the Lavender, is going over. 

Exochorda - another small shrub but this one prefers sun. Star shaped white flowers in spring. 

Euonymus - there are evergreen and deciduous varieties available but the latter is our preferred form. You can see how, allowed to grow in the right space, it grows to a generous size and nothing is able grow underneath. Think how many perennials would be needed to fill the same space. 

Pinus mugo 'Mops' - Definitely a plant which has gained popularity in light of the 'Box Blight' conundrum and really one we should have fallen for a long time ago. Can be allowed to grow haphazardly or clipped into neat mounds. Evergreen and drought tolerant once established.

Euphorbia - This plant is one we use time and again. First of all, there are just so many varieties of the plant for a variety of conditions! Need a big fat acid green presence?

Try Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii. Want spring interest in a shady spot? You need Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea'; Need an evergreen filler plant? Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae is the one for you. Looking for early summer interest in a warmer colour? Euphorbia griffithii 'Dixter' it is!

Oh and the one thing they all have in common is a big fat tick in the architectural form box.
(A quick cover - they produce a skin irritating sap when cut so treat with caution (and gloves)).

Time and again we see trees and shrubs which have been planted without due thought to their long term performance leaving little option for them to be removed. Don't be the person that forces a future generation to destroy a small ecosystem!

Grasses

On several occasions, we have been asked for a low-maintenance cottage garden. This is a complete oxymoron and our best advice would be to use grasses instead.

Ornamental grasses are ideal for a late summer display and their seed heads provide architectural interest and bird feed through the quiet winter. They require a prune in early spring and are perennial so will regrow next year.

Some of our favourites include Pennisetum (P. rubra isn't as hardy as the straight form), Miscanthus and Stipa gigantea (a fabulous plant for an architectural focal point).

Good small varieties for crowding out weeds include Stipa tenuissima (will seed around!), Hakonechloa (prefers a shadier spot) and Carex.

If you're still feeling overwhelmed and uncertain on where to start then do get in touch. We can assist with full garden design ideas or just help you re-evaluate your borders.

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