Saturday, July 01, 2023

Is the ‘low-maintenance’ garden a myth?

 Luxury treehouses with grown-up appeal

Plant walls, also known as green walls, vertical gardens, green facades or living walls are structures that allow for vertical plant growth on structures like walls or trellises. These can be found in various spaces, including commercial buildings, residences and public areas. Vertical gardens can be found in both interior and exterior environments. Based on the project’s design requirements, different systems can be used to set up a plant wall. Besides the aesthetic appeal they provide, green walls also come with many benefits, particularly for those that inhabit the surrounding space.

Planting Green Walls 

Is the ‘low-maintenance’ garden a myth? 

The amount of care any living outdoor space needs can seem overwhelming. The trick is to lean on the experts to protect your investment

When an interior designer finishes a project, they hand the keys back to their client and walk out of their lives. 

When a garden designer finishes a project, it is, in many ways, just the beginning.  No matter how much money is invested in the initial design and build, gardens need years of care and attention in order to thrive. Small, immature plants need help establishing. 
Enthusiastic self-seeders must be kept in check. Many larger plants need pruning and shaping. Well-balanced ecosystems require intervention. Planting needs to be reviewed, edited and added to.  You could, of course, pave over everything: lose the plants, carpet your lawn with green plastic turf and turn it into a kind of outdoor sitting room. But the truth is, anything that resembles a proper, living garden requires proper care.  So new gardeners — and those not so new — shouldn’t worry if they find themselves struggling with the workload: gardens of any size can be overwhelming.

 But seeing your garden as less of a space to maintain and more of a space to enjoy and engage with, helps alleviate the pressure of feeling like it should look a certain way. Even if you fully embrace the wild, rambling country garden aesthetic, you’ll probably find it still needs to be gardened, as decorative artist Tess Newall and her husband, furniture designer Alfred, discovered when they bought their home at the foot of the South Downs in southern England.  Harry Hoblyn, head gardener at Charleston in East Sussex, says horticulture as an art form is undervalued Established and characterful, the garden helped them fall for the house in 2019.
 “It was about the place and the feel of it, and the garden was a huge part of that,” says Tess Newall. “It’s very all-encompassing, you feel like you’ve entered another world. I like the overgrownness, it felt familiar to me because it was not at all pristine.” While the Newalls loved the charm of the mature and informal garden, it took them a while to realise they needed help with it. 
“We probably didn’t imagine being people who had a gardener — especially as we like the overgrown cottage garden feel,” says Newall, four years down the line. “But a growing interest in [the garden] meant that we wanted help from someone more knowledgeable than us. 

It became apparent that even creating a ‘wild’ garden still takes work.”  Managing a garden — in the professional sense — takes not just knowledge but creativity too. It is only through practice, working with the living world and navigating all the challenges that brings, that you can craft and curate and coax a truly beautiful garden into being. It’s often not mentioned in glossy garden features: exactly how many hours of hard work, and expertise, go into creating these spectacular places? How many gardeners are employed? 
And how much does it cost? “I think a lot of people are put off gardening because they only see perfect gardens,” says Greg Loades, author of The 30-Minute Gardener, who thinks our collective lack of reverence for gardening comes from people viewing their outdoor spaces as just something else to look after, cleaned and kept on top of. As opposed to, say, a beautiful opportunity to connect with the land. 

Horticulture as an art form, it’s hugely undervalued Harry Hoblyn To remedy this, professional gardeners need not only more visibility but better pay. The average national salary for a full-time gardener in the UK, isles that are globally renowned for their grand and influential garden history, is just £23,000 a year — the average salary in the UK is more than £30,000.  “Horticulture as an art form, it’s hugely undervalued,” says Harry Hoblyn, head gardener at Charleston, the East Sussex home and studio of Bloomsbury group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. 
“There are some amazing artists in the gardening world,” Hoblyn continues, and goes on to namecheck prolific garden designers such as Tom Stuart-Smith and Dan Pearson and talented horticulturists, such as Mat Reese, head gardener at Malverleys Gardens near Newbury. The Newalls were attracted to the overgrown nature of the garden In my own day job as a landscape designer, I find myself having to champion the work of trained gardeners to convince clients to employ them once the design and build phase is complete. Quite often, such clients are willing to spend hundreds of thousands on their outdoor spaces, yet balk at the idea of paying a highly trained horticulturist to look after their new investment.  “We struggle to justify £40 an hour [for garden maintenance],” says Richard Curle, founder of multi award-winning Landscape Associates, who works predominantly in London and across the south of England. Not investing in aftercare can be costly — and the industry tends to prefer the term “aftercare” rather than “maintenance”. 
On one recent project, Curle’s clients were adamant they would maintain the garden themselves. A few months later, he got a phone call saying the £12,000 of hedging his team had planted was dying, despite them turning up the output of the irrigation system repeatedly. Curle visited, took one look at the plants and saw that the clients had over-watered their new hedging, killing it. Undervaluing gardeners is a worldwide problem. Dale Smith set up an aftercare service Prestigious Gardens in Adelaide in 2014. “We often experience a client dropping out of our horticultural care programs due to budget, only to return to our service 12 to 24 months later, with the garden being damaged by an unqualified person.” 
 has now gone as far as to introduce a minimum contract of two hours a week for his smaller city garden clients, and three hours for anything bigger. Visits are reduced to fortnightly from December to February but the year-round care means he knows his clients’ investment in their gardens is in safe hands.  Consulting a professional and knowledgeable garden is the key to avoiding the pitfalls So, depending on where you live, maintenance for a spectacularly designed, beautifully cared-for garden — even in relatively small city plots — can cost upwards of £320 a month. Sometimes the reluctance to pay to upkeep a garden is due to a combination of naivety and enthusiasm; a well-meaning couple finding themselves with a one or two-acre garden for the first time might think they can look after it, despite having busy jobs and families to care for. 
But it’s often a false economy; if you inherit a garden that has been well cared for, it’s better to invest in its care than wait three years and discover you have to start all over again. I think gardening, in terms of knowledge, is probably one of the most diverse skill sets you could have Harry Hoblyn Hoblyn believes that, with the rise of hobbyist gardeners in recent years, the distinction between amateur and professional is not always clear. In fact, he says he has become so disenchanted with the word “gardener” that now, when he meets new people, he tells them he works at a museum. 
“I think gardening, in terms of knowledge, is probably one of the most diverse skill sets you could have: you’ve got to know your plants, you’ve got to be able to observe nature, you’ve got to do so many different things,” he says. With a great knowledge of the history of Charleston and its inhabitants, Hoblyn was the perfect person to help artist Newall — who lives locally to Charleston and whose own work echoes that of the Bloomsbury group — reinvigorate her garden.  The previous owner, before the Newalls, had designed it to be a space that was easy to care for, and yet it still needed some thoughtful attention to make it suitable for the new family. Newall commissioned Hoblyn to help shape it into something “more floriferous and colourful”. 

Roses grow best from small plants . . .   . . . allowing strong root systems to develop in situ over time To give it all-round interest, colour, structure and vitality, Hoblyn has worked closely with his new clients to make some small adjustments to the space; removing a shrubbery that was blocking a view of the downs, for example, and slowly introducing new plants — in phases — to the garden. If the work is done in stages, the garden becomes less of a risky investment; the Newalls won’t find themselves inundated with gardening to do and the trio can adapt the plans as the garden itself evolves, seeing which plants thrive, which don’t, and responding accordingly. Hoblyn will eventually help the Newalls find a local gardener who can come in one day a week to help them care for it.  Recommended Gardens The gardening courses where knowledge germinates Good garden designers will build aftercare schedules into their proposals, offering seasonal follow-up visits, helping clients appoint a gardener or gardening team, and liaising with all of the parties involved to ensure the long-term health of the garden. Take a large border I designed for a client recently. This person has two part-time gardeners, and a three-acre garden. 
This long border was carefully thought through, with aftercare front of mind. With small curves of slow-growing evergreen hedging punctuating swaths of herbaceous perennials with long seasons of interest, and the desire to leave seed heads standing over winter, it was not what would be classified as a high-maintenance design. Tess Newall: ‘It’s very all-encompassing, you feel like you’ve entered another world’ However, the plants need to be monitored to stop species being outcompeted, making sure that shrubs have space and time to develop and aren’t swamped by fast-growing neighbouring perennials. Large clumps need to be routinely lifted and divided. 
Regular deadheading is required to keep roses flowering; many perennials will enjoy a second burst of colour if cut back at the right time. Planting schemes of any significant scale must be allowed to evolve, all under the watchful eye and gentle, nurturing interventions of a well-trained gardener. Even if you don’t want to take on a gardener long term, simply working with an expert to get you going could save you money further down the line. That way, you can work out what to prioritise at what time of year and start to understand your own garden’s rhythms. “It’s all about just spending 30 minutes in the garden every day,” concludes Loades, “and then you’ll connect with it and want to do more.” Be it a short or long-term relationship, working with someone who has an in-depth knowledge of the plant world, and how our outdoor environments are shaped, can be deeply fulfilling for all involved. Because the real beauty of a garden comes from watching, learning and understanding that it will never really be finished. Tips to lighten the workload . . .  

Plan ahead. If it comes to midsummer and you find yourself buying plants from the local nursery, you’ll be spending more than if you bought in late winter and the garden will also require more watering and care than if you planted in the autumn or spring. 
Similarly, avoid buying large shrubs and plants. It’s better to buy things such as roses and peonies (above) when they’re small and nurture them, allowing strong root systems to develop in situ over time.  Install irrigation, if putting more than a few new plants in. By setting the irrigation system to use a little water during the early hours and evenings, you will lower the need for water and make its use more efficient, leaving more time to potter and prune and, crucially, the opportunity to go on holiday without sorting out substitute plant care. If plants establish well, after a couple of years they shouldn’t need as much water. 
Aim for as much ground cover as possible as this help keep the soil healthy. I like to use the wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca, which is mostly evergreen, or other twiggy and fast, low-growing perennials such as Pachysandra terminalis or Vinca minor “Purpurea”, which help reduce the need for weeding.  Repeat plants throughout the garden; fewer species to get to know will reduce the amount of time searching “how to . . . ” on the internet and routine gardening can be done in a more methodical way. Groups of ornamental grasses (for example, Hakonechloa macra) are especially useful here, plus they only need once or twice-yearly care. 
By interspersing them with perennials such as salvias or persicaria in groups of three or five, you will be able to clearly see what you’re doing, making late winter cutting back straightforward. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, invite a knowledgeable local gardener to undertake routine care, even if it’s just a couple of sessions a year. Or ask them to give you a few tutorials to help you understand your garden, what is growing in it, and how to best care for your plants.