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Low Maintenance Plants

At this time of the year, the garden seems to take on a mind of its own and plants grow at an alarming rate. Shrubs that looked so prim and proper in the spring now have long straggly shoots at all angles giving them a dishevelled look. Perennials too have burgeoned in the borders with Cranesbills climbing through other plants and Phlox straining to keep their heads in the sun whilst their neighbours jostle with them for space and light.

The Privet hedge at the back of the garden was drastically reduced two autumns ago so that the stumps and bare branches stood dormant for what seemed an age until bright green shoots were seen in the following spring. It has grown back into a sleek green backdrop kept in bounds by the hedge trimmer regularly run over the new growth before it gets a chance to become a leaning, light sucking, woody mess as before.

Many of the plants in our garden have been there for years and with careful pruning, an annual spring feed and plenty of homemade compost spread as mulch the garden is relatively easy to keep looking good with our limited spare time.

Many perennials are relatively ‘low maintenance’ until their rootstocks become congested and they need to be dug up and divided into pieces after flowering. Hardy Geraniums (Border Cranesbills) can go on for years with no attention save a feed and mulch each spring. The straggly growth can be removed to the base after flowering, leaves and all and the plants will quickly spring back to life with many producing more flowers.

Evergreen shrubs too are usually no trouble. The Mexican Orange Blossom below the kitchen window was a picture this spring – full of scented clusters of white flowers for weeks. Careful pruning to remove the faded flower heads keeps this in shape and there is another flowering in early autumn much to the delight of the bees.

We have several Hebes in our sunny front garden and one, H. ‘Wiri Charm’ has been in flower for weeks. The spikes of deep magenta flowers are covering the mound-like growth and look great against the weed suppressing gravel. A light prune back to new growth once the flowers have faded may bring more blooms in the autumn and will keep the plant in shape. Larger varieties are growing on the edge of the garden and make excellent windbreaks. If they are badly damaged by cold winter winds, snow or frost, we wait until new growth shoots from the middle of the plants and prune back to this in late spring. By the end of the summer, the plants are always full of flowers and have tidy mounds of leaves once again. Along with many other evergreens, Hebes benefit from a good cut back in late spring every few years to keep them in shape and encourage vigorous new growth.

For evergreen texture and its lovely silver-grey leaves Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ is one of my favourite shrubs and this too can be hard pruned to shape in the same way as the Hebes. Left to its own devices this plant can become a sprawling mound so benefits from a good prune every few years.

The list of low maintenance plants goes on and on but I am particularly pleased with my latest additions of Rock Roses (Helianthemum) which will add a lower layer of planting to the front garden with their cheerful flowers so loved by bees and sprawling, ground covering habits. With a quick tidy from the shears once the flowers have faded, they should be happy for many years to come.


Watering Your Garden

Infrequent showers, thundery rain and misty mornings are often not enough to top up moisture levels in the ground and new plants will dry out fast in the sun – especially if it’s a breezy day.

The following tips will save time and water and help keep your plants in tip top condition.

Planting in the ground

Prepare the ground well before planting and add organic matter such as garden compost to the soil to help retain moisture. Organic matter acts like a sponge, soaking up water and slowly releasing it back into the soil.

Fill a bucket with water and place the plant, still in its pot in the bucket so that the pot is submerged. You may see air bubbles coming out of the water or if the plant is very dry it will float on the surface. Hold the plant pot under the water until the air bubbles stop – your plant is now at ‘field capacity’ which means the compost surrounding the roots cannot hold any more water.

Dig the planting hole and add some bone meal or other fertiliser to the soil. Remove the plastic pot from your plant and place it in the hole so that it is slightly lower than the soil surface. Backfill with the soil mix, gently pushing soil between the hole and plant’s roots so that there are no air pockets. Firm gently with your hands as you go – there is no need to compact the soil so that it is solid.

Water your plant and the surrounding soil straight away after planting and it will be fine for a few days.


Newly planted areas should be watered thoroughly a couple of times each week if need be. Sprinkling the leaves with a hose will not help and just wastes water!

To see if your plants need to be watered, gently scrape the soil around the base to check for moisture. If the soil is dry or the plants have drooping leaves or flowers (wilting) fill a watering can and water directly onto the soil near the plants stems. A quarter to half a can two or three times a week should do the trick and enable your plants to establish well.

It is better to water a couple of times a week using the above method than sprinkling your plants leaves with the hose every evening. By wetting the soil each evening, you will encourage roots to form near the soil surface not reach down into the soil to anchor the plant and enable it to withstand dry weather in the future. 


Planting in containers

Because their roots are confined, plants in hanging baskets and pots will generally need more water than those in the ground. Bedding plants, herbs and other fast growing ‘annuals’ may need watering up to twice a day in dry weather – their vigorous roots become a mass in a container, quickly soaking up water.

Add water retaining crystals to the compost before planting hanging baskets and summer bedding plants in containers. The crystals swell up when watered and can hold many times their own weight in water which is slowly released back into the compost.

Use pot saucers beneath pots that are difficult to keep watered properly or for plants that don’t like to be watered overhead. The saucers can be topped up as needed so that water is taken up through the base of the container.

Water your plants in the evenings when evaporation will be much less and top up if required in the mornings before the heat of the day.

Be especially vigilant during hot, breezy or showery weather. Often a sudden down pour will wet the ground but not get past the leaves of established plants in pots, leaving the surface dry.

Pots in a ‘rain shadow’ - near the base of a wall or tucked under the eaves of a garden building for example – will probably not get enough rain even if other containers in the open do. Remember to check these often, or move them to a more open site when rain is forecast.

When watering established containers, use a watering can or a garden hose with a lance fitted so that the water is directed into the centre of the container onto the soil surface, not over the leaves which will act as umbrellas, leaving the pot surface dry. Bedding plants and hanging baskets may need watering twice a day but often more established plants will not need as much water – a good soak twice a week may be enough for many shrubs and roses growing in containers.

And finally........

Be mindful of the weather and act accordingly!


I am a big fan of plants that have more than one interesting feature – scented leaves on an evergreen perhaps or attractive leaves through the growing season which also have vibrant autumn colours.

Some really are plants for all seasons. We have a Parrotia tree in the back garden - far too big for its allotted space – but I love it for several reasons. The glossy deep green leaves are a lovely feature from spring until autumn when they take on crimson and plum hues before falling to reveal mottled grey bark. Our plant flowered for the first time last winter, braving the windy weather to display pincushions of red flowers which hug the bare stems in January. The common name of Persian Ironwood is apt – the wood is very hard!

Coloured stemmed Dogwoods are another favourite of mine. These lovely shrubs always have something to shout about – naked stems in winter which are red or green depending on the variety, attractive wavy leaves through the growing season and spectacular autumn colours before they fall to reveal the striking stems once again. The flat white flower clusters in early summer are a showy addition to a shrubbery and are followed by blue-white berries. Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ lived happily in our garden for many years in a very dry spot, although they do prefer moist or wet soil and look great planted near water. It was unfortunately sacrificed for the new vegetable area but we still have the olive-green stemmed variety C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ in the front garden. The branches glow in winter against a dark purple Phormium tenax ‘Purpurea’ and light the area again in early summer when they are full of white flowers for the bees.

With milder weather this winter, our Teucrium fruticans ‘Azureum’ has been undamaged and held its leathery leaves making a column of silver-grey on the trellis near the dining room. Semi-evergreen plants are usually unharmed here but unlike true evergreens I never worry if they do drop all of their leaves because of cold weather or strong winds. A quick prune, feed and water in spring soon has them shooting back to life and we have just hard pruned our plant to keep it in bounds. This plant just flowers and flowers and is always full of very contented bees!

Even the Alliums in the front garden get in on the double act. Their huge flower heads have been glistening silvery lilac balls for weeks, again full of bees which have done their work well. Bright green seed capsules can be seen now and the bleached out seed heads will look lovely amongst the Agapanthus and grasses which we have yet to enjoy. As well as adding a contemporary twist to the gravel garden I am hoping that the seeds will self sow and produce a colony – plants often place themselves much more pleasingly than we do as we worry about which colours and textures go together!


News from the Gravel Garden

When we moved to our current house almost fifteen years ago we inherited a blank canvas. We had the house built and the front garden is south facing but very exposed and open to winds from all directions. The topsoil was removed before the build began but we were lucky enough to get some delivered for nothing once we were ready to make the garden. The soil is not deep but the underlying subsoil is very free draining which coupled with the sunny aspect, make it an ideal site for a low maintenance gravel garden.

Low, mound-like evergreens were planted first including the grey leaved Hebe pinguifolia ‘Pagei’ and sticky leaved Cistus x hybridus which always makes such a neat shape and is covered with glowing white flowers in early summer that the bees love so much. Cotton Lavender (Santolina) also makes a neat evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves and yellow flowers like buttons held on wiry stems in summer. I prefer the deep green leaves of Santolina virens to the silver leaved varieties – the flowers contrast much better.

For height on the windward side we planted a tough Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’ in front of a ‘hit and miss’ fence which filters the worst of the winter gales. Taller Hebes also thrive here and have to be cut back hard every couple of years in early spring to keep them in shape. Grasses are a great addition to any garden but here, they defy even the most violent of summer winds, flexing and swaying without stems breaking.

With the bones of this area well established, we introduced some smaller plants which love the hot dry conditions. Rock Roses (Helianthemum) of various colours spread over the gravel and glow when in flower through the summer. Cutting them back hard once they have finished blooming keeps them in shape and makes them live longer than if they are allowed to produce straggly growths. They are available in a rainbow of colours from pure white to deep plum-red and the single flowers are loved by bees. The more unusual double flowered forms are beautiful but no good for pollinating insects – they hold less pollen and are more difficult for insects to navigate.

Low growing Euphorbia myrsinites (Spurge) flops its long stems over the stones and produces flat heads of flowers in late spring. They are acid green and contrast beautifully with the grey-blue evergreen leaves. This along with a prostrate form of Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), relish the dry conditions and are easily raised from seed. The exotic, saucer shaped blooms of the Evening Primrose belie its hardiness – the plant sensibly dies to ground level in the winter but will appear each year as long as the soil drains well in persistent wet weather. We have another self seeded form of this lovely plant which is upright growing and has smaller yellow blooms which open at night and have a delicious scent.

The stars of the show right now are Cerinthe major var. purpurascens (Honeywort) and Allium moly. The Allium is slowly seeding around this area, loving the free draining gravel and the fact that we only pull out seedlings that we can identify as weeds! The bright yellow heads of star shaped flowers are popping up at random and always make me smile. Allium christophii which were planted on a bed of coarse grit last winter have also been outstanding and will hopefully produce offspring of their own in future years.

I have always loved the look of Cerinthe and finally remembered to buy some seed this spring. It germinated very quickly in the propagator and the silvery grey leaves soon made sturdy plants that were ready to grow on in small pots until they were established enough to go into the garden. They have grown into the most beautiful plants with amazing flower clusters that are remarked on by neighbours as they pass by – a definite winner which should also seed easily and create a colony over the next few years.

When an area of the garden does well, it inspires me to try new things and start again with other areas which are no longer up to the mark – what next I wonder?


Gardens are never finished - They just keep evolving

At this time of the year, with plants growing so fast, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the garden. New growth is everywhere and shrubs that were too small for their allocated space only a few years ago are now jostling for room with their neighbours!

‘Gardens are never finished – they just keep evolving’ - I keep telling myself this as I make decisions on what to leave and what to prune back, what to dig out and what to reprieve for one more year.

Perennials are easy to deal with and can be divided after they have flowered to reduce their size or to maintain their vigour. Clumps of Day Lilies which have flowered well in the garden for years have less flower stems emerging this year and this is usually a sign of the plants becoming congested, although I know I am pushing it trying to grow them in dry soil and shade! I have decided that they must and have donated the plants to a local nursery where they will make admirable stock plants!

Border Geraniums are simply cut down to size after the first flowering and fed and watered in the hope that they will produce further flushes of blooms. These easy plants love our shady back garden and do not sulk and withhold their flowers like the Day Lilies. We have plenty of varieties from the spring flowering Geranium phaeum ‘Dusky Rose’ to stalwarts of the summer border which include blue and white flowered ‘Rosanne’ – a real beauty that is so easy to please and keeps flowering until well into the autumn.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ the South African Montbretia, also sulks in the shade and needs to be moved to our sunnier front garden but needs moist soil to do well. I love it for the sword shaped leaves and bright red flowers which top wiry stems in late summer. This plant went great guns in its present position for several years but now looks tired with only a few leaf clumps that look as if they will produce flowers. The encroaching Cotoneaster and Parrotia trees have shaded the area too much for their liking!

 Astrantia on the other hand loves the shade that this area produces and has seeded freely. These long lived perennials have fresh green leaves that create a cool feel to a moist shady spot and the flowers remind me of jellies with their wobbly centres. They are produced for months through the summer and are great dried for winter arrangements - cut fresh they last for weeks in a vase but don’t smell good!

But it is the bully boy evergreens that really take the light from the garden and several of these are due for a drastic prune this year! The Arbutus unedo which copes admirably with strong winter winds had got enormous but now looks ugly where my husband pruned the front of it today. He has fed and watered the plant to encourage new growth and the plants ‘round. about already look much happier.

A trip to the local green skip is in order I think!