top of page
  • Writer's pictureLaura Bedell-Pearce

(Nearly) no-maintenance garden plants

An article by Katherine Crouch, reposted with permission

When taking the briefing notes from my prospective garden design clients, it is common that the first requirement is their future garden must be low maintenance. This is a perfectly acceptable request, as they must have A Life as well.


Everybody should make time to go to the pub, spend time bringing up the children properly (take them with you to the pub) and have long lazy home cooked Sunday lunches (lamb boulangère cooking while you are down the pub). We were locked down for long enough – get out and do something, if only to go for a walk.


Non-gardeners assume that gardening needs a lot of constant work, and they don’t know much about the right choices of plants and their care, and fear they will get out of control. This is a shame, because a garden built solely of hard surfaces and fake grass may give you space for party or play, but it has no soul. 


No-maintenance plants add movement, colour, scent and birdsong, shade, privacy, and hide the mess of everyday life effectively. The no-plant garden is a clean and tidy place but to keep it that way, you must paint fences, brush lawns, pressure wash patios, rake gravel and scrub furniture, which is just outdoor housework and a drudge to do. 


Zero-plant people are right to be cautious about the potential of work and mess via plants, as many of the choices of plants at garden centres are fast growing speedy-plants. The labels are rather vague about eventual sizes because there is no telling how rich is the soil in which you plant it. A speedy-plant takes a short amount of time to grow from a small cutting to a well rooted bushy plant, ready for the sale bench. 


This reduces the weeks at the nursery taken to care for them, thus increasing turnover and profits. We are impatient and want instant effect. All plants will grow, and most drop leaves every year, deciduous ones in late autumn and evergreens in late spring. Zero-plant garden owners don’t like that.


The trouble is, speedy-plants may not stop being fast growing and zero-plant people don’t like that either. The cute little buddleia in a 2 litre pot becomes a beautiful monster after only a few years. Being vigorous and generally disease free, it will not resent being cut hard back to grow again. 


This is where gardening becomes tedious. Cutting off branches with sharp loppers is quite a fun job. Dragging them across the garden, down the side alley, into the car boot and down to the dump takes five times as long, and is a waste of a Sunday afternoon. 


This garden designer will tell you how lovely a buddleia is in late summer and how it is a magnet for bees and butterflies, then steer you about-turn in the direction of no-maintenance plants that may cost a bit more, or not look much when young, or may grow slowly. Here are a few of the favourites in my garden. 


Osmanthus burkwoodii 

In the 6 years I have grown this dark evergreen shrub, it has quietly grown from football size to about a metre high and round. I nip off the odd straggly twig in winter and put it in the compost bin. I delight in the almond scented flowers in late March and April and so do the bees. If box moth comes to my village and devastates my 10 box bushes, I will replace them with these.


Sorbus aucuparia

The rowan, or mountain ash, is my favourite no-maintenance small tree. Beech and oak will dump thick layers of leaves that persist for months, smothering lawns and small border plants. You must rake off the leaves or the lawn and dainty primroses will die off. Better to have rowan’s soft pinnate leaves fall off and shatter into their component parts, which skitter into the borders on the wind and are gone by Christmas. Now you have light shade on hot days and somewhere to hang bird feeders.


Primroses, snowdrops, violets, crocuses and cyclamen

These dainty treasures of the garden floor are perfect no-maintenance plants, as I never touch mine. They will flourish in sun to shade, and gently self-increase but not enough to be a nuisance. They won’t resent taller plants overgrowing them for summer, unless totally smothered.


Phlomis russeliana

If you do want a perennial that smothers weeds so much they just can’t take the competition, this one is my favourite no-maintenance plants for the borders. The basal leaves are evergreen, and I guess in autumn, the airborne weed seeds land on the leaves and seldom reach the ground to germinate, and if they do, it is too dark under there to thrive. With butter yellow flowers in midsummer, seedheads persist all winter. Its only fault is slightly too vigorous growth, especially on damp soil, but it is easily dug out. I reduced groups of it by half after 4 years, which took only 10 minutes to rip up. Two and a half minutes a year to sort out…that’s almost nothing, right? Full sun to semi-shade.


Geranium macrorrhizum

This takes full sun to full shade, so it can take over where the phlomis leaves off. The leaves overlap so closely that in summer the ground is totally covered and weeds seldom compete. Several varieties, with flower colours in May from pure white through pink to magenta, although I find the white ones less strong growing. It goes a bit sparse in winter, but not long enough for weed seeds to get a look in.


Campanula porscharskyana

This creeping bellflower is evergreen and crawls, self-seeds, inserts itself in crevices, plasters its shoots up the walls and blooms with soft blue flowers all summer. It is invasive but somehow always finds the right place to look good. If you don’t like the look of the spent flower stems in autumn, pull them out, although the plant will grow over the dead stems next year without any help. Sun or shade.


Erigeron karvinskianus or Roman daisy 

Another crack creeper, this daisy is in bloom from May to November without a break. It will self-seed like mad and always looks at home. If the clumps get too bushy after several years, just cut or strim them down in early spring. Takes about a second a clump which makes it one of the best no-maintenance plants. Full sun to semi shade.


If you had nothing but a patio surrounded by these beauties, you would have white, pink, blue and yellow flowers for a long season. There are hundreds more plants you could grow that might need a cut down or dead-head once a year, so don’t quite make it onto the no-maintenance plants list. 


I daresay I should want a few tall low-maintenance plants like foxgloves and agapanthus and a climber up a fence, and I would not resent 2 half days a year sprucing up the garden in spring and autumn. If only housework was the same! 


With just The No-Maintenance Plants list, you have colour, scent, character, somewhere to sit in the shade, wildlife habitat, foliage you can flick fag butts and bottle-tops into all summer, and plenty of time to stroll down to the pub as well. Wave cheerily to the neighbours as they scrub and deodorise their fake lawn once more.

A BBC Gardener of the Year winner, Katherine Crouch has over 30 years of gardening and design experience. She's a design and plant guru and a charismatic personality fizzing with life. Katherine is based in the South West. You can see her work here. This article was reposted with her kind permission.

9 views0 comments


bottom of page