low maintenance garden design Michael John McGarr

Low-maintenance garden design- experiments, developments and lessons in outdoor living.

by Michael John McGarr

The first question that many clients ask me on that very first consultation meeting is can I design a beautiful garden that will stay beautiful? How do I create a high-spec luxury outdoor living space that is really and truly low maintenance?

My contemporary outdoor living spaces are actually naturally low-maintenance. I would not design a stunning space and then tell you that the huge lawn needs mowing twice a week and you need to hand-weed dandelions out of it (who could be bothered to do that?!).

I won’t leave you with swathes of bedding plants that need to be weeded and watered every week and then dug up and changed every season. Not only would this stop you from enjoying your garden, it’s also really un-environmentally-friendly.

One of the common misconception is that gardening should be hard work – and the good news is that you can design in or out maintenance requirements from the outset. It goes without saying that a garden will always require some maintenance.

And a regular question from clients is that they “can’t keep it clean!” This is because we design it to look like an interior room – but It must be accepted that the garden is “outside” and as such I subject to climatic conditions.

While no one likes to see algae grow on polished hard surfaces, leaf litter stored on top of borders while not smothering newly growing plants is actually highly beneficial to a range of species.

One of the keys to this is accurately zoning the garden by creating rooms- rooms for people are obvious, but rooms for planting and wildlife equally so.

And it is this meeting of ecology and contemporary materials where the real value lies and is one of the most exciting parts of my work.  Slick, clean contemporary materials juxtapose well against rougher frothy textured planting schemes and the wildlife they hold. Allowing our clients to sit in and among nature is one of the real rewards of designing gardens in this way.

I am often curating a museum and gallery of natural habitats and creating the stopping points and viewing platforms to enjoy the experience at a close quarters.

Add into the ability to forage and cook eat and entertain within these spaces and the holy grail is achieved.

Naturalistic planting 

My planting design often uses naturalistic planting, which aims to replicate how plants grow in the wild, rather than a staid laid-out rigid pattern. The design will include a variety of plants that come into focus at different times of the year, just as others are fading. Looking out towards nature for influence here is key- and I am constantly looking for ways to futureproof a horticultural plan.

I am experimenting with houseplants and borderline exotics in smaller urban spaces which retain higher temperatures into cooler months and allow a richer and more exciting mix of plants to create gardens with.

We also use decorative trees, such as multi-stemmed birch trees or a field maple, to add height, ensuring they will never take over your garden. I wouldn’t plant tender plants that need to be wrapped up in the winter or covered, or anything that needs staking at certain points in the year (unless specifically requested!).  However it is important to experiment with textures and planting types as much as possible during the design stages to allow the best solution possible.

Some of my favourite low-maintenance flowering plants include rudbeckia, hebes, carex, sedums and buddleja. I also love using a variety of grasses for the added textural quality combined with flowering plants, but they are also really low maintenance.

The key is to get the mix of plants right and, much like a chef with ingredients, if the right seasonal ingredients are researched and specified from outset, the desired result is much more easily attained.

As I have a background in ecology as well as garden design, I always design planting around the type of soil, the climate and the topography. It could be a rain-garden designed to soak up excess water, salt-tolerant planting for a coastal garden or wind-tolerant planting design for a hilly site. This really is essential if you want a low-maintenance garden.

I would also recommend that you buy large specimen plants, shrubs, trees and hedges. If we planted up a new garden with just whips and plug plants, it would look bare for a good few years and that just leaves far too many opportunities for weeds to take over.

Bare earth exist nowhere within the natural environment and this should be emulated in the final stages of the planting design specifying strong site specific ground covering plants – asarum, even helix (ivy) where large areas need to be covered quickly and then mulching organically in preparation for the scheme to fill out.

There is some great work being down by the Sheffield school on such topics and I would encourage you to read “Sowing beauty” by James Hitchmough who advocates high impact low input landscapes using seeds and low-maintenance trialled species..

Let’s go lawn-free (when practical!)

It’s actually not true that long stretches of lawn make gardens look bigger – they really don’t. It’s better to have defined areas, winding paths, and unexplored areas to make a garden look bigger than it is. Of course in huge estates where lawn is already a key feature, the lawn should retained and cherished. Letting the grass grow out in places especially orchard areas and those close to adjoining countryside is especially beneficial.

Not cutting the grass in areas and allowing the grass to grow out in this way creates the perfect habitat for shrews and small mammals to pass through.

However grass will become the dominant species and it worthwhile introducing bulbs and taller perennial species to add attract a wider range of insects whilst adding much needed colour. Grass can then be cut in between flowering times, adding a greater degree and of texture to a planting scheme .

Teasels work especially well in sunnier areas, while marsh fritillaries can be planted as bulbs naturalising nicely in pockets of lawn which are continually damp.

A thorough topographical survey will lead planting design decision making here.

Your designed space will have designated spaces for relaxing, dining and cooking. We use contemporary materials such as large-format porcelain tiles from Italy that are so hard-wearing and low maintenance. You won’t be power-washing or scrubbing these babies.

As a luxury garden designer, I only work with the absolute best materials and I am constantly on the look out for something fresh and exciting to bring to my craft – I have been recently experimenting with permeable concretes and recycled plastic surfaces that are outstandingly beautiful. They look polished and slick but still allow much needed water runoff to enter the earth beneath our gardens.

Wildlife planting 

Leaving a wild area is the most maintenance-free thing you can do for your garden! Let the grasses grow long at the bottom of the garden, let plants self-seed and just see what comes up. Of course, if you do this, you might have to dig seedlings out of the other areas, where they’ve floated across and set up home.

Another good alternative is using wildflower plugs or matting, which need very little maintenance – often just one big chop at the end of the season.

I love seeing a structured and modern garden design, with a strip of long grasses and wildflowers at the bottom that have been left alone to do their own thing.

Storage and practicalities 

I would never design a beautiful garden but leave you nowhere to keep the bikes or the wheelie bins. In the early consultation, we discuss exactly how you use your garden, from where you keep your bins to how often you get the bike out the shed. We design in storage in the areas that you need it most, often before we design out the fun bits. Let’s not forget to be practical.

Image: from a garden design I created in 2019 in Ramsbottom, Lancashire (Greater Manchester). 



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