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Low maintenance front garden ideas – the myths and the truth – The Middle-Sized Garden


January 4th, 2020 Posted In: Garden trends & design, Gardening know how

A good low maintenance front garden will lift your heart every time you open your front door.

It’ll cheer up the neighbourhood, too – your front garden is part of everyone’s walk home. And, of course, it’s famously good for the value of your property.

Our front garden has been amazingly low maintenance. And I think it has also been beautiful. I can say that because I had no part in its design. It was created by our predecessors in this house.

The only element we planted here are the two Malus hupehensis crab apple trees on either side of the gate.

And over the sixteen years we’ve lived here, it has continued to blossom and flourish with minimal input from me.

So I’ve rounded up all the advice I can find on low maintenance front gardens. And, using my experience of having a truly low maintenance front garden, I will assess each tip as being a ‘myth’ or a ‘truth.’

If you prefer to see a video, here is the link to the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel’s Low Maintenance Front Garden Tips.

The complete low maintenance front garden

  1. No more than five or six different types of plants
  2. Choose small trees, shrubs, roses and bulbs. No perennials, annuals or bedding plants
  3. Choose plants with different flowering seasons.
  4. Colour theme it. Only one or two colours as well as green.
  5. Fake lawn is lower maintenance but does require some care. Not completely environmentally friendly.
  6. Research the maintenance of pebbles, shingle, stone and slate. Gravel is NOT low maintenance.
  7. Pay attention to drainage and planting if you have a front garden parking area
  8. No pots!
  9. If you want a climber, just choose one. It will need some maintenance, usually just clipping two or three times a year.
  10. Small trees need very little maintenance. Plant them three quarters of their eventual height away from the house.

1)  Limit your plant choices – true

Both House Beautiful’s and Ideal Home’s posts on low maintenance front gardens start with saying you should limit your plant choice. Choose just five or six different plant varieties for an easy-care front garden.

This is an excellent piece of advice. A row or group of the same plants looks really effective and is easy to look after, provided you choose the right plants.

Looking at our front garden, I can see that part of its success is that it was designed with only six different types of plant.

Rosa bonica to line a path

These Rosa ‘Bonica’ line our front path and also run along the railings. Our home is sometimes referred to by locals as ‘the house with the roses’.

Our predecessors lined the path and the fence with roses. They added nerines along the front of the house. And they planted three pairs of shrubs on either side – spirea, viburnum and another larger rose. They also planted some daffodils, which I have since replaced with tulips.

We have added some plants. We underplanted the roses in the front with Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and along the path with a pink Teucrium. Neither are entirely necessary, although the Nepeta makes a beautiful contrast in high summer. And when anyone gives me a potted pink cyclamen, I plant it in the front garden when it’s over because cyclamen never get in the way. But these don’t add impact to the garden.

And choose your plants for a long season of interest…

If you only have five or six different types of plants in your front garden, make sure they all flower at different times.

We get winter blossom from Viburnum ‘Bodnantense’. In spring there were daffodils and there are now tulips.

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' in a winter front garden

This Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ flowers throughout the winter and looks so beautiful in snow.

In late spring, there are plumes of spirea blossom.

And in June, the roses lining the path and fence flower effusively. We clip away the dead heads with shears in July, and get a smattering of blossoms until Christmas.

Apart from this clipping, the only other treatment they need is an application of well rotted manure or compost around the roots in autumn.

Tip: Choose repeat flowering roses for a long season. Ours are ‘Bonica’ and they have flowered with regularity. They also seem to stay fairly healthy – check whether the roses you choose are reasonably resistant to black spot, mildew or rust. They also have good rose hips in winter.

Repeat flowering Rosa 'Bonica'

These repeat flowering Rosa ‘Bonica’ have a lavish first flush in June, followed by a steady second flowering between August and Christmas. The nerines are in the background.

And in October, when the roses’ flowers are beginning to slow down, the pink nerines come out, getting lots of compliments.

Tip: Nerines are a plant that dislikes disturbance. It’s much happier in a border on its own. If you have a low maintenance front garden, the chances are that you’ll hardly ever do any digging, so it’s a brilliant spot for nerines. They can be tricky in mixed borders. But it can also take a couple of years before they really show off, so give them time.

2) Hardy perennials are easy to look after…myth?

I found several posts advising you to plant hardy perennials because they’re easier to look after.

While it’s true that perennials need less attention than annuals and bedding plants, shrubs are the only truly low maintenance plants.

I introduced a hardy perennial (Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’) to our front garden. Like many perennials, it does need to be lifted and divided every few years or it starts to sprawl.

If you forget (we did), then it’s very hard work to dig up a huge clump. And it also requires trimming and dead heading, although shrubs, too, will need some pruning once a year.

Low maintenance front garden tips

The blue flowers above show the Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ we planted. They are reasonably low maintenance, but adding them has increased the work in maintaining the front garden. So it’s a question of balance when planning at low maintenance front garden.

Other perennials may need staking (delphiniums), protecting from slugs (hostas) or lifting to protect from frost (dahlias).

If you really want a truly low maintenance front garden, stick to small trees, shrubs, roses and bulbs. Don’t plant perennials, annuals or bedding plants.

3) Pick a colour theme

Limiting yourself to just one or two colours in the front garden looks great. Our predecessors chose pink. We’ve added blue with the Nepeta, which is pretty, but is a little more work. It’s all a question of balance.

All our flowering shrubs, with the exception of the spirea, are pink. That might sound like over-doing it, but the different plants all flower at different times.

Pink themed low maintenance garden

Colour theming is an effective way of creating a low maintenance garden.

4) Replace your lawn with fake turf…well…

Everything needs some maintenance. There is no such thing as a no-maintenance surface.

Fellow blogger and vlogger Lee from Garden Ninja has done an in-depth look at fake turf. He points out that anything that lands on it will have to be cleared away by you. That includes leaves in autumn and pet poo from foxes or neighbourhood cats.

Fake turf is permeable, but water can get trapped, leading to outbreaks of mould. Lee also says that most fake turf suppliers recommend a light raking over and some extra sand from time to time.

Fake turf saves water because you don’t have to water the lawn. It is often made from recycled products. But it doesn’t biodegrade and will go to landfill in 25 years time. Plastic or petroleum-based products are used in the manufacture of fake turf. Living lawns are also part of the eco-system, supporting wildlife. Fake lawns don’t.

We have two small squares of lawn on either side of our front path. And these need mowing in the summer. We do often think about whether there is a lower maintenance option.

But they are small, so it doesn’t take long. And we can do it with a hover mower. We let fallen leaves break down as there aren’t very many of them. Mr Middlesize also takes a dandelion weeder to the lawn before he mows it.

It is worth saying that you can do a lot to look after your lawns. You can scarify, aerate, feed, weed and re-seed. It will all look beautifully green and smart.

Or you can do what we do. We mow it. We sometimes weed it. In sixteen years, it has deteriorated as a lawn. But it is still green and pleasant, and isn’t much work.

And yes, fake turf, if you’re prepared to put up with the disadvantages, will be lower maintenance than real grass.

5) Low maintenance front garden ‘hard-scaping’

Many front gardens locally have covered their front planting areas in pebbles, slate, gravel or shingle.

These will need less maintenance than a small patch of lawn, but they will need some care. Gravel, for example, gets very weedy after a few years, even if it laid over weed-suppressing membrane. To a lesser extent the same goes for pebbles and slate. Nature is very determined!

And how are you going to get fallen leaves or pet poo off them?

It is also worth thinking about your weather, climate and which way your house faces. Our house is East-facing and gets very hot on summer mornings. If we had gravel, stone, pebbles or another hard surface all over our front garden, it would retain and reflect the heat.

Slate and pebble front garden materials

Pebbles and slate are often used in front gardens to reduce maintenance. They look smart, but don’t forget that every surface will need some care.

Equally, a completely hard-surface front garden could make a West-facing house hotter in the evenings or overnight. A lawn or border is cooler in summer than a hard surface.

And many of these shingle, slate and pebble front gardens are only just being installed. They will certainly be lower maintenance in the first few years. In a few years time, we shall find out if they have significant long-term disadvantages.

6) Low maintenance paths and driveways…

Once again, all surfaces will need some maintenance.  Always find out what that involves. You may have to dig about a bit. The companies selling the stones, pebbles or shingle may not be completely straightforward about this.

I’ve done a post on how to choose garden path materials, which may help. Our garden path is stone, probably laid in the 18th century. So stone is expensive but long-lasting. We weed around the pavers two to three times a year.

Many parking areas and driveways are paved over as one continuous surface, with concrete or with cement pointing between the pavers. You will get fewer weeds that way. They will need hosing down or power-washing from time to time. They can get slippy if you let leaves or algae hang around on them.

However, a solid continuous driveway or path also means that water has nowhere to go when it rains. Gaps between the paving improves water run off. That’s good for the environment – and it also means less water hanging around on your path or driveway.

Your installers will add a drainage bar at the bottom of your path or driveway. Water will pour over your driveway and into the drainage system, increasing the likelihood of localised flash flooding. But you’re still going to have more water running over your hard surface, encouraging algae and perhaps making it slippy. There are also legal restrictions on impermeable paving, which you need to check for your area.

7) Low maintenance vs environmentally-friendly front garden

People used to think that wildlife gardens or environmentally friendly gardens had to look untidy. But we now know that’s not necessary.

Our front garden is buzzing with several different kinds of bees, including ground-dwelling bees in the lawn. There’s always a blackbird family and the sparrows argue over space in the spirea and viburnum. Dragonflies and Red Admiral butterflies flutter across our front path in summer. But the design is quite formal and controlled.

It is wildlife friendly because it was designed to flower for as much of the year as possible. This alone creates a valuable resource for bees or pollinating insects. It’s worth checking whether plants are ‘good for pollinators’ when you buy them. Shrubs and trees also create habitat for birds.

Completely paved-over front gardens are damaging to the environment, particularly in towns and cities where air quality and water run off is an issue. The biggest issue in towns and cities is the paving over of front gardens to turn them into parking spaces. This has created more flash-flooding and has significantly reduced wildlife habitat.

But you can still have an environmentally-friendly front garden parking space –  The RHS has lots of advice on how to combine parking areas and planting. For example, getting rid of your wall and having a hedge instead will improve air quality, help prevent flash flooding and offer a wildlife habitat.

But a paved-over front garden will be lower-maintenance. Just realise that it won’t be no-maintenance. You’ll still have to look after it. And you may think that a few hours extra effort a year is worth it for the environmental reasons.

8) Low maintenance front garden climbers?

You can increase the greenery in your front garden with a climber.  That will help improve air quality and benefit wildlife. It makes buildings look more beautiful.

And if it spreads across your walls, it can provide valuable insulation. The back wall of our house is covered in summer with Parthenocissus Henryiana or Chinese virginia creeper. During a heat wave, the rooms protected by the creeper are noticeably cooler than those without climbers on the outside walls.

But climbers aren’t ‘low maintenance’. Some spread too far too fast and others require training. We have to clip our Virginia creeper back two to three times a year. Ivy grows more slowly and needs very little attention, but it can pull down guttering if you let it get out of hand.

Many houses had climbers and creepers growing up them but by the 1990s, people had mostly taken them down. Builders and decorators don’t like working around them. And people often believe they’ll damage the house in some way.

But now there’s increasing evidence that the right climbers, grown properly, can help protect the house from heat, cold and wind. And that they won’t damage brickwork which is in good condition. And they look beautiful.

If you grow climbers up your front wall, you will need to clip, prune or train them in some way. So they do require some maintenance. And don’t buy several different types, especially if they need different pruning times. You’ll end up with a tangle of climbers all needing to be pruned at different times.

9) Low maintenance pots in the front garden?

All pots require maintenance. I did see a post suggesting that you buy plants in flower and drop them into your ornamental pots without re-potting them. But these will still need watering and dead-heading. And they’ll need replacing every 5-6 weeks.

I’ve never had pots in this front garden. It’s fine without them, I think.

There’s a post here on low maintenance pots. If you do want pots in your front garden, it has some good suggestions. But if you’re really short of time, no pots.

10) Trees and low maintenance front gardens

Trees are very low maintenance. Everything, of course, does need some care. So trees will need some pruning of wayward or dying branches. But you’ll only have to do that once a year or even less often.

Trees make a street look more elegant. They offer habitat to wildlife. They improve air quality in urban streets. And they can help protect your house from wind, hot or cold, depending on which trees you choose and how you place them.

There are some garden trees with good autumn colour in this post.

The only truly successful plants we have added to our front garden is two Malus hupehensis (Crab apple trees) on either side of the front gate. A friend planted them from a pip in 2010 and gave them to me in small pots. They really have a presence, and I have spotted Instagram posts of them framing the front door. They have spring blossom, autumn colour and tiny red fruits. Every winter I remove one or two branches if they aren’t growing in the right direction.

Shop my favourite garden tools, products and books

I’m often asked for recommendations, so I have pulled together the products I use on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Links to Amazon are affiliate which means I may get a small fee when you click on them, but I only recommend books, tools and products I really believe you will like.

For example, my list of gardening essentials includes both the heavy duty and light gloves I find best, a kneeler, some recyclable pots, the knee pads I use and a very useful garden trug.

Pin to remember low maintenance front garden tips

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Low maintenance front garden tips

 





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