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Low Maintenance Planting

Garden design expert Sarah Naybour on how to design and plant your garden for low-maintenance elegance all year round

Whichever it is, sad to say, low maintenance will never mean no maintenance!

Spring is sprung. This is a great time to take stock of your garden, and freshen up the look with a new planting scheme.

There are so many options when it comes to planting, but having a plan, or even just a list of plants, and a good idea of the look you want should be firmly in place before you rush off to the nursery. Believe me, it will save you time and a lot of money in the long run.

The traditional cottage garden look is hugely time consuming. Which is fine if you have ‘staff’ or love gardening but for most people they end up messy and overgrown.

Most of my clients ask for low maintenance planting schemes,

with year-round colour. Designs that fit and work in every shape and size of garden space from an ultra-contemporary courtyard to the large family garden or the small cottage space. Whichever it is, sad to say, low maintenance will never mean no maintenance! To make it work properly, a limited palette of plants is essential. These can be arranged in a variety of ways to create different looks:

To help you, here are some of my favourite planting and design suggestions to make your garden keep looking good all year round for minimum effort.

The Matrix

One of the simplest styles is matrix planting. This involves a mass of one plant, often an ornamental grass, punctuated with small groupings of perennials which come and go during the different seasons. The grasses will remain for most of the year providing a constant background. You can then play with different colours and textures as you wish. This can be great fun!

Maybe in the spring you could choose a yellow palette and then move to pinks and purples during the summer, and then back to yellows and oranges for the autumn. Bulbs are great for these schemes, and there is one for every season. (Take a look at Peter Nyssen or Avon Bulbs for quality suppliers.)

We used matrix planting at Chelsea Flower Show last year, as one of three planting settings for David Harber’s beautiful sculptures. Here we used Stipa tenuissima, a beautiful delicate, pale grass approximately 300mm high, as a background planting. This was then punctuated with small groupings of Aquilegia 'Ruby Port', tall Cercium rivulare ‘Purpurea’, Allium 'Mount Everest', Cenolopheum denudatum, and Matthiasella bupleroides 'Green Dream' (the showstopper plant!).

These could then have been followed by Achillea & Helleniums for a fiery show later in the summer.

Simple Cottage Border

The garden I designed for a beautiful Cotswold stone house in Southrop involved several different planting schemes, one being a very sunny border along the front of the house. In order to keep it simple I chose a vibrant palette of pinks, magentas and mauves set against a background of grey as well as greens. Although this is a cottage look, by limiting the number of species and repeating them across the whole scheme, the workload for my client has been reduced greatly. I also try not to include too many plants that need deadheading. Santolina and Lavenders form the structure of the scheme (pictured above); their grey foliage providing a good contrast for the greens of the perennials, and their mounded forms are solid against the spire or fluff of the other plants. Here you can see the Iris which flowered in spring, still has a strong presence in summer, with their jutting, sharp-edged leaves offering a foil to the softness of the flowers.

This demonstrates another of my key pointers: it is always good to keep in mind what a plant will look like after it has stopped flowering. Strong foliage or seed heads are very useful textural features. The pretty pin heads on the Santolina emphasises its mounded form, with a yellow sheen against which the dark spires of Salvia ‘Caradonna’, and dusky pink spires of Digitalis mertonensis stand out beautifully. In the foreground the essential pretty daisies of Erigeron ‘Karvinskianus’ pick up the colours of all the plants in the scheme and hold it all together.

A Gravel Garden

Gravel gardens are a lovely feature, either as a small ‘room’ in a larger garden or as a very informal small courtyard garden. It is also a tremendous way of allowing plants to do their own thing to a certain extent. By choosing self seeders, such as Verbena or Verbascum, the garden will develop its own character, which you can control as you wish by pulling out seedlings, or leaving them to grow. This way the space can be allowed to change year by year.

Again, you can create the structure with Lavender, Santolina, small Hebe or Buxus, and let the perennials or biennials surprise you. It is good to get to know your seedlings. Look carefully at the form of the foliage, so you can be sure you are not weeding out the plants you want to keep!

Hot Border

Many of my clients say they don’t want any yellow in the garden, and yet it lights up many schemes and is often the main colour in wildflower meadows. It is also very useful at the end of a long garden, or in shady plantings as it stands out well against the dark. Many yellow flowers attract a lot of insects, and in fact it is the worst colour to wear at a garden party because of this!

Yellow and orange coloured flowers such as Hellenium and Rudbeckia look wonderful when planted together in large quantities and they hold their colour well on into autumn where they blend in well with turning leaves on the trees.


Sarah Naybour won 5 Star awards at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2013 and 2014 and is designing for David Harber’s internationally renowned sculptures and sundials at Chelsea again this year. Visit stand MA6 on Main Street at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from 19-23 May. OX magazine will be giving you a preview in next month’s issue.

Sarah was awarded Britain’s Student Designer of the Year by the Society of Garden Designers on graduation. She creates elegant, timeless country and contemporary urban garden spaces in Oxfordshire and London. With a fine art background, her understanding of architecture and love of good design is a hallmark of her work.


Middle Image - The front entrance borders against the Cotswold stone are striking, but pretty

Bottom Image - Matthiasella bupleroides ‘Green Dream’


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