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How to make a big garden easier to manage

Val Bourne / 18 January 2018

Gardening expert Val Bourne shares her tips for making a large, unwieldy garden easier to manage.

Hardstanding in large garden
A large area of hard landscaping will make a big garden easier to manage

There’s been a great deal in the newspapers recently about downsizing when you’re older. It’s not always as advantageous as might be imagined because legal costs, possible stamp duty on a new property, estate agent’s commission and new furnishings swallow up valuable capital. It’s also difficult to move when you’ve got good neighbours and friends, so it’s not always the answer for everyone.

Making changes may be easier and one way forward is to simplify your garden and make it far more manageable. It will cost money, but it may be more cost effective than moving and it will certainly be less stressful in the long run.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

Adding hard landscape

Adding a large sweep of paving that runs across the garden creates an area that needs little maintenance and offers a place to relax. It must be professionally laid and you can find a local landscaper on The Association of Professional Landscapers website. Don’t go for a cowboy!

A slip-proof surface is essential

You must choose a material that doesn’t get slippery in winter so always avoid Indian sandstone (which is cheap but really lethal when wet) and decking (which has to be maintained).

Go for a good quality textured finish containing either reconstituted stone or Yorkstone aggregates. Avoid cobbles and smaller sizes, the costs of laying are far higher than for laying square slabs. Marshall’s Saxon Textured Garden Paving, which comes in buff, natural and mocha, is an excellent choice. Bradstone’s Old Town Paving is made from reconstituted stone. Average costs vary between £30and £60 per square metre and you will have to cover a reasonable area to make maintenance easier, but this is still a modest amount when compared to moving house!

Go minimal on containers

Containers need watering and that can be a chore. If you feel you must, go for one or two large containers and use drought-tolerant plants such as pelargoniums or succulents. Once the plants get larger use a large plastic water bottle as a reservoir. Cut off half of it, press the top of the bottle into the soil and keep the bottle topped up so that it acts as reservoir. It’s easier than lifting a heavy can.

Leave some wild areas

Don’t feel that everything has to be manicured within an inch of its life. Undisturbed areas, in the corners and further reaches, are very beneficial to wildlife, especially hedgehogs who build day roosts out of leaves and moss. You could dedicate the outer edges to nature.

Find out how to create a wildlife-friendly garden

A path mown through a lawn
Allow your lawn to turn into a meadow and mow paths through the long grass for a low-maintenance lawn

Make the lawn easier to manage

If mowing is becoming a chore, cut a smart path through the lawn and mow round the edges, and leave inner areas to grow. This still looks gardened, and you’ll get more brown butterflies laying eggs on the grasses, and longer grasses sashay in the wind. When autumn arrives the grass will need an annual mow and, if this is too much of a chore, get a man in.

Mowers can be heavy and cumbersome, but the easiest mower I know is the battery-operated Stihl MA235. There are no leads to worry about, just charge up the battery. It’s light and small with large wheels, so easy to handle and carry, but can still manage 200 square metres of mowing. The blades are easily moved, to vary the heights, and there are no pull start or trip hazards.

Find out how to turn your lawn into a meadow

Simplify your planting

The most maintenance-free gardens contain shrubs and, if you choose wisely, these can just get on with it. They won’t need pruning and they are a manageable size and the following shrubs are all long-lived.

Cornus alba
Low-maintenance shrubs such as this Cornus alba (dogwood) can add structure to a garden without add too much work

Ten excellent easy shrubs for large gardens

Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ AGM
This slow growing lilac has highly scented lilac-pink flowers in June, set against almost heart-shaped green foliage. The flower heads brown and drop off naturally and it will form a rounded shrub. Best in some sun. 5ft x 5ft / 1.5m x 1.5m.

Eleagnus x submacrophylla 'Limelight'
A fast-growing variegated blast of yellow and green evergreen foliage that lights up a darkish corner. 12ft x 12ft/ 4m x 4m

Sarcococca confusa (Christmas box) AGM
A useful small shrub with deep-green evergreen foliage and tiny clusters of ivory-white stamens in winter. It’s highly fragrant so good close to the house or by a pathway. Likes fertile soil and some shade. Good in a container. 3ft x 3ft/ 1m x 1m

Aucuba japonica (Spotted laurel)
Tough evergreens that stay compact once they reach their size. These are far easier than holly and they tolerate poor light and poor soil. ‘Crotonifolia’ has yellow-spotted green leaves and ‘Rozannie’ AGM, has all-green foliage with a ragged edge. Both will produce red fruits. 8ft x 8ft/ 2.5m x 2.5m

Choisya ternata (Mexican Orange Blossom) AGM
This rounded evergreen shrub needs sun to produce its fragrant white flowers. The main flush comes in spring but it does repeat in summer. You can lightly prune after flowering should youn wish to. 8ft x 8ft/ 2.5m x 2.5m

Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (Red-barked Dogwood) AGM
A tough deciduous dogwood that produces red stems in winter, damson-red autumn colour and good green foliage. These are accommodating, stoloniferous shrubs, which send new pencil-thick shoots out in spring spreading as they go. They can tolerate boggy ground. 8ft x 8ft/ 5m x 2.5m

Hypericum hidcoteense ‘Hidcote’ AGM (St John's wort)
A semi-evergreen shrub with dark-green foliage and bright-yellow cup-shaped flowers in summer and early autumn. It’s fairly low-growing and makes a wide mound. It can be used as a low metre-high hedge. 3ft x 4ft x Im x 1.2m

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ AGM (Oregon grape)
Prickly upright mahonia that flowers from early winter onwards, producing fragrant racemes of yellow flowers. These evergreens perform in deep shade, so place at the back of a shrub border. There are several named forms, but this is the most compact. 15ft x 12 ft /5m x 4m after 10 years.

Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Gerda' AGM (Common Elder)
Several of these black-leaved deciduous shrubs have girls’ names, such as Eva and Madonna and they all bear flat heads of pinks flowers set against dark, divided foliage. The fleshy berries attract birds too. but they’re principally grown for their almost-black leaves. A good form is ‘Black Lace’. Position them near the front. 9ft x 12ft/ 3m x 4m

Viburnum davidii AGM
This Chinese evergreen shrub is perfect at the front of a shrub border. The dark-green leathery foliage is etched in deep veins, adding a texture and detail, especially when frosted. The small white flowers, that appear in summer, turn into clusters of black berries. If you value the berries plant two or three so they cross pollinate. 5ft x 5ft/ 1.5m x 1.5m

Stachys byzantinae
Ground cover plants, such as stachys byzantina, can reduce the need for weeding

Go for ground cover

Weed seeds generally germinate in light conditions, so a dense covering will save on weeding. Ground cover plants spread and cut out the light, so they’re a great way to go if weeding has become too difficult.

Hedera helix (English Ivy)
Some English ivies prefer to hug the ground m rather than climb, and the following have good foliage. Order from Fibrex Nurseries

Hedera helix 'Silver King' syn. 'Koniger's Variegated’
This has five-lobed, silver leaves in a narrow arrowhead shape, with subtle cream overlaying the grey-green leaves.

Hedera helix 'Glacier’
A cool-toned ivy with grey-green lobed leaves subtly margined in white. This fast-growing ivy can be used to carpet the ground or it can climb.

Hedera helix 'Ceridwen’
All yellow ivies need a brighter spot to keep their colour. This one’s a mixture of yellow-gold, green and grey-green and the five-lobed leaves have an elegant arrowhead shape. A vigorous grower.

Hedera helix 'Lightfinger’
An ivy with a very distinct arrowhead shape (sometimes called bird's foot). It trails well but is slower growing than many.

Hedera helix 'Ivalace’
This is never rampant and high-gloss, wavy, deep green leaves always look handsome.

Hedera helix 'Parsley Crested' syn. 'Cristata’
The dark-green, crimped leaves display pink ruffled edges and the wavy leaf margins catch the frost brilliantly.

Hedera helix 'Anita’
Medium-green arrowhead leaves, giving a mossy effect. thuds ones good at creeping over steps or overhanging a wall.

Vinca minor (Lesser Periwinkle)
It is the smaller periwinkle, not the larger Vinca major, that covers the ground best, producing a small network of runners. It is invasive, so position it carefully but it’s really hardy and there are dark-green forms, such as the white ‘Alba’, and variegated forms that include the lavender-blue flowered ‘La Grave’. 8in/ 20cm.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea' (Elephant’s Ears)
Bergenias have handsome, glossy foliage, but they do need reasonable drainage and a shelter site. This one has stems topped by purple-pink flowers in spring. Or you could use the classy 'Bressingham White’. 2ft/ 60cm.

Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ (Lamb’s Ears)
This is one of the few silver plants that can be used as ground cover although it will look far better in a drier position in full sun. This form rarely flowers, but the soft foliage spreads over the ground without leaving any gaps. 12in/ 30cm

Find out more about growing plants for ground cover

Ground cover roses

Although thorny, these disease-resistant roses flower prolifically and only need a once a year trim - which can be down with a hedge trimmer. They do well on a slope too and most have bee-friendly open-centred flowers.

‘Partridge’ (Korweirim) Kordes
This produces single cream-white flowers from rhubarb-pink tinted buds and its lax habit makes it useful for flopping over a low retaining wall. The high-gloss green foliage stays low, but it will make a wide mound that can cover 10 feet of ground. (Ift x 10ft)

‘Surrey’ (Korlanum) AGM
Part of the County Series of roses, this has mid-pink, frilly semi-double flowers and good green foliage. The white ‘Kent’ ( Poulcov) is also one of the best. Both are always in flower.

‘Flower Carpet ‘Amber’ AGM
One of the excellent American-bred Flower Carpet Series, this produces masses of rich-yellow flowers that turn amber as they mature. Flower Carpet Pink is also excellent, with bright-pink flowers and this a bombproof group of roses that never suffers from disease. 2-3ft/ 1.m

Five ground cover plants for shady corners

Epimedium perralderianum
This Mediterranean barrenwort will grow in dry shade once established. The stems are wiry and the foliage is green and heart-shaped. Yellow flowers appear in spring, but it’s good at colonising awkward spots and the foliage looks gloriously green in winter. ‘Fröhnleiten' is a choice form.15-18in/ up to 40 cm

Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’ (Dead Nettle)
This pretty little dead nettle won’t cover huge areas unless you plant several. However it produces bee-friendly white flowers early in the yera and the frosted foliage has a neat green edge. 12in/ 30cm

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides AGM
This autumn-flowering spreader needs a warm, sunny spot if it’s to send out its vivid blue flowers as the foliage reddens in September. Lovely when left to its own devices. 17 in/ 45cm

Liriope muscari AGM Big Blue Turf Lily
This grass-like plant produces purple wands of flower in autumn, if it’s in a warm moist site. It’ makes an excellent edging. but won’t flower unless it’s happy.

Ajuga reptans ‘Catlin’s Giant’ AGM
This is a larger-leaved form with bronzed reddish foliage. It forms a carpet an din spring it produces blue flowers spikes that the bees adore. It won’t do well in dry soil though. 12 in/ 30cm

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.