Creative Garden Maintenance

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Planting Design Essentials”  by Jill Anderson and Pamela Johnson. Continue reading to learn more about Creative Maintenance , thanks to the author.

Providing nutrients; weeding; protection from pests, wether and drought; purning and supporting plants; looking after containers Creating planting scheme with expertise and flair and putting the plants in the ground successfully isn’t the end of the story.  The plants may be the right choice and perfect for the conditions in the garden, but what happens next? They grow, or at least they will try their very best to.  They will increase in size sending out new growth with leaves, flowers, seeds and even fruit.  They will get eaten by creatures, attacked by disease and battered by the weather.  Then newcomers will imvade your garden with its freshly dug soil 

And, uninvited, take up residence.  We call these weeds which, left unchecked, will clamber all over the new plants competing with them and probably winning because they are the tough guys in the eneighbourhood.  Those carefully chosen climbing plants and wallshrubs will ignore the f3ence or wall that you want them to cover and will head in the opposite direction, crawling along the ground or climbing over neighbouring plants.  They may even profer the look of the garden next door and flower on their side of the fence. 

So obviously the solution is good old-fashioned gardening.  For a planting design to really work well it takes knowledge, time and dedication to get the planting established so it can flourish and develop.  This chapter looks at how the long-term vision and health of the garden can be aided by ongoing gardedn maintenance which can be a very creative process, ensuring the success of the original design.  A garden is never finished; it’s always a work in progress. 

The Gardener’s Calender 

Only a dedicated gardener will be ready and willing to go outside to work in the cold and damp of winter, but unless the ground is under snow, frozen or water logged this can be the busiest time in the gardener’s calendar.  Closing the door in mid-autumn and only venturing out again in  mid-spring will not do!  Many jobs can be done while the garden  is ‘asleep’, and by mid-spring, when everything has started to wake up, it can be too late.  Cutting back last yea’s fern fronds before the new ones start growing requires timing and observation.  Leave it too laste and you can damage the beautiful undurling fronds that are such a delight in early spring; remove them too early and frond buds are vulnerable to frost. 

Gardener's calender

Planting, moving and pruning can all be carried out through the autumn and winter.  In the spring there is propagating, sowing seeds and re-potting containers to do.  Leave all this until the end of spring, and the jobs are too numerous and it may be too late because everthing has started growing again.  There is however, a good argument for not clearing gardens before the end of winter, as dead foliage can protect tender shoots and buds from cold and frost. 

So timing is critical, and you need to keep a close eye on the weather and those first signs of growth in the garden; remember if weed seed is germinating it means the soil has warmed up.  Invest in a basic weather station with a maximum/minimum thermometer and rain gauge to measure the changes in your garden, and use the weather services on the internet to get information in advance. 

Providing Nutrients 

We have talked about the impotance of understanding the geology of your soil in other chapters but here we will look at how to maintain the health of your soil.  Nearly all garden soil can be improved but how much improvement is needed will depend largely on what is to be grown. 

A low-maintenance scheme of trees and shrubs will want some help to get started, provided they are right for the conditions.  Once they are established they should manage quite happily with the occasionla mulch of good compost around their roots. 

If the scheme is made up of mixed shrubs, her-beceous perennials and an assortment of different grasses and bulbs, the soil is being asked to do a lot of work looking after all those different needs.  Some plants will want more food and moisture than their neighbours; some will want less.  The aim is to regularly put back nutrients which the plants have used and the rain has leached out, but also to maintain good soil structure.  The best way to do this is to use a mulch of good garden compost and, if necessary, plant fertilizers. 

The result of improving the soil means plants can access the nutrients easier.  But how much food do established plants need?  It is possible to over-feed established plants; this can result in weak leggy growth, making them prone to disease and poor flowering, or it may just encourage them to grow too big.  Some plants thrive on poor soil and need to be starved in order to flower well, such as nasturtiums and many rock plants.  The type of soil makes a big difference; for example sandy, well-draining soil needs more maintenance than nutrient-rich clay.  If you have chosen plants that are not really suitable for the conditions in your garden, they will require more long-term maintenance in order to help them thrive. 


From weeds and attack from pests and disease as well as extremes of weather.  Establishing a balance will allow nature to do much of this for you, but a garden will never be a totally natural environment, so for the best results plan to work nature rather against it. 


Weeds are only plants growing in the wrong place.  They tend to be very adaptable, strong growing and successful at spreading themselves around, but hten so do a lot of cultivated plants.  Valuable garden plants such as alstromaria or crocosmia can be too invasive for small gardens, and may be classed as a weed. 

How then do you tell which is a weed and which is a garden plant?  The type of weeds commonly found in your garden will depend on where you live and the growing conditions; if the weeds are growing well, then so should the other plants in your garden.  Plant societyies and local gardening groups are very useful for sharing information specific to your area, and the RHS has an excellent advice service.  The internet can also be used to help identify unknown plants.  A for a flora such as The concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin is an essential book for any new gardener. 


Weeds can be introduced into the garden in many different ways, the most obvious being seeds blown by the wind or carried by birds, but many weeds also come from the soil of newly introduced plants.  Weeds that are allowed to flower and set seed will spread, so don’t let them.  If you don’t have time to pull up the dandelions, at least remove their flowers to stop them seeding everywhere. 

Deter weed seed from germinating on bare soil and newly planted areas by applying a mulch of bark or compost.  Remember-bare soil will always need weeding, so cover it up with either plants or a mulch of bark chips or compost. 

There is, however, adrawback to having a weed-free garden:  You don’t get any self-seeded treasures or plants for free.  New seedlings may be weeds or they may be useful plants, and knowing which is which requires experience.  If you are not sure, try letting a seedling get to a size where you can identify it, then if it’s a weed pull it up.  If it turns out to be a useful plant, then leave it alone, move it or pot it up and grown it on. 

Pests and Diseases 

A healthy garden will have a good bio-diversity with a range of plants which attract and support animals and insects, creating a natural balance.  Using chemicals will upset this balance and could simply lead to another problem.  Most pests are food for many birds, frogs and beneficial insects, and a good gardener is patiently willing to accept that the wildlife may sometimes east the garden.  Healthy, strong growing plants can withstand an attack from pests and diseases much better than those that are damaged or week due poor growing conditions or old age, and this should be addressed first.  Observing and monitoring your garden on a regular basis will help you decide whether to take action to help a plant under attack or leave nature to get on with it. 

Extreme Weather 

Cold and Heat 

 How much protection your garden needs from extreme weather will depend on your location; a sheltered city garden will have very different needs to an exposed site on the east coast of Britain.  As mentioned all through this book if the plating is suitable for the normal conditions in your garden you shouldn’t have too much trouble, but extremes can happen. 

creative garden

In the case of a hard frost, horticultural fleece can be used in an emergency to protect vulinerable plants or tender flower buds, and a deep mulch of bark chips or straw will help prevent roots being frozen in the ground.  Deep snow is very heavy and can easily break branches, so try to remove it from small trees and shrubs if possible.  Smaller plants will be protected under an insulating layer of snow, so leave them covered.  Don’t walk on lawns when the ground is frozen or waterlogged as you will damage them. 

Heat can also be a problem, but will only really affect those plants which prefer cool damp conditions such as rthododendrons and camellias.  Most platns will recover even if they look very unhappy, and again mulching the ground will help to keep the soil moist.  

Strong winds and gales can do a great deal of damage to any garden, and if your area is susceptible make sure you keep up to date with the maintenance of tree stakes and plant supports.  Be vigilant about looking at the weather reports and try to be as prepared as possible for any extreme weather conditions. 


 Drooping leaves are the first sign of a plant that is suffering from lack of water; they may then become brown around the edges or fall off.  The plant’s best defence against serious drought is to drop all its leaves, but healthy, well-established plants should recover. 

If you have stored rain water use a very slow trickling hose pipe at the base of the plat, rather than a quick splash to get the water deep down into the roots.  For water until they become havy, and use saucers under larger pots which will act as a reservoir. 

Mulching will prevent water loss so use bark, compost or gravel on top of the soil in the garden and in containers.  Plants that have been in a container for a few years may have become root bound, which means there is little soil left, only roots.  The plant will begin to struggle, so either put it in the ground or into a larger container with new compost. 

Only newly planted ground needs irrigating, and established plants should manage without any watering even in dry weather providing they are the right plats for the conditions.  Over-watering little and often will sopt plants from establishing a deep root system, making them less able to withstand drought.  An established mixed border may have new planting each year as perennials are lifted, divided and replanted, but if this is done in the spring or autumnrather than the summer, watering can be kept to a minimum.  Only water after the sun has gone down in the evening to allow the soil to soak up the moistrue and prevent evaporation.  Sometimes if a plant is stressed due to disease or damage it may require extra water to help it back to full health. 

Tap water is expensive and requires a great deal of energy to produce so using it ot water a garden is a luxury which is now becoming less acceptable.  The alternative is storing rain water and there are now a great many ways to do this whatever the size of your garden.  It is also possible to use grey water from washing machines and baths but this must to be done correctly to prevent contaminating your garden. 

Watering established lawns is also unnecessary in the UK. If there is a drought they will require unrealistic amounts of water to keep them green which is neither economic nor environmentally sound.  Lawns may look dead and brown in a hot summer, but so will everyone else’s and they will recover after the first good shower of rain.  As with all the other planting in the garden, good lawn maintenance will help it survive a drought.

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Creative Maintenance