Thursday, 11 May 2017

Low maintenance gardening for cat lovers

This guest post has been written by gardener Graham Clarke

For many of us the thought of taking it a bit easier in the garden is, perhaps, just what the doctor ordered. This is more likely to apply if you’re elderly or unwell but, equally, time-poor professionals or those with young families – or demanding cats – to look after, need also to look at ways of reducing both the time spent and the hard graft in the garden.

So, how do you go about creating a low-maintenance garden? Here are my top 10 of things to do to make your gardening just a bit easier – and your cat will appreciate some of them, too.

1. Keep it informal 

Go for an ‘informal’ look where beds and borders are filled with a mixture of plants. Formal gardens, where there are straight lines to the lawn edges, rows of bedding plants in summer and not a weed in sight, are great – but these types of ‘perfect’ gardens are incredibly time consuming.

Informal gardens are where shrubs and border plants flow into each other. There are curvy lines that do not need to be tended quite so often. And your cat will appreciate the better cover that these sorts of borders offer.

Informal planting
Informal planting and hard landscaping (no lawn). Photo by Graham Clarke

2. Hard landscaping 

Now, I’m not advocating that you concrete the garden over… heaven forbid. But where it is appropriate to do so and where it will make life easier for you, it is alright to put in some hard landscaping such as stone for patios, paths and driveways, low brick or stone walls, containers, and water – as in ponds, streams, fountains, and so on. These can all be chosen for their decorative as well as functional qualities, so the garden need never become a concrete desert.

3. Raised beds and low walls 

These give a garden interest and a new dimension. They can also make gardening a little easier because you do not have to stoop or bend down to weed, plant, deadhead or prune.

In my experience, cats love low retaining walls. It gives them a little height from where they can survey the scene and in a sunny spot they definitely prefer basking on a raised bed than on the garden floor.

Raised garden beds
Planting scheme with raised beds. Photo by Graham Clarke

4. Choose easy plants

Annual bedding is time-consuming to plant, water, feed and maintain generally, so go instead for evergreen trees and shrubs which have a good, trouble-free reputation. Between them plant a selection of cat-safe bulbs and hardy perennials. These plants look after themselves and only need the old leaves and stems removed at the end of the year, and maybe thinning out every three or four years.

Choose shrubs that do not need cutting back every year; try, for example, winter-flowering witch-hazels and mahonias, the catkin-bearing garrya, summer-flowering hebes and the palm-like New Zealand flax (phormium).

5. Roses all the way

Roses have a reputation for being high-maintenance, but if you opt for the disease-resistant types, all you’ll need to do with them is prune once a year and give them a couple of feeds during the season. There are dozens of varieties that are sold as being resistant to blackspot, mildew and rust, or that are tolerant of bad weather.

6. Container sense

Pots, tubs, window boxes, hanging baskets… they are all a feature of our gardens – especially in summer when they can make a stunning sight. But they are time-consuming to look after.

So in a low-maintenance garden we need to limit the number of containers we tend and possibly to grow the plants that need less care: drought-tolerant plants such as pelargoniums and succulents, for example.

7. Lawn alternatives

For those who want a green pathway in their garden, but grass is considered to be too protracted, why not plant chamomile? It may be found under either of its accepted Latin names: Anthemis nobilis or Chamaemelum nobile. A lush, pale green creeping herb, it is aromatic, releasing a pleasant fragrance when crushed underfoot.

The non-flowering ‘Treneague’ is preferable as a grass substitute – as the flowers tend to spoil the close carpeted effect. Just use shears to clip back the straggly stems from time to time.

8. Hedges or fences? 

The one thing all gardens have is a boundary – the bit that separates it from a neighbour’s garden, public road or right of way. The most maintenance-free boundary is a brick or stone wall. Once it’s up you don’t have to do anything to it – if it is rendered or painted, of course, you will probably have to maintain in some way every few years.

A wooden fence is reasonably low-maintenance, but it will need replacing after several years. You may need to paint or treat the wood.

Cat enjoying a garden
Cats will appreciate some of these gardening ideas. Photo by istock.com/AZFotoNL

9. Wise watering

Install an automatic watering system, available in kits from the garden centre. They can be directed to the plants that need watering most, such as container plants and vegetables like tomatoes, celery and runner beans.

10. Ground cover

Plants which spread over the ground can look very appealing when in flower or even just when in leaf. But, more importantly, they deny weeds light, moisture and the important soil nutrients. This means that, with careful choice of cat-safe plants, you’ll have nice foliage to look at rather than weeds to remove. Five of the best are:

  • Bergenia – elephant’s ears: reaching some 12in (30cm) high, the leaves are thick, leathery, shiny and evergreen. ‘Abendglut’ is one of the best
  • Erica and Calluna (heather): they mostly need an acid soil. Go for ‘King George’ – deep rose-pink flowers – ‘Springwood White’ – white flowers – and ‘Vivelli’ – almost blood-red flowers, with dark green foliage that becomes bronzy in winter
  • Geranium – cranesbill: the ‘true’ geraniums – not the summer bedding pelargoniums – are excellent for dry soils, and for edging pathways and growing on slopes
  • Lamium – dead nettle: there are many different shades, and some with vibrant gold tints. Look for ‘Beedham’s White’, with bright yellow leaves and white flowers
  • Osteospermum – this daisy plant from South Africa must have a sunny spot. It will grow in practically any soil, doesn’t mind being dry, and rewards with fabulous flowers for most of the summer

Adopt even one of the above measures and you’ll save time in the garden. Adopt all 10, and you can go away for long holidays without worrying about the garden at all. Then it’ll just be your cat you need to worry about!

This post originally appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of The Cat magazine.

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