Minimal Maintenance

As Geoff Stonebanks marks a landmark birthday, he shares some secrets he has learned along the way.

Driftwood Garden

This year, I passed the magic marker of reaching the age of 70 years old. How on earth did that happen? The last 20 years have been my gardening years, having been extremely fortunate to have been able to retire from full time work at the tender age of 51. Had I not been able to retire then, I would never have got involved with gardening to the extent that I am now.

While I would still consider myself reasonably active, it has become very clear to me over the last few years that I was not going to be able to keep up with the workload of maintaining my plot in the style to which I, and it, had become accustomed. I needed to minimise both maintenance and the day-to-day activity, especially if I was going to carry on inviting visitors to the garden, with the aim of continuing to raise money for charity. Up until 2021, my plot was incredibly labour intensive, despite having taken the decision back in 2008 to remove all elements of the lawn. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind, that this in itself, was a massive reduction in workload and ongoing maintenance but hey, I seemed to create other tasks to eat up that time-saving.

Driftwood Garden
The lawn area before it was removed in 2008. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Power moves

When the garden was initially created back in 2007, all the gravel beds were laid with weed suppressing matting to make life a little easier. I can certainly say that in the intervening years that has certainly made life so much easier with a lack of weeds growing through. The added advantage is the use of gravel also helps significantly with the reduction of snails and slugs across the garden. If I’m being honest, the main two comments visitors make about the garden when they are here is the noticeable lack of snail damage and not being able to see any weeds. Without doubt, it was a very worthwhile investment.

Driftwood Garden
A gravel bed laid with weed suppressing matting. Image: Geoff Stonebanks
Driftwood Garden
The gravel bed remains weed free and deters slugs and snails. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Another useful means of suppressing weeds is to pack your plot with plants. I have always adopted the theory that more is best. OK, it can at times seem like survival of the fittest but, on balance I prefer to pack plants in, so as not to see the soil and at the same time limit weed growth.

Water matters

Another labour-saving tactic was to install a watering system around the garden from the onset, making the whole process of watering marginally easier. I had used a system in my smaller garden in North London and decided to strip the garden and take it with me, watering system and all. The value of deciding to use a system from the onset meant that I could lay the main feed pipes and have them concealed under paving etc, making the whole process more aesthetically pleasing. I would have to say, that over the years, the more feeds you add, as you increase the number of containers, does significantly lessen the effect of the system, unless you consider a pump by the tap. 

Less is more

My recent changes to the garden, to cope with increasing age, has meant reducing container numbers again and going for hard surface display areas, for my collection of drought tolerant plants and succulents, like the two new sections of the garden I’ve created over the last 2 years! The railway sleeper area is pictured in the first image and the new corten steel pond area below.

Driftwood Garden
The new corten steel pond. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

The only real maintenance of these new hard surface areas is an annual high pressure clean. More importantly, when the time comes that I can no longer do it, it’s a task I can easily engage others to do for me.

Container secrets

Until fairly recently, I used to have many containers across the garden but always tended to go for a much larger size that did not dry out as quickly as smaller ones. Another labour-saving tip that has been extremely useful with smaller containers was given to me by my aunt at the start of my gardening adventure, she told me to line the inner base of wall pots and other terracotta containers with a layer of kitchen tinfoil. The aim being to create an inner saucer at the internal base, so that when the compost dries out and you water, some of the liquid remains in the foil to be soaked up by the plant, rather than drain straight through the pot.

Driftwood Garden
Larger containers require less watering than smaller ones. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

It’s true to say that as a general rule of thumb, big pots are easier to look after than small ones. The smaller the pot, the quicker it dries out and the more watering it will need. Grouping pots together can help too as the sun can be screened from the inner pots which helps in preventing them from drying out too quickly.

Blurring the edges

In terms of reducing gardening tasks there is also the theory of learning to love wildness and imperfection. By doing this you will be able to enjoy your garden more. This way, cracks between uneven paving stones will be colonised by low-growing plants. A weed or two or a fallen leaf won’t spoil the scene like they would if the garden was made of formal paving and clipped topiary. Embracing the quirks of the natural world can bring great satisfaction too.

Happy gardening.

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