A truly low maintenance garden

We recently completed the seasonal maintenance of a garden in Randburg, one which we had installed over three years ago. The garden was relatively small, about 20m x 20m, and consisted almost exclusively of indigenous trees, shrubs and groundcovers. Importantly, the garden did not have any lawn, a request that our client had made during the initial design phase. Instead of lawn, we had used a low-growing ground cover, Dymondia margaretae, that tolerates light foot traffic. The maintenance took us a day, with a team of six. The planting was thinned out and neatened, and a few exotic weeds which had taken root had been removed. In total, the day’s maintenance cost just under R4000.

Perhaps the most interesting part about this maintenance was that it was the only maintenance that had been conducted on the garden in the past year. In 12 months there had not been a gardener or gardening maintenance service on the property. The garden does not have irrigation, and had not been watered manually. The home owner had only relied on rain to water the garden, despite the fact that Johannesburg had recently experienced one of the worst drought periods in years, as well as extended heat waves. In fact, whilst many other gardens we saw were wilting and drying up – their lawns going brown – this particular garden had made it through the dry spell with no maintenance whatsoever, and still looked rather lush.

So after completing this maintenance job, we decided to take a closer look at the numbers, specifically the costs involved to maintain this garden in relation to others of a similar size. More specifically, we wanted to know how much it might have cost the home owner if he had originally requested lawn for his garden. Here is what we found:

Assuming the garden had lawn – perhaps 50-75% coverage, as is often the case – the home owner would have required a gardener or garden maintenance service to come and mow it once a week. The annual maintenance costs would therefore have been:

Gardener/Maintenance service pay: R150 – R250 per week, totalling R7800 – R13000 per annum

If he had a gardener, or was maintaining the garden himself, his additional costs might have been:

  • Petrol, or electricity expenses for the lawn mower
  • Maintenance of the lawn mower
  • Weekly or monthly trips to a municipal dump to dispose of the garden refuse
  • Watering of the garden, either manually or with an irrigation system, perhaps twice a week, thereby impacting his water bill
  • If he had incorporated exotic trees or shrubs, or hedges, standards (lollipops) or roses, he may have had to incur additional costs for maintenance time or pest control
  • And he might have had additional costs for trips to DIY stores to purchase tools, irrigation supplies, fertilisers or pesticides, etc.

All things considered, if we assume the weekly pay as the primary cost of a garden, and calculate some modest additional expenses at somewhere between R2000 – R5000 for the year, the home owner might have spent in the region of R9800 – R18000 on the maintenance of his small garden. Instead though, his indigenous, lawn-free solution, had cost him only R4000 in annual maintenance.

Obviously, it is enjoyable working on a garden, and I would not want to deny home owners the pleasure – and health benefits – of gardening. These are aspects that cannot be quantified by budgets and annual costs. What is important though is that if you truly want a low maintenance garden, consider if you really need so much lawn. Many home owners want low maintenance gardens, but at the same time want large expansive lawns, without realising that it’s the lawn that will be their overburdening cost in the coming years. Rarely, if ever, are the terms ‘lawn’ and ‘low maintenance’ compatible.

Not long ago, I visited a show garden in the leafy suburb of Fourways. It was small and almost exclusively indigenous, and had very little lawn – perhaps only 5-10% of it. The garden was a wildlife haven, with numerous butterflies and birds visiting it, and I walked around enjoying the space and the sensory appeal of it. And then, by chance, I happened to look over the wall into the adjoining neighbour’s property. They had a typical suburban garden, with a huge expanse of lawn, and trees and shrubs set right up against the boundary walls. The contrast between the two gardens could not have been more striking, and I could not help thinking that for a small change of design, the neighbour could have had the same, sensory-appealing show garden as the one I was now standing in. Not only that, but they could have significantly reduced their maintenance costs.

low_maintenance_garden_02*expansive lawns such as the above, whilst beautiful, could cost thousands of rands in annual maintenance

If you’re wanting to create a low maintenance garden in your home, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Firstly, consider if you really need so much lawn. Many parents want their kids to have lawn to play on, and that is understandable. But lawn-free gardens can be just as enjoyable for kids, and some of our clients have beautiful lawn-free gardens for their children, with secret play areas and hidden pathways, using bark chips and groundcovers. Insects and birds are attracted to these gardens, and these children are interacting with and learning about the natural environment. If you have a safe park nearby, consider allowing your children to play on those lawns, before coming home to a sensory and appealing, wildlife-friendly garden.
  • Use indigenous plant material. Indigenous plants are adapted to your climate, and are often more tolerant of pests, thereby saving you pest-control costs. Birds will also recognise these plant species, and will visit your garden to enjoy the seeds, fruits and berries during the fruiting season.
  • Do not use irrigation if you do not have to. Rather choose plants that are drought hardy, and therefore need little watering. Alternatively, you could install a rainwater harvesting system in your home, using a booster pump to irrigate your garden only when necessary. Keep in mind though that no irrigation system will ever be as good as a long soaking downpour of rain.
  • Consider using trees that are slower growing. Shrubs and trees that are fast growing can sometimes become messy/shabby, and may require more pruning and maintenance to keep them neat. Using slower growing trees can reduce the time and costs that may be incurred to keep them in check.
  • Avoid hedges and standards (lollipops), which require constant maintenance to keep them in shape
  • Avoid using water features or pots. Water features require constant care to ensure the pump filter stays clear and the water level remains high. Potted plants also require additional care, as the soil is contained and may dry out faster than soil in your garden.
  • And finally, once your garden is in place, do not turn the soil or rake up the leaves. Leaves serve as a natural mulch in your garden, and help to enrich your soil. Think of an indigenous forest, with all that organic material on the forest floor. That is the type of environment you should try to replicate in your own garden.

As a final thought, in case I have yet to convince you of the benefits of a lawn-free garden, here is the now famous conversation between God and St Francis….enjoy!


GOD: Francis, you know about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the gazanias, pincushions, chlorophytums and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers “weeds” and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it. Sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir. The opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the winter when we cut back on the rain and turn down the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have a new cycle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough. I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have they scheduled for us tonight?”

ST. CATHERINE: “Dumb and Dumber”, Lord. It’s a really stupid movie about…..

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.