We recently completed the seasonal maintenance of a garden in Randburg, one which we installed over three years ago. The garden was relatively small - about 180 square metres - and consisted almost exclusively of indigenous trees, shrubs and groundcovers. Importantly, the garden did not have any lawn, a request our client had made during the initial design phase. The maintenance took us a day, with a team of six, and consisted of thinning out some of the overgrowth, pruning/shaping some of the trees and shrubs, and removal of a few exotic weeds which had taken root over the past year. In total the day’s maintenance cost just under R4000.
Whilst this might seem like a lot of money, it's important to note that this was the only maintenance that had been done on the garden in the past year. In twelve months there had not been a single gardener, or garden maintenance team on the property. The garden does not have irrigation, and had not been watered manually. The homeowner had simply relied on rainwater to water his 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.
Think about this in terms of your own garden, and the expenses you might be incurring on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. How does it compare? If you have a lush kikuyu lawn for example, how much does it cost you to maintain it? And if you have high maintenance plants such as hedges or 'lollipops', or exotic ornamentals, how much do they cost? To calculate some of these costs, here are some factors to consider:
- Costs for a once-a-week gardener or garden maintenance service
- Petrol expenses for the lawn mower, trimmer, and perhaps a blower
- Maintenance of the lawn mower, trimmer and blower
- Weekly or monthly trips to a municipal dump to dispose of garden refuse (unless you have a maintenance service, in which case these costs are likely included in their fee)
- Weekly watering costs, either manually or with an irrigation system. And if you have an irrigation system, maintenance costs of the irrigation system.
- Fertilisers and top-dressing for your lawn
- Pesticides for weeds in the lawn or for pests or diseases on your exotic ornamentals
All things considered, maintaining a lush green lawn and rows of hedges is usually a costly undertaking, and whilst these gardens might look beautiful for what they are, they are essentially high maintenance areas of your home, requiring time and effort to maintain. What's more, in terms of biodiversity, these gardens are relatively sterile.
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 birds and butterflies 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.
Lawns, hedging and lollipops (left) take time and effort to maintain. Switching to a low maintenance, indigenous garden (right) can save homeowners thousands of rands each year
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, 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 children interact with these creatures and learn about the natural environment.
- Use locally indigenous plant material. Locally indigenous plants are more likely to be adapted to your climate and soil conditions, and will attract beneficial insects. These in turn will be preyed on by predatory insects and birds, thereby enhancing the biodiversity of your garden and creating a more ecologically friendly space. If your garden is sunny, consider installing an indigenous grassland. For more shaded gardens, consider a forest garden with associated indigenous forest plants. Visit our plantbook website for a list of options.
- Do not use irrigation if you do not have to. Rather choose indigenous plant species, most of which are already drought tolerant.
- Instead of using lawn for access through your garden, get creative with pathways by using stepping stones, rocks, gravel, river sand, bark chips, or even hardy groundcovers. You could even take a leaf out of Mother Nature's book and leave your pathways bare, allowing your footsteps to compact the ground and letting nature take its course.
- Avoid hedges and standards (lollipops), which require constant maintenance to keep them in shape
- If possible, avoid using high-maintenance 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 can dry out faster than soil in your garden. If you do need to use pots - perhaps you have a very small space - then try using hardy, indigenous species such as grasses, succulents or bulbs, rather than thirsty shrubs.
- 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, helping to conserve water and slowly enriching the soil as they break down.