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modern garden designs low maintenance plants

modern low maintenance planting design

blog / minimal upkeep

design & words Amir Schlezingeramir schlezinger

Life in the Fast Lane

Low maintenance garden design has evolved into a distinct art form, and by utilising suitable plants to delineate its apt ethos, we sustain effective, optimal cultivation. Whether expressed with dry gravel beds, green roofs, living walls, raised beds or architectural plants, our main incentives are predefined by both ecological and lifestyle preferences, amid weather changeability, pollution and urban density. We evidently need to re-evaluate intensive horticulture, and engage a manageable approach – not only for easing the upkeep of our own back gardens, living in the fast lane, but also to minimise environmental impact.


I'm focusing on architectural, low maintenance plants, since they form staple elements of our repertoire as a modern garden design company in London; unfussy in sun, shade, pollution and wind, they display year-round sculptural outlines and make clients' lives easier. Knowingly, only a handful of these species are native, but then again where better to include such a contextual mix than in the capital's diverse and thoroughly low maintenance inclined private gardens?

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1. palm 2. grass 3. agave 4. yucca 5. astelia 6. lavender 7. tree fern 8. phormium 9. wheel tree 10. upkeep

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1 palm

rooftop garden

A tall Windmill palm thrives in this lofty Pimlico rooftop terrace above Chelsea Embankment, and while numerous Palm species grow vigorously in London, Trachycarpus fortunei is the most adaptable. A native to Central China, this unfussy, slow-growing tree withstands low temperatures effortlessly – only requiring occasional pruning of withered fronds. In Cornwall, Trachycarpus reaches majestic heights, flourishing in ample warmth and copious humidity. In our Hampstead courtyard garden, this palm generates a distinctly eye-catching, well-lit focal point, producing an abundance of indigo berries. Unravelling the trunk's fibres displays an exotic woody pattern and smooth bark.

winter-hardy palms

You'll hardly notice the Windmill palm's steady growth, but you'd recognise its distinctive silhouette when you see one in its prime; highly versatile with colourful en masse perennials, and cultivated effectively in numerous Mediterranean gardens. In Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park, where pink Alliums raise their round heads towards a mature grove of Chusan palm trees in late spring, a low maintenance approach forms the setting's predominant design ethos by integrating apt plant associations into gravel beds, which reduces watering, weeding and pruning, amid the contrastive dichotomy of its neighbouring, labour-intensive Rose garden. Other winter-hardy Palm trees we often plant in residential London gardens, requiring minimal upkeep, include Brahea armata, Butia capitata, Chamaerops humilis, Cordyline australis, Jubaea chilensis, Livistona australis, Phoenix canariensis, Trachycarpus wagnerianus and Washingtonia robusta.

2 grass

penthouse terrace

Nassella tenuissima is the Mexican feather grass which thrives in this Shoreditch roof garden, where even in shade it manages to self-seed, and if you adore its wispiness, there's very little requisite to maintain the persistent habits of this delightful, softest of grasses. This upkeep approach aptly redefines low maintenance planting design, and there are countless valuable perennial grasses which we utilise in London's private urban gardens. Grasses are diversely resilient, providing vital invigorating textures to accentuate taller woody plants around them, and except for sufficiently trimming back clumps in spring, not much gardening effort or horticultural expertise is typically required.

true grasses

We often plant natural drifts of Cortaderia, Deschampsia, Festuca, Imperata, Miscanthus and Pennisetum to evoke meadow, prairie or pampas sceneries; a distinct principle elucidated in the flowing low maintenance planting schemes of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Small, grass-like sedges such as Carex and Uncinia, alongside Acorus and Ophiopogon are paramount in providing evergreen mounds. We frequently incorporate sculptural true grass cultivars as focal points, chiefly Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ and its myriad of ensuing red and purple flowering varieties. These highly ornamental grasses have evolved into potted staples of low maintenance garden designs with their indispensable, vitalising, architectural leafiness.

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3 agave

courtyard garden design

Agave silhouettes articulate sculptural definition in this historic subterranean courtyard in Sandbanks, soaking up every bit of Dorset sunshine, and sustaining an all-year-round structural planting design. There are excellent Agave cultivars which we easily grow in London, mostly variegated – generating remarkable tonalities of yellows and greens. We plant Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ and Agave americana ‘Mediopicta’ where there's ample drainage and sunlight, while upkeep is economically limited to the sporadic removal of decayed leaves.

century plant

Agave americana, the Century plant of the Mexican desert and Southern US, is a truly matchless architectural gem. Even though this xerophyte's spiny, spiky foliage at times forms an ant nest in warm climates, and can be tricky to cultivate in temperate maritime regions, not many plants match its autonomous, self-sufficient make-up. If a low maintenance plant is defined by an ability to take care of itself, here is where you'll find this attribute at its primal best, portrayed awe-inspiringly by the master of desert minimalism, the American landscape architect Steve Martino, in his native Phoenix Arizona.

4 yucca

large roof garden

The Spanish dagger is an effective selection to withstand the fierce weather conditions in this Vauxhall roof garden at St George Wharf. Interspersed within a drift of Mediterranean silverbush and bronze Carex sedges, this resilient Yucca highlights a textural composition of contrasting colours and forms, while providing valuable ground cover and sculptural qualities as a useful low maintenance plant. The roof garden's cinematic river vistas, abundant in iconic London landmarks, remain unobstructed, and apart from removing withered leaves and spent flowers, there's not much to fuss about, since Yuccas thrive in varied soil types, needing sporadic water and nothing else but the energising sunshine of a Mediterranean rooftop.

decorative mulch

As in every scheme we create, the planting beds are mulched in a liberal covering of aggregates such as small beach pebbles, granite chippings or fine horticultural grit. This low maintenance technique conserves moisture vitality, while weed growth is significantly reduced and its remnants easily removed, with compost which remains stable in windblown environments – ornamentally and technically reliable.

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5 astelia

rooftop terrace

Astelia forms distinct focal points across this penthouse rooftop in Kings Chelsea. The Bush flax is a New Zealand grass-like perennial displaying silvery foliage, requiring moisture, and thriving in shade, while steadily increasing at the rhizomes – resourcefully taking care of itself. This efficient plant relishes streamsides and damp woodland fringes in its native habitat, where moisture and organic matter are amply available. How would this species fit into a low maintenance planting design? Establishing in among deciduous trees, such as the Corkscrew hazels in this roof garden, ensures higher humus levels and moisture retention, within a maintenance-free outlook.

spare time

For every single Astelia planted, a square metre of earth is densely covered within five years, and in taking this resourceful approach, the immense efforts necessitated in replacing non-permanent plantings are lessened. When we intersperse tall flowering bulbs among this Flax, and let nature take its course, lofty Alliums will complete this idyllic scenery in late spring with Verbena bonariensis throughout summer. There'll be no scouring for secateurs, carrying of compost bags and knee pads, or much watering to be done, while we enjoy spare time to think up the next low maintenance planting scheme!

6 lavender

roof garden design

In this spacious Covent Garden rooftop, we planted a Lavender hedge to distinguish an intimate seating area, forming a tactile see-through veil. Lavenders sprawl in no time, providing useful ground cover, and we all love to wax lyrical about Lavender ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ – two of the oldest English Lavender cultivars. A Mediterranean plant, this ubiquitous subshrub is prevalent in gravel and coastal gardens in the UK too, and while not long-lived, Lavender is easily maintained and replaced, forming fast-growing, easygoing mounds. For many of our clients, who aren't typically green-fingered, this particularly low maintenance plant adds instant charm and textural simplicity.

low upkeep hedges

Hedge designs provide practical low upkeep solutions, enhancing structure with minimal effort, and we often integrate diverse native hedge species which sustain wildlife and thrive in urban pollution. Beech, Box, Field maple, Hawthorn, Hazel, Holly, Hornbeam and Yew are frequently utilised in evergreen and deciduous contemporary layouts to delineate a low-maintenance, ecological garden design mindset – an approach synonymous with Britain's wildest gardener, Dan Pearson and his naturalistic, sprawling, coastal tapestries.

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tree fern

7 tree fern

lush town garden

In this lush subtropical haven we created in Stockwell, South London, Tree ferns take centre stage to invigorate the entire garden – layered in half-dozen sizes. Dicksonia antarctica, the Australian Tree fern, is incredibly slow-growing, sprouting majestic fronds in late spring, and where space is available to spread its graceful canopy in shade and shelter, it's indisputably beyond compare in architectural displays of both structure and texture. We relish planting Tree ferns in London; their sultry aroma and primordial sense of renewal every spring, as they unfurl their petioles from ammonite-like coils to 2-metre-long fronds, provide endless enchantment. Except from copious moisture, these Tasmanian fronded trees remain quintessentially self-reliant and conveniently undemanding as noble low maintenance plants.

automatic irrigation

We install an automatic irrigation system in every roof terrace design & build – the plants wouldn't survive without it while containerised in a windswept environment. Yet, even though many London gardens present a high water table, with clay soil and plenty of rainfall, we integrate irrigation into back gardens as well. We create raised beds to define spatial depth, ease ongoing upkeep and improve drainage, where drip irrigation sustains low maintenance planting designs by reducing manual watering and enhancing plant performance.

tom stuart-smith

The prolific and absorbing canon of British landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith encompasses modern design creativity, enveloped by luxuriant planting originality, and embodied in his sculptural garden canvases in both town and country. Stuart-Smith's Tree fern garden expresses Londoners' proclivity for low maintenance as an indulgence of year-round lusciousness by integrating a minimalist palette of Box spheres, Tree ferns, grasses en masse and Star jasmine climbers.

8 phormium

roof terrace design

The Phormium variety planted in this Farringdon roof terrace bears cream yellow foliage amid a soft low outline; paired with Bergenia ‘Dumbo’, the duo performs effortlessly, needing little help from their owner. Phormium tenax, the perennial New Zealand flax and its many cultivars, is an easy-to-grow, architectural evergreen plant which can form robust clumps, and therefore best located wisely, allowing ample space. Resilient in diverse environments, Phormium entails next to no maintenance, except removing withered lower leaves. Admittedly, this pruning practice can prove quite an undertaking around a steadfast mature specimen, yet is rarely required. When we rein in desires to include plants where they clearly won't thrive, we ultimately enjoy low maintenance planting designs at their utmost usefulness.

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wheel tree

9 wheel tree

shade courtyard garden

In this contemporary Mayfair courtyard, two Wheel tree specimens narrate the small shaded garden diagonally; their layered structures enhance daylight qualities in a genuinely low maintenance courtyard – well-defined in bespoke white planters. The Japanese Wheel tree, Trochodendron aralioides, is a small, unique, manageable, evergreen architectural tree for deep shade among sheltered garden walls, and while very slowly increasing in size over many decades, we can spend valuable time enjoying its beauty rather than having to maintain it.

suitable environment

The tree isn't widely available, yet worth sourcing whenever possible since clients often relish its large spring flowers, lateral branches, glossy foliage and unmistakable sculptural silhouettes at dusk. This slow-growing tree, similarly to Aralia, Ginkgo and Japanese maple, forms a graceful outline, and by utilising this species in a suitable environment, allowing sufficient room to develop adequately, plants reach their full potential while achieving low maintenance stature.

10 upkeep

The way we cultivate plants forms a multitude of approaches, where the horticultural industry's profound growth portrays sheer testament to our obsession with objects of desire and constant need to collect and consume. In our patios and roof terrace gardens, we're utilising artificial grass copiously as a viable way to revitalise outdoor spaces, while significantly reducing upkeep. Within the public realm, further refinement should be sought to conserve resources by implementing forward-looking, low maintenance design methods throughout newly planted landscape schemes, as passionately illustrated by the British plantsman Dr Noel Kingsbury in his progressive planting philosophy.

low maintenance approach

Plant enthusiasts go to great lengths by reproducing the growing conditions to raise a scarce bulb, or patiently wait a lifetime for a rare Cactus to flower. Still, in our contemporary London gardens and roof terraces, easygoing plants alongside minimal upkeep sustain outdoor spaces day in and day out, and the sheer essence of this minimalist garden design approach was defined to me by a well-esteemed mentor, the Danish landscape architect Preben Jakobsen: “Better know 5 plants with 100 types of uses each, than 100 plants limited to only a handful of purposes!”

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cabbage tree

– coda –

An Ecological Art Form

Every plant we grow requires TLC – the more time we devote it, the further it flourishes, enhancing our gardens immeasurably. Yet, low maintenance plants aren't merely defined by inherent cultivation requirements such as water consumption and feeding routines; their epitome is also evident in their association within surrounding flora, location, wildlife benefits, sculptural beauty and longevity. To carpet an entire landscape by utilising a monoculture approach is at times the suitable strategy for a specific site, yet, to create a manageable landscape design as small as a city rooftop terrace, or as expansive as a municipal park, with thoughtful and imaginative use of reduced maintenance vegetation, is to practise a pertinent ecological art form. This sustainable design mindset will go a long way to produce lasting verdant essence for us, while maintaining our plants' durability and vigorousness – with simplified, and beneficial, minimal upkeep.