A wildflower meadow in front of Highgrove Credit: Highgrove

The King’s former head gardener reveals her low-maintenance tips

Garden becoming a chore? Debs Goodenough, Highgrove’s former head gardener, shares her tips for editing your plot.

I’ve spent 40 exciting and enjoyable years working in horticulture, culminating in my latter role of caring for the gardens of King Charles, primarily based at Highgrove.

Each position has required a juggling act of managing time, labour and resources. But now, aged 62, with a relatively small personal garden that my husband and I have been developing over 20 years, I’ve been taking a good look at how to make it more low-maintenance and enjoyable.

Once I started calling our garden the “wonderful monster,” I realised we needed to do something before I disappeared forever into the undergrowth. We are both in the gardening profession and felt that if we couldn’t make our outdoor space easier for ourselves, who could?

We’ve got enthused by our “editing”, so here are my tips to change and enjoy your garden more, with less effort.

A man and woman smiling in a gardenCredit: Debs Goodenough
Debs and husband Simon in their garden

Take stock and be ruthless

This isn’t an overnight job and should be done in the company of those who share your garden – you also may have sudden “eureka moments”, get useful feedback from friends or find solutions at garden shows. Start by asking yourself honestly what you most dislike.

I told my husband I wouldn’t miss a cherry tree covered in aphids that was only producing fruit for the birds and taking light away from other cherished plants; soon it had become firewood with my husband smiling, saw in hand. Similarly, a scented evergreen viburnum was removed to reveal all the hydrangeas behind, looking relieved to have some light.

Hedges get taller and wider as time progresses and may need a hard prune to more manageable sizes. Working for King Charles at Highgrove taught me much, particularly in his observations on nature. Hedges are valuable wildlife refuges and should not be removed without consideration. It may be necessary occasionally in ornamental situations but think carefully before doing so.

Fruit trees require pruning to maintain size. If planting anew, choose the right rootstocks for the size of tree you need, reducing labour immensely. Prune only as necessary, as vigorous pruning stimulates growth – a 10% removal rule will eventually slow down growth.

Close up of agapanthus flowersCredit: GAP
Agapanthus thrives in Debs’ garden where roses once grew

Help your favourite plants thrive

Plant choices are personal and can make hard decisions even more difficult. Roses are a case in point: I enjoy them, but my husband loves them. They require a lot of effort in feeding, pruning, dead-heading and tying in, and considerable watering.

We’ve agreed to grow fewer roses better, replacing ones struggling in hot situations and poor soil conditions with drought-tolerant Mediterranean plants such as cistus, agapanthus, rosemary and lavender.

In this era of climate change, choose plants carefully. Place them where they can grow well with little additional input. Mulching is a great way to recycle green waste, save water, feed the soil, reduce weeding, and so save time and effort.

It was paramount to gardening organically at Highgrove, paying dividends in the health of the plants and retention of moisture.

My 5 favourite garden tools

I have also become an absolute convert to lightweight tripod ladders. These are expensive (mine is from Niwaki) but give incredible support and in my view are worth saving up for. The size I use most is the 4ft version.

Felco secateurs are excellent. I also use lightweight snips that cost little and do most jobs.

At Highgrove, the team trialled a golden spade, which became a go-to tool. Lightweight, unbreakable and relatively inexpensive, two sizes are available. From Niwaki.

Although not as light as corded models, strimmers, hedge cutters and leaf blowers with rechargeable batteries give greater range. I use versions by Husqvarna.

A herbaceous sickle is indispensable. Shaped like a curved, serrated bread knife, it makes cutting down herbaceous material quicker and easier. £14, Niwaki.

Share the work – and the joy

If your garden seems overwhelming, you could share the work – as well as fruit, flowers, or veg. This could be with people who don’t have access to a garden, or barter with fitter friends and neighbours for help with heavy tasks in return for services you can offer, such as cake-baking, pet-sitting or bookkeeping.

Is there a gardening group in the community to share tasks or tools? Also, consider sending friends and family a list of “useful” gifts you’d really love – it might be new easy-to-use tools, plants or a day or two of gardening assistance.

If you can afford a gardener, simplify your space to make their efforts more productive. Anything you can do to make your garden more manageable will mean you can enjoy it for longer.

A flower bed surrounding a wooden structureCredit: GAP
Catmint and ornamental sage at Highgrove are drought tolerant

Pot tip – plan your pots

Carefully choose the situations where pots will be most beneficial, such as by entrances and exits or viewed from a window. Consider which plants to use and what effort is needed to keep them looking good.

Shadier situations require less watering, with ferns, hostas, begonias, lilies and calla lilies all loving these conditions.

In sun, think pelargoniums, dianthus, lavenders, canna lilies, succulents, and many annuals such as bidens, nemesia, salvias and osteospermums. Or use spring bulbs and put pots away in summer heat.

Mulch the top of pots with horticultural grit or fine bark as this helps retain moisture and can be recycled into next year’s pot compost.


Written by Debs Goodenough