5 Steps to an Ageless Garden

January 28, 2020
Buildmumahouse accessible garden

Spring is my favourite time of year. I love stepping outside and spotting a clump of green shoots that have just pierced through the dark wet soil. One day a branch is brown, next morning there are buds swelling and leaves peeping through… and then comes the knock-out scent of daffodils and hyacinths on the cool air.

Plants and sniffing the air in a garden just makes me happy, gardening keeps me physically active and leaves me feeling energized and connected. Seeing all of those clumps of snowdrops this time of year urges me to get out there and tidy up the mounds of dead leaves in corners, and clear the way for the crocuses.

As we age, or if we lose mobility, gardening and enjoying the garden can be important therapeutic factors in health and wellness.

Gardening can bring us food and exercise, and keep our minds sharp as we age. Learning to adapt to changing physical, familial and social situations is key to continuing to garden into our retirement years.

Ageless gardens. Vision TV. Canada

Last week I spoke to Jonathan Kemp, horticulturalist and garden designer about how a garden can be designed to make it accessible and beautiful.

I asked Jonathan about his work designing gardens and how he addresses the needs for anyone who has reduced or mobility issues or is at an age when they want to have their own ageless garden. Jonathan has designed many gardens here in my area of South West London and he is well loved. Not only is he is a brilliant plantsman who cares passionately about his clients, but he’s thoughtful in his design and he is a great listener. Jonathan told me that he is driven by his “fascination with plants” and his belief that:

“…even the most simple of gardens can hugely add to someone’s quality of life.”

Jonathan’s 5 Steps to an ageless, accessible garden:

1. Make it easy to maintain

“Make sure you have enough ground cover plants – smother the soil to stop weeds and help stop seeds germinating

Start phasing out herbaceous plants and plant with evergreen or shrubs, they require far less work.

Avoid anything fast-growing because you want minimise pruning back more than twice a year.”

In my garden I have a fantastic low maintenance Sarcococca Confusa or sweet box, a compact evergreen shrub with simple, leathery leaves and tiny, very fragrant creamy-white flowers starting in December through to spring, at the same time as shiny black berries – berries that can last until the next winter.

Jonathan Kemp’s planting suggestions for a low maintenance garden:

low maintenance, accessible garden, buildmumahouse, Jola Piesakowska, Jonathan Kemp

2. Consider raised beds.

“Raised beds are a massive project and they are costly, you have to dig up all your plants and replant at the new high level that’s on top of building the raised bed. If you don’t replant but increase the soil around an existing shrub or tree it will rot and die.

Brick is expensive, rendered blocks is the cheaper option and give you a nice clean look, an you can even consider adding dye to the render to give you a maintenance free colour.

©Jonathan Kemp: Garden Verve raised beds

Wooden “railway sleepers” measure 200mm by 100mm. Stack two on top of each other on their sides so that takes you to 400mm.

Then lay the top one flat. It will overhang by 100mm and allows it to  be used as a seat, a perch and at 500mm that is a nice height to sit at. Or if you are in a wheelchair to put cup of tea.

We always use new ones – softwood pine spruce or hard wood oak. I personally don’t think there’s much in it, but oak moves and twists and has character.

Old Sleepers were creosoted which means that on a hot day the tar will soften, be very sticky to touch and will stain. Fine if you have a large country garden and have areas that you won’t be touching or leaning against.”

Raised bed planting:

Plant bushes and slow growing plants with lots of scented flowers. If your eyesight is failing scent is very important, feature plants with a rustle, and leaves with a nice to the touch too.

In my garden I love the soft-to-the-touch lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantine “silver carpet” and the sound of the hairy, black seed pods of my Broom plants, they crack as they explode on a hot summer’s day.

Jonathan Kemp’s planting suggestions for raised bed planting:

raised bed garden planting scheme Buildmumahouse Jola Piesakowska

3. Plan your garden paths.

“Look at how you move around the garden paths, every height differentiation is a potential trip hazard. Any changes in level should be a smooth transition. And consider the width of the path – would a zimmer frame fit? Could you walk comfortably with a stick by your side?

Or completely redesign your garden to accommodate wheelchair use”

4. To mow or not to mow?

For a low maintenance garden, Jonathan always considers two options – laying an artificial lawn or building a courtyard garden.

A few months ago I filmed a video testimonial given by one of Jonathan’s clients – she was so happy with her transformed garden that she commissioned it as a thank you. The biggest life changer was the maintenance free, natural looking lawn. 

I was impressed with the lawn as I didn’t realise it was synthetic at first, and we didn’t talk about it until I filmed the testimonial.

I just thought what a nice garden!

“Be careful which product you use and there is a right way to lay it – it has a front and back. I do come across some disasters, you can get it wrong when the grass fibres point in a particular direction.”

Anna Jezuita
Low maintenance garden designed by Jonathan Kemp featuring an artificial lawn.

5. Courtyard Garden

“With an artificial grass or with a courtyard you will have a garden all year round and won’t be banished during the wet winter months. There is a big variation in price in the range of stone paving. To soften the look leave out sections and plant ground cover herbs, such as thyme, they smell great when you brush past the leaves or walk over a plant.”

©Jonathan Kemp Garden Verve courtyard garden design

Setting out and transforming your garden to a space that you can enjoy all year round and from year to year is a big undertaking. From what I have seen of the gardens that Jonathan has designed, I would say that the benefits of using a designer who is a horticulturalist is a game changer. But the most important thing, I think, is to work with someone like Jonathan who is experienced and can guide you, he’s seen his designs mature over the years.

Planning an accessible, ageless garden is daunting but exciting and working with a horticulturalist means you will get the garden to work for you. With the right design and planting your garden space can become your haven and with good design and careful thought somewhere that is accessible for years to come.

You can visit Jonathan’s website click here: Garden Verve

For more garden inspiration visit my Instagram account @buildmumahouse

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