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Emma Townshend: My garden needs a lot of maintenance - but fuchsias are as good as gold


There's a moment in When Harry Met Sally that seems to sum up something fundamental. Harry tells Sally, "There are two kinds of women: high-maintenance and low-maintenance." Sally, sensing attack, asks brightly, "Which one am I?" Harry replies, in a dark voice: "You're the worst kind: you're high-maintenance, but you think you're low-maintenance."

I've always thought, hearing this line, that it applies perfectly to gardens. There are definitely high-maintenance gardens. Vegetable patches are a case in point. You start completely from scratch every single year, straight back to a blank bed of earth that needs to be planned with brain-foxing care, taking into account crop rotation, hours of sunshine and just plain vegetal fussiness.

And what about those grand, creative herbaceous borders you see at gardens such as Hidcote and Wisley, running for 50m in both directions, full of vibrant life? Hours of back-breaking digging, dividing and staking, never mind planning, feeding and watering, go into such eye-popping displays.

Low-maintenance, though; that's more complicated. Ten years ago, there was a bit of a fashion for the low-maintenance garden. "Ground-cover" plants such as vinca (a massive takeover magnet, if ever there was one) and hebe, require little attention, flowering without fuss. But on the other hand, with such an air of practicality, they can slightly leave your garden with the air of a well-curated office car park.

My garden, though, is that dangerous quantity: the high-maintenance masquerading as low-maintenance (perhaps much like the person in charge). For example, I'm pretty sure that most people in my neighbourhood imagine I do very little gardening at all. They always look sufficiently astonished if I'm ever out the front actually chopping anything. Bags of green waste disappear to the tip, though no one ever appears to notice, since the biomass left hanging off the front of the house remains so gargantuan.

Yet in theory it should be easy to look after a garden containing mostly established shrubs, with few flowers that require tying in. Very little is sown from seed, usually; this year, my plant purchases extend to some failed sweet Williams and one order of a dozen scented geraniums to boost pots in the front garden.

But somehow this theoretically simple garden makes extraordinary demands on my time. A local propensity to bindweed, aided by my slothfulness about consistent weeding, has left me with a tricky problem everywhere, but particularly among my few climbing roses on the back fence. Bulbs now growing in the shade of expansive shrubs need lifting and replanting. Everything needs watering (OK, there we can blame the weather). The lawn desperately cries out for a mow. Most importantly, the entire ensemble requires a monthly "haircut" to keep from tipping over the edge from fecund and delightful to just a massive mess.

In this setting, it is a relief to feel enormous gratitude to any plant that is low-maintenance, and clear about it.

For example, I have had a soft spot for fuchsias since I was small enough to be eye level with their lurid pinkness during table-top sales. But it's delightful to find that such a fairy-tale plant, with that pointy chinoiserie hat and dressy petticoats beneath, can while away a whole summer flowering with little more than water and a couple of doses of Miracle-Gro. The three or four fuchsias I own do more to lift the long-term spirits of the garden than anything else, I sometimes think, looking out the back door.

Back when I was table-height, I adored the big double fuchsias, but actually, as time wears on, I realise that the single-flowered plants are much more robust. And I've even started cultivating a special place in my heart devoted to the ones with yellowy-green leaves.

In the garden centre, these don't seem that appealing, yet plunged into a big assemblage of pots, the golden-yellow tone of their foliage sings out.

Gold Mountain, anyone? Low-maintenance. And totally knows it.