Those moving into a newly-built house must consider how to make the best use of the available garden space. It may be completely bare, a segment of farm or meadow land, and such factors as slope, exposure,, and type of soil should be considered carefully. Prepare the Site
Bearing in mind the need to select plants best adapted to the site, the preparation of a bed or border for hardy plants should include drainage if the soil appears excessively wet or sticky in winter or hard baked in summer. Thorough digging will usually suffice.
Summer and autumn are the best times for deep digging on heavy soil, as this will enable winter frosts to break down hard lumps and sods into a line tilth for spring planting.
There is a tendency nowadays to avoid manual labour, but there is nothing like hand digging. A spade is still the best tool for lighter soils, but for heavy or sticky soils a strong fork is best. Trenching, or double digging is necessary where there is a pan below the top spit. This will improve drainage and will enable surface-rooting weeds to be buried, but if the second spit is of subsoil then it should merely be broken up or turned over, not brought up to the surface. L’erennial weeds, such as couch grass, must be eliminated, either by forking and raking during dry weather, or by weed killers. However, weed killers may be persistent, and they should never be used unless you know the long-term as well as theeffect they will have upon plant growth. Annual weeds are much easier to cope with. Contact sprays will kill them off quickly and leave the soil clear for plants within a few days. Normally such weeds as couch grass, mare’s tail, creeping thistle and ground elder are so perniciously perennial that drastic measures are needed to kill them. If you are reluctant to use the lethal poisons which will ensure a complete kill, then it is best to fallow the ground rather than risk a permanent bed of hardy plants being ruined by perennial weeds. Adding Humus On both light, poor soils and heavy clays, humus in the form of peat, or farmyard manure should be dug in. This will improve the texture, as well as the fertility of the soil, and give plants such a good start that nothing but occasional top dressings of fertilizer will be needed for years.
This soil preparation applies to any site, new or old, but where the surface is grass covered, a rotary digger can be useful. If the turf is not wanted elsewhere or is of poor quality it will improve the soil fertility if it is buried, provided it is chopped up first. If an open trench is dug across the narrow end of a bed or border, the loose, chopped-up turf can be pushed in, using a spade or fork to cover it well as the plot is dug, trench by trench. Large lumps of turf dug in often result in lack of consolidation as they slowly shrink during the much slower process of rotting. Grassland usually harbours wireworms, but a dusting of a wireworm killer, dug in with the turf or lightly forked in before planting will deal with these pests.
Conventional styles in gardening are hard to change, but those who wish to give hardy plants a fair chance will see that there are quite a few variations open to them. There is no doubt that island beds give the best reward, just as narrow, hemmed-in borders give the least return, in terms of value for money and effort in maintenance. An island bed can be sited anywhere provided all-round access is possible, even if it is only a narrow path on one side or end. A backed border can be converted into an island bed provided there is sufficient width. No matter what the backing is, rear access can be provided either by a narrow grass path or paving used as stepping stones. If the backing is a wall, it can be used for climbers and a strip allowed along the foot for bulbs or any of the wide variety of dwarf plants or climbers that like such a spot. The rear part of the bed itself should have as edgingof dwarf early-flowering perennials such as bergenias, pulmonarias and epimediums, for even if the aspect is sunny, the taller perennials facing the adjoining groups will provide summer shading. This rear strip will prove a source of delight in spring and, even if colour has gone by summer, you still have easy access to the rest of the bed for maintenance work, and there will be far less staking required, because the weakening effect of the backing is greatly lessened.
Width is, however, an important factor. So many conventional one-sided borders are too narrow and should either be widened, or, if this is impracticable, then the tallest plants should be avoided. Some old borders have a gravelled path along the front-and perhaps a low box hedge as edging. In most instances the gravelled path is not necessary and could be dug up and incorporated as extra border width. The box hedging could be removed, as it has little ornamental value and harbours slugs and snails.
Sometimes a border is flanked by a grass path or lawn and this presents no physical problem, if you wish to increase the width of a conventional border, whether or not it is to be converted into a semi-island bed. A curved edge could enhance the layout if the general lines of the garden lend themselves to this treatment. But irregular curves, or a scalloped edge would be out of place if straight lines prevail elsewhere in the garden.
In island beds plants grow more sturdily, are less marred by supporting sticks, and can be viewed from all angles at a more convenient eye level. One-sided beds have become anachronisms; only those on a small scale, where heights of plants are in keeping with the width of the border are worth considering. If the site is unsuitable for an island bed and you have to have a one-sided border, it will inevitably be more troublesome to maintain, unless you select the plants carefully.