Transforming An Old Garden

There must be many a would-be gardener who, having purchased a new house, finds he is also the owner of a rubble-strewn wilderness. To such the advice is ‘keep calm’! However dreadful the problems appear, with work and knowledge the site can be transformed into a thing of beauty.

A garden is a living thing: something you create and watch from infancy to full maturity. Thus it’s hardly surprising that a bond grows between garden and gardener, for gardening is an endless adventure, particularly because it’s so difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules. For instance, when we say that March is the month to sow certain seeds, it means that during March we might expect the soil and weather to be right. But the weather doesn’t always oblige, so the gardener has to use his own judgement and, if necessary, wait for suitable conditions. This applies more to sowing, of course; gardening under glass, and work among fruit trees, bushes and shrubs goes on more or less as usual. Bear in mind, though, that sowing and planting times do vary according to the part of the country in which you live.

A few general points worth remembering: Make sure your soil is properly drained. Plants won’t thrive when they’re water-logged. If in doubt, dig a two-foot deep hole and watch to see how soon the water drains away after rain. Very slow drainage means you may have a problem.

Don’t forget to treat your soil with humus. The raw materials are manure, compost, poultry litter and so on. Lime your soil, too; if necessary, you can buy a simple soil-testing outfit which will indicate how acid or alkaline it is. Fertilisers provide nutrients which may be lacking in the soil. Base fertilisers should be applied in the spring, with liquid fertilisers added in the growing season.

When it comes to disease, prevention is definitely better than cure. Good soil conditions, proper fertilising and manuring, and spacing of plants all play their part in the quest for immunity! Routine spraying of trees is worth the effort, too. And remember that virus infections are usually best taken up and burned to avoid the trouble spreading.

And mulch your garden in summer after rain and following watering. This reduces loss of moisture by evaporation and it keeps roots cool and helps check weeds.

Hopefully you’ll find an answer to most of your ‘everyday’ gardening problems, whether they concern propagation, pruning, growing veg and fruit, stocking a greenhouse, planting herbs, planning a border, tending house plants, growing roses. Ah, I could go on – but why not step inside and see for yourself!

So you’ve a new garden! Does it start from the basics, the builders having left you with a weed-strewn, rubble wilderness? Or is it a site which may have suited the previous occupants, but isn’t exactly what you want? Well, let’s go! Let’s start from scratch.

Kill off all weeds and unwanted grass with a weedkiller such as Paraquat. Dig over the site to a depth of one foot and burn all nettles, bind weed, couch grass, thistles and other perennial horrors. If levelling is necessary, be sure to remove the topsoil to a depth of eight inches or so, and replace it when you’ve made the required adjustments.

Now, it’s important to decide on a plan and it will help if you use pegs and twine to mark out borders, beds, paths and lawn. Of course, the lawn is usually regarded as the centre point of a garden, so your plan should be moulded around this.

Before we go any further let’s take a look at the soil. Is it light or heavy? Light soil feels gritty when you run it through your fingers. If it’s sticky and holds moisture, then it’s heavy. There are, of course, variations between these two basics – for example, chalk in the soil means it will be alkaline (so rhododendrons are out!) – and you can buy soil-testing equipment which will indicate what, or what not, to plant.

Don’t be too discouraged if the soil is poor – rock plants will grow quite happily; so will helianthemums (rock roses), a very free-flowering plant.

Shrubs like brooms, buddleias, cistus, scabious, campanulas, bearded irises, weigelas, lilacs and the red-berried cotoneasters all thrive on chalky soil.

Rhododendrons, azaleas, all types of heather and almost all perennial plants do well on acid soil – and they’ll do better still if peat is added.

You’re now on your way to knowing what sort of garden you can plan, but remember to plan with regard to light and shade; some shrubs do well in shady places, but most flowers, particularly roses and rock plants, like plenty of sun.

Now let’s look at the basic features of a garden. Well, the ideal average garden includes an area of lawn, a path, a vegetable patch, flower beds, and perhaps even a place for herbs, preferably not too far from the kitchen. And don’t forget the roses! Most gardeners prefer to keep the rose bed separate, but there’s no reason why other plants, particularly small plants, shouldn’t share the same bed – after all, there are long stretches of the year when rose bushes don’t contribute much to the scene. However, this is a matter of taste… and space! And if you have the space, how about a pool?

Shrubs, dwarf conifers, and a corner for alpines and bulbs also have their part to play – and you needn’t worry if yours is a town garden and light is restricted. There are a number of bedding plants, shrubs, climbers and bulbs which are quite happy growing in shade or semi-shade. Thus careful selection ensures that a town garden can be quite as attractive as a country one.

Fruit trees mustn’t be ignored, and shortage of space needn’t be a factor which restricts choice. There are many different ways of training them to make good use of every inch of ground. You can even grow certain types in pots, and many town dwellers make use of their balconies for these.

As for ensuring there’ll always be plenty of colour in your garden, remember that not many perennials flower for long periods, so maintain your colour display by planting annuals – but don’t forget that most of these demand plenty of sun.

Think carefully before incorporating a rock garden. Few other areas need more care and weeding – you have been warned!

Now vegetables. The best time to start the vegetable garden is late summer – that is, if you’re starting from scratch, which means burning off the old rubbish, digging and general soil preparation. If you have a choice of sites, a southern slope is best because it will be well-drained and warm. And what to grow? Potatoes, kidney and runner beans, peas, cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, lettuces, onions and radishes must all be in the running. Incidentally, October through till March is the best planting time, provided the soil is workable and not sodden by rain or hardened by frost.

For compost, save garden and kitchen waste and grass mowings, building them up in layers in a container about four feet square, sprinkling with compost activator and a little soil when the layers are six inches thick. Turned over every two months from autumn to autumn, this will rot down to become valuable humus for plants and vegetables. Dig it into the top spit of soil at five pounds per square yard for good results.

A word about paths… These should link up the various features of the garden. And don’t let them peter out at the end of the site – provide a ‘journey’s end’ with something like a garden seat, a sundial, a pagoda or a summer house. If the garden level changes it’s better to provide steps rather than a ramp – this can become really slippery with mud or dew. And try to avoid settling for a boring strip of concrete instead of a ‘real’ path. You can make your walkway an attractive feature with bricks laid to a pattern, contrasting areas of stone slabs and cobbles, crazy paving, or even broken paving slabs (enquire at your local council offices) – or you may have some bright ideas of your own!

Perhaps there’s some truth in the Chinese saying: ‘Buy a wife and be happy for a day. Buy a pig and be happy for a week. Buy a garden and be happy all your life!’

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