How to revive a tired garden

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: February 14th, 2016 In: Garden style & living, Middlesized country, Town gardens

Do you look out of your window and feel your garden has lost its sparkle?

Or maybe you’ve moved house, and have a perfectly reasonable garden – but you don’t love it and it doesn’t feel like yours?

Garden consultant Matt Jackson and his family have just moved into a beautiful old farmhouse – Kelly Mill – in West Devon. It has a neglected garden of about an acre, surrounded by woods and fields.  So he’s guest-blogging here to share his tips how to revive a tired garden:

Let the house and the landscape influence the garden

Kelly Mill and its self-catering cottage annexe, The Old Shippon, set in glorious landscape.

‘Kelly Mill is a beautiful building set within a deep, isolated valley through which the mill stream hurries. The garden was once planted well, but the stone walls are covered in brambles and ivy.

Shrubs and trees are overgrown and crowded together. I now find myself in same position as so many clients – desperate to do something, but with no idea what!

The potential is limitless, the ideas free flowing… but what to do here? There are some very simple stages, so I must be sure to follow them myself.

How to revive a neglected garden

Walls and gates are covered with lichen, moss and brambles…

1)List what you have and what you like

Make a list of everything you have in the garden (over the period of a year to see what emerges). Then make a separate list of everything you like in gardens.  What colours, moods or atmospheres?

I know that I like gardens with multiple rooms, intrigue and interest. Simplicity is often best, structure is important. I like muted colours, vibrant greens, and fiery heat and passion in hidden corners.

Views and breath-taking scenery also move me, which is one reason we settled on Dartmoor. The trees and shrubs are overgrown, obscuring the view, so we will take some out.

But we will wait until they are in leaf, so that we can preserve the best and most interesting ones.

Which ones are worth saving?

Unloved trees and shrubs – but wait to see them in leaf before deciding which ones are to go.

When I’m working with clients, we create Pinterest mood boards – which we share between us – to store ideas and inspiration, so I’m starting a Pinterest board up for Kelly Mill. Pinterest is a very useful tool – you can create ‘secret’ boards which only you and one or two others can see.

2)Think about your theme

Next, your theme is key. My wife, Laura and I we are unswerving on one thing; that it must be good for our family – we have 2 daughters, Cicely aged 3 and Tilia aged 18 mths.

Our garden and its surrounds must be biodynamic, a wildlife haven, and a place of inspiration. Our garden will be well ‘designed’, of strong aesthetic interest, as well as a producer of fine food.

Decide on a theme

Laura, Matt, Cicely and Tilia – Kelly Mill will be a family garden.

3)What are your resources?

Resources and practicalities are the next consideration, and the single most important stage. Middle sized gardens can swallow money, and the fastest eater is hard landscaping.

Levelling, terracing and building soon reaches £10,000 in small gardens, and it can be very easy to spend £100,000 if plans are grand.

Perhaps, surprisingly plants can be the cheapest element, with only £1000 going a long way when using the right supplier. We plan to grow as much as we can from seed – even shrubs and perennials – as this will cut costs.

Landscaping accounts for much of the cost of renovating a garden

Luckil,y Matt can do some landscaping himself…

4) Who will do the gardening?

Think about how much time you will have to maintain the garden and plan accordingly. As an experienced professional, I would allocate a day a week to a one-acre garden..

So think hard about how much time you want to devote (always different to what you actually achieve). And are you prepared to spend some of the garden budget on a gardener?

5) Set some boundaries…

Setting boundaries focuses your choices, and makes deciding easier.

We have decided to limit the landscaping at Kelly Mill. It’s on a slope, but instead of terracing, I am going to use trees and shrubs to give a horizontal element to the garden.

We’ve also set ourselves a target of using material reclaimed from the site itself if we do want to do landscaping. So if we want stone, we’ll see if we already have some on the land that can be re-used – we won’t be able to stick to it exactly.

For example, if you live in a terraced house, your boundary might be ‘When buying for the garden, I need to be able to carry it through the house’ or…’wheelbarrow it from a local shop.’

6) Plants – the practicalities

Add to your list: what is your soil type, how much does it rain, where are your views, what aspect (direction) does it face, what is the worst weather to expect and the best, and what is access like? You wouldn’t create a Rhododendron garden on a chalk hillside, a huge lawn when access is for a small mower or a tropical garden in a frost pocket.

7) Now you know where to start…

This process narrows things down.

Now you can ask yourself whether you are mainly restoring the garden you already have, whether it needs extensive renovation or if you need a complete redesign, for which you might want help.

8) But be patient…

Having been at Kelly Mill for a month, we wonder if it ever stops raining. The stream was a brown, raging torrent and the lower field flooded several times. A local farmer says it’s ‘worse than I’ve known it for some time, all the fields are saturated’.

This is important to know. Seeing the garden at its worst is vital, and taking a season to observe – really observe – is the most valuable thing. I am chomping at the bit, and the emergence of swathes of snowdrops has enlivened me, but I must wait – patience pays dividends and is too often forgotten in modern gardening.

9) Add instant sparkle for the first year

We can do a few things now. We will develop a no-dig vegetable garden on our well-drained, south facing slope. Mulch will go down in February – on top of the lawn.

‘No-dig’ really does mean that you don’t have to cut turf out. Just add the mulch on top to create a new bed, ready for planting from April.

The garden will be brought into biodynamic vibrancy by applying the preparations, making the whole area ready for development.

10) With easy colour…

We won’t know what’s coming up in the borders, but I will grow a packet of Cosmos from seed, plus some Verbena bonariensis. I will use these plants all over the garden to fill unexpected gaps and add colour.

This is much cheaper than filling gaps when they appear by buying fully grown plants in flower. And the flowers will last longer.

Simple, grow-your-own flowers add bursts of colour

Cosmos flowers for a long time and has instant impact.

11) No-effort fillers…

If you have veg beds but don’t have time to focus on them this year, scatter a packet of ‘bee mix’ seeds.

We did that in our last year in our old house, and had months of gloriously changing flowers for very little cost. You could also scatter it in flower beds.

How one packet of seeds can create glorious colour

Last year was all about moving, so Matt left some veg beds empty and scattered a packet of ‘bee mix’ seeds for instant impact.

12) And instant structure….

We’ll also add colour and structure with containers. Laura and I will observe the garden and fields throughout this first season, while enjoying it with the girls, and raising and eating produce from the garden.

At the end of the season, we’ll have a better idea of which direction to take the garden.

13) Plus an emotional connection

At the core of a biodynamic garden should be good intent – and I think this applies to any garden. Harmony and balance radiate out, much like garden rooms that become more natural as they reach the countryside.

Our family is settling in at Kelly Mill well, getting to know the local birds, beetles and four legged visitors, with all of whom we share our space. As we calm down after the move, and take a mindful approach to our everyday lives, we will apply the processes, discuss and move the garden forward, so why not come and watch?

Use seeds as a cheap, easy way of filling gaps

Get to know the wildlife in your first year

You can visit the Kelly Mill at any time by prearrangement. For regular opening times in 2016/17 visit www.kellymill.uk

You can stay at Kelly Mill in the Old Shippon self-catering holiday cottage, and soak up the tranquillity.

Matt Jackson is a freelance garden and landscaping consultant. He was formerly Gardens Manager at Sissinghurst and Head Gardener at Doddington Place Gardens.

He is also a writer and broadcaster – his book Lunar & Biodynamic Gardening is published by Cico Books.

For help with garden renovation, consultancy, biodynamic gardening and other bespoke packages see Matt Jackson Gardens or email matt@blacksheepconsultants.co.uk

There’s more advice from Matt on ‘what makes a good family garden’ here and also a post on ‘what you need to know about landscaping’.

And to hear about another neglected garden and how it’s been revived with very little money, do check out The Secret Garden Strategy here.

And if you’ve found this helpful, do share it using the buttons below – thank you!

12 Comments

  • Nemasys says:

    Great article, gave me a lot of knowledge on how to make my garden look alive again. Thank you

  • I had a lovely garden that’s become a bit neglected after suffering from some medical issues, i’ll be sure to give some of these tips a try!

  • Matt says:

    Very good point rusty duck regarding developing the garden in manageable sizes. I often see clients who realise that they can have very little content if they are only to maintain it for the odd hour each week – a common request. We can all commission or quickly develop a fine garden, but keep it fine is something else.

    Annette – not liking a plant is every reason to remove it, and i do it all the time. Not liking a group is perfect justification to start with a clean slate.

  • Annette says:

    Lovely post, thanks. My garden has got a bit neglected over the past few years. I’ve done the bit of seeing what happens in it and I left plants in, but it decided I just don’t really like them and they don’t grow very well anyway! I like the part about using unused veg beds with seeds for bees.

  • I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement, having taken on a very similar challenge. Access became a vital issue here, especially given the extreme slope. Landscaping in some areas is next to impossible because we just can’t get mechanical equipment to it. And how I agree about the rain! I was over in Sussex last week and how dry it seems compared with here.
    What has been useful for me is to break the garden area down into manageable sections, starting from around the house and working outwards. Get each section to a state that can be maintained routinely before moving on to the next.

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