How to renovate a garden without losing its magic
Would you renovate a garden? Or would you just call in the diggers and start again from scratch?
But you may miss out if you clear it completely.
Architect Tom Croft asked garden maker Posy Gentles to restore his garden. His grandparents created it in the 1930s. His parent took over, gardening it in the 1970s and 80s. But very little had been done to it since the late 1980s.
There is stunning mature topiary in the garden. His mother also planted many hybrid tea roses and other shrubs, typical of mid twentieth century gardening.
But the garden got overgrown
Some plants disappeared completely beneath brambles, nettles, self-seeded sycamores and sticky grass. Others grew tall and leggy in search of the light.
But it has a magic about it that a brand new garden can never hope to achieve. There is weathered brick and stone, while moss and gnarled trees offer hiding places for wildlife.
Posy and her assistant Salvatore, have coaxed it back to life by weeding, clearing and pruning. they’ve replanted some beds completely. But in others the glorious reds, oranges, yellows and pinks of Tom’s mother’s roses now bloom again.
Plants that can survive decades of neglect
It’s remarkable how good some roses are at surviving decades of neglect. I’ve also written a post on how a community garden in West London has restored an award-winning rose garden that disappeared completely under brambles.
Twentieth century hybrid tea roses fell out of popularity because of their twiggy, awkward structure and the fact that their foliage often got diseased. But if you find one in your garden, give it a chance.
Re-discovering plants from another age in your garden is a bit like having antiques or vintage furniture in your house. They create or add to a sense of history and place.
Renovate a garden – step one
Step one is ‘weed, weed, weed.’ If you take a small section of the garden at a time and clear it by hand, you will get to know your garden intimately.
My friend, Debs, has restored a magical rented country garden almost entirely by weeding.
Posy advises weeding after it’s rained, because weeds will be easier to pull out. You will need a stout small fork, plus a full-size garden fork for stubborn roots such as brambles. Don’t compost the weeds, to be on the safe side.
Here are some weeding tips from my One Minute Gardening Tips series:
Renovate a garden – step two
Pruning is your next task. Consider every tree and shrub carefully. Do you really need to take it out? Mature trees give a garden texture. Could pruning give you the space and light you need? (there is more about how to prune mature trees and shrubs to allow light through here).
Renovate a garden – step three
Step three is to feed – where plants or trees need it. I’ve written more about how and when to feed your garden with fertilisers.
The stunning yew topiary in Tom’s garden is overgrown, but it would be unwise to chop it back into shape immediately. If you cut into the brown wood, then the yew won’t regrow. You either have to restore it gradually over several years or cut it right down so that it regrows from the trunk.
Posy and Salvatore are going to bring light into the middle of the yews by levelling them at the top and pulling out the ivy. They are also introducing a little more light by ‘lifting its skirt’ (cutting off some lower branches so that it stands a foot or so off the ground.
They are feeding the yew with fertiliser, and will cut it back gradually as new growth, stimulated by the light, greens up from inside the plant.
After you weed, prune and fertilise…
And once you’ve done these three steps – weed, prune and fertilise – you can look at the gaps and buy new plants! You’ll have fewer to buy, and a much smaller bill for re-stocking the garden. And the final effect will be something that could never have been achieved by digging out the lot.
Some friends of ours cleared their garden while they were having their house renovated, figuring that getting everything cleared away at once would save time and money in the long run.
Now they’ve realised that replacing the whole garden with semi-mature trees is going to cost much more, and that it will be years before their garden fully achieves the look they want. They wish they’d left some of the mature trees and shrubs in, to give the garden atmosphere.
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