One of the joys of a garden for me is that it will never be the same from one year to the next. It will grow, change, mature and eventually decline and the fun is to manage that development and create a balance between the plants so that each can fulfill its potential. Whether your garden is five years or 25 years old it will need ‘editing’ if you want to keep it looking at its best.
I am often brought in by clients who have inherited a mature garden and know that although they don’t want to dig up the whole thing and start again, there needs to be a process of revision to bring back the balance to the garden. This imbalance can happen because trees and shrubs have grown bigger than their allotted space and are competing for space, light and nutrients. They might be creating shade where once there was a bright, sunny space and smaller plants beneath the canopy are suffering. Spontaneous plant purchases often result in a plant growing too big for the only space available when it was bought or not suitable for the soil or aspect. If you only visit the garden centre in the summer then your garden may be full of plants that look good at that time but with nothing for the rest of the year!
1.REVIEW THE BORDERS
Winter is an excellent time to look critically at the borders. Try to be objective and plan to keep only those plants that contribute throughout the year to the overall picture. If something has outgrown its space but you love it then try giving it a renovation prune in the spring to within 60cm of the ground. Look at the RHS website for advice on which plants you can safely do this with. If two shrubs have grown into each other make a decision about which to keep and which can go based on performance and shape. Widening a border may make it easier to manage as shrubs can be allowed to reach their natural girth rather than having to be constantly pruned back. Think about the shape of the borders. Sweeping curves look better than bitty wiggles and are easier to maintain. If formal is more your style then make sure lawn edges are straight and crisp. Like humans, plants do have a lifetime which varies enormously so don’t be afraid to replace those that look tired and leggy. Would you choose the same plant again today? If it does’t earn its keep in terms of flowers/foliage/bark then harden your heart and take it out! Look at photos on Pinterest and Instagram as well as in magazines and books for inspiration and for a fresh view.
Take photographs of the border, cover with tracing paper and try sketching a visualisation of how you would like things to look like when you have removed/pruned shrubs or perennials. Mark the new shape of border edges on the ground with a hose-pipe or sitcks and string.
Spring is a great time to actually start work on renovations. Remove those plants that are dead, diseased or you have decided will not fit into the new border. Roots need to go too or you won’t be able to replant in that space and unwanted new growth may spring up. Prune those shrubs that you have decided to keep either by cutting right back or removing one third of the oldest branches referring to RHS website. Consider raising the canopy of shrubs so that you can plant perennials and bulbs beneath for an extra layer of interest. Keep stepping back to asses how the shrub looks as you prune. If the crowns of perennials are infested with weed then you could dig them up, shake off the soil and remove every scrap of weed root. Dig out weeds in the border by hand or, as a last resort, carefully spray really invasive weeds such as ground elder or bindweed with a glyphosate-based weedkiller. It is so important to get as much weed root out as possible otherwise they will compete for light, water and nutrients with your new plants.
Perennials benefit from being dug up regularly in spring or autumn and splitting into smaller pieces, getting rid of the less vigorous centre pieces, and replanting further apart with space to grow.
3.FEED AND CONDITION
Feeding and conditioning the soil with organic matter is much more beneficial (and better for the environment) than feeding the plant with artificial fertilisers. It improves the structure of the soil as well as feeding the plants. I specify digging in garden compost/well-rotted manure/green waste compost/leafmould/spent mushroom compost whenever I am renovating a border or planting a new one from scratch. A couple of bucketfuls per square metres dug into the top 30cm of soil will be an enormous long-term benefit. Many councils sell green waste compost created from the garden waste they collect from us.
Cut the new shape of the border into the lawn and lift unwanted turf with spade or a turf-lifter. Stack this turf upside down in a corner of the garden as it will rot down to produce excellent compost.
5.ASSESS AND REFRESH
Now the fun bit! Choose your new plants carefully having worked out the type of conditions you are going to be providing them with. Ask yourself what the aspect of the border is….sunny, shady or a mixture of both? Soil type is also key in choosing plants. Is it heavy clay which sticks to your boots or sandy soil which dries out quickly? Get a soil testing kit from the garden centre to work out pH (acidic, neutral or alkaline?). All these factors should guide your choice of plants. Next think about successional interest through the year. Choose some plants which look good in autumn and winter as well as spring and summer. This can be leaf or bark colour or structure from dead seed heads or the tracery of branches. Make sure you provide pollinators with nectar for as long season as possible. Research height and width of plants at maturity to make sure they will fit the space. One-third evergreen to two-thirds deciduous is a formula that works well for shrubs. And lastly, of course, decide on a colour scheme which helps to focus the choice of plants further. Remember this needs to fit in with any plants that remain from the original scheme. Phew! Now you know why planting plans take so long to create!
Take a tip from designers and place all the plants out in their pots on the border before you start to plant and move them around until you are happy with how they combine. Plant perennials in groups of at least 3 to avoid a fussy,spotty look. Make sure all plants are at the same level in the soil as they were in the pots. Too high or too low may spell disaster for the plant. Water them in well so that each plant gets a couple of bucketfuls of water. Repeat once a week for the first season, a good soaking once a week is better than a sprinkling every day. Consider mulching with 75mm of pine bark nuggets which will help retain moisture and cut weeding by two-thirds. If you do, make sure mulch is kept away from the stems of shrubs.
All done! Pour yourself a well-deserved cup of tea or glass of wine and sit back and enjoy your fresh new garden!