Clearing out

Now we’ve given the garden a really good looking at it is time to get our hands dirt. Having studied the garden you may well have come to the conclusion some plants are just too big, in the wrong place or you just don’t like them. To start with the last first, because it’s the simplest, you’ve got one choice and that is to dig it out. At this point you may come to the conclusion that it would be just as easy just to cut it down to the ground and leave the roots where they are. This though has problems and first of these is that stumps take a VERY long time to rot. Not years but decades! You are then going to be left with a stump in the border to try to disguise, trip over every time you go into the border and hit with a spade when you try to dig in the border.

There is a further problem to this short cut because not all the fungi that will attack and hopefully rot down the stump are benign. Some will spread to adjacent plants and attack them and one such example is Honey Fungus. I’m not going to digress into details of this disease except to say once you’ve got it you have a serious problem.

Pedestrian Stump grinder
Pedestrian Stump grinder

This means, if at all possible, you are going to have to dig the plant out. This can be achieved in a number of ways and the easiest is often a stump grinder, or chipper, which grind the stump down to a heap of chippings. These come in a vast range of sizes from small ones you can hire to operate yourself and wheel around the garden to large self propelled machines which are supplied with a specially trained operator. An alternative is to use a digger to dig out the stump. These are rarely a good solution unless one is already on site for other reasons due to their size, cost, difficulty of operating and limited ability to dig out stumps – I’ve seen a JCB struggle to remove  relatively small tree stumps. Third way is winching out the stumps and the modern lever operated winches do make this a more attractive option than most people realise. They have though two Achilles heels. One they need a very secure anchoring point as how ever much force they pull the stump with they also pull what ever they are anchored to. The second is as they pull the roots out anything else near them, like drains, water pipes etc, tend to be pulled out as well. Finally you can grab the bull by the horns and just dig it out by hand. Be warned though this is very hard work. You will need to good spade, gloves, boots, axe and preferably a large steel crowbar.

Nitrogen (N)

One of the main plant nutrients and used by plants to make all proteins, and therefore as well enzymes, chlorophyll and many other essential parts of plants. The amount of nitrogen available to a plant is often the factor which limits it rate of growth and its behaviour within the soil is a very complex one with the amount available to the plant changing constantly. Like all plant nutrients; nitrogen has to be in a suitable form for the plants to take up, as an element it is a gas making up approximately 80% of the air we breathe but in that form is of no use to plants. The important exception to this last point is the legume crops which have evolved a way around this.


These are chemicals plants use to grow and are often divided into macronutrients and trace elements. These terms are in themselves are of limited use as if the plant needs the chemical to grow, in however small a quality, its absence is going to cause problems. In practice the main ones are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium(K), Calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S). Of these the most important are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and they are the NPK referred to on packets of fertilizer.

Feed for health

As I have said before, the vast majority of domestic lawn problems come down to its feeding. That is not to say you can’t over feed a lawn, most people will have seen a lawn scorch where a heap of fertilizer has been left on it killing it. I also remember reading a report many years ago that some golf greens had been fed so heavily that the soil they were growing in could have legally been sold as fertilizer! So what to do? Clearly feed the lawn. Yes, I know it will make the lawn grow more and it will need cutting more – you will still only get round to cutting it at the weekend anyway.

If you read gardening books they will tell you about feeding a lawn in the spring and autumn, with more nitrogen in the spring to encourage lush growth and less nitrogen in the autumn to encourage less lush growth. There is though a problem with this, we know nitrogen is one of the most important plant nutrients but, there is always a ‘but’, nitrogen is not held in the soil and we don’t actually have any usable method of measuring the nitrogen that is in the soil. The latter we can nothing about the former we can. If the nitrogen is going to be leached out of the soil quite quickly, and the interaction between nitrogen and the remainder soil constituents is a very complex one, clearly the answer is to feed the lawn a little and often.

How often? About every 6 weeks during the growing season is probable about right. As to what to use, well a professional groundsman will use a specialist turf fertilizer but in practice: one you are not going to have access to these and two: unless you are looking after something like a golf course it will make no practical difference. In reality any general garden fertilizer will do the job, the fact the lawn is being feed and feed regularly is far more important. This way the grass is going to be well feed and able to outcompete weeds and diseases. Thus you will be well over half way to a good lawn capable of putting up with the use and abuse garden lawns live with. That is not to say it will not need occasional treatments but these should be the exception rather than the rule.

Keeping a lawn healthy

Ideally a lawn should be cut three times a week and the height should be reduced by no more than a third at any one time. In practice the first is never going to happen in a private garden, but the later is a good rule of thumb. The grass cuttings, unless you are using a mulching mower, should be removed and the most practical method of disposing of them is to use your councils recycling facilities. Making compost from them may seem a good idea but, unless they are mixed with a lot of other compostable material, grass cutting will not make compost – just vile smelling goo! In the past it has been recommended that you use the grass cuttings as a mulch around plants. In small quantities this can work but is unsightly and if too much is heaped up around plant stems it can lead to the stems rotting and the plant being killed.

Weed or feed

As you keep cutting the grass and then removing the grass cuttings you are removing the nutrients (plant food) that the plants have taken up from the soil to grow. This means you are slowly starving your lawn and if you starve something – be it a lawn or a person – it will succumb to things like illness and disease. Most domestic lawn problems come down to nutrition. Gardeners will complain that their lawns are sickly and full of weeds but when you suggest they feed it; they throw their hands up in horror and complain that that will just make it grow more. Now decide, are you going to have a lawn or just do the decent thing and give it a quick death at the hands of some weed killer. Either way you shouldn’t be torturing it! If the grass is going to out grow the weeds and fight off the diseases it needs to be properly fed, I’ve never heard a doctor say the best cure for that cold is starving you!

Most garden centres, and the like, are full of packets of lawn food; nearly everyone combined with a selective weed killer. Invariably every last one saying it will convert that sad collection of grass and weeds to something fit to grace centre court. The truth is that the groundsmen responsible for areas of fine grass like that don’t use combined fertilizers and weedkillers. They use fertilizer and very occasionally separate selective weed killers. This is partly because of cost, why pay for weedkiller that you don’t need.  There is though another problem with selective weedkillers; they are not that selective. They are weedkillers – they kill plants – its just that grasses are less susceptible to them than the broad leaved weeds. There is no chemical to treat grass weeds in a lawn and they do occur.

Selective weedkillers work by being applied at just the correct rate, too much and you kill your lawn, too little and you achieve nothing. So why do the manufactures sell “weed and feed” to the home gardener? Partly is because by adding the weedkiller they can add value to the product and so hope to improve their return. But the manufactures should not take all the blame because gardeners see weeds and assume the thing they should do is use a weedkiller to get rid of them, and a combined weedkiller and fertilizer seems a logical thing solution. Now this is not to say selective weed killers do not have their place, they definitely do, but prevention is always better than cure.


Trace elements

This is rather a catch all term for a very large group of chemical elements which plants need, but in very small amounts. It is very rare that adequate amounts of them are not naturally present in the soil.

Crataegus monogyna

Crataegus monogyna
Crataegus monogyna – Hawthorn hedging

The common hedgerow plant Hawthorn is a familiar sight all over the UK and gets it name from it’s fruit which have the common name Haws and is sharp thorns. Also known as May or Mayflower due to its flowering time, it also goes by the common Quickthorn and Maythorn. Correctly known as Crataegus monogyna Jacq. It was placed in the genus Crataegus, created by Linneus, by Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin (1727–1817) and first published in his 1775 flora of Austria.

Crataegus monogyna flowers
Crataegus monogyna flower

Its fragrant white flowers are one of the heralds of spring; their being borne with the leaves makes it easy to distinguish at a distance from Blackthorn, Prunus spinosus, as that flowers earlier and before its leaves have opened. Its reliable stocky growth and mass of intertwining braches covered in sharp thorns has made it the commonest hedging plant in the countryside. Historically it was laid to form hedges where its upright branches were cut nearly through, bent over and interwoven but these labour intensive skills are now little seen and it is cut with a variety of mechanical methods, all of which it happily tolerates. It is in fact very tolerant of being cut, and if can be cut flush with the ground it will still re-grow.

Crataegus monogyna leaves
Crataegus monogyna leaves

Its widespread occurrence can lead to related plants being misnamed C. monogyna and in fact globally Crataegus L. is a very large genus containing its being estimated something like 200 species. In practice the most likely plant to be confused with C. monogyna is Crataegus laevigata (Poiret) DC., known as the Midland Hawthorn or Two-styled Hawthorn, and the red flowered form Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ is widely planted. Its main difference is that the leaves are not as deeply lobed as C. Monogyna but if you careful examine the flowers you will also see that C. monogyna generally has only one female style where as C. laevigata generally has two; hence the repective names monogyna and two-styled. In most garden settings it’s probably safe to assume if it’s a white flowered hawthorn its C. monogyna and if red then Crataegus laevigata‘Paul’s Scarlet’

Crataegus laevigata 'Paul's-Scarlet' flowers
Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s-Scarlet’ flowers




This is classification of plants below the level of species which share common characteristics but would freely interbreed with other varieties of the same species if the opportunity arose. For this reason different varieties are often separated geographically. When writing the name of a plant the variety name is written in italics or underlined, is immediately preceded by var. in normal type and this follows the species name. There tends to be a lot of confusion between variety and cultivar but the former only relates to plants which originate in the wild and the latter to plants which originate in cultivation.


This is a plant which has been selected in cultivation because of specific characteristics it shows which separate it from its wild origins and other cultivars. The rules regarding what is a cultivar, how it is named and how the word is used are laid down in the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. Only plants which are not found in the wild can be called cultivars and to show that they are the cultivar name is written in normal upright letters and enclosed in single quotation marks.

Taking over an established garden – where to begin

Most people when they buy a new house find they are taking over an existing garden and this will present certain challenges; you have after all bought their house not their tastes. It is therefore inevitable not everything in the garden you are going to like and/or want. It is reasonable to assume on first moving in that the garden will not be your most pressing concern, so we need to start by prioritising. The first thing to consider is what is the time of year, mid-winter little is happening in the garden but in the height of summer any lawn will beg rowing fast so you are going to need to cut it once a week and if there is a pond it needs to be kept topped up and any filter maintained. The rest of the garden should survive alright with the exception of any plants in a greenhouse. If its summer and you’re pushed for time the easiest thing to do is to take them out of the greenhouse, up them with any other plants in pots and keep them watered.

The next stage is to have a really good look around your new garden; you should have plenty of opportunities to do this while escaping the paint fumes. What do you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so its best to get it done as seen as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quiet a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quiet nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sellable at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.