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.

Acer palmatum var. dissectum

Acer palmatum var. dissectum
Acer palmatum var. dissectum

Acer palmatum var. dissectumis a much used garden plant where something striking but delicate is wanted. Much loved in “Japanese” style gardens where it mixes well with gravel and boulders, a position which allows it to be ground in isolation so as to show off its dome of draping branches.  They are slow growing bushes slowly forming a small shrub after many years.

Acer palmatum var. dissectum foliage
Acer palmatum var. dissectum foliage

Not fussy plants they will grow in most decent garden soil though they do best in moist but free draining soils. The finely divided, thin leaves are prone to damage by wind and sun so they are best in a sheltered part of the garden with light shade, but not heavy or dry shade.

Known as the Cut Leaf Japanese Maple due to A. palmatum being known as the Japanese Maple as it comes from Japan, central China and Korea and its leaves being finely divided. The naming of Acer dissectum is confused, a situation caused at least in part by confusion between botanical names and those of cultivated plants. It is often named as Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’ but that would only be if the plant did not exist naturally in the wild, as that form of name is only used for a cultivar. Things are further complicated by the many cultivars of Acer palmatum var. dissectum which have been raised and are available, Acer palmatum var. dissectum‘Garnet’ being a particularly nice example with red tinged foliage (this being an example of a cultivar of a variety).

Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Garnet'
Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Garnet’
Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Garnett' foliage
Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Garnett’ foliage

Cutting your new lawn

Now you have got the garden down to grass you have time to get on with the other pressing jobs about the house while you think about what you are going to do with the garden. Obviously the new lawn will need some attention during the summer and not just cutting it – but we will look at that first. When you walk into the shop you will be presented with a bewildering array of options but they can be split up into a few simple choices. How do they cut the grass and how are they powered. There are several mechanisms which can cut the grass but here we only need to consider two types.

Cylinder mowers

These are the more expensive type and cut the grass by a rotating cylinder of blades over a fixed bottom blade, so they cut like a pair of scissors. The blades fixed around the cylinder form one of

Lawn mower cylinder
Lawn mower cylinder

the scissor blades and a fixed flat blade at the bottom forms the other half. The blades have to be kept adjusted so they just pass one another. Because the cylinder is horizontal the motor has to be mounted behind it needing a system of belts or gears to transfer the power between them; adding to the cost. Normally the mowers have a pair of rollers, front and back, to support it and the height of the cut is normally by adjusting the front roller. Cylinder mowers are more expensive to buy and maintain but give a better finish (the more blades on the cylinder the finer the cut – not the faster the cylinder turns) and last longer.

Rotary mowers

These cut by spinning a horizontal blade parallel to the lawn and the motor is mounted straight on top of the blade, with it just bolted onto the end of the drive shaft. This makes them cheaper to build but because the motor is running at full speed, to give the blade the speed to cut the grass, they tend to have a shorter live. Also because they basically knock the top of the grass off they do not give as good a finish as a cylinder mower. They are supported by either wheels, wheels and a roller, or air. Ones supported by air have a fixed cutting height while the others’ cutting height is adjusted by the wheels and/or rollers. The blades of the mowers are shaped either to blow air down to provide a cushion of air if this supports the mower or suck the air up to blow the grass cutting into a collection bag. Rotary mowers never pick up the grass cuttings as well as a cylinder mower, and are very prone to clogging if the grass is wet. Some mowers, called mulching mowers, are designed to chop the grass finely and return it into the lawn. These can work very well and save the work of disposing of the grass cuttings but only work if a little grass is being removed at a time, otherwise there is too much grass cuttings to be lost back into the lawn.

Petrol mowers

Both types of mower can be powered by petrol engines and these have the advantage that you don’t have the problem of trailing leads or recharging batteries. They do have a lot more moving parts, so the chance of them breaking down is greater, and they are more expensive to buy and maintain.

Eletric mowers

Again both types of mower can be powered by electric motors and these can be either battery of mains. With mains electricity you have the problem of extension leads trailing across the lawn as you cut it and the power loss with long cable runs which makes using them a long way from the house power supply impractical. Batteries on the other hand will only run so long until they need recharging which can take a long time and rechargeable batteries only have a limited life before they will no longer hold their charge.


This is a water based solution which has a Ph above 7. Most alkaline soils (also called basic soils) lie in the range 7 to 9.


This is a water based solution which has a pH below 7. Most acid soil lie in the range of 7 to 5 though some peat soils may be lower.

Turfing a lawn

It’s often said that you don’t need to prepare the ground for turfing as well as if it is to be sow. I don’t believe this is the case as in both cases the better the area is prepared the smoother the finished lawn will be. Again the surface needs to be cultivated, raked and compacted as for a seeded lawn. Fertilizer should also be applied and raked in the same. The difference comes from then on.

The first big difference is if the weather turns bad grass seed will happily stay in the bag in a cool dry place until the weather improves. Turf will not. In summer turf needs to be laid they day it is delivered. The best policy is then to prepare your ground for the turf so ounce it is delivered you are ready to lay it straight away. Measure you area in square metres and decide if you are going to be able to lay it all in one go. Bear in mind a roll of turf is sold in rolls weighing about 20 to 30 Kg. That in itself may not seem that much but remember each roll has to be picked up, carried to where it is to be laid, positioned and unrolled. Be realistic about how much you or you and your helpers can do. Also if the area to be the lawn is very irregular it may not be possible to accurately work out the area. Turf suppliers do not take back turf once sold. It may well be best to order part of what you need, say half or two third, lay that and then order the remainder.

Now comes the job of sourcing your turf; there are two types available meadow turf and seeded turf. Meadow turf is a farmer’s field someone has stripped the turf off and the grass is therefore very suitable for grazing cows and sheep on. If you are planning to keep a sheep, and I can’t imagine why, meadow turf could be suitable but for a garden lawn it is a waste of money. Avoid it! Seeded turf is grass that has been sown using a good quality lawn seed mixture solely for the purpose of producing turf. This is what you want and there are many turf growers spread across the country. Go and have a look at what’s available, any reputable grower is only too keen to show you the turf they produce. It should be a rich green, the turfs a uniform thickness, width and length, and the turfs should hold together well. In the field it should look just like a really good garden lawn.

Laying the turfs


Once delivered you want to get straight on with the job; so it is best to get prepared before its delivered. You will need plenty of timber boards to work from as you lay the turf, enough to reach the full width of the area to be turfed plus sufficient extra to stretch from the nearest hard surface to the furthest part to be turfed. The other things will be stout gloves for everyone, a wheel barrow or two if you are moving the turfs any distance and a good sprinkler and hose – the last being essential.

Start nearest to where the turf is and unroll the turf in a straight line across the width of the site. At the end of the first roll butt the end of the next turf up to it and unroll that. Carry on like that until you have a row across the lawn. Now place timber boards onto this row of turfs and start the next row butting the turfs close together but start about half a roll in. This way you will stagger the joints between the ends of the turfs. Carry on across the area to be turfed in this manner keeping the turfs butted close together. Keep working off the boards at all times or you will sink into the newly laid lawn. If the edge of the lawn is not retained by paving or fencing finish the edge by running a row of turfs along the edge to form it. Avoid any short pieces of turf at the edge. Any gaps can be either filled in as you go or near the end, it’s a mater of personal preference. The best way I’ve found to cut them is with a strong replaceable blade craft knife, at least that way the fact it ruins the blade doesn’t matter.  Knee pads are also very useful, the more padded the better, but either way by the end of the day your knees are still going to ache, along with your back.

Once you have finished for the day you must water the turf really well. Set your sprinkler up and leave it on until the water has soaked through the turfs and saturated the soil underneath. This can be easily checked by lifting up a corner of a turf. DO NOT stand on the lawn once soaked; you will sink straight in spoiling the lawn. Keep the lawn really well watered until its established. This is easy to gauge by lifting up a corner, at first you will see the fine new roots growing on the underside of the turfs and then you will just not be able to lift up the turf from the soil. At that point it is established and can be treated as an ordinary lawn. You must not let the turf dry out. If it does it will shrink and no amount of watering will reverse that, you will be left with a lawn which is a mass gaps along the edges of the turfs.

The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Ivies by Peter Q. Rose

Anyone who dismisses ivies as just green climbers should take the time to look through this book by Peter Rose. The current 1996 edition is still in print and regarded as a standard work on the subject of garden Ivies. Peter Rose (1916 – 1997) gained a National Diploma in Horticulture at Wisley before working as a commercial nurseryman before joining the Ministry of Agriculture as a Plant Health Inspector. He developed a special interest in ivies and wrote extensively on the subject, developing an international reputation for his knowledge.

The book is a development for one of his earlier ones, simply titled “Ivies” and published in 1980. Peter was a horticulturalist not botanist and his book is very much written from that prospective. The first four chapters cover the background to ivies, including their history, uses, biology and naming; but in a manner that non botanist will find very accessible. The fifth chapter takes up about 60% of the book and is an A to Z of the different ivies. Over 285 different ivies are described in detail with notes on their habit, appearance and history with extensive use of colour photographs. The final two chapters deal with the use and cultivation of ivies in the garden.

Being 16 years old will hamper the book a little, as some of the botany has moved on, but the book was so well researched and written in the first place it is still very relevant today. It has the added advantage that ivies are a sadly over look group of plants – often relegated to quickly covering an eyesore – so they have not seen the influx of new varieties a “fashionable” plant does.

Sowing a lawn

Measure the area to be made into a lawn, BEFORE you set off and read my post “The great grass seed swindle!” I won’t repeat myself here but I would rate knowledgeable sales staff as being way more important than the prettiness of the packaging the seed comes in. One containing a rye grass cultivar is most suitable for a garden lawn and a breakdown of the different grasses in the mixture should always be provided. The fact the names mean nothing to you isn’t as important as it may seem. What matters is someone has taken the trouble to choose the cultivars they feel are suitable for the job and not just thrown in the cheapest they could find. The latter is sadly far too common.

In addition to the grass seed you are going to want some fertilizer. The cost is quite small but the benefit in improved establishment is well worth the cost. You can get specific pre-seeding fertilizers for this job but they are not widely available and ordinary general fertilizer will do just as good a job. The name on the packet is unimportant and most will list on the packet a recommended rate for applying when sowing a lawn, if not use the rate for general use. To give you a guide weigh out enough for one square metre, spread that over a square metre and use that as a visual guide. The evenness is not as important as for the grass seed and the fertilizer should be raked into the surface before the grass seed is sown.

Grass seed is typically sown at 50 grams per square metre, though the rate varies so check with supplier. To get an even cover of grass you need to sow the seed evenly. To gauge this get four canes, one to one and half metres long, and set them on the ground to form a square with sides one metre in length. Now spread over this half the quantity you are going to sow per square metre as evenly as you can. This should give you a good idea what the correct sowing rate should look like and aim to reproduce this pattern over the remainder of the lawn. This should use half your grass seed. Now repeat the process with the other half. Sowing the grass seed half at the time will help even out any unevenness in the sowing.

Sowing the grass

All you need now is warmth (which is out of your control), moisture (which is) and patience. If no rain falls after the grass is sown, these things can be hard to control; you will need to water the seeds. This, in addition to providing the seeds with the moisture they need, helps to firm the seeds onto the soil. When watering the seed use a sprinkler on a hose pipe, if you don’t have an outside tap get one, and make sure you put plenty of water on. Try to get a sprinkler which will cover all the lawn if possible, at least the biggest you can, that way you can set it up and leave it in place; so avoiding walking on the newly sown and picking the seed up on your shoes. Put on enough water to soak the soil without washing the seeds about and top up the moister with more water as you need to.

Once the grass seed germinate and you start to see the thin green shoots watch for the grass reaching about 25 mm high. The grass will benefit from being lightly rolled to make it branch out and thicken. The water filled roller you may have used when you prepared the seed bed BUT WITHOUT the water in it will be fine. Do you remember I said there was only two occasions you roll a lawn? Well this is the second one. Now get rid of it.

The final state is when the grass reaches about 50 mm high. Get the lawn mower out and cut the top third off. NO MORE. You now have a 35 mm high established lawn. From now on you can keep reducing the cutting high to the level you want, but remove no more than a third of the height at any one go. The final height will depend on personal preference but the smoother the surface you managed to create before sowing and the finer the mixture of grasses you sowed the low you will be able to cut the grass.

One final word on weeds, it is quite possible that a lot of weeds will germinate along with the grass seed. Don’t panic. The majority of the weeds will be annuals which will die out because they can not survive being cut and/or because they never get the chance to flower and so die out that way. Some will be perennials but very few of these can survive being kept cut down to below 50 mm. Either way, very nearly all the weeds will die out anyway just leaving the few normal lawn weeds which you are going to get anyway and can be treated next year if they are a problem. Why you ask, did we start off by killing the weeds in the first place? The reasons are:

  • It would be very difficult to cultivate the soil if it’s bound together by weed root.
  • If you chop up and mix in lots of vegetation with the soil that makes the seed bed very spongy mixture which will not compact to form a stable seed bed.
  • The grass seed will not survive the competition from the established weeds.
  • You kill off as many off the weeds which could survive in a lawn before you start so you are starting with a weed free lawn.



In simple terms this is how acid or alkaline something is – only a water based solution can have a pH. A pH of 7 is neutral, below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline. The only way to know the pH of a soil is to measure it, either by adding it to a solution which changes colour according to the pH or using a pH meter. Both have there draw backs, with the solution it can be hard to check the colour as the soil discolours the liquid while on the other hand pH meters; if they are to be reliable they are expensive and need constant recalibration with a buffer solution. I’m very dubious about how reliable the ph meters for the domestic market are and I would say for your own garden the kits of indicator solutions are probably better.


Don’t get too hung up on the absolute accuracy of individual test as the pH of soil is vary variable and you may well find slightly different readings in different parts of your garden The advent of pH metes has lead to people publishing the recommended  for plants down to a tenth. I don’t really see this has any practical value.