Sitting out in the garden

Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens
Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens

One of the most popular pastimes in gardens is sitting out enjoying any warm weather the British climate affords us. At its simplest this could be just relaxing on a lawn, but soon you will be looking for something a little more comfortable. With this comes the decision – where to put the seat. A light wooden bench can simply be stood on the lawn and moved around as needed. This has the advantage that when it comes to cutting the grass it’s a relatively simple task just to move the bench to one side out of the way.  More substantial seating, or when you want to make a feature of the seat, a permanent base is needed to stand the seat on.

The first consideration when deciding where to put your seat is what is you going to use it for? Are you looking for a shady place to read a book, some where to sunbath or a dinning area? By now you should be getting to know your garden and the shade changes during the day and the year. Take a chair into the garden – any one will do – and try sitting in some likely spots. The world looks different when you drop your line of sight by 2 feet. Does it still feel like a good place to sit? Are you over looked (or overlooking)? Can you till see the view you were hoping to admire? Lots of questions I know but it’s easy to modify your ideas at this stage.

Once a suitable place has been found; the next things to consider are what style of seat and what you are you going to stand it on. The actual choice of style is largely a personal choice and most styles can look perfectly good in most settings; either by complementing or contrasting with its surroundings.  The range of different seats is vast but a few pointers are worth considering.

Garden bench built from railway sleepers
Garden bench built from railway sleepers
  • You get what you pay for. The better made the seat the more expensive it is going to be.
  • Hardwood is more durable but of course costs more.
  • Both wood and metal seats both need regular painting to maintain them.
  • Seats don’t have to be bought. Some very effective seats are homemade.
  • Garden seats can soon become hard and uncomfortable so do you need cushions?
  • Single seats never look very inviting in the garden; so generally stick to benches or use groups of two or more single seats.
  • A garden seat does can be made from all sorts of different materials.
  • A seat doesn’t need to be a conventional chair or bench – be imaginative!

    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens
    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens

When it comes to what you stand the seat on the choice is simpler. You can stand it one the soil or lawn; but the legs will tend to sink into the ground, and not evenly, so you will have to keep repositioning it. Also constant contact with the damp soil is likely to encourage rotting or rusting of the base of the legs. Bark has similar problems unless it is laid over a firm base, if just a porous membrane is laid under the bark the seat legs will tend to puncture it. Gravel has similar problems to bark and it also needs an edging to stop the gravel spreading about. That aside both can make a good base for a seat that is not being moved around as it is in use. The last choice is paving in its various forms and this is the most expensive. If the seating is going to be around a table, with chairs moving about as people sit and get up from the table, then a smooth solid surface is the only practical choice.

What to put in the garden

By now we’ve got the garden under control and we can take time to consider what we are going to do with it in the longer term. I can’t give a list of what to put in as every garden is different as are its owner’s needs.  What actually goes into the garden is going to be determined by the garden and the use you are going to put it to. It is inevitable some compromises will have to be made; so it’s worth considering who is going to use the garden and for what. Once you feel clear about this, comes the problem of fitting it into the space you have available. Only a very luck few space for all the demands that we will place on a garden. In addition to the size your ideas have to allow for nature of the garden and how your needs are going to change with time. Most commonly people remain in the same house 10 to 20 years and a lot can change in that time.

The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden
The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden

To start off make two lists, one of the characteristics of your garden and the second of what you what to be able to do in your garden, both now and in the future. In the first list you need things such as its rough size, its shape *, whether it faces north, south east or west**, is it fairly level or does it slope, is it shaded by buildings and trees, which parts get the sun and when***, is it sheltered, where are the inspection chamber/manhole covers, where are any existing things you want to keep, What is the soil like, …

The second list needs to contain things such as do you intend to eat out in the garden****, what a pond or other waterfeature, are you going to put play equipment in the garden now or in the future, are you going to need a washing line or rotary dryer, are you planning to grow your own fruit and vegetables, what areas are you going to need access to, what car parking/additional car parking do you need now or in the future, do you need a clear area of lawn to kick a ball about on, do you want to grow a particular type of plant,…

Notes:

* Most people assume their gardens are rectangular, but in practice they never are and in practice are generally along way from being a rectangular.

** In the UK satellite television dishes point roughly due south.

*** In the summer the sun is much higher in the sky, but never directly over head, so things like buildings and trees will cast much less shade.

**** As a general rule, ideally, you need a paved area at least 4 metres by 5 metres for a modest garden table and chairs.

Tiding up to see what you’ve achieved.

Once the overgrown trees and shrubs have been cut back a lot of rubbish will be left; which we need to do something with. Its only once you’ve tidy up your hard work can you really get an idea of what you have achieved and the sense of space you will have created. There a several ways of dealing with green waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it, grind it up or make it into compost. All these have their advantages and disadvantages and in practice most cases will need a combination of some or all of these.

 

Large Yellow Skip
Large Yellow Skip

The easiest solution with small quantities is to cut it into manageable sized pieces and take it to the local tip in the car. If there’s a lot, and when cutting back its surprising how much rubbish you will create, a skip might be a better solution. The green waste you produce will be very bulky so you will probably need a large skip and over sized skips are sometimes available for this very reason. You will need to explain you are only putting green waste in, and make sure that is all you do put in, as then you should get a better price. It may seem a waste just to throw it away but these days garden waste doesn’t just get buried in the ground. Its ground and shredded up, and made into compost for reuse. The advantage is that it’s done on a big scale so the machines doing the shredding and grinding will happily swallow things like tree stumps which are very hard to recycle any other way. Also as the material is coming in from a wide range of sources so the compost doesn’t get overwhelmed by one type of material, an important consideration when making compost. Finally the process of making the compost is a commercial operation so it is carefully managed to make a usable and therefore re-sellable product. The main disadvantage is that if you what to benefit from this compost you have to pay to buy it, so you can end up paying twice; once to get rid of it and once to get it back.

Log car
Log car

That considered you may well feel you would rather recycle the rubbish yourself and this has its advantages. You are not paying someone to do the work and you can be more flexible in the way you use the material. This is though going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, the results can far outweigh these. First off have a really good look at what you have and start planning how you could make use of it. There is no point in chopping everything up and then finding you could do with some big pieces of wood for something. This may well mean you have to adapt your plans; but this often turns out for the better.

A simple use of small branches is as an edging for informal parts of the garden and these can be built up to form low retaining walls and steps if needed. If you only have a small amount the branches can be cut into equal lengths, say 600mm long, and heaped up to provide valuable shelter for wild life and most importantly the things they feed on. Thin pieces of stick can make simple summer plant supports amongst hardy perennials and in the vegetable garden. Traditionally garden peas were supported by “pea sticks” which they could climb up to keep the plants off the ground. If you are in the fortunate position of having more substantial pieces of tree trunk; these can make very impressive garden seats. Alternatively they can be made in simple but very effective pieces of play equipment.

Log car
Log car

 

Cutting back – the call to arms

Pruning is cutting back for the plants benefit while cutting back is pruning for the gardeners benefit so certain rules apply to both. First remove dead and diseased material, second remove crossing branches and finally shape the plant.

Any dead or diseased parts of the plant are going to be no benefit to you or the plant. Yes that branch may be in just the right place for what you wanted but if it not healthy it’s never going to look right and will end up causing problems further along the line so cut it back to healthy growth just above a bud or close to where it branched off a larger part. If it’s a larger branch do it in three stages to prevent it damaging the rest of the plant when it breaks away from the plant. Work methodically, starting with the larger branches so that any damage caused by removing them can be cleared up as you go.

How to cut off a large branch
How to cut off a large branch

Once we’re left with a collection of healthy branches we can turn our attention to any which are crossing through the bush. This is not a hard and fast rule as the first but  there are reasons for it. First such branches almost always end up rubbing against one another as the plant moves in the wind. This causes the bark to be worn away at these points and it is the bark which acts as the plant’s main defence against diseases getting in. This means that sooner or later these places will be where problems are going to occur. The second reason is that plant diseases tend to benefit from a still moist atmosphere and this is more likely to occur in a tangle of branches than a nice open structure which the air can move  through freely. Finally it tends to be more visually pleasing not to have a lot of branches crossing through.

Now we can come to shaping the plant and this is much more a matter of personal taste. There are though a few things to consider. If by nature it’s a big plant and you are going to cut it down a long way , then it will quickly re-grow and you will soon need to repeat the process. Should you allow it more room or is it simply not in a suitable place? If you are trying to lower the height of the plant, remove the tallest branches completely low down where they divide and allow the shorter branches which are left to form the new top. Nothing looks worse than just choosing a height and cutting everything off in a level line at this height, but you regularly see this done and often by people claiming to be professional. Once done the plant is very unlikely ever to recover aesthetically.

The important thing is to take your time and regularly step back to get an overall view of the job as you go. Whatever plan you start with you will have to fine tune it as you go as the job progresses and new ideas occur.

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.

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.