How to create a low maintenance garden

Over many years of designing and creating gardens the most frequent request I have received is for a “low maintenance” garden. I have never been asked for a high maintenance one! This is usually followed something along the lines of “so we want most of it just lawn”. The real problem is that people muddle up low maintenance with simple maintenance. Low maintenance is about limiting the time and effort need to keep the garden looking good where as simple maintenance is all about following a mower around and avoiding those strange things in the borders with long funny names! The thing is low maintenance isn’t difficult and just needs a little thought and a lot less back ache.

What needs the most work!

Of all the aspects of a garden the traditional lawn is the most demanding in time and effort, nothing else requires this much the weekly attention all summer. A good contender for this top spot is also the vegetable garden but the people who put this much effort in to growing vegetables do so because they want to and aren’t looking for a low maintenance solution, otherwise they would not do it. The next suspect is annual bedding but this has largely fallen out of fashion at least in part because of the time and cost involved. Now annual bedded is really seen well done outside of municipal planting where it’s in often very well done. In private gardens, sadly, normally annual bedding mean a few lonely alyssum and aubrietia dotted sparsely along the edge of borders. The final culprit is bare soil; they say nature abhors a vacuum and gardens are no exception to this.

What needs less work

First off all gardens need some looking after, the trick is to balance what you want, what you have the time and resources for and what you need. At some point you will have to compromise as with all things in life. Obviously paving requires very little looking after but a concrete yard is going to look rather boring, so the temptation is going to add pots of plants but these need more caring for than plants in borders. Borders are often looked on as for more work than a lawn but for any given area they require far less time and effort than a lawn. I believe people are really just scared off because garden articles are full of all the things they say you need to do and knowing which plant to do what to. YOU CAN IGNORE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THIS IF YOU WISH, THE PLANTS WILL STILL GROW! Yes you might get less flowers or the foliage may not be as dramatic, but you will be a lot less intimidated by the idea of borders. Why then you ask do gardening books and magazine articles list all these things you are meant to do at specific times? Partly it’s because they are enthusiasts, often with a great deal of specialist knowledge, who want the plants at their very best. Another reason I fear is it’s about filling copy. If our expected to produce x number of words every day/week/month you are not going to last long if all you put is “Sit back and enjoy your garden”!


How to make a low maintenance garden


  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn
  2. Avoid bedding
  3. Use paving and gravel
  4. Start off without any perennial weeds
  5. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants
  6. Chose easy plants


  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn

In a small garden this is more practical than in a large one, also if you have children the practically of family life may mean this is not desirable. In a small garden that doesn’t have to double up as somewhere for the children to play then extending the borders and replacing the remaining lawn with paving, gravel and or bark is going to reduce the work needed. In larger gardens you are going to need to use grass as the alternatives are going to look very hard. Large area can be managed in easier ways though. Not all the grass needs to be cut short, cutting paths through the area and letting the rest grow long can look very effective. At some point the long grass is going to have to be cut but instead of cutting all the grass every week you just need a smaller mower to cut the paths each week and then hire in a bigger machine in autumn to cut it down and then a day disposing off the cut grass, which will be a lot less than the amount of grass you would have to dispose of if you were cutting it each week. If you hire in a 65 cm wide flail mower two of you should be able to do half an acre in a day.

  1. Avoid bedding

The problem with bedding is it needs replacing every year and leaves you with a bare area to do something with from autumn to spring. Also to be effective you need a lot which is a lot of work and expense. That said nothing gives such a rich display of flowers, even if it is rather out of fashion. If you do what a splash of summer colour use a few pots filled with plenty of plants so there is no room for weeds.

  1. Using paving and gravel

Though at first this may seem hard and drab there is a vast choice of materials which can be mixed to break up the appearance. The simplest way to break up a paved area is by mixing the sizes of paving used, for more contract a second type of paving can be added either a random blocks or in some form of pattern. Areas of gravel or chipping are cheaper and if there is only going to be people occasionally walking over the area the chippings can simply be laid over a porous membrane once the ground has been cleared of all the weeds and levelled. These area can be broken up with cobbles and boulders so long as they don’t get in the way of people walking across the area. Gravel has the added advantage that plants can be grown through it with the gravel or chippings forming a weed suppressing surface. Both paving and gravel can also be broken up with the odd container of plants. The trick being striking a balance between variety and messy; if in doubt less is better.

  1. Start off without any perennial weeds

You cannot stop the annual weed blowing into the garden but these are easily controlled; perennial weeds with an established root system are a lot harder, especially among garden plants. No matter how hard you try you will invariably leave a little bit of the roots left when you dig them up. This is sufficient for the plant to re-grow and soon the weed is back. Even if you cover them they will simply grow through or round the covering. The solution is to get rid of these before you start, a glyphosate based weedkiller is by far the most effective (make sure it isn’t a residual weedkiller). This way all you have to do is create conditions that are unsuitable for weed seeds to germinate. Four things are need for seeds to germinate and establish; light, moisture, air and a growing medium. Therefore shading by plants, a surface which dies out and the absence of something to grow in is going to inhibit any weeds becoming established.

  1. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants

Containers like plant pots will only support a plant for so long before it outgrows it and needs regular watering if the plant is not going to die from lack of water. This is true regardless of how big the container is. Planting them in borders is easier and watering, once they are established, is far less critical. The biggest mistake people make is to make the borders too small with the result that the plant quickly out grows the space it has. The plant then has to be replaced or continually cut back in an attempt to make it fit the space. This just makes more work.

  1. Chose easy plants

Most of the plants you find for sale in garden centres are there because they are easy and reliable. This does mean there is a tendency to see the same plants in every garden centre. Before you go out to buy your plants check a few basic things, how much space is available for the plant, how much light is it going to get and is the soil acidic ( if in doubt assume not) and bare these things in mind as you walk around the garden centre looking at the plants and reading there labels. If in doubt ask a member of staff. If the staff are no help walk out. Good nurseries and garden centres rely on employing staff that are enthusiastic about plants and they will be only too happy to spend a little time sharing their knowledge.

How to build a sleeper retaining wall

Retaining walls are never cheap or easy but building one from timber railway sleepers is probably as cheap and easy as you are likely to find. As the sleepers are simply screwed together their construction is well within the abilities of most people without any specialist building experience.New sleeper retaining wall



  • Spade
  • Sledge hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Pick axe
  • Shovel
  • Drill driver
  • 190mm circular saw
  • 200mm landscaping screws
  • Sub-base


    This is a layer of crushed stone used under paving to form, in effect, a stable foundation for it and is found between the bedding course and the subgrade. It is made of stone which has been crushed and sieved stone to end up with a mixture of sizes from  normally about 40 mm down to dust. The proportions of the different sizes should be such that the smaller stones bind the larger ones together to stop them moving and these are bound together by the smaller onesl. The source of the stone varies widely according to what is the cheapest local supply and includes limestone, dolomite, and waste concrete and waste tarmac. It goes by various names; dolly, dolomite, crusher run, type 1, MOT type 1, road plannings, 40mm down  and many others. Ministry of transport type 1 is a type of subbase produced to stringent standards which while making it perfectly suitable for garden use it is a degree of over engineering. There is also type 2 and when I asked a technician at a quarry the difference compared to type 1 he just said “very little”!

     Dolomite has the disadvantage that it becomes saturated with water when you attempt to compact it there is a tendency for it to turn to something resembling plasticine in texture, although it hardens on drying out and road planning tend to become greasy when wet. Only hard stone should be used as even the hardest sandstone, for example, will rapidly breakdown to sand in use. Once spread subbase should be compacted with either a vibrating roller or plate BUT do not attempt to compact more than a 150mm deep layer at any one time.

  • Spirit level
  • String line
  • Square
  • pencil

In Summary:

  1. Plan out your wall.
  2. Dig down to firm ground.
  3. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.
  4. Install a drain behind the wall.
  5. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.
  6. Screw the courses together.
  7. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.
  1. Plan out you wall.

When deciding on the line of you wall think carefully about the space you need, always allowing for the thickness of the wall. For example if it’s along the edge of a path how wide does the path need to be? Not just to walk down but will you need to take wheelbarrows and lawnmowers? Also do you need to consider drainage, if all you are creating is a level area of soil on free draining land this is not going to be much of a problem but if on the other hand you are paving the area the water needs somewhere to go. Lastly what happens at the ends of the wall? If the end of the wall is near a fence or wall you are going to have to support that and you may need specialist advice.

  1. Dig down to firm ground.

Once you have marked out the line of the wall you need to excavate the excess soil, keeping the topsoil separate. Moving even small qualities of soil is hard heavy work and you are at the very least going to have to spread the work out. If there is much to move there are a large range of excavators available for hire and some will go through a standard doorway. (While excavators can save a great deal of work without care they can also do a great deal of damage!)

Once the area is cleared you can prepare the foundation for the sleepers. Make sure you are down to good solid ground and you can simply build up from that.

  1. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.

First set up a string line along what will be the front edge of the bottom course of sleepers and lay sufficient subbase over the ground the sleepers are to be laid on to level them. Use no more subbase than is necessary, not thicker than 150mm, and lay the sleeper widest face down onto it. Bed the sleepers down onto the subbase with a sledge hammer to get them level. It is important to get the sleepers as level as possible as you will not be able to correct this later on. Make sure they are level not just along there length but also front to back or the wall will end up leaning either out or in.

  1. Install a drain behind the wall.

New sleeper retaining wall end viewThe new wall is going to block the natural drainage down the slope so level 50 mm wide gaps between the sleepers along the bottom course and put a length of perforated drainage pipe behind the sleepers and cover it with gravel to stop it blocking up with soil and roots. This should make sure any water behind the wall is collected up and can drain away.

  1. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.

Once the first course and drainage are in place you can lay the second course on top of it, but starting with a short length to ensure the joints are staggered. To cut a sleeper measure off the length needed and make around the sleeper using a set square and pencil. Then simply cut the sleeper from both sides using a circular saw with a cutting depth just over half the sleeper’s thickness. The sleepers can then be laid butted up end to end and screwed into place. Screw the two courses together.

  1. Screw the courses together.

New sleeper retaining wall screw detailUse landscape screws at least 50 mm longer than the thickness of the sleepers with at least two to ever sleeper. These are driven in with a drill/driver.


  1. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.

Keep adding courses as you did in parts 5 and 6 above until you reach the desired height making sure to stagger the joints between the sleepers.New sleeper retaining wall close up


This technique will work well for low walls around the garden, including raised beds, and with a little ingenuity you can also built steps in!New sleeper retaining wallside wall

How to tackle an over grown garden

The first stage is to have a really good look around your garden and decide what 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 it’s best to get it done as soon 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 quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite 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 sell-able 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.

How to tackle woody garden rubbish

After cutting back overgrown trees and shrubs you will find that you will be left with a surprisingly large amount of woody rubbish which you need to do something with. There a several ways of dealing with this waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it or grind it up to 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.

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 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 my 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, before being 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 resell-able 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. Smaller material can be shredded and added to the compost heap provided it is mixed with plenty of green waste. Larger material though is going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, but the results can be worth it. 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.

Tree Trunk Armchair
Tree Trunk Armchair

A simple use of small branches 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 600 mm 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.

How to clear the weeds from a bare piece of earth

If your find yourself faced with a piece if ground containing nothing but weeds the first thing you are going to have to do is to clear it. There are a number of ways to tackle this


problem all with their advantages and disadvantages.

    • Your first thought may well be to dig them out with a garden fork, and you set out into the garden, fork in hand, and a heart full of spirit. About 10 minutes later some of the shine is going to start coming off the idea! Digging a garden is slow hard work, you only have 24 hours in your day and a lot of things you need to do. If this, and the VERY painful back injury you will soon be suffering from is not sufficient the following may well be. If the weeds are established you will have things like dandelions and docks with long tap roots which break off when you try and dig them out leaving the end of the root to re-grow. In addition, you will have couch and nettles with spreading roots which snap off when you dig them out leaving little pieces which re-grow. A 1 cm piece of couch root will still survive and flourish if buried 40 cm deep. I could go on listing weeds which will fight back when you start to dig them out but I’m sure you will have got the idea now. Unless you are dealing with a very small area the odds are you are going to come off second best to the garden.


    • Cover it and hope the weed die from lack of light. If all you are dealing with are annual weeds and you have plenty of patience this will work but really this more a preventative measures than a cure. With perennial weeds the time taken to kill the weeds will in all probability be far longer than the covering with survive, any holes and gaps and the weeds will just grow out of them and flourish (as will also happen around the edges) and you have to factor in the cost of purchasing the covering and them disposing of it when you have finished.


    • Burning them off with a flame gun has largely fallen from popularity, largely I suspect as a result of the potential for a very large insurance claim! Flame guns only kill off anything above ground such as leaves and stems leaving any underground parts to re-grow the very next day. Their big claim always was that they killed any weed seed but this only holds true for any on the very surface as buried seeds will be protected. A word of warning  not only is there the very real danger of burning something that shouldn’t be (most importantly yourself!) but they are not always the easiest of things to get going and once lit take time to heat up to their operating temperature (I’m thinking particularly of the paraffin one.)


    • Reach for the sprayer. The garden centre and do-it-yourself stores contains a bewildering array of different garden chemical but in practice they are all just about a dozen different products presented in different ways. In fact the vast majority are based on one chemical, glyphosate. Why? Used correctly is safe, kills all different types of weeds including the roots and you can use the ground as soon as the weeds are dead. But; (and there is always a but) if you let the weedkiller fall onto any plants you what to keep it will kill them as well, so you need still weather. Also it takes time to act, so you need a period of dry weather so that it is not washed off before the plants take it in and then patience as it can take a couple of weeks for the weeds to die. Though it is a non-selective weedkiller (it kills all plants indiscriminately) it is more poisonous so some than others and things like nettle may take more than one treatment and large plants like brambles are best cut down and the once they start to regrow treat the young shoots.


How to plant a bare root tree

The important thing to realise is that you will kill a tree before you get it in the ground or after you’ve planted it, to actually kill a tree when planting it is very difficult.




  • Tree
  • Spade
  • Outdoor clothes
  • Tree stake
  • Tree tie
  • 25 mm nail or screw
  • Planting compost
  • Hammer or screwdriver
  • Large hammer (sledge hammer or fencing mallet)
  • Secateurs
  • Tape measure
  • Saw

In Summary


  1. Start with a good quality plant of an appropriate size.
  2. Protect it, especially the roots, from drying out and frost.
  3. Clear a 600 mm radius circle for the tree to be planted in.
  4. Dig a hole easily big enough to take the roots.
  5. Mix some compost into the soil you have dug out.
  6. Place the tree in the hole and position the stake so that it fits between the tree roots and is about 50 mm (2 inches) from the tree trunk.
  7. Remove the tree and carefully hammer the stake into the ground until it is really firm.
  8. Put the tree back in the hole and refill it with the soil you dug out.
  9. Attached the tree to the stake with a tree tie at about 300 mm (1 foot) above ground level and cut off the excess tree stake
  10. Water the tree with 2 or 3 buckets full of water.
  11. Keep the ground under the tree clear of all other plants and weeds for at least the next 12 months
  12. Water the tree as needed throughout the next summer.


  1. Start with a good quality plant of an appropriate size.

Assuming you’ve decided on the tree you’re going to have in the garden the first step is going out and buying it. Here the old adage applies “you get what you pay for”; pay a cheap price and you’ll get cheap/poor plant. So go to a good nursery with knowledgeable staff who’ll help you choose a tree suitable for you and your garden. You will find the trees will be available in a range of sizes organised into bands generally 20 cm or 25 cm wide. What often confuses people is that trees are sold by high only up to about 2 to 2.5 metres high and thereafter by the girth, which is the measurement around the trunk at 1 metre above the ground and the height is ignored. Containerised trees may also, or alternatively, be priced according to the size of the container.

In practice go for something about 1.8 to 2.0 metres high. This provides a good compromise between the smaller the plant the quicker it will establish and grow away, and something which looks “tree like” in size and shape. Don’t forget you’ll need a tree stake, tie and some planting compost.


  1. Protect it, especially the roots, from drying out and frost.

For most people getting the tree home will involve putting it in the family car. Make sure any exposed roots are cover with a plastic bag to stop them drying out and lay the tree through the car, being very careful to protect the bark from rubbing and crushing especially if it ends up hanging out of the back of the boot. DO NOT put it through the sunroof, no tree is going to be in a very good condition after been subjected to a 60 mph gale! Once home it’s quite possible you don’t have time to plant the tree straight away, not to worry, just put it out of the sun, safe from frost and with the roots protected from drying out. If there is no danger of frost it will be fine in overnight in a shady corner with its roots in the plastic bag. If there is a danger of frost put it in a frost-free shed or garage for the night; but nowhere to warm, you what it to stay dormant.


  1. Clear a 600 mm radius circle for the tree to be planted in.

As soon as you can you what to get the tree planted. Chose you place carefully Planting circleconsidering how the tree is going to grow over the coming years. There needs to be plenty of space for it not just now but in many years to come when it will be a lot bigger. Consider what is under the ground as well. Make sure you are not planting it on top of an old tree stump or buried concrete or hard-core pad. Check you a clear of drains, power, gas, and telephone or any other services; as well as being away from any foundations.

Once you are happy with the place; clear a 600 mm radius (2 feet) circle around where the tree is going to be planted to create a 1.2 metre (4 feet) diameter circle of bare ground. It is very surprising how much a tree will suffer if it has to compete with any other plants especially a lawn.


  1. Dig a hole easily big enough to take the roots.

Dig a nice big hole the tree’s roots will comfortably fit into without them touching the sides Planting pitof the hole. You may find it easier to put the soil you dig out onto a piece of old board or plastic. Take the tree roots out of their bag and check them for any damage. Any broken pieces cut off cleanly with a pair of secateurs and place the tree in the planting hole checking its deep enough so that the tree will be at the same depth as it was in the nursery.


  1. Mix some compost into the soil you have dug out.

Nearly every soil is improved by having some compost/organic matter added to it, REALLY any soil other than a peat one will be improved if you can mix some compost into it. The type of compost isn’t nearly as important and any of the bagged composts in garden centres and the like, as well as any well rotted garden compost or manure will be just as good. Mix sufficient in to make the soil break into crumbs easily and if it is very heavy some course grit, say about 3 mm in size will do, will help as well.


  1. Place the tree in the hole and position the stake so that it fits between the tree roots and is about 50 mm (2 inches) from the tree trunk.

Take the tree out of it packaging and place it in the hole you have dug. Now take your tree stake and position it between the tree roots and next to the tree’s trunk, BUT leaving enough space of the tree tie to fit between the tree and the stake. Tree ties vary but they all have a way of cushioning between the tree and the stake, generally a collar the tree tie passes through or some thread through themselves.


  1. Remove the tree and carefully hammer the stake into the ground until it is really firm.

Put the tree to one side, double check there is nothing buried below and drive the tree Tree stake in planting pitstake into the ground. Start the stake off by making a hole for the point so it stands upright, don’t be tempted to hold the post as someone tries to hammer it! Drive the post in, regularly checking its vertical, until the post is really firm. There are a number of ways to do this:

A post driver, this is a heavy metal cylinder with one end blanked off and handle on each side. They are used by placing them over the post (the difficult part as they are heavy) and lifting them up and slamming them down on the post.

A fencing mallet, these are either similar to a sledge hammer and are either wood or metal. It can be difficult to hit the post square with one and you will need to stand on something to be at the correct height so care has to be taken!

A sledge hammer, most people have one of these and the same applies to these as a fencing mallet but they have a greater tendency to split the sake.


  1. Put the tree back in the hole and refill it with the soil you dug out.

Place the tree back in the hole next to the tree and start back fill the hole. Shake the tree as you go to get the soil in among the roots and firm it well with your heel. The tree absorbs water and nutrients from the soil in contact with its roots so you want to end up with as much of the roots in direct contact with the soil as possible.


  1. Attached the tree to the stake with a tree tie at about 300 mm (1 foot) above ground level and cut off the excess tree stake

Once the soil is filled back up to the original level attach the tree to the stake with a tree Finished bare rooted treetie. Most tree ties consist of a length of plastic belt with a buckle at one end and a collar the tie passes through. Thread the belt through the collar, around the tree about 300 mm (1 foot) above the ground level[1] and back through the collar. Attach the end of the belt through the buckle and arrange it so the buckle is against stake and secure it there with a screw[2] through it into the stake to stop it sliding down. Once the tree tie is fitted saw the stake about 50 mm (2 inches) above the tree tie.


  1. Water the tree with 2 or 3 buckets full of water.

To finish water the tree well, the tree is unlikely to be taking up much water at this stage but it helps to further settle the soil in around the tree roots.


  1. Keep the ground under the tree clear of all other plants and weeds for at least the next 12 months.

As said above plants around the base of a new tree are a source of serious completion for water and nutrients so it is Important to keep the area originally cleared free of other plants until the tree is well established. Far more plants die as a result of being overwhelmed by completing weeds and plants than anything else.


  1. Water the tree as needed throughout the next summer.

The act of transplanting a tree results in it losing a lot of its root, particularly the very fine roots which actually take up the water and nutrients. Therefore it is important to keep watering the tree if there is any danger it might be getting short of water. When you do make sure your give it plenty of water, say 2 or 3 buckets full, or all you are doing is wetting the surface and none will get down to the roots.


[1] There is a surprising amount of disagreement over the height at which a tree should be staked but personally I feel staking low down is preferable as the only purpose of the stake should normally be to compensate for the factor that a transplanted tree’s root cannot at this stage anchor the tree and the swaying of the tree will encourage good trunk development. Many people would stake the tree higher up the trunk and if you would rather then please feel free to do so.

[2] In the past this was done with a short nail but as you hammer the nail in it tends to spring about so I now feel the wide spread use of battery drill drivers makes it much easier to use a small screw for the purpose.


How to make a new lawn

Once we have decided to create a lawn one important question has to be tackled – are you going to do it by sowing grass seed or by turfing and each has its pros and cons.Turfed-lawn


  • Cheaper
  • More tolerant of drying out
  • Needs better preparation
  • Can only be done when frost is not a danger
  • The mixture of grasses shown can be tailored according to the use
  • Once the ground is prepared the seed will be fine in the bag for months if the weather makes sowing undesirable
  • Borders have to be cut out after the lawn is established



  • More expensive
  • Must not be allowed to dry out until it is established
  • Quicker result
  • Water supply aside it can be done any time of year
  • Physically harder work
  • Less choice regarding the grasses chosen
  • Must be used as soon as it is delivered
  • Borders can be formed as the turf is laid


In short turfing will allow you to create a lawn any time of the year so long as you can work the soil but it must not be allowed to dry out until it is properly established and each roll of turf weighs about 15 to 20 kg so a small lawn will involve humping about several tonnes of turfs. Seeding is cheaper and you have more control over the types of grasses to end up with –something else I will have to come back to – but needs longer to make an established lawn.

Preparing the ground

Once you have decided to create the lawn the first thing to do is to clear the ground of any existing weeds. The new lawn will struggle if it has to compete against established weeds before it has had time to become established itself. If perennial weeds are present a total weedkiller based on glyphosate will need to be used. Care should be taken to follow the instructions very carefully, particularly regarding the chemical occidentally drifting onto plants you do not want to damage. Glyphosate weed killers take time to work; 10 to 14 days is perfectly normal. The first thing you may notice is the grasses start to turn faintly yellowy, but you have to look carefully. Watch out for any bits you’ve missed, it’s very easily done.

Once the weeds are well and truly dead, it’s time to prepare the ground. Start by clearing anything you can see on the surface such bits of rubble and woody stumps. You should now have a clear patch of soil with just the remains of some dead weeds ready to cultivate. Much is said in gardening books about digging, single digging, double digging, etc. Little of it covers the problem that is it is very hard work and very slow. I did once double dig a small area, as much as an experiment as anything else and I don’t recommend it one bit. To be realistic you are going to have to use a machine. At this point you have to consider how big a machine can you get in the garden, it’s no good hiring a 600 mm wide machine if it has to be taken through a 450 mm wide gate way, and how big a machine is it going to be practical to use in the space you’ve got.

You now have three options:

  • Buy a machine
  • Hire a machine
  • Get someone to do it for you

The problem with buying a machine is what you are going to do with it afterwards and a machine good enough for the job is going to be very expensive. Hiring a machine means you have to operate it yourself and you have to consider getting to and from the hire shop. Any good hire shop will provide you with good instructions on how to use the machine and for a charge will deliver and collect it but using one is still hard work and you have to consider is it for you. Finally you could pay someone to do it for you and I’m sure you will be able to find a selection of people in the local free papers able to provide the service but you have to accept the cost.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned what machine to use. In reality this is going to be a rotator cultivator, generally known as a Rotavator. (Rotavator is in fact a trade name of the Howard Rotavator Company but has undergone the same transition as Hoover; where a trade name becomes so synonymous with a product it becomes a generic term for it). Rotary cultivators come in two basic flavours: tine driven and rear tined.

Tine driven rotary cultivator
Tine driven rotary cultivator

The tine driven ones have a set of rotating tines set under a motor and controlled by a pair of handles. The main problems with these are they tend to be rather light weight and are more prone to running away. This is where the tines rather than dig in run along the ground dragging the operator behind them. The rear tined machines have a pair of wheels under the motor and a set of rotating tines behind them; with the operator standing behind the tines holding the handles. These are heavier duty machines and less prone, though not immune, to running away. Being bigger and more complex machines they are both more expensive and heavier to use.

Rear tined rotary cultivator
Rear tined rotary cultivator


Making a seed/turf bed

Having selected a suitable machine and made sure you are familiar with how to operate it; the time has come to get our hands dirty. Before you go diving in stop a moment and take time to create a plan of action. Your soil should be moist, too wet and you will destroy the delicate structure of the soil and end up with a paddy field that’s dries to a hard crust which will block the roots of the newly germinated seeds, too dry and you will reduce the soil structure to dust which once it gets wet will for the same root blocking crust. That said most soils are quite forgiving but if anything err on the dry side; soils dry on the surface are very rarely so a centimetre down as the dry surface slows the drying of the soil below. You will also find cultivating soil combined with a gentle breeze will very effectively dry a soil that on the wet side. Try to avoid rain as the combination of churning the soil together with rain quickly makes a gooey mess. Perhaps not so obvious the problem of frost; a light frost shouldn’t cause a problem and the action of cultivating is putting energy into the soil anyway but a hard frost will stop things completely. I’ve seen heavy duty cultivators bounce on frozen soil many times!

Before you start make one last check for anything the machine could hit, especially things like tree stumps. They are unlikely to damage the machine but if it hits one it will be thrown up in an uncontrolled and danger manner.

That really bring us to one of the problems of rotary cultivators; if you look at the rotating tines you will see that the front edge of the tines travel down onto the soil so as to push the machine out of the soil. This reluctance to dig in to the soil makes getting them to penetrate the soil often difficult and in hard conditions they want to run along the surface. I remember once being told by a manager at a hire shop how he had been sent to collect a machine from a building site as the hirers had decided it was not suitable. On arriving he started looking around for the machine and found a fence panel with the outline of the machine punched through it. All that was missing was the outline of the operator running after it! This problem of running away is greatest the lighter in weight the machine, the tine driven ones being the worst by far but it can afflict all of this type of machine.

Try to work in a methodical fashion so that you cover all of the area but with the minimal of wasted time and effort. If you find the machine is struggling to break the soil up don’t try to fight it but just go over it a second or third time. Once finished you should have an area of loose fine soil which rakes over easily.

Levelling the ground

Use a rake with solid metal tines and with it push the soil forward and backwards to level it out. The smoother you get the ground now; the smoother the lawn is going to be. As you go rake off any large stones, sticks or other rubbish and get rid of them.

Once satisfied with the surface it needs to be compacted either by rolling or your feet. DO NOT use a vibrating roller, or for that matter vibrating plate, this is soil not hard-core. You can hire rollers from the same hire shops as the cultivator and this is one of the only two times you need to roll a lawn. These rollers are generally filled with water to give them weight and after use emptied to make them easy to transport. For small areas your feet are best and this is done by what is called “toe and heel”. Put you weight on your heels and then shift it onto one heel. Shuffle the other foot forwards the length of your shoe and then shift your weight onto that heel. Now shuffle the other foot like wise. And repeat. You will look faintly ridiculous, but you will provide the neighbours with a little entertainment, and it is still the best way to prepare a lawn. Once you’ve gone over all the area it should be covered with footprints which you rake over (holding a rake as you go I find helps you keep you balance). If necessary you can repeat this if the surface is not sufficiently firm. If you walk on it you should see you footprints but you should not sink in.

 Sowing a lawn

Grass seedMeasure 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. Don’t be tempted to increase the the amount of grass seed beyond what is recommended. It’s very tempting to think more grass seed will mean a thicker covering of grass quicker but in practice you are likely to end up with the fungal disease damping off.

Establishing 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 cannot 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.

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 sown. 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 your 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 it’s 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 matter 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 it’s 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 of gaps along the edges of the turfs.

How to design a drive

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as it is intended. No matter how nice it may look, if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, for example: you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. To start with you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider how often individual vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you want to make into the drive.

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plan to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later. To help I’ve includes some dimensions that may be helpful at the end.

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has led to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off them. The amount of rainwater running off a car parking space in a front garden may not seem much but once this is multiplied up for a town, never mind a city, it amounts to a lot of additional water going into drains and ditches. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. What this boils down to is that any water that falls onto you drive you need to get rid of on your property and not down the drains. In many cases this can be as simple as providing adequate areas of borders for the water to soak into naturally, but where this is not an option either a permeable surface has to be used or the water has to be collected into drains and lead to a soak away where it can then seep away into the soil. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to your local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. Whatever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Drive surfaces

No drive surface is perfect and they all have their strengths and weaknesses so you have to decide which compromise is going to work for you.

Block paving

Block Paving
Block paving laid in a pattern using different colours


  • Easily forms curved shapes
  • Adapts well to changing slopes
  • Sections can be taken up and re-laid to gain access to buried services
  • Vast range of finishes
  • Some designs are now permeable.


  • Not suitable for poorly drained ground. The sand bedding course must be well drained and at least 600 mm above the water table.
  • The edges must be well retrained
  • Prone to sink where car wheels continually run
  • The more ornate finishes can be expensive.



  • Can be very cost effective


  • Only the 50mm thick flags are suitable

Grass concrete composite

(Concrete blocks with grass growing through gaps mounded in them)


  • Simplify the job of getting rid of surface water


  • The grass will not withstand heavy use
  • The grass will not survive under vehicles park continuously over it
  • Take time to establish
  • If the grass cover breaks down it will quickly become muddy.



  • Adapts to any shape
  • Cheap
  • Self-draining


  • Only suitable for relatively level areas
  • Weeds quickly establish in the areas that aren’t been driven over
  • Moves about
  • Cannot be laid onto a hard surface such as existing concrete



  • Cheap


  • Easily eroded by water running down it
  • Not all hardcore is suitable


Pattern Impressed concrete


  • Weed free
  • Large range of finishes available


  • Must be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • With use the parts receiving concentrated wheel traffic start to fade
  • Very difficult to repair successfully

 Plain concrete


  • Weed free
  • Relatively cheap


  • Unattractive appearance
  • Needs to be well constructed if it is to last
  • Difficult to repair

Pointed setts

Granite setts
Pointed granite setts


  • Combination of small paving units set in pointing makes an attractive finish
  • Adapts to complex shapes
  • Suitable for slopes


  • Very expensive
  • Requires a lot of skill to lay

Resin bonded aggregates


  • Less prone to move about than gravel
  • Available in a range of attractive finishes


  • Not suitable where it is likely to become contaminated with mud
  • More expensive than plain gravel



  • Adapts to complex shapes and slopes
  • A good compromise between cost and length of service
  • Well suited to large drives and heavily used ones
  • Available in a range of colours


  • Has to be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • Colours only available subject to suitable plant near by


Drive dimensions.

These are for guidance only and should be checked before being used.

  • Local regulations and restrictions may apply and you should check before starting any work.
  • The drive entrance should only be at the verge crossing.
    • The verge crossing will have lowered curbs for the vehicles to get onto the road.
    • New or changed verge crossings will normally require permission from the council highways and planning departments.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed to special specifications.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed by approved contractors.
  • Ideally a drive should be 3.2 metres wide (or 2.6 metres if there is a separate footpath).
  • If you are putting gates on a drive opening onto a busy drive you may have to set them back 5 metres from the edge of the highway to allow a vehicle to pull safely off the road before needing the gates opening.
  • Check you can see clearly from the car driving seat when you pull out of the driveway.
  • Any water on the drive must not drain onto the highway, but must be disposed of on site.
  • Long drives need special considerations.
    • Bends need to be wider to allow vehicles to turn.
    • Oil delivery vehicles may only have 30 metre long delivery hoses.
    • Oil delivery vehicles are typically 7.2 metres long by 2.6 metres wide and weigh 18 tonnes.
    • LPG delivery vehicles need to get to within 25 metres of the fill valve.
    • The fire brigade need to get their vehicles to within 45 metres of the house.
Model Drive
Model Drive
Model drive turning circle
Model drive turning circle

Garden Myths: Number 14

It’s a dwarf conifer!

Gardens are littered with 6 metre high conifers with a small group of rocks around its base. Invariably this is the last resting place of a garden rockery with a dwarf conifer planted in it. For some reason people have no problem with seeing an oak seeding will grow into a tree but when looking at a small conifer plant they think it will stay small. There are in fact only a couple of truly dwarf conifers and they are not very common, all the rest are little conifers which just haven’t grown yet.

Garden Myths: Number 13

Lawns are less work than borders.

No, but they take less thought on the part of the reluctant garden. Just think about the time you spend following the lawn mower up and down the garden every year. Now compare this to how much time you spend looking after an established border of similar area. Initially the border does take more time, effort and thought; but once established it should take a fraction of the time the lawn does.