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.

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.