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.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

If you are looking for a tree for a small garden this selection of the Himalayan birch would be a good choice. B. jacquemontii differs from the B. utilis in its outstanding white bark. Never making a large tree the light foliage doesn’t cast troublesome dense shade.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii bark

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii bark

The white peeling bark makes a striking feature either in a border or set amongst grass; particularly in groups. In either case the light shade it casts isn’t too restrictive on the range of plants that can grow underneath it. Its light canopy also makes it a good compromise when wanting to block the view of a neighbouring window without causing too much shade. Correctly named Betula utilis var. jacquemontii Spach as it was originally described by Édouard Spach (1801-1879)

A variety of Betula utilis hence the var. after the species name. A varieties is a range of plants which are more uniform than a species but not as narrow as a forma (or form). Betula utilis is found growing wild in the Himalayas and was given its scientific name by the Scottish botanist David Don in 1825 when he published a description of it. It was though not introduced to the west until 1849 by Sir Joseph Hooker.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii foliage
Betula utilis var. jacquemontii foliage

Its peeling bark was traditionally used in the Himalayas to write on and in David Wheelers ‘Hortus Revisted: A Twenty-First Birthday Anthology’   Tony Shilling describes how among other things the bark is used to write on and is believed to have magical powers. The word utilis is botanical latin for useful or beneficial and the Latin word utilis gives us the word utility.

 

A more vigorous alternative would by Betula ermanii ‘Grayswood Hill’, it differs from B. jacquemontii by its pink tinged bark and very rough shoots.

Soft Landscaping

This loose term is more frequently seen used within professional horticulture but simply means the soft things that grow ( i.e. plants) and the soil or compost they grow in. So it includes trees, shrubs, hardy perennials, grass, etc.. It generally doesn’t include vegetables grown purely for consumption, there are a number of very ornamental vegetable that would then be soft landscaping, as commercially a landscaper would not normally be involved in vegetable growing, just providing space for their cultivation in a garden. Commercially vegetable growing would be something undertaken by a market gardener which has nothing to do with landscaping.

Nutcutts Book of Plants

It may seem strange to include in this list what is to a large part a nursery catalogue, and it is unashamedly in a part an advertisement for Nutcutts. The thing is it is a treasure trove of information on garden plants presented in a concise and assessable style. Thought the content is about the 3000 plants they grow; that range is sufficient to cover most plants you will encounter in the average garden and the plants included come with wealth of pertinent information regarding a plants size, features and where to plant it.

Divided into 5 sections, of which the second and fourth are the most valuable. The first deals briefly with Nutcutts history and present services but the second section provides a vast wealth of information set out as short detailed notes on a vast range of plants grouped under trees, shrubs, climbers, etc. The third section extends this range by treat a range of that plants they sell but do not produce themselves in the same way.

The fourth section though provides a collection of lists. Each list provides a range of plants suited to specific locations and/or uses. These lists can be cross referenced with one another and the descriptions in section two and three to provide a very powerful tool for gardeners to build up a list of possible plants for a specific location and/or use in the garden. Equally they will though up suggestions that you have not heard of or that had simply slipped your mind.

The final short section provides a range of tips and advice on the establishment and care of plants.

As it is a small book the depth of information and the range of plants covered is very limited, but it still covers most of the plants found in gardens and garden centres, or at least a close example, making it invaluable when first point of reference when trying to decide what to do with a particular plant or part of a garden.

Tree

A plant, larger than a shrub, with a one or occasionally 2 or more clear stems which form a trunk(s). Above the trunk is a system of branches which gradually increase over the years.