Moving house often means taking over someone elseís garden, their successes and failures. Whilst the temptation to make your mark may be overwhelming, Christopher Lloyd advises patience and a bit of basic groundwork before beginning a grand transformation

When you take over a garden from a previous owner, you inherit the results of their aspirations, which may be wonderful, and the legacy of their neglect, which may be horrific.

If the whole place looks a hopeless mess, the temptation may be to sweep everything aside and to start again. Then it will be all yours. I believe that a wait-and-see policy is far preferable. Give the garden a year in which to show what it contains. Build on what seems worth retaining and gradually eliminate what is clearly rubbish.

The furnishing of established trees may be a great boon, helping to give the garden an established appearance and to give it shade; we canít do without some of that. But too many trees are also a great nuisance. They may make you feel shut in and their roots are competitive for moisture and nutrients, which gives little chance to smaller things. However, do go slowly with tree thinning and donít make hasty decisions. Patience is the watchword but is the most difficult virtue to preach to the majority of gardeners, yet it is necessary in so much of gardening.

In the riddance of perennial weeds, for instance, such as couch grass, ground elder and bindweed, if you try to plant where such as these are already established, you will experience endless frustration. A first step in taking over any garden must be to rid yourself once and for all of these persistent weeds. You need to get at them while the scene is not encumbered by precious plants. Any of these that you need to retain should be moved out - potted up, maybe, or planted temporarily elsewhere. There will probably be some pieces of the noxious weed lurking in their roots. You need to be able to recognize these and extract them with religious devotion. No one else, other than yourself, will do this job so conscientiously, because you know that your gardenís future depends on your thoroughness. In the case of others set to do the job for you, their attention will sometimes wander, their eyes glaze with boredom. To them, being thorough wonít seem to have the same urgency as it will to you.

That is the hand-weeding side of the job, but in a larger area, once cleared of anything precious, you should use the weedkiller glyphosate, generally marketed as Roundup. You apply this while the weeds are growing vigorously, so that they take it up. After two or three months, you will be able to see what has escaped the first dose and apply a second. Very likely a third will be needed.

You must also ask yourself what the soil in your new garden is like. In many cases, the vigor or weakness of the plants already there will give you your answers. If even the weeds are growing weakly, something is seriously wrong. Good drainage is paramount for a start; few plants will tolerate waterlogged ground.

The soil may be utterly exhausted, especially in old town gardens where it has been subjected to generations of pollution. In that case you must replace it with good top soil and with bulky organic manure, which can be brought in, if necessary, in bags. But first you will need to get rid of some of what is already there, especially if the soilís overall level is quite sufficiently high. This often entails the removal of subsoil. Set the top soil on one side, then dig out and remove the sub-stuff, which usually looks disgusting. You may need a skip for its disposal. Then back with the top soil and the organic additions. Preferably get such as are not full of weed seeds, like those of stinging nettles. It is good to know the source of what you are acquiring.

Donít rush in with the planting of new trees (especially) and shrubs. These are a gardenís long-term elements. If you get the wrong kinds or plant them in the wrong place, future adjustments will be difficult. Perennials can easily be moved around. Even these can be invasive and a nuisance, however; always be a little suspicious of presents from friends out of their own gardens. The plants they can most easily spare may be the ones that can easily turn out to have aggressive habits.

All this may sound complicated and daunting, but once you are bitten with the joy of making lovely plants grow happily for you and because of your own efforts, thereíll be no stopping you.

See also the Helping Hands workshops:
Testing soil pH
Coping with problem soils
Moving perennials
Planting perennials
Dealing with persistent weeds
Applying weed killer

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