Renovating a Garden: Where to Start?

– Posted in: Hardscaping and Projects, Mailbag

Donna Marie emailed:

I am desperate! I have recently bought a property with a huge front and back garden. Both gardens are completely overgrown. Huge bramble bushes and unidentified shrubs loom out at me each time I walk out onto the tired old patio at the back of the house. The property is on the side of a mountain (terraced gardens originally, I think). It is such a huge project! I am a young single woman and can only afford to landscape it myself ‘bit-by-bit’.

How do I start clearing it myself and how do I improve soil that hasn’t been touched for decades?

I would like a few fruit trees and a summer house at the top of the garden as it looks out over the roof of the property to the Swanea Bay area (ahh, lovely). I would also like to make both gardens look even bigger, but I have no imagination regarding garden design!

I love gardening but have never encountered such an appalling, neglected garden. This really is ‘gardening from scratch’!

Please advise me where to start!

First of all, let me say that a young single woman in possession of such a property as you describe is off to a good start. A decade after my college graduation, our family moved into the house we still live in–our first–and the garden had been neglected for at least that long. So what I am about to share with you is built upon my own experience, plus scanty recollections of books I’ve read.

Your first task will be to observe and identify. It is easiest to identify plants when they are in bloom, so this job requires patience and discipline. Your best ally would be an experienced gardener who lives in your neighborhood. Failing that, some field guides to identify the weedy shrubs and some library books to identify the good guys will go a long way. I know I found the White Flower Farm catalogs quite useful for identifying garden plants.

While you’re engaged in this process of identification, think of all the strong young men you know and consider what kind of bribe would be necessary to obtain their help, which you will find extremely useful when it comes time to remove the unwanted plants. Seriously, big projects are far less overwhelming when faced with friends, so once you have a plan, don’t hesitate to ask for help in executing it.

These are two books that I’ve read before and remember having general help on renovating and redesigning a pre-existing garden. For help on the nitty-gritty of removing unwanted plants, Planting Noah’s Garden : Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology has a couple of relevant chapters.

Once you have eliminated the brush and scrub, you will want to start coming up with your own design. It is just as well that you have to do things “bit by bit” because you will change your mind several times as you ponder your landscape and pore over books and catalogs and make sketches. Sometimes I think it is the best part, because nothing ever goes wrong in your imagination, you never break into a sweat, and the price is right!

You have a wonderful adventure ahead of you. Why don’t you start a blog to chronicle your progress?

If anyone has advice to add, please share it in the comments section.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Diane March 27, 2006, 6:44 pm

Hello Donna Marie – I am experiencing much the same situation, and so glad there is helpful advice available. The idea of “observe” really took the pressure off. Almost every day I see something new, and spring is really taking off here in Vancouver and I’m amazed how many shrubs and unknown plants I’m finding every time I pull back something and look. Little (and not so little) treasures abound. I’m doing bit by bit too.
Thanks all.

Tai Haku March 7, 2006, 3:40 pm

The guy who said observe is spot on. If the area is overgrown with brambles clearing them may trigger other plants beneath that into flower/growth and could reveal almost anything.

After that take your time, clear and develop patches at your own pace and if in doubt steal ideas you like from your neighbours

Betsy March 2, 2006, 4:29 pm

Hi DonnaMarie! About this time last year, I was YOU! I lucked out with 12 acres of my own for the first time in my life(North Idaho), and it was filled with at least 5-years-neglected gardens of all kinds. I am a beginner gardener and was completely overwhelmed and a bit panicked.(in a very positive, grateful way!) I literally spent days running back and forth in between the garden and “Google” trying to figure it all out. Once I got the advice to wait a year and observe, I felt so much better. And throughout this year I have seen and learned so much as I watched things die back, and things pop up, and have discovered all sorts of treasures. I took tons of digital photos and drew charts of everything I discovered. Enjoy and congratulations! -Betsy

Alice February 26, 2006, 3:48 pm

Definitely agree with Laurie about the compost. Don’t look at all those mountains of weeds, brambles, etc. as pests, think of them as the best plant food and soil conditioner you will ever get. Shredding greatly assists the decomposition and makes it all so much easier to handle. Build your heaps big enough (at least a cubic metre) to heat up and kill any weed seeds.

What an exciting project for you. Don’t forget – lots of photos.

Donna-Marie February 24, 2006, 7:23 am

Thanks for your advice folks. I apprieciate your help very much. I’ve chosen this May to start on the front and back garden (for no particular reason). I’ve been promised help with the clearance of all the brambles, etc. by my nephew and step-dad. My mother (a keen horticulturist)has agreed to help me identify anything worth keeping. The plants (I assume) can then be dug up and re-located or left ‘in-situ’. My uncle has offered my the use of his shredding machine. I do wonder if it is up to the job though. The gardens have a lot of stuff to clear out.

A neighbour advised me that once the gardens were cleared of unsightly and overgrown weeds, etc. I should spray anything I don’t want with weed-killer and observe the gardens over the next year. Then I can design both gardens suited to the position of the house and my expectations. The gardens face east and west, so I am assuming I could grow most things once the ground is improved enough to suit the plants I want to put in (eventually!!)

I bought the house from the esate of an old lady who had died. Unfortunately, the family live in abroad. Alas, I will have to discover things for myself.

I have a design in my head already for the back garden, but I havent factored in the gradient of the garden yet. I would like a lawn out there, but I want a more contemporary twist on it. Nothing too modern though as the house is Edwardian and I don’t want the garden to look out of place.

Not sure what to do with the front garden yet. Definately don’t want a lawn there. I want something that will give a ‘passing nod’ to the period of the house and look elegant. Haven’t a clue how to acheive it though.

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) February 23, 2006, 6:16 pm

I agree most strongly with your first suggestion: observe.

Spend a year watching and photographing your garden. Not only will this help you identify existing plants and discover any buried treasures of bulbs, but you will learn the environment in which you are working. You’ll find out where it floods when it rains-how the shade and sunlight moves through the seasons and when trees leaf out or drop leaves. And you’ll figure out the micro-climates: where the frost falls and where the protected spots are.

All the time, take notes and plan.

When you begin your work, start close to the house first and leave the further off places wild for awhile. Having the spots you see most often, even from within the house, cultivated provides the encouragement you need to keep going.

Laurie Gano February 22, 2006, 8:40 pm

I thought I would address your question about how to improve your soil. Compost is my answer, and most of the raw material comes from my yard, not my kitchen. I’m guessing you may have lots of green and brown material to use. The big requirement is a chipper/shredder. I have a very old one, but it works. Then you can turn your piles of ground up stuff or not, that will determine how long it takes to rot. I use compost as a mulch between plants every year in spring. It works wonders!

jenn February 22, 2006, 3:53 pm

Depending on your budget, and I know this gets crunchy – you may be able to find a teen in your neighborhood that will be interested in giving you an hour or so of labor at what amounts to a basement rate for landscape labor.

We are lucky enough to have a young fellow that does odd jobs and is interested in gardening.

And having a second set of hands on an overwhelming task can be just the thing.

Something to keep an eye and an ear open for.

Otherwise, I second Kathy on working to identify what you have. This is the process of a year, but you may have treasures.

We had a flowering quince that I never noticed until we removed the sap-bleeding chinese elm that overshadowed it. Amazing beauty the next spring, as it bloomed its thanks for the sun.

Camilla February 22, 2006, 3:07 pm

You may find it easier to find online friends who’re willing to identify from digital photos, than a local expert. (And photos good enough to identify plants by are easy, even with a small camera.)

A account is a good starting point for this, and once you have a keyword to search by, looking at other people’s photos can often cinch an identification

Judith February 22, 2006, 2:44 pm

Just a few things to Kathy’s good advice. Perhaps there is a relative of, or the original owner her/himself, in the area, who can do a walk-through with you and help identify plants. Such a person could also help identify hidden things (oh, the cistern was there… or, there’s an old water line/electrical service under there, or hidden chunks of concrete or ledge…)

And, a garden center or nursery or farmers’ market folks might be able to help you identify things. A blooming sprig with attached leaves, in water, is often all you’ll need. It’s a fun challenge to ID a bucket of mystery plants.

Another aid in desiging is to take photos, photo-copy & enlarge, then sketch on those copies to get an idea of how the finished design might look. I’m far too impatient for the 3-d garden design software that’s out there, but you may not be. And this is a perfect time to haul out all those old garden magazines lurking about, tear out the pages you love, and pin them up to see what features in those pages call to you and how you might work those things into your new paradise.

Great good luck to you and have lots of fun doing it.