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Starting a garden from scratch

Lush borders

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From an acre of undeveloped land to a gardener’s paradise, Allison Walter, County Organiser for Shropshire, shares her gardening story and the lessons she’s learned along the way…

For my sins, I’ve done it twice.

Two gardens from scratch, literally, one a field; one a grass (and weed) patch. Would I do it a third time …?

The beauty of starting a garden from scratch is that you can get it exactly how you want it in the end except there are many choices to be made along the way.

We moved from a small, sheltered, manageable woodland garden in the Surrey Hills which suited my work schedule and it got done at weekends, when other commitments allowed.  The greenhouse was usually empty in the summer, just used for over-wintering; my plant knowledge was quite basic, but I knew what I liked and to a certain extent I knew what worked in the garden.  Then came a windswept, north facing, exposed field of a garden at 800 feet up in the Shropshire Hills – it was a sharp learning curve.  Most of the plants I brought with me from the south curled up their toes at the first Shropshire winter (our second winter got down to -18C) and I was faced with a space which was really the edge of a field; another area full of farm rubbish including plastic and wire; an awkward shape around the house and a rocky outcrop which was destined to be the vegetable garden. You can’t say I don’t like a challenge!

I will never forget the first spring (we moved in a week before Christmas) when I went out to start the garden with the ceremonial planting of a beech hedge: it took me a week with a pick axe to dig a trench, succumbing in the end to a “man with a digger” whilst my back recovered.  We then bought another piece of land, then another until we had nearly an acre of undeveloped garden.

I spent hours wading through books, the internet, joined a garden club, and the Hardy Plant Society, all to increase my plant knowledge: I got hooked on umbellifers and wildflowers which hadn’t featured at all in my old garden.  I visited local nurseries where I spent hours finding unknown trees and shrubs which loved the local climate. Thousands of bulbs were planted every autumn and gradually some semblance of garden started to emerge.  Mistakes were made, muscles ached but generally I enjoyed it.  The largest project was a nearly 100m long herbaceous border with most of the plants home grown and wildflowers sown religiously.  After eight years of hard slog, we opened the garden for the National Garden Scheme and displayed many “before & after” photographs to prove to our visitors just how much hard work it had been.

Then, what to do next? Big birthdays loomed, arthritis got worse, questions were asked: can I cope with this large expanse of high-maintenance garden into my “autumn & winter” years?  Guess what? Another garden, much smaller, on another hill, but much more manageable and a lot more knowledge accumulated to avoid the mistakes (well most of them) of the past: what could possibly go wrong?

We had dealt with thick grass before, mainly by using glyphosate which I wanted to avoid in the new garden: so, our friendly “man with a digger” returned, obviously thinking I was completely mad to want to do all this over again.  But joy of joys, deep, fertile soil was revealed as opposed to the measly 2-3 inches of soil at our previous garden.  The same rules applied however, start with a plan but be prepared not to stick to it!  Before leaving the old garden, I went around and put together a list of “plants I would definitely plant again” and “plants I wouldn’t touch again with a barge pole”!  With a smaller space I was allowed to indulge in many favourite plants and many which just hadn’t suited the old garden: a dry garden, a gravel garden, pond and bog garden emerged which just hadn’t featured before: so another steep learning curve on suitable plants and, a big issue in the new garden, the wind which I’m still learning to cope with.

So, would I do a third garden from scratch? Probably!”

Tips for starting a garden from scratch:

  • Know what’s in your soil: test it for pH and do “puddling” test to determine the clay content
  • Know your aspect: where does the sun reach; where does the wind blow; where is there shade; is there a frost pocket; what’s the altitude?
  • How much time do you want to commit to your new garden? Despite their attraction, herbaceous and wildflower gardens are not easy to look after and are labour intensive; shrubs are easier
  • Increase your plant knowledge as much as possible
  • Look at what works in gardens and the landscape around you: don’t try and fight nature
  • Plant trees & shrubs first as they take the longest to establish
  • Don’t be afraid to plant closely together: things can always be moved & divided later
  • Avoid too much bare soil as you will spend all your time weeding: mulch thickly in spring
  • Use herbaceous plants and bulbs to fill in between shrubs and trees as they grow: most will have to be moved or will disappear but will do their job for the first 3-4 years.
  • If you inherit a developed garden and want to make changes to it, watch it for a year first to see what surprises come up.
  • Be prepared to be ruthless: if something doesn’t work or is in the wrong place, just move it or give it away (or better still, sell it for the National Garden Scheme!)

If you would like to purchase a copy of Secrets of Shropshire Gardens, please contact allison.walter@ngs.org.uk.

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