Taking on a new garden can be both exciting and daunting. While the garden of a new-build house might represent a blank canvas, an established garden poses a different set of possibilities and challenges.
It’s long been advised that, rather than getting stuck in straight away, it’s better to wait a full year before making changes to your new garden. This enables you to get to know the garden in every season, so you can identify the sunniest, shadiest, wettest and most exposed areas before you start planting or removing existing plants. It also enables you to find out what’s already growing where, particularly bulbs and herbaceous perennials. However, this isn’t always practical, or desirable, and you may simply be too impatient to wait.
More advice on garden design:
Browse our tips for taking on a new garden, below.
Don’t be too hasty
While waiting a whole year to see what’s growing might not be realistic for you, it’s important not to go straight in, guns blazing. This is because you may destroy bulbs or plants you do want to keep, without realising what you’re doing. It’s important to be mindful of existing trees and shrubs, too. While some will, undoubtedly, be growing in the wrong place, others will have been therefore many years and to uproot them without giving them a chance can be seen as disrespectful. Don’t forget that trees and shrubs may have significant importance to your neighbours, too, especially those growing near a boundary. So it’s worth chatting with them before making any decisions.
Take your time
Pot up a container of annuals for a splash of instant colour
Don’t try to do everything the first year. Use a mulch to keep the weeds down while you work on other areas of the garden. Pot up some annuals in containers to provide instant colour. You can create beautiful, temporary displays while you decide what to do with the rest of the garden.
Get to know the garden
Making garden notes to remember what grows where
You probably had a good look around the garden when viewing the house. But now’s the time to take in the finer details. Take photographs and notes of what’s growing and where, what you like and what you would eventually like to change. Make sure you can identify all plants before ripping them out – you don’t want to destroy anything you later realise you would like to keep. Is anything growing particularly well or badly? Do some plants need moving, pruning or cutting back? Work out what you like and what needs to change. Then identify the priority jobs and the best time of year to make changes – for example, shrubs should be moved in autumn and winter, when they’re dormant.
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identify problem weeds such as horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
You might be lucky but usually there’s something that needs fixing or removing in an inherited garden. Check fence panels for signs of damage, trees for dangerous branches, borders for signs of problem weeds and paths for trip hazards. These issues don’t always need addressing straight away, but it’s good to know about them before embarking on a new design or planting scheme.
Identify your soil type
Identify your soil type and pH
Make a note of which type of plants are growing well in yours, and neighbouring, gardens. If camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons are prevalent, it’s likely you have acidic soil. If astilbe, loosestrife and gunnera are growing well, your soil may be heavy and/or boggy. Conduct a simple soil test to confirm your findings, and then plant accordingly – there’s no point growing plants that won’t thrive.
How to find out more about your soil:
Garden pond with surrounding planting
You might see your new garden as being yours alone, but the local birds, bees, amphibians and mammals will see it differently. Think about the consequences of any plant or feature you may take out. If you remove a pond, are there others in neighbouring gardens where frogs, toads and newts can breed? Where will birds roost and nest without a hedge? Is there a particular tree you are removing that has significant value to wildlife, for example by providing flowers or catkins in spring, nesting opportunities in summer or berries in autumn?
Consider what you could add that would improve the situation for wildlife, too. Could you make room for an area of long grass? Or install a pond where there wasn’t one previously? How about growing some bee-friendly plants or planting a wildlife-friendly tree?
Expert advice on wildlife gardening:
Improve the soil
Applying mulch to a border
No matter how well-cared-for the garden seems, it’s always a good idea to improve the soil when you first take it on. This is because, unless you ask the previous owners, you have no idea when the soil was last mulched or how regularly it was done over the years prior to you taking on the garden. A thick mulch of well-rotted manure is a great way to give the garden an instant boost of nutrients and trace elements, while regular dressings of home-made compost will keep the soil in good condition for healthy plant growth.