How to Prepare for a New Garden
Starting with a bare site is the easiest way to design and build the garden you want. New-construction sites are a blank canvas, but if you have taken over an existing plot, you may need to clear it first. Keep the best plants and features, and don’t be afraid to remove the rest.
Clear Away Existing Debris
When clearing a site you are likely to come across a wide range of materials for disposal. Some plant waste can be composted, or rent a shredder to chip larger, woody branches, which makes excellent mulch. You can also burn dry organic waste and untreated wood on still, dry days, although warn your neighbors out of courtesy. For bulky materials that can’t be composted, shredded, or burned, like trash or debris, rent a dumpster or check what your local waste management company will pick up. Wear gloves when clearing a site in case of sharp or hidden debris.
Remove Old Plants
Established gardens may contain plants that you don’t want to keep. Rather than destroy them, bulbs, perennials, and small shrubs can be dug up and given away or possibly replanted elsewhere. Most trees and shrubs can’t realistically be moved, so are best cut down and dug out. To remove large specimens, contact a tree surgeon for advice, and where necessary, remove stumps too large to dig out using a “stump grinder,” which can be rented. Before pruning or felling any trees however, check with your local planning authority that there are no restrictions, which can also apply to hedges. When clearing plants, also remove any weeds, and if the plot is overrun with tough perennial species, use a chemical weedkiller. Laying down old carpet helps suppress weeds and keeps cleared areas weed-free.
Working With New Construction
If you buy a house in a new development, you may start out with just a stretch of bare ground in place of a garden. Although unsightly, this fresh start gives you the ideal opportunity to design your dream garden from scratch. Other than the barest bones, such as a sidewalk, new gardens are devoid of existing features that might otherwise restrict your choices. Such a blank canvas also allows you to start designing and building as soon as the weather allows, and access for machinery and deliveries is often easier. The downside of construction sites is that with a lack of established trees and shrubs, it can take several years before the garden develops a sense of maturity or privacy. Depending on how the site was used before it was developed, there may also be issues with soil quality. You may also find there are planning restrictions and bylaws, often specific to that development, limiting what you can plant and build, especially in front gardens.
Factors to Consider When Beginning a New Garden
- Assess the soil in the garden space. Don’t assume the building trash and debris was removed from the site; it may have been buried under a thin layer of topsoil. Dig test holes across the site to check, and also look out for other potential soil problems, such as compaction. Mark out any problem areas so you can resolve them later or plan around them. Also check how deep the topsoil goes, measure its pH, and assess whether it is mostly clay, sand, or loam.
- Look for soil compaction. It’s not unusual to find a cosmetic topsoil dressing used to disguise an impenetrable base of compacted soil, caused by heavy machinery. Compacted soil contains little air and drains poorly, which restricts plant growth. Scrape back the topsoil to look for patches of soil that is hard to dig, and fork it through as much as possible, incorporating bulky organic matter, such as composted bark. Compaction is most common on heavy clay soils and can take several years to alleviate. Keep in mind that puddles may indicate areas of compacted ground.
- Check your site plan. Look at deeds and covenants to find out whether planting added when the house was being built (specified by local planners) has to remain. New construction sites often have surviving trees, so check for restrictions. In shared front gardens dividing fences and hedges are not allowed, and some areas may have to remain as lawn, limiting your options. Check the routing of drains before work begins, and conceal utility inspection covers with planting.