The Estate Agent’s term may be “challenging” or “a garden with great potential”. In real terms, this may mean you’ve just bought a house on a hill, a garden in a marsh, or a neglected garden with too much shade or too many stones in the soil.
Perhaps your garden is merely a tiny space on a sunny balcony, which in your dreams is a space the size of a farm? No matter what type of garden space you have, this article will provide you with some suggestions for ways to transform it into a garden of delight.
What are the basic design rules for any garden?
- 1 What are the basic design rules for any garden?
- 2 Garden “Issues” To Consider.
- 3 FAQs
- 4 Conclusion
- 5 Useful websites
Most plants need light to grow so if you are planning on tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, you need to ensure that these plants have lots of light. Watch your garden and take pictures at different times throughout the week and then think about ways of increasing available light. You may need to trim some bushes (or trees) causing shade or move a fence to allow more light. Having a greenhouse will offer you a longer season too.
Know Your Hardiness Zone
The maximum high and low temperatures affect what you can grow. Is your area prone to frost or does it snow in winter? Are you on a high hill? Is your garden south-facing or north-facing? These are known as plant hardiness zones and are defined by the average low temperature over a 10 year period. This allows you to decide if your plant will survive in your hardiness area or whether it will need protection.
- In the UK, there are 7 H zones as defined by the Royal Horticultural Society. H7 is the coldest, as low as -20C in winter and H1 is plants that can survive in warm winters, which are divided into H1a, H1b and H1c.
- In the US, the USDA zones are based on the lowest temperatures in that area over a 10 year period. This time epriod allows scientists to decide on which plants should survive in which area with good accuracy.
Soil depends on the underlying stone underneath your garden and it can be clay, acid, loam, sandy, silt, peat based and lime or chalky soil. If you are blessed with loam or clay soil, you can grow lots of plants other gardeners cannot. If you live near the coast, you probably have a lot of sand in your soil which aids drainage but does not suit all plants.
You can buy a soil testing kit to check your garden, but an easier way is to look at other gardens in the area. You can change the soil type over a longer period of time by adding manure, homemade compost and other fertilizers.
A Note To Remember
Topsoil is the most fertile part of your soil so if you remove this layer, make sure to store this topsoil in a place where you can retrieve it easily. It is a good idea to spread topsoil on the top of the growing area, once the work is complete. Deeper soil is not as fertile.
Garden “Issues” To Consider.
Hilly Gardens or Land On a Slope.
The traditional ways to farm on hillsides can be simply putting some sheep out to graze to get rid of the weeds. In your private garden, this may not be an option but there are other ways to achieve some growing space.
- Make steps
This allows you to access all areas easily but it is hard work and once the steps are in place, you can think about ways to divide it into manageable sections. Steps allow easy access for later work too and provide excellent views of the garden from the top.
- Make terraces
The Inca perfected this method! The idea is to remove a lot of soil on a slope, to achieve a flat area, which you can then plant up. The Inca dug these into mountainsides in layers, making the patterns visitors see when they visit Macchu Pichu or other parts of Latin America.
They built walls mainly to counter soil erosion during wet weather, but the walls also provided a depth to the soil that allowed it to retain heat, especially at night, when mountain temperatures drop drastically.
The deep flattened terraces had cosy roots as a result and if you adopt this method, you may be able to plant seeds for exotics that would not have survived without this extra protection. The Inca also added small stones for better drainage and you can achieve the same by adding some sand to the mixture in your terraced slope.
- You can plan for several terraces if your garden is on a steep gradient. It may be necessary to structure these terraces using retaining walls to keep everything in place. Another option is to make raised planters with strong edging or the weight of a sleeper to fix everything to the spot. Gabion walls are another option discussed below.
- Have different levels with different priorities. You may decide on a flower border close to the windows in the house and a vegetable plot on a different level. It may be that the younger members of the family want a football or basketball area depending on the space available. So discuss with your household before deciding exactly what you want.
- Make fences to separate different areas. These can be made by weaving pruned tree branches, bamboo or willow.
Too Many Stones
- Gabion walls are perfect if you have too many stones onsite. Just put them in place first and then fill them up with the stones you dig out. For other ways to use excess stones, see more below.
- Collect them up and make a rockery garden. These were very popular in traditional cottage gardens and a very popular way to grow herbs, as the stones could separate the individual herbs from spreading.
- Arrange them in a spiral to start, with stone divisions to make space for individual herbs, as you go.
- Fill in the areas between the stones with the soil you have already dug out from the hilly garden or use homemade compost.
- Use smaller stones to allow good drainage and then cover them with soil.
- Plant in basil, chives, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, thyme and tarragon and water them in well.
- If you want mint, make sure it is confined in a pot before planting. Otherwise, it will spread like crazy all over the other plants.
- In autumn, when the annual herbs die back, top up with some compost and plant them again next spring.
Make colourful stone surrounds for long-term growing plants.
My Brassica patch enjoys a circle of stones because it keeps the weeds down all summer when I am busy planting annuals and picking fruit and veg. Stones suppress weeds, retain moisture and look pretty. If your children like playing with colour, get them to make collections of different colours and shapes and then use them playfully to make decorative garden beds.
Use a shady area to make an office or a child’s tree house. Make a playhouse, a sandpit, a basketball net or whatever it is you like to do. Use the shade to keep cool and build playhouses or spaces for deckchairs, so that there are both sunny and shady seats in your garden space. Construct a climbing frame with a swing for the little ones and then plant up the area with shade-loving colours all year round.
Grow shade-loving plants. Early in spring, bulbs will thrive and plant foxgloves and bluebells to look fantastic in May, followed by hostas, ferns, dahlias, hydrangeas, and sedums for colour later in the autumn. Winter colour can come from the leaves of heuchera and cyclamens.
Grow edible plants that enjoy shade at the hottest part of the day like mint, and lemon balm.
If a tree from next door is shading your garden, see more advice below.
Small Garden Space
A very small garden space can be amplified by growing vertically or making a roof garden. Use your windowsills for flower or herb boxes.
Even if your growing space is tiny, you can always extend it by going upwards or re-designing your roof space to accommodate more use for plants, because the sun reaches the top of buildings. Making a roof garden will insulate the building underneath, and if you plant it with greenery and flowers, you are providing food for bees too, like clover and forget-me-nots. Most herbs will survive the thin layer of soil on a roof garden too, so plant tarragon, thyme and herbs that do not need really fertile soil.
For a fantastic display, grow sunflowers! Start them small in pots and place them on the roof of a shed for an amazing display by mid-summer. You may need to fit an automatic watering system, or to build a ladder to water the plants. This can make a great place to sunbathe too but check with your local authority if you need planning permission before you start.
Is there a stream?
Then make a feature, make a pond. Why? Wildlife adores it!
Growing platforms made near running water can be inspired by cultures like the Mexicans, Peruvians and Bolivians. They are famous for chinampas, a type of floating vegetable garden wooden platform, with water all around and underneath the bed.
These platforms were constructed over water but could benefit from it being freely available. Nowadays city tours take tourists to visit chinampas in Mexico City. If you have a stream, try constructing one!
If your water is a pond, then wildlife will adore your garden.
Birds will come to drink, you may also get frogs and toads and then hedgehogs if you’re lucky. You may find your pet cat taking a drink too.
You can grow watercress right through from spring to the autumn for tasty nibbles and for summer colour plant waterlilies, water buttercups and irises.
Trees That Cause A Lot of Shade
Everyone knows that trees help offset carbon but they also benefit both wildlife and us. You can build structures in areas where no plants currently grow eg composting toilets on the ground under a tree, scarecrows, compost bins or leaf mould containers.
Edibles are possible too! You may be able to grow mushrooms if you buy some starter logs and have the space to just let them grow.
Is there a law concerning cutting down a neighbour’s tree?
- If a tree overhangs your property, you can certainly cut back this part without any issue whatsoever. However, you cannot poison the plant nor can you legally trespass on the neighbour’s garden without their permission.
- It is unlikely that any council will permit a tree to be cut down just because your garden is shaded. There are certain conditions about a tree that blocks a “defined aperture” so if that tree shades your entire bedroom window and denies you light in that room, then you may have cause for complaint.
- Is the tree “dangerous”? Would it be defined as blocking a public road or path or the entrance to your house? In this case, many councils would decide that it is a nuisance and your neighbour will be advised to prune it at the very least and to cut it back completely in the worst situation.
- If birds are nesting, then cutting it back will not be permitted. Wait until autumn or winter.
What you can do:
- Prune the tree on your side, and if the tree is still a nuisance to your family or overhangs your car, stops you from entering your property or blocks light through one of your windows, then you can check with the local authority. Some councils will agree this a nuisance and ask the neighbour to chop it back.
- Talk to the neighbour and if you are in a position to offer to pay half the fee of the tree surgeon or to remove the waste for firewood/to recycling facilities if they agree, then a resolution is very likely.
Hopefully you have now gained a new perspective on the challenging garden and found some ways to use your space in a way that suits your household better. Whether you are now growing mushrooms in a shady patch, or your terraced outdoors is all over Insta, I hope these ideas have broadened your ideas to include wildlife and greenery for you and your family to enjoy in all seasons.