Starting a Garden – Landscaping and Construction
Now comes the back-breaking bit, if you are starting a garden from scratch. For those lucky enough to have a garden that is already in good shape and to their liking, there will probably be only the odd area requiring construction techniques, but for many others, who are facing a new or badly neglected and derelict plot, there is hard work ahead with the garden landscaping.
Entrance and Exits
It may sound rather obvious, but first attend to your entrance and exits. In larger gardens it will be helpful to have an entrance large enough to admit a small lorry, or at least a van, for receiving loads of material – turf, gravel, manure, etc., all of which come a lot cheaper by the lorry-load – and to allow machinery such as a cultivator or a cement-mixer into the place. Of course, this is a policy of perfection; many of us will have to cart everything through the house to the detriment of carpets, wallpaper and relationships.
If your garden has no access other than through the house, do try and get the worst of the debris out, and the bulk of construction materials and the larger plants, such as shrubs and trees, into the garden before you move in, or at least before the carpets are down. When this is not possible, it will be worth investing in some of the tough strips of plastic carpet protector if you have much work to be carried out. For smaller, cleaner, projects, dust sheets or old newspaper can help to protect from the worst of the mess. No matter how careful you and your workmen are, there will most certainly be some accident or other; someone trips and drops an armful of rubbish, a bag of cement splits as you are carrying it, or a plant container falls off the plant, scatteringand perhaps muddy water over a horribly wide area, so that all the protective care you take will be well worth while.
In front gardens, it will be worth preserving or copying the original gate, if you are lucky enough to have one. If yours has gone missing, see if any of your neighbours has still got one that you can copy. This may not be exactly cheap, if the gate is ironwork, but it will add such style to the place that you may well have to do little else, and it will keep out those dogs whose horrid owners turn them loose. If the gate was a wooden one, you may be able to copy it yourself, or at least get a local carpenter to do it for you. Whichever, some of the expense will be defrayed by the cost of the plants that will be saved from the dogs. Whatever gate you choose should be in sympathy with the house; simple picket-style for a cottage, or dignified iron for a period town house, and plain and sturdy for a modern building.
Boundaries – Fences and Hedging, etc
This rule applies to your boundaries, too. If you are exceptionally lucky, you may have good, sound walls around your property or a well-grown and maintained hedge or fence. If they are mostly in good order, with just one or two dodgy patches, then these can usually be repaired. All too often, however, the boundaries are missing or in disrepair. In this case, they should be your first priority. I cannot pretend that to reinstate a wall can ever be an economical practice, but shaky ones can be shored up with buttresses, and gaps can be rebuilt. That is something you could probably do yourself with the aid of a book or by watching bricklayers at work . . . In fact it is a splendid policy to watch any tradesman you come across, whether bricklayer, plasterer, carpenter or whatever, as it is infinitely easier to follow printed instructions if you have seen someone carry out similar work. In most cases, they will be only too pleased to give you helpful advice, if you choose your time carefully and do not interrupt them at a critical moment.
Bricks can be ‘stretched’, of course, by laying in open or honeycomb courses, but this is more suitable for a low front wall or for internal screening, than for a boundary; you could, however, add section of honeycomb walling to the top of your brick wall, which would give a rather nice, airy feeling and make the bricks go further.
Concrete blocks are much cheaper than bricks, and far quicker to lay, but they are not, in themselves, possessed of immediate allure. However, for a strong wall they can be faced with brick, which would be more economical than a double brick wall, or they may be rendered and painted. I have seen them un-rendered and painted a dark green, which really looked rather elegant. A dark green trellis had been placed in front of the blocks, and a wooden coping added, but you could use a concrete tile or reconstituted stone coping if you wished. You could try other colours: white or black, terracotta, primrose yellow, dark blue, or that weathered, faded blue-green which is so popular for garden furniture. The trellis could be matching or contrasting, and if you made the whole thing yourself, could hardly be more cost-effective, especially if you have ‘liberated’ the materials.
If you live in areas where natural stone is abundant, you may be lucky enough to have stone walls. They are usually very strong but, nowadays, they are not cheap to repair or to build from scratch, so if yours has gaps, find someone to repair at least a section of it and watch them carefully so that you can do the job yourself next time.
Fencing, too, can be repaired and patched in some cases. If the supports are a bit rocky, there are various methods of strengthening them, such as inserting them into metal sockets, bolting them to concrete spurs, or buttressing them with sound timber. Even an old piece of angle-iron will help. These measures are quite good for prolonging the life of a fence if the panels are sound, and only the base of the uprights have become rotten. If all the fencing is ropey, it will be better to renew it right away, rather than wait for a year or two and risk the expensive damage which will probably be inflicted on the plants you have so carefully established. If you decide to do the job yourself, measure up carefully to avoid wastage and, if possible, use the best quality timber, whether bought or ‘found’, as this will prove to be the most economical method in the long run. If you prefer to have a local DIY man or fencing contractor do the work for you, make careful enquiries among the neighbours and, if possible, try to see some work that they have carried out, before giving them the job; get several estimates, too.
There are various types of fencing. The most commonly used are overlap fencing (in which the laps may be either horizontal or vertical); interwoven panels, including panels which incorporate a section of trellis at the top; picket fencing (which you could make yourself), chestnut paling and wattle hurdles. These last two look good in an informal or rural setting but are not very long lasting. They are, however, ideal in temporary situations, and odd panels can be used to protect vulnerable young plants from the prevailing winds, thus giving them a chance to get their toes dug in and gain some strength.
Then there are post and rail fencing, (which can be of various designs, from the plainest two-rails-to-a-post variety to elaborate Chinoiserie); ranch fencing (which can be open- or close-boarded, and which will suit the more modern property); as well as rustic fencing which is really only suitable for a very informal setting, such as a cottage garden, perhaps.
You may well be able to find the timber for these wooden fences on skips and demolition sites. Picket and ranch-type fencing will usually look best when painted, but remember that those portions of the uprights which are below ground should be treated with a wood preservative, such as Cuprinol or creosote. Your wooden fencing will last longer if you give it a coping and caps for the uprights, plus a gravel board along the base, to save the actual fencing from rot.
If you are not going to paint your wooden fencing, it should be treated with preservative, but do not use creosote on wood which is going to be in contact with living plants, as it is toxic to them. In these cases, use a non-toxic preservative; your local hardware shop or garden centre will advise you, and the preservative comes in various colours, the most commonly available being brown or dark green, which can look very attractive in the right place.
You may have, or wish to have, iron railings. It is sometimes possible to buy these or to match up missing sections of existing railings by scouting round the scrap metal yards or the local Architectural Salvage shops. For a larger outlay, a blacksmith will copy most patterns for you.
At the bottom end of the scale come posts and wire or chain-link fencing. Nobody can pretend that they are things of beauty, but they can provide a good temporary solution, to protect a young hedge, or, more permanently, a support for an evergreen climber, like Honeysuckle ‘Halliana’, or Ivy. They are worth considering when money is short, or your stay temporary, and the Honeysuckle will give you the added advantage ofand scent.
If you are going for a hedge, consider carefully the pros and cons of the differentplants before you buy. Make sure that the plants are suitable for your soil and conditions. If you have a large garden and want a reasonably tall hedge, Cupressocyparis leylandii is probably your best bet, as it is about the fastest growing sturdy conifer. It also has an attractive golden form, ‘Castlewellan’. You can often find these two on offer in the gardening press and, so long as you choose a reputable supplier, this is a good way to buy.
The advantage of a hedge, especially a well maintained evergreen hedge, (and I suppose that yew is the noblest of them all) is that it provides such a handsome backdrop for the rest of the garden, as well as privacy, and, if well sited, a useful windbreak; although staggered planting, rather than a solid wodge, is better for that. It is important to plant them out at a reasonable distance apart, from about 30cm (12″) for smaller, slow-growing subjects, to 90cm (3′) for vigorous, fast-growing leylandii.
If you really cannot afford to repair the boundaries with the appropriate materials, or are staying such a short time that expensive repairs are not worth while, stretch barbed wire across the gap to repel intruders and then plant in front of it the largest, cheapest evergreen that you can find. Alternatively, if you have a little artistic talent, fix some off-cuts of wood across the gap and paint them to match the surrounding boundary. A bit of artful planting in front of this, or a quick-growing climber trailing across it, will help it to blend in neatly.
If time is not a matter of urgency, take your own cuttings to make the cheapest boundary hedge of all. Of course, you will have to give it some protection with wire or stakes until it is strong enough to stand up for itself. If you live in the country, you may be able to find enough seedling plants to dig up and replant in well-prepared land, but be sure to ask the owners of the land first, and you will have to be patient. Your hedge will take some years to look anything at all.
Having attended to the exits, entrances and boundaries, now is the time to consider any extra protection from the prevailing winds. This will be particularly important if you are near the sea, as the winds will carry salt for about five miles inland, and this can be very destructive to many plants. It is a common mistake to plant solid belts of trees and shrubs, for these have exactly the opposite effect to that which was intended. The frustrated wind comes hurtling over them and thumps down on the other side in a whirl of turbulence which can cause havoc. To a certain extent, in larger gardens, this effect can be alleviated by allowing the planting to rise gradually from the upwind side to its maximum height. In smaller places, staggered planting or pierced screening, rather than a sheer mass, is more effective. You could construct a small sloping mound and plant your shelter on this to gain some instant height.