A garden that has been well cared for throughout its life will coast very happily into middle age. Everyone longs for one of those. On the other hand, a garden that has had only poor care and little long-term thought will present a very different picture, of crowding and disease.
Before you make your plans for the garden, you need to analyze the prospects for the plants in the garden as it stands. Take a look first at which plants are thriving and, which are suffering. A hard look at the way different plants are performing will often highlight the garden’s most urgent problems.
Which plants are performing badly?
A common problem is the lack of light from neglected trees, causing a weary, starved-looking shrub and herbaceous story beneath. Unless you want to move to woodland-floor gardening only, some hard decisions will have to be made about which trees and shrubs to take out.
With their removal, you will be able to open up and enrich new areas of vacant soil. Here, the competition from surface roots will be less fierce and much more suitable for new planting. In increased light most evergreens and conifers will become dense again and, after pruning. Shrubs will no longer be leggy and drawn, and herbaceous plants will flower properly afresh.
In more open gardens the problem may be the sheer volume of unchecked growth made by shrubs and an invasion of weeds. By pruning long-lived shrubs and removing or replacing overgrown short-term shrubs you will open the road to recovery. Mechanical and chemical weed control will start the slower progress to a garden free of weeds.
Which plants are doing too well?
Sometimes a garden fills up with vigorous, exotic weeds that at first glance might be thought to be an intentional planting. Leycesteria, buddleia, brooms, cotoneaster, hypericums, and berberis all have a habit of seeding or suckering around and quickly making sizeable plants. Watch out for opportunists such as these smothering more valuable plants.
Do not be afraid to pull them out extensively if they are serving no useful purpose, Overgrown lawns are not a problem. Simply have them cut down and then keep them cut. Serious weed problems such as dock and thistle can be dealt with in good time, after more pressing matters have been handled.
What is the average age of your plants?
Take a hard look at the various elements of planting in your garden trees, shrubs, climbers, and so on to decide how far they are into their cycle of growth and decline. Often, what looks like one phase of a garden’s planting turns out to be planting from two or three periods, sometimes decades apart and with layers of seedling growth on top.
Look at the shrub layer
Assess the state of the shrubs, too. On average, most shrubs have a lifespan of 10 to 60 years. However, size does not necessarily equate with old age. It may well be that after cutting them to the ground, you could, by regular seasonal pruning, get those hydrangeas, mock orange, and weigelas back to 6 feet instead of 10 feet, and get back your view.
Before you redesign the inner part of your garden, consider whether the privacy and shelter it offers depend on the shrubs at its borders that are ready to fall over from old age. Are those shrub ones that will regenerate from hard pruning, such as hybrid rhododendrons and laurels? Or are they species that refuse to respond, like brooms and cypresses?
Self-sown shrubs and trees can grow at an astonishing speed, outstripping older neighbors in the border after only four or five years. Even in well-tended gardens, seedling shrubs and trees like elder, ash, sycamore, and holly slides themselves in, eclipsing more precious plants. Look hard at them all.
It may be that the precious Daphne or variegated holly is past redemption. In such a case, the self-sown buddleias or elder may be the ones to keep for the present. It would be a mean gardener to call any plant that hides an unattractive vista a weed, especially if it flowers as generously as an elder.
Think about what will happen overtime: Do I want a hideous view, or do I want temporary cover to get something better established?