What do you want from your garden? What jobs does it have to do? Is it to be a junior cycle track, a sculpture gallery, an outdoor dining room, somewhere to lose yourself and unwind with the weeding, or a place for wild poolside parties? Forget the plants for a few moments if you can, and ask yourself these questions. You may surprise yourself with the answers.
One thing is certain: Gardens are never made by accident. Even the least complicated garden exists because someone has decided that this arrangement is exactly what they want and what they are prepared to maintain. Without care and maintenance, there is no gardening. So it is important to be sure that what you create, the space and the picture you make outdoors also fulfills all the practical purposes it must serve.
Scribble all of your garden’s functions down on a piece of paper and then list them in order of priority. More often than not, special plants and gardening come lower on the list than making a space that is usable and practical. A design that is functional has to come first. I find this refreshing, and fun. It means that, in thinking about how to tackle an overgrown garden. You can relax a little about the plants and concentrate first on making the garden work and do its job. You can decorate it later.
As you know, rejuvenating gardeners don’t have the freedom of the blank canvas of a new, empty garden. We come with our list of ideas of what we want from our plot in the future but are faced with the legacy of past planting. Usually, this takes the form of a mass of vegetation, some of which needs to be removed before we can realize our ambitions.
At the center of an overgrown garden, there is frequently an overgrown house in a blanket of vegetation, which may have already caused some degree of structural damage to the house. However, if the house is sound but smothered, what then?
A curtain of creepers
The first task is often to create some degree of space and light around the house. A house that is entirely covered with plants looks more silly than romantic. Usually 30 percent of cover is more than enough to make a house look embraced by its garden, where such a connection is needed.
A small cottage might benefit from such intimacy, whereas an imposing Edwardian town house might be best with its architectural detail on view. A simple, clean-lined modern house may also be better left uncomplicated by splurges of foliage and dressed instead by the clean shapes of adjacent shrubs or bamboos.
If you do keep a great deal of covers on a house, be it wisteria or ivy or Virgmia creeper, retain it in generous blocks and not in a thin mustache along the bottom of the walls. Try to keep some windows within the area that is covered. It will be a regular job to keep climbers cut back from the windows so that light is not restricted, but the cozy effect is worth the trouble. Similarly, with doorways, if you like a calm, romantic look, leave the occasional shrub restricting or overhanging a doorway. Clip it into shape if necessary. It speaks subliminal volumes of peacefulness.
Trees near the house
Trees close to houses are a constant worry to home owners. Insurers would have us worry even more. Sometimes and especially on clay soils where shrinkage and heave are more marked as a tree too close to a house will affect the building adversely.
The potential damage depends on the soil type, the species of a tree, the climate, and the kind of foundation used. There is no value in making a generalization about whether a tree close to a house should be removed. But of this you can be sure: Absolute safety is a lousy design principle. Who wants to be holed up in a safe house?
If you feel there is a cause for concern, consult a tree surgeon. Meanwhile, think about the qualities of the tree. Is it a massive lime tree gradually overwhelming your nest, or is it a less ambitious species? Does it block a view, such as your vista from the kitchen sink?
Does it make your only paved seating area cold, miserable, and shady, or does it give you just the deep shade you want to set out a dining table for long alfresco lunches or late dinners, with candlelight and with paper lanterns hung in the branches? Is it somewhere to sit and smoke a good cigar? Do the benefits repay you for the gloom it produces indoors in summer? An old, spreading apple or cherry tree by the door, even when it is past its best, can be a wonderful thing. Do not act in haste.
How much privacy do you want from a garden? Houses in the country may offer far-reaching views, and only ever catch the eye of God or of a storm. In urban areas, it is different. There will probably be fences that separate your garden from the next one. The houses may be close together semi-detached or terraced, and privacy, if required, will need to be created.
How do you feel about your neighbors? Do you want eye-to-eye contact every time you both step outside your back doors, or do you want your garden to be a hidden kingdom where you need acknowledge no one? Do you want a complete and solid privacy from a fence or evergreens, at least to eye level, or would you prefer the house be circled by a tracery of deciduous trees?
It is not an easy decision. Privacy is only gained at the price of reduced sunlight and views. Ocassionally, the views that are reduced are your neighbor’s. Sometimes a neighbor’s garden can itself be the perfect backdrop for your style of gardening: you can “borrow” next door’s garden. But if the house next door changes hands and the new owner erects a cheap and nasty garage right behind the focal pergola you spent all winter constructing, what then? If you have great ambitions for your gardening, there is a virtue in making yourself absolute master of all you can survey by doing the appropriate planting.
Peace and quiet
A silent garden is a wonderful thing. Absolute silence is almost impossible, for gardens are full of their own special noises of bird song and the sound of wind in the branches, foliage rustling, and perhaps water playing. But there may be sounds, and even smells, you want to block out. The worst and most common source of noise is traffic. The denser the planting, the more noise you will keep out, muffling it until it becomes acceptably hidden. If need be, think about turning a garden around, transferring the focus and social areas to the opposite end of the site if that will give you room to plant for better insulation.
As the years go by, garden lighting is becoming more and more sophisticated and safe, and increasingly used. Gardens at night have a completely different atmosphere than they have in the daytime. Shadows give a new dimension, and many perfumes reach their peak after dark. Why hide indoors when you can take a late stroll to breathe in the vanilla coffee perfume of night-scented stocks or bathe in honeysuckle and regal lilies.
Consider whether you would like to be able to use your garden at night. It is simple and cheap enough to install some lighting, but plan for it at the beginning, and lay the cables underground while you are doing the major work, at the start.
With care, you can do so much for a garden with lighting. Think beyond the usual halogen spot on the back of the house. That kind of light is flat and hard and high, and frequently also floodlights your neighbor’s garden, which is an unforgivable thing to do. White or very pale yellow light is kindest outdoors. Light a summerhouse from the inside and also with lanterns outside it. An upward-directed light or two used in shrubberies will show off the architectural foliage of a hardy palm or cordyline. If you want colored lights to work, use them very sparingly, or very cleverly, or not at all. Pools of red, green, and blue make the garden look more like a carnival ride. Get some advice.
Everything in its place
Your list of the garden’s functions is likely to include a few more basic necessities. Storage might be one, for tools, bicycles, garden furniture you may even want a greenhouse. Avid gardeners will want compost piles. Outdoor cooks will want barbecues. If all or any of these items are dear to your heart, try to find a place for them in an accessible part of the garden.
You may like to dry your laundry outdoors. Unfortunately, wash does not dry at night. Your laundry will not dry during the day, either, if you put the line in some secluded little space between trees, out of the wind and sun. Decide whether to have a straight line or rotary dryer and choose a place where it can remain permanently erected without being unsightly.
Find a place where, if it compromises some views across the garden, it does not ruin them all. Another thing: Life is short, isn’t it? Is there time for those little nylon slip-over covers that hide collapsed rotary dryers any more than there is time for knitted facial tissue box covers? On with the gardening, please.