The garden of a new house may look pristine, but newly-laid patios and lawns can hide a multitude of sins. Take time to assess the site and soil before putting your own stamp on the garden.
Timing All year round
Some new-build homes may have custom designed and landscaped gardens, but most homebuyers will typically be faced with paving, turf or bare, levelled ground and a feature tree.
When to work on new build gardens
How to improve new build gardens
A new garden can seem daunting but, if you break down the task into simple steps, it will be much easier to tackle.
1. Site assessment
- Consider what kind of garden you want and therefore what to retain. Many keen gardeners will want large planting areas or somewhere for fruit and vegetables; families may need hard-wearing lawns and more privacy
- Inspect the lawns. If poorly laid it may be only a matter of time before defects appear. On heavy clay, lawns will also deteriorate with the winter wet while, over a sandy soil, they will become starved and prone to drought. It may be better to lift the existing turf, prepare the site and relay it
- Check the identity and suitability of any trees and shrubs. Only smaller trees are suitable near buildings. Tall growing trees a few metres (or yards) from the house may be best removed promptly
- Inspect the site in wet weather for signs of waterlogging; in some gardens it may be necessary to install drainage
- Make a realistic plan of what needs to be done, in what order and how long it is likely to take
2. Soil improvement
- In new developments, existing top soil is usually removed prior to building; construction traffic then compacts the exposed sub-soil. Debris and surplus aggregates may be discarded and covered over when soil is brought in to landscape the site. This results in an unnatural soil profile and a poor rooting environment for plants
- The imported top soil may vary in quality. A soil analysis will provide information about soil type, texture and pH, organic matter content and major plant nutrients that will help inform you about what action to take
- Although hard work, soil cultivation such as double digging the entire garden is a good idea, allowing for the removal of debris and breaking up compacted subsoil. Rotavating is a less strenuous alternative for large areas when the soil is dry but beware of buried rubble and wire. Also bear in mind that on clay soils and in wet weather, the action of a rotary cultivator can seriously damage soil structure and cause a pan (a layer of hard soil compacted beneath the blades) to form
- Most soils on new builds will be low in nutrients. Spread whatever organic matter is available over the dug soil, (at least one bucketful per square metre) and fork or rotovate it in. A dressing of general-purpose fertiliser can also be applied
- If you decide to buy additional topsoil, ensure it meets British Standards and request a representative sample for your approval
3. Designing and planning
- Create a scale drawing of the plot on squared A3 paper; 2cm to 1 metre works well (metric is easier than imperial for this purpose). Measure out the area using a tape measure and pegs. Most new plots will be relatively rectangular and the house walls will provide straight lines to work off. Mark the position of inspection covers, drains and sewers. Use a compass and record the direction the garden faces
- Some kind of design is advisable to ensure garden features are sited well, are in proportion with each other and meet your needs. For more information go to our garden design pages
- At this stage, or earlier, you may decide to employ a garden designer. Professional designers consider the uses the new garden will be put to, the style desired and the physical constraints of the site and will produce a plan to work from
4. Hard landscaping
- If the site slopes steeply, it may be necessary to put in retaining walls. Some people can undertake this themselves but most are advised to employ a qualified builder or landscape contractor
- Where a fence has to be erected to increase privacy, consider the height and materials carefully. Fences above 1.8m (6ft) require planning permission
- If provision for extra off-street car parking is needed, consider something more environmentally-friendly and attractive than extensive tracts of tarmac or block paving.
- Choose the right plant for the right place. Use the site and soil as a guide to plant selection: do plants need to be drought resistant, shade tolerant, able to cope with coastal conditions, wet soils or clay soils
- Use the RHS Plant Selector for ideas
- Consider when and where you want colour or interest in the garden – plants can provide spring, summer, autumn and even winter interest
- Choose trees carefully. There are many trees suitable for small gardens. These are usually best planted as young specimens and allowed to establish in position
- Hedges and windbreaks may be needed to provide shelter, privacy, structure or to attract wildlife
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.