Mature gardens

Paradise lost or overgrown wilderness? Mature, established gardens can make hugely rewarding projects for new and experienced gardeners alike

So you've found yourself faced with a well-established, mature garden. Maybe it's a private paradise in need of some gentle rejuvenation, or perhaps it's overgrown wilderness, crying out for some tough love. Where do you start? How do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of?

Play the waiting game

If you're new to the property, live with it for a year, observing and noting down what happens. Gardens can be full of surprises - what at one time seems like a patch of bare soil beneath a tree could, in anther season, become a carpet of bulbs. That slightly boring-looking shrub could become covered in gorgeous, scented flowers in spring, or shock you with a brilliant show of autumn colour.

On the other hand, something that looks awful now could look awful for the other 364 days of the year. And if you arrive in winter, a diseased plant might not show any symptoms for several months, and perennial weeds like ground elder will be hiding below ground. You just don't know unless you wait and find out.

Take a flexible approach

Designs evolve over time - don't feel you have to stick with what's there, in terms of layout of paths, sheds, and other features, as well as the plants. What was right for a previous owner might be totally unsuited to your needs - or it might be really well thought out and just in need of refreshing. In a mature garden there are generally some elements worth saving.

Consider wildlife

Established gardens with mature trees and shrubs are often great for wildlife. Old trees, sheds and even conifers can sometimes be surprisingly valuable nesting habitats for birds, for example. So before you reach for the chainsaw or crowbar, have a look and see who's sharing your space.

Bear in mind that not all wildlife is visible all year round, and it's illegal to disturb some species, such as bats. So it really is worth waiting a year to do a thorough check. Climbing plants can be great allies in hiding unsightly features without compromising their wildlife value.

While you're waiting...

A year might seem like an incredibly long time to wait to get gardening, but it's definitely worth doing. In the meanwhile, grow plants in pots and windowboxes, gather inspiration, sow hardy annuals such as poppies and cornflowers and grow vegetables in any spare space. That way you'll have colour and something to eat as the year passes and your plot reveals its secrets. 

Dealing with plants that have got too big

If there are plants you like but are just too big or mis-shapen then there are lots of ways to sort them out. Different plants respond to pruning in different ways. For example, you can cut a camellia back to almost ground level and it will respond with lots of bushy new growth. Do that to a lavender and it will probably die rather quickly.

Expert gardening hack - crown lifting

In mature gardens there's one 'problem' that can often be turned into an advantage. Some plants, especially conifers and many shrubs, can become large and rather ungainly over time, resembling a huge green lump of leaves. However, they can still be very useful for providing structure in the garden, a wildlife habitat or privacy - or all three.

One way to keep these benefits but free up some space around them is to raise their canopy or 'crown lift' them. This simply means cutting away all or most of the side branches up to a certain height. By removing the leaves and smaller branches you create space underneath for smaller plants, show off the plant's structure and let more light and air through.

Beating the weeds

Weeds are pretty much inevitable in any garden, especially well-established ones. While it's worth waiting a year before making any big changes to your garden, start tackling weed infestations as soon as they become apparent. If weeds are choking a bed or border, it's a good idea to lift and pot up any plants you want to keep and then treating the whole area in one go.

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