Rejuvenating old gardens

25. January 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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Private garden © Isabelle van Groeningen

Private garden with encroaching shrubbery

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche ÜbersetzungZum deutschen Text – Sitting in my Doctor’s waiting room this week I had plenty of time to look out into the garden. Situated in one of Berlin’s leafy suburbs, it is a typical villa-garden, with a small grassy front garden, overshadowed by a large larch tree. The back garden is a rectangular plot, consisting of a central grass space, surrounded by a slowly encroaching mass of shrubs. Once upon a time, somebody invested a lot of thought, time and energy in this green lung.

Overwhelming greenery

Nothing special, nothing unusual. There are thousands such gardens. Plots where the owner (or the tenant) feels crus-hed by it all. The work is limited to damage-limitation measures, by airing the lawn-mower occasionally to keep the grass short, maybe rake some leaves in autumn and colour is provided by planting a few bedding plants in a few pots or balcony boxes on the terrace. Some call it ecologically friendly, I just find them sad places that are missed opportu-nities.

Where to start?

If you are confronted with such gardens and are not sure where to start, the first reaction is often to remove everything and start again from scratch. Although this approach can induce the feeling of liberation (at least for a brief moment) it is ecologically a disaster as so many homes of birds, insects and other valuable garden inhabitants are disturbed. It can also mean the loss of valuable garden treasures as valuable garden plants can hide in the wilderness. Beautiful old Lilacs, deliciously scented Philadelphus and characterful old roses hide as they have often stopped flowering in their struggle for survival.

Have a close look

Parkplatz der Gartenakademie in 2005, bevor Bau-anfang: eine grüne Wand © Isabelle van Groeningen

Car park at the Garden Academy in 2005 before works started: A green wall

It is worth taking stock of what is really there, what are unwanted seedlings, what is part of the original planting. If two plants are too close together, which is the most important one. It is not necessarily the most beautiful one, it can be the one that fulfils a particular function like hiding an eyesore or providing a windbreak. Look at it from every angle, including the views from the main rooms in the house.

Park Platz der Gartenakademie nach eröffnung: wertvolle Bäume und Sträucher erhalten © Isabelle van Groeningen

KGA carpark-after opening: valuable trees and shrubs retained

Take your time

Crawl through the shrubbery to try and find the original layout and structure of the garden and consider how its use has changed. Think before you take action. What to remove, what to leave. What to prune back hard, or possibly raise and thin out the crown. Most importantly: Use this quiet time of year to take your time. Sleep another night over your decisions as some actions are irreversible or will take many years to recover.

Don’t live with plants you don’t like

Which plants do you love, which ones not. Life is too short to spend time with people you dislike, why spend time with plants that don’t like? Unless a plant fulfils an important function which others cannot do (like grow in a particu-larly difficult situation) there is no reason to continue the relationship. If small enough, dig it out, put it in a bag and place it outside your garden gate. A neighbour will be delighted with his or her unexpected new acquisition!

Gentle approach

Blick entlang der Gewächshäuser der Gartenakademie 2005: zugewachsene Koniferen © Isabelle van Groeningen

View along the greenhouses at the Garden Academy in 2005: overgrown conifers

Working with the existing vegetation, pruning, cutting, thinning is not only gentle on the ecological balance of your garden, it is also gentle on the purse. Preserving large plants, means you do not have to replace everything and start again from scratch. It will provide you with a mature framework which can be the background to exciting new planting.

Gleiche Ansicht nach der Eröffnung: Krone aufgeastet © Isabelle van Groeningen

Same view after opening: crown lifted – Gleiche Ansicht nach der Eröffnung: Krone aufgeastet

Look at old Photos

Old photographs are valuable reminders of what the garden used to look like. It may be worth visiting your local archive to see if any old images, including aerial photographs, reveal more about the original layout and planting of the place.

Stephen Anderton: Rejuvenating a Garden

If you want to learn more about this, we have the expert in this matter coming to the Garden Academy on the 19th February to give a course on how to rejuvenate an old garden. As a professional gardener with many years hands-on experience working in- and managing historic gardens, Stephen Anderton will share his great knowledge in a very down-to-earth manner. His first book was on this subject (the only one ever published), now sadly out of print and only available through antiquarian booksellers. I’m looking forward to hearing him. Learn more about this event at KGA…

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