Diarmuid Gavin: Digging deep - autumn is the ideal season for a garden overhaul
My house, which I moved into nine years ago, was originally a show home designed, inside and out, to tempt buyers. A landscaping firm had been commissioned to plant the garden before I got there, and it suited me to live with their work for the first three to four years. Besides, I was remodelling the interior of the house at the time and making decisions about the type of garden we wanted.
Very early on, I planted some fruit trees but not much more than that. It was an awkward site in that it sloped away from the house and large-scale levelling works would be necessary before any big decisions were made on an overall theme.
And so, the showhouse planting survived. What do I mean by show-house planting? The type of trees and shrubs that were cheap, easily available, familiar, grew fast and adapted to most situations.
With trees, it was birch, sorbus and thuja… they sprung up everywhere. With shrubs it was the commonest garden centre selection: Viburnum tinus, cornus, elaeagnus, ribes, ceanothus, forsythia, mahonia, griselinia and cherry laurel (Prunus lusitanica) - all species that are easily propagated and ones which shine in a profusion of flowers in spring.
Once I conquered an irrational fear of planning my own space, we developed a plan. The hard landscaping was done and terraces were installed. We had lawns across three different levels, beautiful rectangular ponds and even a fancy verandah. We giddily planted up our new garden, taking great delight visiting specialist nurseries and garden centres, filling the boot - and sometimes the passenger footwell - with acquisitions.
After a number of Chelsea Flower Shows, refugee plants would make their way to my garden to become talking points. And in the last few years, the whole plot has put on quite a show.
However, recently, I've decided that I have to look at the framework and get rid of all those show-house plants which clung to the boundaries, hoping against hope that they weren't being noticed. They have done a great job - creating habitats for wildlife, producing seasonal dazzling displays and adding a lush green backdrop to all the new plantations. But, as firmly rooted as they are, my innate gardening snobbery is kicking in and they're just not quite special enough.
Over the past week I've embarked upon the great garden removal. I've attacked with spades, shovels, hacksaws, secateurs, loppers, knives and shredders and there has been a blitz of the old guard. And maybe, following my belated example, it's time for you to reconsider your planting. Autumn is a wonderful time for removal. When the leaves start to fall from shrubs, it makes it easy to see the framework and assess the jobs.
If you decide on a clear-out, these are my top 10 tips:
1 You'll be amazed at the amount of space you find…
2 But beware - the foot soldiers of the garden may be propping up your fences. I've certainly exposed some weak points in my boundary fences recently.
3 The amount of light that pours in after removing plants that are in the wrong place is very pleasing.
4 Somewhere in your mind, have a plan. Many of these plants provided privacy so imagine what you would like in their places. Next week, I'm going to tell you about the special plants that I am going to hunt down to replace what's gone.
5 The soil under these plants is dry as a dustbowl. I'll have to do remedial work with the soil to produce a beautiful loam to hold moisture around the new roots.
6 The clock has gone back, the days are shorter but my enthusiasm for change doesn't wane until darkness has set. That sometimes means that I leave tools outdoors overnight. Many of these jobs will require sharp tools but possibly not your best ones, as some may get lost.
7 Buy or hire a shredder to create mulch so that you can produce a blanket of humus material to keep the soil warm - the real winter cold is on its way.
8 Remember wildlife habitats. Don't have a scorched-earth policy and ensure there is still plenty of foliage for birds, bees and insects.
9 Some shrubs don't need to be removed entirely - they just need to be reshaped or hard-pruned. I'm finding that some viburnum and griselinia will still do excellent screening jobs because they have the height now but, as with when I get my hair cut, some thinning-out enhances the picture!
10 You want the soil to be as clean as possible for replanting, so it will take some clever digging and cutting - using sturdy stems of large shrubs as levers - to prise out all of the roots.