Take plenty of time to think outside the box
Buying a house? Read this checklist before you view, writes Gerry Daly
As more houses and apartments are being built or re-furbished, a range of site and garden issues should be considered, if only to discount their significance. One of the most important issues is whether your garden is overlooked. If neighbouring houses overlook the garden, where you place garden features, such as paving, may be affected, but after a time, believe it or not, this is a concern that gradually reduces in significance. Other issues are shade, which can be caused by neighbouring buildings, trees that grow bigger but are owned by neighbours, and high walls.
If you are lucky, your new neighbours might have established mature trees that you can use as backdrop to your garden. They can even look better from your side. Walk past the house to see how it looks from the road. Check the position of the sun at noon, that is, when it is due south. This will dictate how bright and sunny the house or apartment will be and at what time of day. It will also decide how useful it will be for growing plants and leisure, particularly, for children's play.
Each location has its own special micro-climate, even within the garden. If your garden is on the south-facing side of a hill, for example, it will be sunny and warm. If you are at the top of a hill, or an apartment block, wind exposure will be greater but an elevated site usually has nice views. Near the sea, salty winds can do a lot of damage, but a seaside garden suffers less severe frost. Areas within a few miles of the coast are less prone to frost; inland gardens are much colder. The presence of full-grown cordyline palms is a good indicator that the area is not severely frosty.
Note the direction of the prevailing wind; mostly, it is from the southwest, but it can be influenced locally by the layout of the street, hills, or coastal topography. Established trees will give you a good indication of wind strength and direction; they lean away from strong winds. Noise from roads, or factories, can be a factor to consider. Dust can sometimes be a nuisance, too. Trees help to reduce both of these problems.
Many apartments have a balcony that can be a garden miniature and, like any garden, has aspects of size and orientation to assess, along with load-bearing capacity and wind exposure unique to high-rise blocks.
The garden space, however small, usually has a role to play with drains, manhole covers, septic tanks and soakaways. Sometimes these have been placed to the detriment of all the garden's other possibilities. Sometimes there is no alternative, but it is worth seeking advice on if they interfere with your plans. The placement of the house itself, if still in design, can be very significant and worth considering. It is common for large houses on their own sites to be placed unnecessarily far back from the public road, with the result that much of the space is too open to the passing public, and, essentially, valuable space is wasted.
If you can, dig a soil test-hole 30-40cm deep, or have a look at a test hole dug for the septic tank. You will be able to see what depth of dark top-soil there is. If the subsoil is much paler than the top-soil, it is quite poor. If it is nearly as brown, then it is good soil. If the subsoil is bluish grey and sticky, the ground is waterlogged and only plants that like wet ground can be grown. Compacted soil in suburban back gardens is also grey and can cause poor drainage for decades. Winter is the best time to assess drainage. Dig a few holes and see if they fill with water and how long they take to drain. If it takes more than a few days after heavy rain stops, you need to improve drainage.
Sandy open soils are easy to work but tend to dry out in summer. Sticky clay soils are very fertile but lumpy and heavy to work. The ideal is in between, called loam. In addition, do a soil test to see if the soil is acid or limey. Pink or red flowers on hydrangeas indicate a limey soil; blue flowers, an acid one. Then you can grow rhododendron, pieris, camellia and other lime-hating plants.
Decisions based on these observations may have good or bad consequences for decades.
PRESENT IT: For the gardener in your life - this year's Royal Horticultural Society Desk Diary features delicately beautiful botanical illustrations by Beatrix Stanley from the RHS Lindley Library in a week-to-view format with storage pocket and ribbon market, €16.05 from good bookstores
PLANT IT: There are not many plants that flower in November and those that do are to be greatly valued. The river lily from South Africa is an exceptional flower that appears usually in late October and flowers well into November. Even spells of frost do not deter this seemingly delicate but remarkably tough plant.
VISIT IT: The wonderful Russborough House in Wicklow will transform its historic halls into a Yuletide wonderland from today until December 22. Call over to take a tour and enjoy cookies and chocolate or mulled wine and mince pies; weekdays: noon, hourly to 4pm; weekends, also 11am; bookings for 4pm tour; eventbrite.com