Renovating Old Gardens

I have moved house, to a charming old farm house in the middle of nowhere. The first thing I did was to attack the neglected lawn, a sad sight consisting of lumps of dead grass deposited by successive uncollected mowings, coupled with grass so long that it lay flattened by the elements.

I first went over the lawn with my rotary mower with the blades set as high as they would go; then I raked vigorously in systematic strips, which removed most of the detritus and thatch. There is an art to raking such rugged terrain. First of all, you must choose the right rake for the job. In this case, it is the wire-tined ‘springbok’ kind that does the job best, as it eliminates having to tug too hard. It is a mistake to do it by pulling the rake towards you, because it causes too much strain, resulting in your lower back starting to ache soon after you have started the job. It is best to stand with as straight a back as possible and to rake from the left, then the right, alternating every few minutes, letting the arms do the work.

A subsequent mow with my beloved rotary Mountfield on a lower setting (two notches down) and a further rake had the desired transforming effect. A further mow a few days later with the blades set lower would have stopped the neighbours from gossiping that is if I had any. I also have neglected bush roses outside the drawing-room window. Judging by the thickness of their stems at the base, they must have been there some 20 years or more, and, despite their age and the fact that they cannot have seen a pair of secateurs for some considerable time, they look happy enough. They nestle close to the walls of the house and have therefore not succumbed to wind rock the plight of many a neglected rose. I am about to dead-head them; and come March, when the new shoots are visible, I will cut the branches back as hard as I dare, and give them a good mulch and a feed.

One of the most often quoted myths is that common yew (Taxus baccata) is slow growing. However, the word ‘slow’ needs to be quantified in the context of evergreen plants. Many dwarf conifers plants that I find difficult to place in the garden put on a mere inch, if that, per annum. The prickly hollies will put on about six inches, especially as young plants when they are trying to get their roots down, and depending on how rich a soil you give this notoriously greedy genus. At the other end of the scale, that unfortunate frenzied thug, the leyland cypress, is the fastest at about 3ft per year, once it is established.

Common yew will grow a steady and dignified 12in in a season. This is easily proved if you choose to shape a yew into ‘wedding cake’ tiers, which, to my mind, is the most effective shape for yew. A new tier is formed every year, and, within 10 years, you could have a very handsome piece of vegetative sculpture if it’s shaped into a tiered cone. In an average garden, the cutting and shaping of yew hedging and topiary can be completed with ease within the month of August. But at Levens Hall in Cumbria, the finest example of a topiary garden in Europe, the pruning sometimes carries on until Christmas and after.

Yew is indigenous to our shores and will grow in practically any soil, but the one thing it will not tolerate is poor drainage. In waterlogged conditions, individual plants will turn yellow and die, even in an established hedge of several years’ standing, when the main trunk needs to be sawn off at soil level. It is not the end of the world if that happens, because the two neighbouring plants will grow in to fill the gap after a few seasons.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on September 28, 2006