How to restore a garden from wilderness

Restoring a garden from a wilderness requires aggressive editing. Fourteen years ago, and for years after, chopping back was the main focus for our work. More recently, there has been a shift in emphasis. Where we once chopped, we now cultivate and propagate, mow and plant. In the meantime, some of our original plantings have grown stout thorns and sturdy bark for protection. They have formed thickets and thrown out limbs where they’re not wanted, so the cycle of editing and removal has started again. Only this time, we edit the plants we had chosen.

We’re not quite at that stage in our Long Borders-but near it. All is well, the bamboo hasn’t yet got out of control, nor has the comfrey, but they’re just waiting for us to look the other way before they start a riot.

The Long Borders at Easton are two east-facing borders between a yew hedge and a gravel path. A gate at the entrance of the Yew Tunnel separates them. When the house was demolished in the 1950s, the borders succumbed to nature. All that remained was a 90-yard length of bindweed, nettles and ground elder, topped off with assorted sycamore and elder trees-a situation that my brother might call ‘a bad business’. By this, he means a lot of things need tackling, but, for the sake of family peace, we had better not go there.

To reclaim the borders, we started hacking and heaving, then applied strong herbicides. This is often the only way to deal with areas that are seriously out of control, but a scorched-earth policy doesn’t come naturally to us. However, there were still residual weeds and, in subsequent years, we hit on a better solution.

Early in our project, I had heard of Nigel Dunnett’s innovative planting schemes using annual flowers. (His work with James Hitchmough reached an international audience when they created the ethereal Olympic Park meadows in 2012.) A decade before this, he was using seed mixes of annuals to create beautiful, wildlife-rich plantings requiring minimal maintenance on the roundabouts of Sheffield. Even better for us, he was selling the seed and we bought his ‘short’ mix by the kilogram, sowing it every year for three years.

Recommended videos for you

* Subscribe to Country Life and save

Preparing the ground for the seeds each spring gave us ample opportunity to remove re-emerging pernicious weeds. In the summer, poppies, cornflowers, Queen Anne’s lace and coreopsis hummed with hoverflies and provided a haze of red, blue, white and gold. When autumn came, both borders were turned over and became fallow. The following spring, the beds were carefully weeded before sowing again. By 2007, we had had some glorious summers of colour and, at last, were left with a clear area to plant.

If you have a weed-infested perennial border you just can’t clear, try taking everything out and using temporary plantings with sown annuals for a couple of years. This careful, little-and-often approach is the key to demolishing running weeds and provides months of colour to keep morale high. There is one disadvantage to broadcasting annuals. Before flowering began, visitors used to comment on the ‘weeds’, so, now, we still sow the same mixture, but restrict it to confined blocks among roses, catmint, species rudbeckias, daylilies and lupins.

Tim, who manages the borders, mixes the seeds with sand and sows in horizontal rows so that we can see where our young annuals are emerging and they don’t get weeded out. By now, they’re providing accents of colour among the soft blues and yellows of our main scheme. And a hit of poppy red is a great way to liven up a border that’s become bogged down in its own tastefulness.
For Pictorial Meadow seed mixes, visit

* This article was first published in Country Life on July 9 2014

* Find out more on Easton walled gardens

* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter

* Subscribe to Country Life and save