Landscape a new site from scratch

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Last updated June 2014
Daunted by that awful plot that the builders left behind? Read on to find out exactly what to do, and in what order, to save yourself time and trouble.
1. Introduction
2. First things first on a new site for a garden
3. Dealing with existing weeds on a new site
4. Clearing and levelling the ground on a new site
5. Dealing with steep slopes and topsoil on a new site
6. When moving soil around a site – remember
7. Wet ground and drainage on a new site
8. Building work next on a new site
9. Framework planting next on a new site
10. Final jobs on a new site

1. Introduction

Don’t rush into this – take some time to analyse a site’s problems and plan your approach.Landscaping is a bit like carpentry or dress making too – some steps are irreversible so you have to throw it all away and start again, which is expensive in materials, time and effort.

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2. First things first on a new site for a garden

  • Before you start any work, consider:
    Any trees to remove? (perhaps too tall, too close to house, dead, unwanted).
  • Any rubbish to remove?
  • Topsoil required?
  • Poor drainage after heavy rain?
  • Is the ground compacted due to recent heavy traffic during building work?
  • Does the ground need levelling with machinery?

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3. Dealing with existing weeds on a new site

Weedkiller

If the site is totally overgrown with weeds, spray with weedkiller first so that you can then see the ground.

Glyphosate-based weedkillers will kill most weeds but not brambles, which need a woody weedkiller. Nettles are tough plants that need repeat applications of glyphosate, or the stronger woody weedkiller. Alternatively, cut down the tops so that you can dig the roots up without being stung.

NB If there are caterpillars present on the nettle leaves, wait a week or so until they turn into butterflies.

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4. Clearing and levelling the ground on a new site

Clear the rubbish

Once the ground is visible, clear any rubbish on the surface or buried just below it – probe with a crowbar to find buried rubble. Not all of it has to be removed, but large items can block drainage, break the cultivator and stop you digging tree/shrub planting holes. So don’t feel you have to clear the whole site – just have some idea of your planting scheme first so you can plan where you do need a good depth of soil.

Compacted and uneven ground

If the site has been heavily compacted by builder’s machinery and feet (indicated by rock-hard ground and standing water after heavy rain), then you need to break up this solid layer with a pick, crowbar, spade or cultivator, depending on the total area and your energy.

Once you have workable soil, decide on levels and redistribute soil by hand or with a bulldozer to get an even surface.

Leveling rakes:
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5. Dealing with steep slopes and topsoil on a new site

Steep slopes

These will need retaining walls to stop soil washing away. Terracing is the most practical way of dealing with a slope so that you have some flat areas for a patio and any strutures (shed, greenhouse and so on). Grassed slopes may seem the perfect answer but are awkward to mow as they are often slippery.

Topsoil

If you already have good topsoil, ensure that it does not become buried beneath subsoil during levelling operations. Digger drivers need supervision on this!

Once all the levels are right, order topsoil if necessary and be there to accept delivery. Do not let the driver tip it until you have inspected it for unwanted clay, large amounts of weed and rubble. Once tipped you won’t be able to persuade the driver to re-load it by hand. Reject poor loads and buy elsewhere.

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6. When moving soil around a site – remember

Beware damp-courses

Don’t pile soil above the damp-course of buildings. The final level of the surface should be six inches below the damp-course so that rain-splash doesn’t wet the wall above. Remember to also allow for the thickness of any paving and bedding sand on top of the soil.

Protect plants

Don’t pile soil higher than previously found around the trunks and stems of trees and shrubs as this could kill them.

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7. Wet ground and drainage on a new site

Cultivating the ground should improve the drainage.

Plants for wet ground

Wet areas can be exploited by growing plants which tolerate or need wet roots, eg shrubby willows, hostas, primulas, guelder rose, native daffodil, dogwoods. For more ideas, see Crocus’ list of suggestions for damp or boggy ground in the shade, with some plants suitable for sun too.

Drains?

If water still stands for a long while after rain, think about installing drains. But remember that bare ground which appears to be badly drained is improved greatly once planted – plants use all the moisture.

Drains have to take the water somewhere – either to a large hole filled with stones (a sump) or to another drainage system (check with the relevant authority).

Paving reduces drainage area

Remember when you are designing your garden that paved surfaces create a double whammy – reducing the area of soil for dispersing water and producing run-off.

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8. Building work next on a new site

Do all building work next eg paths, patios, drives, fences, walls, bases/foundations for sheds, glasshouse, garage, summerhouse, pond, raised beds, electrical installations (and draw a plan of buried cables for future reference by you and next occupants).If a manhole cover is higher or lower than the surrounding area, see if the hole is constructed in sections. These can be removed or added to.

After the building work is complete, check that ground levels are still OK. Are gradients gentle and will the lawn be easy to mow right up to its edge?

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9. Framework planting next on a new site

Plant the main framework of the garden before putting in the lawn, because a new lawn shouldn’t be walked on for a while, to allow it to establish. So plant any hedges, trees and shrubs first. Before planting trees and shrubs, set them (or canes) out on the ground and view them from the house windows, doors and any other viewpoint to decide on final planting positions. Remember to check the height and width that the plant will achieve in 10 years – you may find that one shrub which is larger than the rest when purchased will not grow much taller, while a smaller specimen may reach a greater height. So don’t make the mistake of planting smaller specimens in front of larger ones without checking their potential growth.

If you have planned a rockery, then put this in at this stage too, plus any final touches to a pond, before sowing or laying the lawn. Preparation for lawns is the same whether you turf or sow. Turfing is instant, but hard work and expensive. Sowing a lawn is for the patient gardener, but it is much cheaper, so there is less financial loss if a subsequent drought means you have to start again. And with seed you have more choice of the type of grass you want, although some turf companies do provide different grades of turf. Finally, do remember mower access – make sure that you’ll be able to get the mower onto the lawn easily.

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10. Final jobs on a new site

Deciding the lawn’s shape

When the lawn is ready for its first cut, mow around the perimeter in the shape that you want, and use this as a guide to cutting the new lawn edges. In this way you’ll have a lawn edge which is easy to follow with a mower. Don’t let the garden control you! Awkward areas are better reshaped than struggling to mow them.

Weed control

All this ground disturbance will mean a flush of weeds, so pay particular attention to hoeing and hand-weeding so that the weeds don’t flower, set seed and cause further problems. Eventually the weed seed in the soil’s surface will become exhausted and you will have less weeding to do.

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