How to Tame a Garden Jungle
So you've decided now is the time to tackle your jungle of a garden, but you don't know where - or how - to begin. How do you know which plants are worth keeping, which can be cut back safely and which should be removed entirely?
Thankfully, there are some handy tricks you can learn to help you identify what to do with any given plant you may find in your unruly beds, even if you have no idea what any of the plants there are called. The secret to knowing how to tackle this is to look carefully at plant shapes and plant habits. I'm going to introduce you to these key features and how you react to each one and this will enable you to get straight outside and start taming your garden with confidence.
When you first start tackling a really overgrown garden, you'll be ignoring shrubs, trees and climbing plants initially. These woody plants generally only need attention once or twice in a whole year, so are quite easy to take care of. It's the smaller perennials, biennials and annuals, that can give you heaps of work to do every week, unless you get them properly under control. Knowing which plants are going to be well behaved, which are garden thugs and how to deal with them all is all about careful observation of the plants' shapes and habits. We're going to look at three broad groupings.
1. THE CLUMPER
This plant type forms a neat rosette of leaves near the ground. The leaves are usually fairly large and all radiate out around the same central point. When you dig them up, there are two broad types.
They may have a cluster of narrow, fibrous roots, like threads of wool or cotton, emerging from the base of the plant or from a thicker mass of root at the base of the plant.
If not, you will most likely find they have a central, deep and thick tap root (or roots), possibly with additional fibrous roots. They generally don't link up with other plants via their roots or via overground trailing stems.
The fibrous rooted versions often form clusters of rosettes after a year or so, which, if you dig them up, can be gently pulled apart to make more plants, each with a rosette of leaves and with its own cluster of fibrous roots. Flowers emerge from the centre, either in a low cluster of flowers, as a single, tall, central spire or a central cluster of spires. Well known examples include foxgloves, primroses, hostas and dandelions.
Clumpers can be well behaved and really useful garden plants, but they can also be garden thugs, so look a little closer to determine which type your plants are. Difficult clumpers have two key features - they are those that seed around and that are then really hard to remove as they have thick tap roots and will regrow from any root left behind in the soil.
If you've identified that a plant in your jungly garden is a clumper take a closer look to see if it's a keeper or not. Firstly, work out if it is seeding about - check to see how many of them there are. If it's just a few isolated individuals, you can be pretty confident they're not seeding around and will be well behaved garden plants that will reward your care with some fantastic flowers. If there are absolutely loads, you can be equally confident that it seeds about prolifically. This isn't necessarily a bad thing! If this is the case for you, dig a few of these self seeded plants up and take a look at the roots. Thin, fibrous rooted plants are easy to dig up and very often make good garden plants. We'll come back to how to deal with these below.
If, however, you find a thick, deep tap root or cluster of thick, deep, tap roots, you have a garden thug and they all need removing. Tap roots are roots that are thick and go straight down.
Badly behaved clumpers include dandelions, burdock (right) and common comfrey. There are many others, but they all share those characteristics - they seed about and have tap roots. Every badly behaved clumper needs to be weeded out to avoid a massive weeding headache in the future when they all set seed. Every piece of their thick tap roots must be removed to avoid them growing back. If time is short, at the very least remove flowers and seed heads, to avoid seeding in more of these tough plants.
Let's go back to those more easy going self seeding clumpers - the fibrous rooted ones. These are much easier to deal with. Use your own judgement about whether you like the look of this plant when deciding whether to keep it. It may be a native wildflower or a garden plant - both can be beautiful! If it isn't flowering yet, it is always worth keeping just a few at least to see what it does when it flowers.
Foxgloves (left) and primroses (above) are both examples of self seeding clumpers that make great garden plants - as long as you let a few seed each year, they are readily available to fill empty spaces in beds, but because of their relatively short, fibrous roots, they are easily weeded out in any areas where you don't want them. Keep these plants, or any other fibrous rooted clumpers you may find and transplant them into gaps in your newly tidied flower beds. Tidy up foxgloves and other tall clumpers after flowering by cutting back flower stems to just above the rosette of leaves.
Well behaved clumpers, whether self seeding or not, are really useful plants to have around and don't take much effort to look after. They don't expand their territory too quickly and then tend to form a nice, thick layer of weed suppressant leaves over the ground. Look after these plants. Arrange them into drifts to make good use of their often very beautiful leaves and to create lovely big blocks of colour when they burst into flower.
2. THE CREEPER
Creeping plants are a relatively small group that contains a few useful and attractive garden plants, but also some real pesky characters that are fast moving and quite sneaky, so if you find some, look out!
Creeping plants are those that creep about and expand by sending out horizontal stems that reach out and periodically form new plantlets by setting down roots into the ground and above these roots, a cluster of shoots or leaves. Strawberries (below), periwinkle (below), wild (or creeping) thyme, creeping buttercup, creeping cinqfoil (right) and bramble are all examples of this growth habit. These plants can appear to behave like a gentle clumper, but suddenly, as soon as your back is turned it seems - they launch out, filling the ground with new plants that need thorough removal. These plants will be joined together by their characteristic horizontal stems, like children holding hands.
There are two shapes to look out for with creeping plants - firstly those that grow low to the ground in a dense arrangement of arching stems that root frequently where they touch the ground. Wild thyme and lesser periwinkle (left) are good examples. This type of creeping plant tends to be quite easy to control and with a little care, can be a really welcome, ground covering addition to your garden. They work well around trees, shrubs, or next to a good sized stand of well behaved clumpers. These relatively well behaved, woody sub-shrubs can easily be controlled in size by trimming the outer edges of the plant in the spring time, or for a more drastic reduction in size if you have a huge stand - by chopping off the outer edges of the plant's mass, using a garden spade to cut through the roots and a large fork to lift these sections out. Keep these sections to transplant into any suitable areas once the bed is cleared.
The other type of creeping plant you may find has a more loose growing shape, with long runners that set down to the ground to create tightly rooting plantlets. Beware these very cheeky chancers! Examples of this type of growth pattern include creeping buttercup, wild strawberry (below), cinqfoil (above) and bramble.These plants are very trixy and I can't think of a single one that is worth hanging on to in a flower bed situation. Weed them out thoroughly, taking care to remove the thick roots of cinqfoil and bramble in particular. All of these plants creep happily through grass and can cause havoc where lawn or areas of rough grass butts up against beds. Use lawn edging or cut a vertical edge to your lawn, with the bed gently sloping away from it to make it easier to spot these plants making a break for the open space of your flower bed from their hiding spot amongst the grass.
3. THE SPREADER
The third and final plant grouping we are looking at is that of the spreading plant. This group contains some classic garden plants, but also the most pernicious of garden thugs.
Spreading plants are those with many stems emerging from the ground, usually densely arranged, side by side and over a steadily increasing area of the ground. Stems are connected together underground by fat roots and most roots from this type of plant are between the thicknesses of phone cables and pencils. Plants spread by extending their roots outwards and then by pushing up new shoots from these root extensions. Flowers emerge all over the plant's mass, either low down over the leafy base of the plant or on the ends of multiple, long stems. Well known examples include hardy geraniums, rudbeckia (below) and michaelmas daisy (above and below). Weeds of this category include some of the hardest to control - nettle, creeping thistle, couch grass and the dreaded bind weed (all pictured below).
This type of plant will always need you to keep an eye on it as it is constantly expanding through the roots and taking over more ground. Not a problem if it does this slowly, and there are many traditional garden plants that fall into this category. However, some are really fast and may need removing entirely. As they spread, they can either totally flood over those lovely clumping plants, or - even more difficult to deal with - they can intertwine totally with neighbouring spreaders to make a confused mass of mixed plant types that are often best dug up and disposed of.
Happily, spreaders don't tend to seed around as readily as some of the clumpers do, so controlling them is mainly a case of digging some (or all) of them up. If you're dealing with one of the obvious weedy spreaders, such as nettle, couch grass, creeping thistle and bindweed (all pictured above), take great care to remove every piece of root. Dig them up and then come back at least one more time and re-dig over the area to make sure it is entirely removed before planting long-lived plants here. These plants will spread right through the roots of any plant in their way and the effort of digging them out at this point can result in the death of that unwitting garden plant.
Other than these key garden weeds, it is usually worth keeping some of any mystery spreading plant to see what the flowers are like. Make a note of how quickly the plant expands over the course of the next year though - if too quick for you, then be really hard nosed about it and remove it entirely. If it expands slowly, keep an eye on it - you may need to remove a small section of the plant each year or every couple of years or so, to stop it from taking over. When doing this, cut sections away from the outer edge, using a spade to slice through the fat roots and a large garden fork to lift out these unwanted pieces. Be sure to remove all of the root as it is likely to grow back from any fragments left behind. These plants are very resilient to being cut through with a spade. The pieces left behind will grow away without any trouble.
For beautifully flowering varieties of spreading plants, take advantage of their growth habit and replant any sections you've removed elsewhere in the garden to create gorgeous splashes of colour garden-wide. Note that you can be quite rough with these plants without upsetting them too much - their thick roots are very resilient. Self seeded clumping plants, such as dandelions and primroses, can be weeded out from within their mass without harming the spreader in the long-term. Look after these plants and they will reward you with a fantastic show of colour through the summer months.
So get out into the garden and seek out these clumpers, creepers and spreaders.
Now you know the shapes you're looking for, you should be able to immediately spot the problem plants - masses of unruly clumpers, with their irregularly scattered pattern of self seeded plants, spreaders running roughshod through other plant's territory with their armies of multiple stems and creepers densely filling the ground or looping long stems over and through their neighbours.
You'll also be able to spot which plants to keep and spread around to begin to fill out your new beds with beautiful flowers throughout the season. Look out for those friendly clumpers, tidy spreaders and neat, densely growing creepers. Give them some breathing room, arrange them into drifts and clusters and enjoy the unfolding show as they bring colour - and some welcome order - into your garden.
So dig out the garden fork and get stuck in!