Modifying an Existing Garden


In the majority of cases, planning involves modifying an existing garden rather than creating a completely new one. There are many reasons for wishing to redesign a garden, for example:

  • When moving into a new house, you may wish to change all or part of the existing garden design to suit your personal preferences.
  • The character or layout of a garden may need to be adapted for a different use, such as providing greater privacy, space for a vegetable patch or play areas.
  • You may wish to adapt a high maintenance level garden's style to reduce the amount of work needed.
  • A neglected or overgrown garden may require restoration to re-establish its original design.

If you are faced with an overgrown garden, full of weeds, neglected shrubs and overhanging trees, try to resist the temptation to start work straightaway and dig up the entire plot. It is much better to proceed with caution as the garden may be concealing some useful or interesting plants that you may wish to keep. The inclusion of one or two more mature specimens in a newly designed garden can provide a framework around which to design the planting scheme and also helps to offset a raw appearance.

The ideas for redesigning your garden should be allowed to develop gradually so that they incorporate the best of the inherited features, rather than forcing a predetermined image on the site. If at all possible, you should aim to live with the garden as it is for a calendar year, making notes on any features that may be worth keeping, such as a shrub that brightens a dull corner with a display of colourful berries in winter, or an overgrown hedge that provides valuable shelter from prevailing winds.

It may also help to take panoramic pictures of the garden at intervals throughout the first year, to catch all four seasons. Take them from both upstairs and downstairs windows looking out; these will help you identify and remember the good and bad points, including plants and other features that may be worth saving.

During this initial period, additional interest and colour may be provided by bedding plants, containers, and fast-growing annual climbers trained on trellis. Routine maintenance work such as removing perennial weeds, pruning damaged and dead wood from shrubs and trees, cutting grass and clipping hedges should be carried out as normal to keep the garden in good condition.


There are a number of features that you will need to focus on during your first year:

1. Boundaries

Walls should be sound, with no sign of cracks or leaning; you may need to seek expert advice on any obvious defects. Fences should be sound, with no rotten or broken gravel boards, broken pickets or loose panels. Any damage should be repaired as soon as possible, or replaced if the damage is too great. Overgrown hedges can be restored over a period of time by trimming and pruning if you like the hedge but not its current looks. However, any Leylandii hedge that has turned brown should be removed, as they will not regenerate at the base.

2. Hard Surfaces

Patios, paths and steps may be in disrepair. Initially, decide whether you like their materials and whether they are in the right position. Paths should act as a framework for your garden and lead to useful places such as your greenhouse and compost heap.

Carry out any repairs, or, if you plan to change them, plan exactly what you are going to do instead. Take a look at our article in our Garden Feature section for details on how to renovate your patio.

3. Structural Features

Check the timber of pergolas and arches for rot, and any metal for rusting through. Repair them if plants require support, or remove if they're no longer needed. Also check the soundness of the sides of raised beds. Are they in the right place? Do they block views from the house?

4. Trees

Check with your council if you have large mature trees in your garden that you want to remove or prune. Trees are often protected by tree preservation orders (TPOs), and if you live in a conservation area, they are usually covered (although fruit trees are normally exempt). You must check BEFORE you carry out any work, as stiff fines can be imposed.

Sound and safe old trees can be given a new lease of life as support for climbing plants, climbing frames or space for hammocks and swings to hang. They may also cast useful shade and provide good screening from wind and ugly views. Large canopies can be lifted, and branches can be thinned. This is often best carried out by a tree surgeon who will maintain the overall shape of your trees.

5. Shrubs

These can usually be moved, and many will be able to withstand a good hard prune. A good rule of thumb is to look at the base of the plant; if it has just one stem from the ground, its unlikely to throw out new shoots if you cut it hard back.

However, if a plant has been starved and is at the end of its useful life, it will not be able to regenerate as well as some shrubs which may look larger, but still have an underlying youthful vigour. If in doubt, try a hard prune and feed. If it does not respond to this after a full season, it's time to remove it.

6. Herbaceous Plants

Herbaceous plants can be revived by dividing up the original old clump. In spring or autumn, dig up the plant. Cut it into two using two forks or a spade, or cut small pieces from around the centre with a gardening knife and replant. The crown of the plant is the oldest part and can be composted.

Keep a note of the position of any bulbs; there may be varieties which perform in summer, autumn and winter as well as spring. So, when you see a flower, make a note of it and mark the area with a label.

7. Weeds

One of the major challenges in renovating an old garden is dealing with established weeds. In lawns, most weeds can be reduced by mowing and the application of a selective lawn weedkiller. However, if the lawn has been completely over run with tough weeds such as nettles, dandelions and docks, you may have to sow or lay a new one.

Weeds in mixed borders can be dealt with by leaving shrubs in place and removing herbaceous plants. Deal with the weeds in the soil, either organically using a fabric mulch over a period of time, or by using a chemical weedkiller.