What to do when the flowers begin to take over… decluttering the garden

Border overflowing with plants

There comes a time when just doing the weeding isn’t enough. When the plants are growing into each other, overflowing their allotted space, and the delicate, less vigorous specimens are being swamped by those that grow and spread faster. In recent years there have been a number of best-selling books devoted to advice on how to declutter a wardrobe overfilled with clothes, or a kitchen that’s bursting with pots, pans and gadgets that rarely see the light of day. But advice on deciding what to keep and what to dig out when it comes to the flower border can be harder to come by.

Where to start

It may be that you are confident when it comes to digging up and dividing perennials, knowing what’s worth keeping and what should be ditched because it doesn’t suit the site, the colour scheme or the planting design. But even the most experienced of gardeners can hesitate when the plant they’re considering putting in the compost bin was a gift from an old friend, or has memories of a childhood garden or favourite holiday attached to it. If you’ve recently moved into a house and inherited a scruffy looking border from the previous owners, it can be more difficult to know where to start. The usual advice is to live with your new garden for a year and see what’s there. This is one area where digital cameras are great. You can keep a record of what comes up, what flowers, and what never really looks that great through the months and review it when the time comes to decide what action to take. Friends who are keen gardeners can be a great source of advice and ideas too, and even if you are an experienced gardener, a fresh perspective can bring inspiration and help in making difficult decisions. Put the kettle on and invite them round!

When you’re ready to get started, can the decluttering ideas suggested in the books for bringing calm and order to the inside of a house, do the same outdoors? Here are some tips adapted/shamelessly lifted from the ‘how to declutter your home’ books which may help in the garden –

Think small

Work on small, manageable areas instead of trying to do everything at once. If you have one small border to declutter, then by all means dig everything up, lay it out, decide what to divide and replant and what needs to go all in one session. Larger spaces need an action plan, and a manageable one at that. Be realistic about how much time you have to work in the garden, there’s nothing worse than spending hours digging plants up, only to realise that the available time/daylight means there’s no way you can get them all planted again. Make a list, make a plan of what is going where, get organised on paper before you set out with a spade in hand, and you can tackle the work a bit at a time.

The much quoted idea of ‘if it isn’t useful, don’t keep it’ applies equally well to a garden as a house – if the plant isn’t doing its job (making the place look beautiful, or providing screening or shelter), then maybe it’s time for it to make space for something that will. If a plant is struggling, it probably isn’t happy in its current position. Look it up in a gardening book or on the internet and find out what it needs for healthy growth. Then if you have a spot that offers the right conditions somewhere else in the garden, move it. If not, it might be time to find a friend who can cater for its needs, or find it a space on the compost heap.

When to get started

Autumn is the ideal time to move and divide herbaceous perennials (plants that die right back in the winter and begin growing again the following spring). The soil is still warm and damp at this time of year, and the plant can get its roots settled before growth stops during the colder months. Plants need dividing every few years to keep them growing vigorously and producing plenty of flowers. But that doesn’t mean you can put your feet up for the rest of the year and save all the decluttering for autumn. Spring is the second best time to do the work, and a bit of time spent clearing borders early in the year means that you have the whole summer to enjoy the benefits. You can also use the time between now and September planning what will go where and making notes on what is worth keeping in preparation for a big autumn clearout.

And besides, some plants are better moved earlier in the year. The beautiful snowdrops that will be bringing springtime charm to gardens over the next few weeks should be dug up and transplanted while ‘in the green’ – while they still have green leaves. So if you have a clump of snowdrops that is in need of moving or splitting, start thinking about doing it as soon as the flowers begin to fade.

Any plants that you have decided to get rid of can be dug out at pretty much any time of year (although try to avoid standing on frosty or very wet soil, because it can damage the structure). Removing these plants as soon as possible will leave more space for the ones you are keeping to grow into, this can be especially good if it removes shade from  sun loving plants.

Getting on top of the weeding and pruning

A bit of a declutter can also be a good chance to remove any stubborn weeds, roots and all, and to cut back shrubs or trees in need of a good pruning. A lot of woody flowering plants need a yearly trim to prevent them from becoming overgrown. Cutting back lavender, thyme and rosemary once they’ve finished flowering encourages the plants to produce lots of fresh green growth, keeping them neat and preventing them developing a woody centre that produces no flowers.

And finally, if it brings you joy…

As for those plants that have a sentimental attachment… well, there should always be room in a garden for flowers that bring happy memories. Nurture them, treasure them, and enjoy them.

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