If your garden looks overcrowded, with trees casting such heavy shade that everything underneath them, even grass, dies out, shrubs turn bare and woody or else knit together to make borders impenetrable and perennials with thuggish tendencies run rampant, while more delicate species die out altogether, you might think the only thing to do is rip the lot out and start again.
But a little judicious taming works wonders. Set to work in late autumn. Trees that you don’t want to take out entirely can have their crown lifted or branches thinned out to let more light into the garden.
You could do it yourself using a saw and long-reach tree loppers but a tree surgeon will make a very good job of improving the shape of the tree at the same time as downsizing it.
If you have very big, old, damaged, diseased or dangerous trees, a qualified tree surgeon will know how best to remove or tidy them up safely, especially when branches are overhanging buildings.
Find a suitable tradesman online and check that they are both qualified and insured.
Over-mature shrubs are easily tidied up with long-handled loppers. Their jaws open wider than normal secateurs and will tackle branches up to an inch or so thick (if you get someone to bend a branch away from the blades as you cut through it you’ll find it gives way a lot more easily).
When pruning a big, overgrown shrub, don’t just snip round the edge. Choose three or four of the thickest, baldest branches to cut right back to the base of the plant. This removes the oldest wood that carries the fewest flowers. Then tidy the shape.
Shorten long branches that stick out and make the shrub look lopsided; cut them back to their junction with a strong, healthy branch. Don’t do them all in one year or the shrub will merely produce masses of long, straight, whippy shoots that won’t flower for years.
Now sort out perennials. Any weak, weedy ones are best dug up and grown in pots until they have regained their strength. Old plants that have died out in the middle are best dug up and divided – save a few of the strongest pieces from the outer edge to replant. Now is also a good time to get rid of thugs that have outgrown their welcome and replace them with something less aggressive.
Don’t try to introduce small new plants to an area that’s already fairly well packed with established residents.
If you are sorting out an established mixed border it’s far better to clear a fair sized area specially for replanting with new perennials, leaving a background of more mature trees and shrubs where they won’t compete.
This also gives you an opportunity to clear out any perennial weeds, then refresh the soil with plenty of well-rotted organic matter before replanting. While you’re at it, add a generous helping of spring bulbs to give the whole planting scheme a lift. The result is as good as a new garden but faster, cheaper and far easier.