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How to Clear an Overgrown Garden: a Step by Step Guide

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Facing an overgrown garden can be an overwhelming sight and you’re probably wondering where to start. 

Perhaps you have just moved in to a new home and are faced with a neglected and overgrown mess. You might also have inherited a house with a backyard that looks like a jungle, and you need to reclaim it quickly so you can sell it. 

Overgrown and messy gardens can be daunting, but the good news is that with careful planning and consistent effort, you can reclaim a garden’s former beauty and transform it into a thriving oasis. 

This guide will provide you with practical steps on how to clear an overgrown garden, allowing you to enjoy its full potential once again.

1. Assess the situation and the tools you’ll need

The first step is just to get an overall picture of the work that needs to be done by evaluating the current state of your garden. 

Take note of the extent of overgrowth, identifying the types of plants and what might need to be done to them. You’re going to need some tools to get started, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead to make sure you have everything ready to go. 

Here’s a list of tools that might be useful when clearing an overgrown garden:

  • Pruning shears: Used for cutting and trimming smaller branches, shrubs, and overgrown plants.
  • Loppers: Designed for cutting thicker branches and removing larger woody growth.
  • Hedge trimmers: Ideal for shaping and trimming hedges and shrubs.
  • Handheld pruning saw: Useful for cutting through larger branches and tree limbs.
  • Garden gloves: Protect your hands from thorns, prickly plants, and other potential hazards.
  • Rake: Helps gather and remove debris, fallen leaves, and cuttings from the ground.
  • Wheelbarrow or garden cart: Used for transporting heavy debris, plants, and soil.
  • Shovel or spade: Useful for digging and removing unwanted plants, dead plants, roots, or overgrown grass.
  • Weed trimmer or brush cutter: Helps tackle tall grass, weeds, and thick vegetation.
  • Garden hoe or cultivator: Useful for removing weeds, breaking up compacted soil, and preparing the ground for planting.
  • Garden fork: Aids in loosening and aerating soil, particularly in compacted areas.
  • Trowel: Handy for transplanting small plants, digging planting holes, and removing weeds.
  • Leaf blower or leaf vacuum: Can assist in clearing large quantities of leaves and debris quickly.
  • Safety goggles and ear protection: Essential for protecting your eyes and ears from flying debris and excessive noise.
  • Knee pads: Provide comfort and cushioning when working close to the ground or on uneven surfaces.

What you need depends on the landscape of the garden, any rocks present and the types of plants (for example, if you have trees that need pruning). 

ivy on garden bench

2. Take note of the garden’s main features

Scan the entire garden area for any features that might not be immediately obvious. 

Previously beautiful gardens often have features like paths, flower beds, rockeries and ponds. There are often old planters made of stone or wood. If your garden is particularly wild these might have long disappeared beneath the foliage. 

See if you can hunt these out so you can get an idea of what garden features you have. This way you can plan how you’re going to clear them and if you’re going to keep them. 

Once you’ve done this, you can develop a vision for your garden’s future. Consider factors such as functionality, desired aesthetics, and maintenance requirements. It might help you if you also sketch a rough layout to help you visualize the final result, and you can use this as a guide throughout the reclamation process to keep track of the final look you’re going for in your garden. 

For expert guidance and assistance in bringing your vision to life, consider consulting Michaelangelo’s landscape design for innovative solutions tailored to your garden’s unique characteristics and your personal preferences.

3. Start to clear the garden

Before doing any pruning or weeding, begin by removing any large debris, fallen branches, or obstacles that hinder access to the garden. It’s hard work but there are lots of benefits of gardening so it is well worth it.

It’s possible that in an overgrown garden you’ll also find trash, rocks, old tools, garden furniture and big plant pots that aren’t worth saving so these should all be removed so you’re working with a cleaner canvas. 

very overgrown garden

4. Trim overgrown shrubs and trees

When trimming overgrown trees and shrubs, start by assessing their overall shape and condition. Identify any dead, damaged, or crossing branches that need removal. 

Use sharp pruning shears or loppers to make clean cuts just above a healthy bud or lateral branch. Begin by removing the largest and most problematic branches, working your way towards smaller ones. Maintain the natural form of the plant while thinning out dense areas to promote better airflow and light penetration. 

Avoid removing more than one-third of the plant’s growth at a time to prevent stress. Step back periodically to assess the tree or shrub’s shape and make adjustments as needed. Remember to wear protective gear, such as gloves and safety goggles, when trimming to prevent injuries. 

Gradually work your way through the entire garden, creating open spaces for subsequent tasks.

For very large trees, check to see whether a tree preservation order would prevent you from cutting down or removing the tree you wish to remove. You can verify with your local council any and all pertinent rules.

To remove the stump from a tree that is around medium in size, you can cut it down with an axe or saw it and then borrow or rent a digger. For larger trees, you’d be better off going to a tree cutting service.

5. Weeding

By now you’ll have some open areas created from tidying up and pruning, and you should be able to see the bare bones of the garden as it begins to takes shape again. 

Weeding is a crucial step to reclaiming an overgrown garden. Weeds are a common issue in any garden, but if yours has been left for a long time then they will likely have almost completely taken over. The big weeds in particular are undesirable plants because they steal light and resources from the main plants. 

If you’re not sure what’s a weed and what isn’t (and some weeds are very attractive and have beautiful flowers so it’s not easy to tell at first glance) then I advise you to use a plant identification app.

beautiful garden with flowers

There are amazing free apps like PlantNet and iNaturalist which can tell you what the species of plant is just from a single photo that you take and upload. I’ve found these apps to generally be very accurate and they really help to cut down the amount of time it takes to identify shrub species and other plants when you’re clearing an overgrown garden. 

Remove weeds by hand or use appropriate tools such as a hoe or trowel, and then dispose of them properly to prevent their reestablishment. It can often take a long time to remove weeds, and it’s quite a physical job so the best way to tackle it is to work one small section at a time. 

6. Soil assessment and improvement

Now that you have a clear, weed-free garden the next step is to check the quality of the soil to determine if it requires amending. This might seem like an unnecessary step but in order for your garden to look its best, the soil needs to be of sufficient quality to maintain healthy plants. 

Here are some of the signs of poor soil quality:

  • Compaction: This occurs when the soil is compressed by heavy traffic or machinery. Compacted soil is less able to hold water and nutrients, and it is more difficult for roots to grow.
  • Erosion: This occurs when soil is washed away by rain or wind. Erosion can lead to loss of topsoil, which is the most fertile part of the soil.
  • Nutrient deficiencies: This occurs when the soil does not have enough of the nutrients that plants need to grow. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to stunted plant growth, yellowing leaves, and poor flowering.
  • Low organic matter content: Organic matter is important for soil health. It helps to improve drainage, aeration, and water retention. It also provides food for soil organisms.

If you notice any of these signs of poor soil quality, there are a number of things you can do to improve it. Some of the most common methods for improving soil quality include:

  • Adding compost: Compost is a great way to add organic matter to the soil. It also helps to improve drainage, aeration, and water retention.
  • Cover cropping: Cover crops are plants that are grown between rows of crops or trees. They help to improve soil quality by suppressing weeds, preventing erosion, and adding organic matter.
  • No-till farming: No-till farming is a method of farming that does not involve tilling the soil. Tilling can damage soil structure and reduce the amount of organic matter in the soil.
  • Composting food scraps: Food scraps can be composted and added to the soil to improve its quality.
  • Adding worms: Worms are beneficial organisms that help to improve soil quality by breaking down organic matter and aerating the soil.

By taking steps to improve soil quality, you can help to ensure that your plants have the nutrients they need to grow healthy and strong and your garden will look better as a result.

replanting in an overgrown garden

7. Tend to your existing and new plants

By now your overgrown garden is almost completely transformed into a usable and attractive space, so it’s time to add the finishing touches. 

The entire area should be clear of weeds so you’re left with the plants that you wanted to keep. If some larger plants have grown too big or are overcrowded, consider dividing and transplanting them to other areas of the garden. This process promotes healthier growth and provides space for new plantings.

After you clear weeds you might have some large open spaces of garden soil that are just crying out for beautiful new plants. 

To fill these gaps, research and select plants suitable for your garden’s conditions, including light exposure, soil type, and climate. For example, you may need drought tolerant plants. Choose a variety of plants to create interest and a balanced ecosystem. 

Garden design is an art in itself but here are some simple tips for choosing new plants for your garden:

  • Consider the size of your garden: some plants, like trees and shrubs, can grow quite large, so it’s important to make sure you have enough space for them. 
  • Think about the sun exposure: some plants need full sun, while others prefer partial or full shade. 
  • Take into account the soil type: some plants prefer sandy soil, while others prefer clay soil. 
  • Consider the climate: some plants are more cold-hardy than others. If you live in a cold climate, you’ll need to choose plants that can withstand the cold winters.
  • Think about the maintenance requirements: some plants are low-maintenance, while others require more care. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on gardening, you’ll need to choose low-maintenance plants.

If in doubt you can also go to your local garden centre and talk to a nursery professional who can help you choose plants that are right for your garden and your needs.

overgrown backyard

8. Tackle the lawn

By now your hard word at clearing an overgrown garden will have paid off magnificently and your garden is almost completely transformed. Here are the final finishing steps that will make a huge difference to the overall look of the garden. 

If the grass is overgrown, you will need to cut it with a lawnmower. A very overgrown lawn where the grass is very long needs a little more TLC however. 

Here are the things you can do if your grass is very long:

  • Don’t cut it all at once. If your grass is very long, cutting it short all at once can stress the grass and make it more susceptible to disease and pests. Instead, cut it in stages, gradually reducing the height each time.
  • Use a sharp lawnmower blade. A dull blade can tear the grass blades, making them more susceptible to disease and pests. 
  • Mow in the morning or evening. Mowing in the heat of the day can stress the grass, so it’s best to mow in the morning or evening when it’s cooler.
  • Rake up the grass clippings to prevent them from smothering the grass and creating a breeding ground for pests. You can add them to a compost pile if you have one. 
  • Water the grass after you’ve cut it. This will help it to recover from being cut and will help to prevent it from drying out.
  • If your lawnmower can’t reach all of the grass, you may need to use a string trimmer or a scythe to get the job done.
  • Be careful not to damage any plants or trees. 
  • Take your time. Cutting very long grass can be a time-consuming task but to maintain the health of your lawn it’s important to not rush.

If you find that the old lawn is beyond repair, if it has become overrun by too many weeds, or if it has extensive moss accumulation, you may want to reevaluate your strategies and consider planting new grass. You might also create a patio or cover the space with gravel, which are examples of hardscaping features applied to the area.

9. Establish maintenance practices

Garden maintenance is the final step in clearing an overgrown garden. It’s important to develop a regular maintenance routine to prevent future overgrowth. 

This includes watering appropriately, fertilizing as needed, and monitoring pests and diseases. 

Mulching can help retain moisture, suppress weeds, and improve the soil’s temperature regulation. Regular pruning will also keep plants in check and prevent future overgrowth.

Regularly monitor and address any issues promptly. In the Winter you won’t need to spend as much time on it, but you may need to spend a couple of hours a week from early Spring onwards to keep your garden in check, as this is when new growth appears as well as new weeds. 

Reclaiming an overgrown garden is a whole lot of hard work and a labor of love but it will reward you with a beautiful outdoor space. 

By following these steps, from initial assessment to regular maintenance, you can transform your neglected garden into a thriving haven. 

Frequently asked questions

What time of year should I tackle an overgrown garden?

The best time of year to tackle an overgrown garden is in the spring or fall when the weather is mild and there is less chance of frost. If you tackle your overgrown garden in the summer, it can be more difficult to work in the heat, and the plants may be more susceptible to pests and diseases.

How long does it take to clear an overgrown garden?

The time it takes to clear an overgrown garden will depend on the size of the garden, the severity of the overgrowth, and the number of people working on it. In general, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to clear an overgrown garden.

How often do you need to tend to your garden?

The frequency with which you need to tend to your garden will depend on the size and type of garden, the plants you are growing, and the climate you live in. In general, however, most gardens need to be tended to at least once a week. This includes tasks such as watering, weeding, deadheading, fertilizing, and pruning.

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Melissa Jane Lee

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