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Gardening in a New House

How wonderful it is to move into a brand new house that no one else has ever lived in.  It’s an opportunity to decorate, buy furniture and to stamp your mark on a brand new space.  Unfortunately, it’s also a chance for everyone else to stamp their dirty feet through it since there’s probably no garden and no lawn to keep the dust down and the sand outside.

Housing estates are popping up all over WA, even in some of the smaller rural towns, and with these come the challenge of starting a new garden to suit both the climate and the family.  And these two things, above all else, is what new garden owners must keep in mind.

It’s fantastic to look through the garden magazines for inspiration and to dream of having a picture perfect backyard but whilst this can be achieved, it will only be successful once the gardener really understands what they have, where they live and what they want.  And then of course, there’s the P word – preparation, preparation, preparation!

UNDERSTAND THE CLIMATE AND THE SOIL
Climate is the key to everything in gardening.  Think back to high school science when the teacher explained about how plants adapted to their surroundings with different leaf shapes and root structures.  Unlike algebra, this is actually knowledge learned at school that can be useful in adult life, if just to give a bit of an indication about what a plant needs.

In an ideal world, it would be fantastic to live in a new house through the full twelve months of a year to be able to see how the sun moves across the day, which areas are shaded in summer and which receive full sun in winter and of course, how much rain really falls.  But, this is not practical and besides, most of the information is probably available online anyway.  The Bureau of Meteorology (www.bom.gov.au) website has a wealth of climatic information but start at the page called “Monthly Statistics” under Climate Averages on the WA page.  This will let you find the area closest to you and then click through for more detailed information.

Western Australia is a big state and understanding the climate is not just about thinking that lots of rain falls in the south and that it’s hotter in the north.  In fact, the difference in temperature and the way that the rain falls is staggering.  In the Goldfields, for example, the rain is delivered in small amounts relatively consistently each month across the year but often in short, heavy downpours and whilst the summers might be very hot, the winters can be very cold because of the clear skies.  But, the soil is very rich and can result in fabulous gardens if plants that can cope with hot summers and cold winters are used and the problem of little water can be overcome.

Interestingly, Albany is known for its cooler climate and very high rainfalls but this comes mostly between late spring and autumn.  In summer, the amount of rainfall is actually quite a lot less than Kalgoorlie.  This, along with the rocky outcrops, might partially explain why the soil might be rich but has poor water holding capacity and so the addition of soil wetting agents is a must.

Geraldton has almost as much rain in winter as Albany does but for the remaining nine months it reduces significantly.  If this sudden drop in rain can be overcome with reticulation, the climate of Geraldton is actually fantastic for gardening though the soil does have to be built up to overcome the sandy coastal soils.

PREPARATION
Most new housing estates in WA are developed on old farming land or market gardens where the soil is sandy and impoverished and bits of rubble and broken bricks are left lying around.  There may not be any other houses around yet and probably very few established trees, if any.  These housing estates are the epitome of a blank gardening canvas except that, just like painting, the canvas has to be prepared to really produce a masterpiece.

In most gardens, it is better not to dig over the soil too much before planting but unfortunately on a new estate, by virtue of the fact that a great deal of construction and clearing has occurred, the area has already been dug over and building sand brought in making the block even more impoverished.  It can be almost guaranteed that what is there is gutless sand that is not much good for growing very much at all.

Whilst spending the first month setting up the inside of the house, be happy that outside the weeds are growing.  In fact, consider this to be part of the preparation process.  Weeds are robust which is why they are so good at being weeds, and whilst an area might be too baron to plant into, weeds will still germinate on newly exposed sand where there is no competition from other plants.  Since new housing estates are often built on old farmland or near areas with high weed infestations, it is quite common for new blocks to be inundated with weed seeds.

To deal with the weeds, remove those that are there and then wait to see what else germinates over the coming few weeks.  Spray these with glyphosate or remove them by hand.  If some rain comes to encourage the weeds to germinate then that’s even better as it is better to deal with them at this stage than once the garden is planted.

Although the temptation might be to head straight out to the garden centre and spend a lot of money on plants just to add some greenery to the back yard, don’t!  If you are going to do this, you may as well just bury the money straight in the ground as the result will be just about the same.  Plants are living things that, just like us, need food.  They get their food from the soil and if there is nothing there, they won’t thrive and may not even survive.

Instead, be patient and invest that money in improving the soil.  After removing all the rubble and bricks, start by bringing in bag loads of bentonite clay and compost.  Both will help the impoverished sand to hold moisture and nutrients but the clay will have a long term effect that is well worth the extra cost and effort now.

Decide where the garden beds and lawns are to be and apply the clay granules over the sand at a rate of about 6kg per square metre and then spread the compost over this and then mix both into just the top 15cm of the soil since that’s where the plants’ roots will be.  Include water saving granules over the surface to make sure that the water soaks through to the soil beneath but remember that they won’t be activated until the area is watered.

PLANNING
The first step in any garden planning process is to make a cuppa, sit down and relax.  In fact, let your mind start imagining how those that live in the house will use the backyard.  Little kids will want paved areas for their bikes and lawn for their ball games.  Dad might want an outdoor barbecue area and mum might want a raised vegie patch.  You might all be far too busy for much work in the garden at all but are happy to mow the lawn every now and then and just want to pick a few lemons for evening cocktails.  Or, you may want no lawn and just yearn for a garden that supplies the family with healthy produce year round.

List the storage that will be needed for bikes, toys, mowers and garden tools and allocate a space for that.  Remember that the dog might need a protected area for the kennel and of course, every house needs a clothesline of some sort which should get some sun, even in winter.

Keep in mind that if a house, especially a double storey, is going to be built next to yours that some areas that are now in full sun might end up in full shade and it may even impact on your privacy.  If shade structures and tall trees are going to be included to combat this, it will save a lot of time and money to anticipate them in the planning stages instead of after the garden is built.

Even if you decide to use a landscape designer, and this can be a wonderful investment if only to draw up the initial plan, these questions still need to be answered as the garden is just an extension of the living space indoors.  If done well, it adds value to the property as well as to the lives of those that get to enjoy it.

A landscape designer may sound a bit extravagant but actually their fee may quickly be recouped just from not wasting money on plants that won’t survive in that area or which won’t do the job that you might expect them to do.   A good landscape designer will research the area, test the soil, understand the climate and have excellent plant knowledge plus they will sit down with you and talk about exactly what you dream of in your garden.  They will then produce a garden plan which includes a plant and supplier list that reflects everything that you were after and which suits your site perfectly.  Of course, some landscaper designers will have a team that can complete the garden if that’s what you want, but if you prefer to do all of this fun bit yourself, they are more than happy just to draw up the design.

The landscaping plans may also include reticulation but if not, they can be taken to a reticulation specialist who will be able to prepare one that takes into account the soil, the wind and the types of plants to be in the garden.  In almost all cases, it is far better to lay the reticulation in a new garden before even the first plant is put in a hole.

THINK OF THE GARDEN AS A LONG TERM INVESTMENT
When it finally comes time to plant, the soil must be rich and able to hold moisture.  Any changes in levels should already be established, hard landscaping such as paved areas and retaining walls should be built and storage sheds in place.  The reticulation pipes should also be down even if the risers aren’t attached in the garden beds until the plants are in the ground.

If mature trees or large garden features are being included, plant them early whilst it is still easy to get them into their position and then continue with the rest of the planting in sections, always mulching when completed.

A lush green lawn always sets off a garden beautifully and will quickly reduce the dust levels in the house.  Lawn rolls can be ordered from Better Pets and Gardens and our team can give advice on how to prepare the soil in your area so that it establishes quickly.

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