Frances Tophill well knows the problems faced by new homeowners who inherit a neglected garden.
Just over a year ago, the horticulturist who presents ITV’s Love Your Garden alongside Alan Titchmarsh, moved from Edinburgh to a seafront house in South Devon, where the elements had battered the front garden and limited what she could grow in the back.
“It’s right by the beach, so when there’s a big wind, the waves bash onto the front garden. The back is a little bit more sheltered, so I’m focusing on that at the moment.”
When she arrived, there wasn’t much to keep besides a couple of cordylines, but she ripped out an enormous phormium and most of the rest. The front has been cleared to make way for raised beds and annual veg for the summer. As far as edibles go, she doesn’t reckon anything will survive the winter elements.
Tophill is terracing her back garden, which is on a very steep incline, although she admits it’s a slow job because of summer filming commitments on Love Your Garden. Plus she has two other jobs - one in garden maintenance and another working in an ornamental grass nursery with adults with learning disabilities.
“When I moved in a year ago, it was very wild - almost a sand dune at the front and a naturalised bank at the back with lots of bracken, evening primrose and mallow, which had self-seeded. I’m having to keep a lot as it is because it’s stabilising the bank.”
“I’ve tried some seaside plants at the front and even they’ve died because it’s so extreme,” she continues. “I’ve tried all the seas - sea kale, sea lavender, sea holly - and they’ve all died. But lampranthus, a succulent with pink daisy-like flowers, does really well in the front, as does thrift.”
In the back garden, she’s growing hebe and mallow.
“I’m trying to grow things that are coast-tolerant but have a lush, jungle-type look. Sea holly and acanthus look quite nice. I’m nursing a gunnera which is in totally the wrong position, but I’m giving it all the love it needs in the hope it will survive.”
The experience has given her a heads-up on what to look for in a garden when you move house, and her first book First-Time Gardener offers tips to people who’ve inherited a garden and don’t know what to do with it.
People who are moving house this summer shouldn’t panic about a new garden, she says, and if you can, leave everything for a year.
“Everything will become clear. Seedlings and bulbs may come up in the spring which you have no idea about in the summer.”
She adds: “Remember, the landscape changes continually, and the garden may throw up surprises as the seasons change: there may be hidden treasures beneath the bare ground that will rear their dainty little heads only at certain times of the year, or you may discover that the huge bush you were thinking of removing as it blocks light does in fact earn its place after all - perhaps it produces a mass of stunning, fragrant flowers or glorious autumn colour, or serves a practical purpose such as stopping the neighbours’ kids from being able to climb into your garden.
“There may be a small unkempt corner that is a haven for wildlife, which you don’t want to disrupt unnecessarily. I would recommend that at least the first year should be spent observing and becoming thoroughly familiar with the garden before getting stuck into any rebuild project - just do what you can to keep the vegetation under control if you need to.”
If you’ve moved into an immaculate, high-maintenance garden which isn’t to your taste, don’t feel guilty about making big alterations, she continues, and don’t be afraid to ditch what you don’t want, even if it’s growing healthily.
“Having a blank canvas is really exciting - and daunting. A garden takes a lot more time to develop than the house. You can paint walls inside and it starts to feel like home, but it takes years for a garden to really take shape. Make a plan about shaping or re-shaping.”
She set herself some rules with her own garden design, which she says new homeowners could also follow.
“My main rule is that I’m not allowed more than 15 species of plant, not including the things that are there already. It’s easier to have a cohesive design if you just have a few species that you use over and over again. It looks intentional, whereas if you’d just gone and chosen whatever was in flower at the garden centre, it looks messy.”
If you have a large garden, make that the rule for an area of it rather than for the total garden, she suggests.
“If you can, divide your garden into different rooms you can go from a cool area to a hot area to a grassy area. Then you can vary it, incorporating 15 species per area.”
First-Time Gardener: How To Plan, Plant & Enjoy Your Garden by Frances Tophill is published by Kyle Books, priced £16.99. Available now
A new eight-part series of Love Your Garden starts on ITV on Tuesday, June 23