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Summer close-up view of the butterfly bush hedge in our front garden and butterflies
Butterfly bush hedge

- summer

You've read about the cottage garden climate and soil, so the next step is to put your cottage garden design into practice.

It's time to start the preparation of your soil and make it suitable for a cottage garden.

Digging, Clearing and Re-cycling

You only need to dig up and clear your plot once. As organic gardeners, we believe that digging or disturbing garden topsoil in any way does far more harm than good. But if your plot is a mess like ours was, you'll need to clear it completely.

Try to re-cycle everything you find while you are working. Builders rubble? Don't send it to the municipal dump, it's great material for the foundation of the paths you are going to make. The same applies to old tree trunks and stumps, and rocks - they're very useful for pond shores. Re-cycling not only saves you money but it also helps conserve our planet's valuable, and ever-diminishing, resources.

Step by Step Guide

This is how we did it and these are the tools and other materials you will need:

Dig up the soil at least one pitch-fork deep. We always use a pitchfork as it:

  1. Is easier on the back (less weight) - you'll shift a lot less soil per movement on the fork tines than on the blade of a spade;
  2. Disturbs the earth less than a spade does - let's the soil crumble and fall through the gaps between the tines instead of merely turning it over;
  3. Tends to clear all roots without cutting them as a spade does which saves time, effort and a lot of additional digging if you have unwanted plants with taproots - any taproot you leave behind will come back to haunt you!

Work Sequence

  1. Start off by marking out your planned paths:
    1. Knock a stick into the ground with the rubber mallet at the start of a path;
    2. Measure off the required width with the tape measure and knock another stick in the soil;
    3. At intervals of 1 meter - 3 feet - hammer in more sticks until you've marked out the entire path;
    4. Join up the sticks on each side of the path with string, dig it up and clear it;
    5. Repeat 1 - 4 for all the paths you've planned in your sketch and you're done for now.
  2. Next, dig up and clear from the area furthest from the compost and rock collection area on either side of the paths;
  3. Why? Because you'll drop muck en route, no matter how hard you try not to, and this way it won't fall on cleared areas;
  4. Walk towards your planned compost heap on the paths you've marked out with each barrow load of stones and other muck and empty the wheel barrow there:
    • Pre-sort rubble into piles of large, medium and small pieces of stone;
    • Sort out glass, metals, plastic etc. and put in separate bin liners.
  5. Proceed, patch by patch, until you've dug up and cleared the entire garden;

If you come across plants you want to keep - we found lots of tulip bulbs and wild camille, save them for later by following our recommendations:

  1. Dig the plant out gently with the pitchfork - try and keep a clump of earth intact around the roots;
  2. Lay the plants you want to save in the compost heap area and cover the root clump plus about half of the main stem with damp (news)paper or sacking material -
    we've even used old, worn-out carpets and bed sheets - use your imagination;
  3. Keep the covering material damp until you are ready to re-plant your saved plants;
  4. Remove the coverings and your saved plants are ready to be planted in the flower border you've reserved for them.

Special problems need more work and deeper digging. If you have to deal with:

  1. Builders rubble, stones, etc. - loosen, get it "all" out and into the wheel barrow using the pitchfork.
  2. Old concrete foundations - break them up into manageable pieces with a large hammer and chisel and load them in the wheelbarrow;
  3. Glass, metals, plastic etc. - a separate dustbin bag for each type of material to comply with the legal requirements of rubbish collection services based on pre-sorted types of material.
  4. Plants with a taproot, e.g. dandelion:
    1. Loosen the earth around the root;
    2. Carefully remove the soil around the entire long, single root - don't break it off as every piece left behind will return to haunt you;
    3. Repeat until you've reached the bottom of the taproot;
    4. Put them in a separate bin liner for removal and don't try composting them - I've tried it and failed, they are the toughest plants imaginable.
  5. Bushes, shrubs and small trees:
    1. Loosen the soil with the pitchfork around the entire plant;
    2. Remove the soil from a circle around the plant with the spade, cutting through any surface roots;
    3. Repeat till you feel that the plant is loose and cut through any remaining roots at the edge of the circle with the spade;
    4. Grab the plant and shake it - you should now be able to feel the entire clump moving.
    5. If the shrub is small enough, drag it out and lay it down next to the hole;
    6. Hit it several times with the spade to get all the earth out of the roots - the soil will automatically fall back into the hole;
    7. Use the wheelbarrow to move it next to the rock pile near the compost heap area.
    8. If the plant is too big and heavy, you'll need some help from family or friends.
  6. Asbestos;
    1. Reasonably safe to remove as it's probably wet and in small pieces which reduces the risk of fibre inhalation;
    2. NB: Don't remove any of the earth adhering to the pieces as it provides insulation against fibre release;
    3. Keep the bin liner in the shade (helps to keep it wet) and fill it piece by piece;
    4. When you've finished, ask your municipality what the requirements are for removal as many local governments have different regulations for asbestos removal;
    5. If there's a lot of asbestos in the ground, stop working and call in a professional asbestos removal service. They don't come cheap but you don't want to risk contacting any of several asbestos related diseases.

Always watch out for your back to avoid strain injuries - use your knees and haunches to bend and take the strain, not your back.

Done at last!

So What's Next?

More work, I'm sorry to say. It's time to either drain your waterlogged soil if you suffer from this problem, or go ahead and layout and prepare your garden paths. - a Gardener's Practical Guide to Natural Cottage Gardening

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