On writing the book My Garden is a Car Park, I was inspired by countless friends who have asked me to walk around their gardens with them as they recount one problem after another. When people do follow up on simple advice, it's great fun to witness. Even when flower beds are covered with cardboard and topsoil (to eradicate pernicious weeds) the excitement of a work-in-progress is addictive. Following are some ideas on that oft-asked question, 'I don't know where to start':
The worst thing is to delete everything, just because it's old or neglected. Watching the garden for a year, while taking note of what comes and goes, is more useful. Before calling in a contractor with a cement mixer, and putting down some permanent hard landscaping, think about the routes you are likely to take most often, for instance from the back door to the shed, or from the car to the front door. Old paths are often in logical places; sometimes they've been rubbed out with a variety of new ones, which are purely decorative and don't make much sense. Do some prodding, and some thinking.
Another thing to do is look around the neighbourhood, to see what is growing in other people's gardens, or in the hedgerows. One of the garden authorities I refer to again and again (listed under the 'Voices' section at the back of my book) is Russell Page. His delivery style is coolly compelling, if a little dry. 'One should limit one's choice of plants to those that will flourish,' he suggests in his memoir The Education of a Gardener. In other words, don't grow lavender in a bog, no matter how much you'd love to try.
Make a wish list, learn about your favourite plants and slowly cross out the ones that you know deep down, might not work. Growing rhododendrons and hydrangeas in Cornwall is not boring; it's part of the garden culture. Ignoring conditions and planting something where it doesn't belong will create more work and may be futile. On the other hand, pot gardening can give you more control, and freedom to move things around. Keeping pots by the back door is not a bad place to start in gardening.
Having bought plants, after making some unhurried decisions, it will be tempting to ignore aspects of the planting instructions. Recommended distances between new plants will seem vast. One way to keep things moving along during the first few years is to sow annuals in between. They will help to muscle out weeds as well as providing almost-instant colour.
Last thing: start a compost heap. Cut back and clear up but don't throw it all away. By rotting down rubbish from the old garden, you will be laying foundations for a new one.