How to tackle the problem areas in your garden

Every garden has ugly or tricky spots we’re not sure what to do with. That narrow stretch down the side of your house, shady corners or sun-scorched areas – generally places where nothing seems to thrive. Before you throw in the towel, read on for our expert tips on clever planting and hardscaping solutions to take your ‘problem areas’ from drab to fab.

Bunnings magazine, April 2020

Deal with the dark side

Shady spots often get a bad rap, but you can improve them by getting busy with your secateurs. Prune back overgrown shrubs, remove lower tree branches and thin the canopy, says Steve Falcioni, marketing manager at Eco-Organic Garden.

Watch it: How to prune trees

This will open the space and make it feel more inviting. Painting the surrounding walls and fences a lighter colour will also brighten the area,” he adds.

Watch it: How to paint a fence with a spray gun

Underfoot, look for pale pavers, and to really bring the area to life, choose a few plants that love shady conditions – think of plants that grow on forest floors. Ferns, clivias, bromeliads and some palms really thrive in low light and will help add some colour, life and light to a dull space,” says Steve.

In areas that are permanently shady, you can also give your garden a different sort of sensory appeal with a water feature or garden ornament. A simple fountain with a recirculating pump is all it takes to create some garden magic.

Combat hot spots

Help baked backyards keep their cool with plants that introduce shade. “Trees like frangipanis and dwarf flowering gums are great at providing delicious cooling shade, as well as being lovely to look at,” says Steve. “When trees won’t do, consider a pergola and train climbers like ornamental grapes or mandevilla to grow up and over.

Watch it: How to build a pergola

It’s important to also cover up any other sources of heat that might be nearby. Walls and fences can reflect heat, so it pays to throw some shade on them too, says Steve. Try hardy climbers such as clematis or Hardenbergia violaceae (false sarsaparilla).

When landscaping any sun-drenched areas, look for plants that have adapted to grow in extreme heat. Fleshy leaves of cacti and succulents, silvery-grey foliage of lamb’s ear, Teucrium or silverbush, and plants with small or skinny leaves, like Geraldton wax or emu bush, will thrive in the heat.

Tackle the ground

Poor soil – heavy on the clay or too sandy – is a common issue, especially on a newly developed property. It can take time and patience to improve soil but stick with it. “Add organic matter and lots of it,” says Steve. Dig in composted manures, which work their magic by increasing nutrient levels and stimulating microbial activity.

Also test the soil pH. “If it’s too acidic (below 6.5), add Eco-Flo Lime to help quickly reduce the acidity,” says Steve. Leaf litter and mulch helps lower soil pH.

Watch it: How to test and adjust your soil pH level

If the soil is too difficult to work, consider mounding it or planting in raised garden beds. You can build beds from appropriately treated wood or buy prefabricated ones. Fill with store-bought garden soil and add organic matter to give your plants the best start.

Person digging up soil in a garden bed with a shovel whilst wearing red gum boots

Sort out a slope

The right solution for a sloped site in your garden depends on a couple of factors. “You’ll need to consider if it’s stable, if there is an issue with run-off or if you need to install a retaining wall or similar to tame a slope,” says horticulturist Matthew Carroll of Hortiman. “If one wall isn’t doable, a series of low walls with level terraces may be the way to go.

Watch it: How to build a timber retaining wall.

For gradual slopes, plants are an effective solution. Shrubs with tight clumps or matted forms are effective at anchoring loose soil. “Dietes, Carpobrotus, agapanthus, Chinese star jasmine or Callistemon ‘Little John’ are all ideal candidates, and they’re fairly hardy once established,” adds Matthew. 

Improve your spaces

When space is limited, it’s essential to make every bit count. Why let a dull corner in the backyard or the return at the side of the house be wasted opportunities? To make any area more inviting, use pavers to create a sense of purpose and destination, says Matthew. This provides easy access and encourages you to explore and utilise the space.” You don’t need to pave the whole area, either – a ‘stepping stone’ arrangement with large pebbles between the gaps is both a cost-effective and eye-catching solution.

Watch it: How to lay stepping stones

Try landscaping along the sides of the house with plants or, if the space is too narrow, hang plants along the fence or fix baskets to brick walls using Whites lock-in brick hooks – no screws are required, making them a little easier to install.

For larger spaces, outdoor furniture and attractive elements, such as a water feature or a fire pit, will instantly make an area more appealing.

Pro tip

If you have a permanently soggy bit of ground, consider turning it into a pond or bog garden

Concrete pavers surrounded by a mondo grass

Photo credit: Gap Photos, Brent Wilson.

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Health & Safety

Please make sure you use all equipment appropriately and safely when following the advice in these D.I.Y. videos. You need to be familiar with how to use equipment safely and follow the instructions that came with the equipment. If you are unsure, you may feel it is safest to consult an expert, such as the manufacturer or an expert Bunnings Team Member.

Grave health hazards are linked to asbestos, which may be in homes built up to 1990. Health hazards may result from exposure to lead-based paints in older materials and copper chromium arsenic (CCA) treated timber. For information on the dangers of asbestos, lead-based paint and CCA treated timber and tips for dealing with these materials contact your local council's Environmental Health Officer or visit our Health & Safety page. You can also use a simple test kit from Bunnings to indicate the presence of lead-based paint.
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