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Let nature flourish

Too many people treat the garden as an extra room in the house to be kept neat and tidy - they "dust" beds by removing weeds, "vacuum" the lawn and "furnish" it with ceramic pixies or a wrought-iron three-piece suite.

It's unsurprising that looking after such a garden becomes a thankless task as nature fights back.

Your patch of ground should be full of life and interest, and offer a welcome pick-me-up. I know of far too many people who try to banish nature by digging up the lawn and covering the space with concrete, decking or chip pathing. They reckon cutting the grass is too much like hard work. Yet, during a hot spell, the lawn is a much cooler place than a blazing patio. Try walking barefoot on hot concrete after crossing the lawn - you'll see what I mean.

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If you don't want to spend every Saturday morning behind a mowing machine, cut the grass every fortnight instead, and certainly don't "feed and weed" to stimulate stronger, speedier growth. Apart from tipping the clippings into a compost heap, try using them as a mulch round trees, shrubs, raspberries or potatoes. After spreading newspaper on moist soil, cover with fresh mowings every time you cut the grass. Any weed seeds will germinate and die because their tiny roots can't reach any soil.

Green is a soothing colour, so, if you don't want a lawn, plant a shrubbery or a border. If you do have slabs consider planting plugs of thyme or camomile. They spread and make good ground cover.

There are lots of other ways to cut down on chores and have more time to enjoy the garden. Try planting perennials rather than bedding plants. Spend half an hour staking tall herbaceous flowers when they start growing. This stops their magnificent flowering stalks being blown over in a summer gale, and you don't have the tiresome job of tidying up afterwards. Keep on top of pruning by always cutting back at the right time or you'll end up with large, tussocky shrubs needing a major overhaul.

Don't frantically rush around keeping everything immaculate: leave some tangly areas at the back of a border or allow part of the lawn to grow on and plant some bulbs and wildflower plugs to brighten up the area for yourself as well as butterflies and bees.

You'll then have fun watching other garden residents round a bird or squirrel feeder. Provided you sit quietly, the diners will busily tuck in. Our resident red squirrel nimbly nips off with a good haul of peanuts. My wife, Jane, even saw a weasel at the feeder last year. She has gone a stage further by setting up a camera to film visitors when we're not around. The footage explained why a fresh fatcake disappeared within 12 hours. A badger was caught in the act, so the next cake was put out of reach.

Watching and understanding these creatures is fascinating. Of course, this applies to plants and the soil. My son gave me a ThermaData logger for Christmas. It measures soil and air temperature as often as I want over a set period. So, I can place this temperature gauge in different beds and feed the information into my computer. This data will help me decide when it's safe to sow or plant out and monitor how quickly and well plants are growing. In the same way, pH, phosphorus and nitrogen tests reveal how suitable the ground is for the plants you plan to grow.

Finally, relax and enjoy the garden - even weeding can be engrossing. Try to identify various species: they may not all be horrors and you might find self-sown plants you like and can use. Don't take on more than you can manage easily, so plan the garden to include trees and shrubs that'll look after themselves and leave you some leisure time.

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