This is the story of my ever-evolving garden, it’s not so much a Before and After, it’s more of a Before-After-After-After-After-After.
Our journey begins in 2016, when we moved into our flat in a North London terraced house and with it came this garden:
This was both my and my husband’s first home ownership experience here, and we were both working fulltime, and neither had any interest or experience in gardens. But we knew we wanted a space where we could host BBQs and outdoor parties. And I wanted to have the view from the window in the kitchen window to be something ‘pretty’.
So we decided to hire someone to design and create a solution for us. We didn’t know what our budget should be and were hoping to only spend a few thousand pounds on the whole thing. I had a landscape designer come to give some ideas and quotes, and the shock of his initial quote of £15,000 got us both thinking maybe we weren’t so enamoured with this whole home ownership/renovation thing. Surely it can’t cost THAT much…! So we put off the garden, did the bathroom, and in the process started appreciating what things cost, and also met a designer that we thought we’d use for the kitchen, and he offered to do the garden first, which seemed like a great way to make sure we could work together. Spoiler alert, we could not.
To start with, here are the initial plans. It’s a nice design, isn’t it? Room for our BBQ’s, a faux living wall over a little planter for herbs, a nice fern in the corner, plenty of storage and seating. Everything works well in the shape and placement of this garden. Problem is, it’s not our garden.
This is our garden. Something I didn’t quite realise until the work began and the builder was trying to fit the design above into the shape below.
The space for the BBQ’s got pushed out by the storage which grew to an awkward shape, and the planter for the fern was huge and out of proportion, as was the planter on the right side of the garden. The fencing panels he had ordered were much larger than I expected and we couldn’t (and didn’t want to) kick our neighbour’s lovely plants off the wall to make space for them, so they were put in a weird halfway position by the builder (who was in a huge rush the whole time and not interested in helping or doing anything but the bare minimum).
Our insistence on keeping the budget down in our discussions about the design also backfired – big time. In hindsight, I would have insisted on getting the design right first and then letting me be in charge of where the budget cuts came from. Instead, we got all the parts I least wanted (high-quality fencing that we couldn’t use properly, lots of built concrete structures), and none of what I most wanted (a nice view from the kitchen). Or even better, we could have just paid someone to patch up all the walls (instead of just one of the three) and pave the whole space to create a blank canvas. Instead, we had this. A neat, tidy space, sure – but there was nothing pretty in the corner view, lots of unusable planting space, awkwardly placed fencing, exposed brackets, and I was really unhappy. The cat liked all the new places to lie in the sun though, so not a total loss!
So the next year, we took down one of the two benches to get rid of the awful join work that the builder had done and used some of the wood to cover up the ugly brackets he had left. I moved the vertical garden wall sections over to create some greenery you could see from the window, and we moved the fencing to other spaces that made sense and replaced with much lighter trellises.
The next year we dealt with another problem with the original design – the white rendered concrete was NEVER clean. It had been built to slant into a corner which meant that water gathered when it rained, moss grew, dirt collected and stuck. So I got some lovely tiles from Bert and May and a very skilled tiler added in a slope away from the corner (as it should have been) and created a much easier-to-clean surface. I also got a table and chairs off gumtree and painted them to brighten up everything.
Finally, this year, I was ready to deal with the part I most hated of this design – the huge planter on the right of the garden, which gets NO sunlight, and dominated the garden. My husband and I took great pleasure in knocking it down with a sledgehammer!
We hired a professional for the detail work in cleaning it up and levelling it, and he also created a cover for the space remaining using the bench wood and some leftover tiles from the other side of the garden. And together we came up with the perfect use of the fencing – one panel became a door for a corner ‘shed’ with shelves and roof made from the other panels. I was determined to re-use as much of the material as possible, and it worked out really well! This also is an example of working with the odd shape of the garden (i.e. the sharp dark corner) rather than against it (forcing that corner to be seating which no one can actually use).
Since then I have painted the wood, and this week I’m getting the faux wall put in front of the door and some other fun things. You can follow along on my personal Instagram account – @j_barxon, and I’ll post an update on @therenoguide as well.
That was a rambling journey through the last 3 and a bit years with this house and garden, but here are my top tips to take away from my experience:
- Don’t rush into starting a design. Take time to live with it, imagine it, make sure it’s really going to work in the space.
- Understand where the sun shines – and doesn’t. Talk to a designer, gardener, or consult the internet about what plants will work in your situation. It’s not just which aspect you have (south-facing, etc) it’s what building/trees/houses block or change your light.
- Leave room for your garden to grow. Both literally for plants to grow and change, and for it to evolve. Use materials that last, and try to avoid too many permanent, concrete structures. If keeping a low budget is a priority, consider doing the garden in stages so parts of it get added in the coming years and seasons.
- No green thumb doesn’t have to mean No green things. You can have wildflowers and low maintenance plants. If you don’t try to have a perfectly manicured garden, you can have a much more evergreen, eco-friendly solution that is a win-win for both non-gardeners and environment.
For more on gardens, check out my podcast with Anne Schwarz from @thewildbackyard on Spotify!