Gardens are at the top of the wishlist for many home buyers in the current property boom, and so it follows that many movers will find themselves with a larger plot or, perhaps, some outdoor space for the first time.
Non-movers, meanwhile, have realised this year how important it is to improve any outdoor space they have. But if you’ve never gardened before, or have a blank canvas in front of you, how do you begin?
Six years ago, when I moved back to the Suffolk coast after two decades living in London flats, I was in a similar position. Suddenly I had a large garden and adjoining field – a three-acre space that was a tantalising opportunity for a total novice with grandiose plans and almost zero horticultural knowledge.
The learning curve was steep, the calls and texts to my friend Derren, a hugely experienced gardener, were relentless and there were innumerable errors along the way.
Very early on I sketched out a plan – it has evolved as I have changed as a gardener, but it gave me a solid idea of how my garden could look. I started off small, with two large beds on either side of a newly installed terrace and planted roses, clematis, hardy geraniums, iris, nepeta and lupins, cottagey plants that were anchored with box balls and hebes.
Then, each year, I’d add another section of the garden – a long double border with lots of structural plants, a gravel garden in a sun-baked, exposed south-facing spot and, most recently and still bedding in, an avenue of ornamental pear trees edged with a copper beach hedge and underplanted with a succession of blue and apricot flowers.
I went on a lot of study days and garden visits – by far the quickest and most effective way to get ideas and understand what works. I learnt how to propagate – growing from seed and cuttings and dividing plants is the cheapest way to add to bulk up your borders – and I nurtured self-seeders that would do that work for me too.
What have I learnt doing all of this? Get your soil right and you will reap the rewards. Digging in lots of organic matter at the outset will make the world of difference to your garden’s overall health and vitality. Use peat-free compost, well-rotted manure or mushroom compost – if your soil is poor and dry it will help it retain moisture and make it more nutrient-rich; if you garden on clay it will help with drainage.
Every winter or early spring I spend a considerable amount of time adding a deep mulch (four inches or more) around plants and across borders after I’ve done a big cut back and tidy. Choose plants that suit your soil and your conditions and plant them well – I’ve persisted with moisture-loving phloxes, hydrangeas and astilbes when I know that they really do not flourish in my sandy, sun-baked garden. Whereas many grasses, eryngiums, bearded iris, dianthus, dierama and euphorbias all absolutely love the dry conditions here.
I’ve become more patient – small plants (perennials in a 9cm pot) may look tiny when they go in, but they will save you lots of money, settle in faster and require much less cosseting than larger (more expensive) ones.
Plant young hedges and trees bare root in the winter – similarly they will settle in more quickly and will cost much less too. Read labels and roughly follow spacing advice – you’ll be amazed at how quickly borders fill out and flourish and there’s nothing more annoying than planting a viburnum and realising it has outgrown its space in two seasons.
If you’re taking on an established garden after moving house, take the time to observe it through the seasons before you change anything – a shabby looking shrub could erupt with delicious flowers in winter, an old tree may sprout the most beautiful blossom.
You’ll often only know this if you give it time. But if there’s a plant you don’t like or it’s in the wrong place, then take it out. Take note of the light and how the sun travels and plant/plan accordingly. And also think about a sense of place – how will your garden work with the architecture of your house, and, if you’re in a rural location, how can it sit comfortably in the wider landscape.
I still have lots more plans for the future of my garden – there’s always something to tweak or add; there are things that don’t work out or new ideas and combinations to try. But that is also the joy of a garden – it’s always a work in progress.
A New Gardener and an Instant Overhaul
Louisa McCarthy’s 12m long, south London garden, which is overlooked on all three sides, is typical of almost any Victorian terrace across the country. When she moved here in 2012 there was little garden to speak of, but after building work in 2018 she was ready to create something from scratch.
Overwhelmed by the task she turned to a neighbour, Jane Finlay, who had recently retrained in garden design at Kew and was keen to experiment in an urban terrace.
“We wanted something that flowed from indoors to outdoors because we’d just completed a kitchen extension that opened out into the garden. We wanted a space to sit, a veg patch and definitely no lawn, because the dogs would wreck it,” says McCarthy, who has three rescue pugs.
She also knew that, with a busy work life, the garden had to be low-maintenance and, ideally, with the feeling of a country garden in the city – albeit with a contemporary spirit.
The design, which after only one season has flourished into an atmospheric, soothing space, creates a sense of intrigue with its pockets of planting that are both tactile and immersive.
Finlay has created privacy and enclosure with beautiful trees and climbers – including a pink silk tree – Albizia julibrissin f. rosea – with exotic feathery leaves and hot pink flowers, Rosa ‘Blush Rambler’ and Clematis ‘Perle d’Azur’. Beneath them it’s all about pretty perennials – with clumps of honesty, hardy geraniums, sanguisorba, monarda and campanula in soft pinks, purples and blues.
Apple and pear trees are trained across fences – a great way to use vertical space in a beautiful but productive way. Billowy tall perennials including Thalictrum delavayi and Eupatorium maculatum light up the garden in late summer and its all given a sense of movement with airy grasses such as Molinia caerulea ‘Heidebraut’, Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Tardiflora’ and Stipa gigantea as well as Phyllostachys nigra – the black bamboo which will bring colour and structure year-round. Like any build, it wasn’t without its stressful moments.
Finlay recommended they remove the poor quality top soil from the planting areas. “It felt like a really big ask,” admits McCarthy, “as it all had to come through the house into skips outside. But everything that went in grew like crazy and I understand why we had to do it.” Finlay also recommended putting in a timed irrigation system – another big investment but essential as the couple both travel often for work.
To save costs, McCarthy and her partner Steve were happy to get their hands dirty. Steve, a furniture maker, constructed all of the moulds for the smooth poured concrete planters, seating and water feature close to the house, he also built the decking and will eventually add a pergola. Maintaining the garden has been a steep learning curve, but Finlay has continued to offer advice and McCarthy has started to add plants where needed.
“There’s a shaded patch that was a bit bare so I planted some unsanctioned foxgloves and Verbena bonariensis. They look great, but I was nervous going off piste.” To that end, at the start of this year she hired a local gardener for a few hours to help with the first year’s cutting back and preparing for spring.
“I just needed some basic help on what to tidy and how to prep for the coming months. But it helped me understand what needed to be done and how to do it and it made me confident enough to crack on solo this winter.”
Having a restorative garden has been a lifesaver. “Sometimes,” McCarthy adds. “I look out of my bathroom window down on to it and I just think, ‘Wow, next year it’s going to be even better’.”
A Reclaimed and Handmade Rural Garden
Just before Christmas last year, Robin Lucas moved into a stone mill house in rural north Lancashire. The house had already been undergoing a gut renovation for about a year, but a complete garden overhaul was also amongst long-term plans for the two-and-a-half acre site. Then lockdown happened and he realised that he could start a kitchen garden right away.
The site he chose had previously been a vegetable garden and there were fruit bushes and Jerusalem artichokes, but it was entirely overgrown with thistles, dandelions and couch grass, overgrown shrubs and willow and alder saplings. At one point in the past it had also been the site of an old barn. “It was hard graft to clear the site, with huge lumps of stone to dig out, trees and roots,” says the artist and designer.
Unfazed, he and his partner, Tom, began to gather the materials they would need to create the new garden from the site itself. Old bricks were repurposed as a path, while overgrown hazel hedgerows provided rods and finer branches which were then woven to create a low perimeter fence, gates and plant supports.
Hawthorn hedging was cloud pruned to give some structure (an aesthetically pleasing effect you can employ on almost any leafy hedge). Cobbles were excavated and made into rough dry stone walls to create the edges of raised beds, and the rich loamy soil was cultivated. He then started sowing like crazy. “At one point we had about 600 seedlings in the kitchen and on every window sill.”
The area is now an abundant patch and has provided food every day over the summer, cut flowers for the house and an incredible autumn display of dahlias. Now, attention is turning to the next areas to tackle. “We want to take it back to something more appropriate for the landscape,” says Lucas, who is unfazed by removing old shrubs and trees that are not right for the setting.
“Having lived here for 10 months we know which trees need to go. They might be in the wrong place or stealing a view that could be stunning. We have an area that’s lovely but the evening sun disappears quite early behind hedges so we will lay the hedge and get an extra 30 minutes of sun each evening.”
Equally he has waited to observe what grows naturally and huge patches of water avens and meadow sweet have popped up. Some of the bigger projects need to be in a holding pattern until proper attention can be devoted to them – a case in point the overgrown meadow that Lucas hopes to tackle next spring.
“We’ve got a huge amount to do and I often feel overwhelmed,” he adds. “There’s a hundred metres of hedges that need laying and I was all for going on a course. I even bought an antique billhook, but you need to pick and choose. With a garden this size you learn quickly that you can’t do everything yourself.
- Start with one manageable area if you’re creating the garden yourself.
- Save money by using found materials to build – old bricks for paths, coppice wood for fences or even gates.
- Always plant something that will give you a quick return – spring bulbs in autumn or annuals and dahlias in spring so there’s always colour.