When you live in London, having any outdoor space at all is nothing to be sniffed at, and so I preface this post with absolute appreciation of the garden that we’re lucky to have. Let’s be honest though, as gardens go it’s pretty small, there’s not a lot of growing space without digging up the paving or decking, and for a while we weren’t really using it much aside from the occasional barbecue. When Mark and I were working full time in offices, it felt like there were few opportunities or reasons to get out in the garden, and so we’d done very little with it. However, I think we’ve all learned how valuable it can be to have an outdoor space since lockdown started and the weather showed up for us.
So when lockdown began at the end of March, our garden didn’t even have a table and chairs as our old set went to our allotment plot. The decking was quite tired and in need of treating, and I’m not sure the fence panels had ever been painted since being put in before we moved in. One side of the garden was also the innocent victim of next door’s hilariously inept fence painting (see one of the photos below)! Aside from some rather orange dribbling paint, it was pretty much a blank canvas and although we had been thinking about giving it a face-lift for a while, had pretty much designed the layout, and had a garden table on order, a few weeks indoors gave us the motivation we needed to crack on.
Serving a purpose
When figuring out the design and layout of our small space, we started with what purpose and functions we ultimately want the space to serve for us. How did we want to use the space to bring us the most joy, comfort, inspiration or whatever it might be. Outdoor cooking, alfresco dinners and drinks were top of the list, and for me being able to work outdoors and to have a quiet haven to escape to were important too. At some point we’d love to be able to host friends or even have an outdoor party, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer for that. Still we considered it in our layout so we can host people in the future. One of the more practical but no less important functions of our garden is for storage, and we’re lucky to have some space tucked away down the side of the building that works well for that.
Working with what we already had
I know I’ve used the word “makeover” in the title of this post, but we didn’t need to scrap everything and start from scratch as that word might suggest. We designed the garden in a way that celebrated the things that already worked well rather than changing them for the sake of it. Although it might be small, our garden is a lovely secluded outdoor space, given how close everyone lives to one another here. Over the back fence there are some larger trees in our neighbours’ gardens giving a lovely backdrop and a bit of privacy, and we’re not overlooked by many houses either. Despite needing a paint job, there was nothing wrong with the existing decking, so there was little structural work to do and we decided to keep the bare bones of the garden how it was. There was a lovely rose that we’ve encouraged which is now flourishing, and a beautifully scented star jasmine that fills the garden with its soft aroma when it flowers – there are benefits to having a smaller space!
Creating a flexible design
It was key for us to think about flexibility in our design given that the fairly small space we have needs to be able to play a few different roles. We regularly need to roll our bikes through from the storage unit to the gate, so there had to be a pathway through that was large enough and wouldn’t get blocked. A table and chairs was a must, but instead of a set, we opted for separate pieces that worked well together but also could be moved around or had other functions. These small storage benches from IKEA were perfect because obviously we can use them to store things in the future, but having a seat without a back means that you can sit on it one way to be at the table, but another way to sit by the firepit/barbecue, plus it can fit more than one person if needed. Then folding chairs are great to have out when friends come over, but we can also fold them away and store them when they’re not needed. As well as the typical table and chairs, we also wanted something more suitable for relaxing, so we opted for this simple arbor bench that we can start to grow plants over. It has been a great place to sit with a cuppa when the weather has been good enough. Lastly, because we didn’t have a lot of planting space directly into the ground, we opted for containers so we can have a lot more greenery and colour, and build up the shape of the garden into different levels and so it would feel less boxy.
Getting to work
After designing the layout and spending plenty of time researching furniture and plant container options, we got started. Fence paint and decking cleaner and stain were first on the list, and I also ordered the containers and furniture in case it took a while to arrive. In the end everything seemed to come together on the same day, so the garden was filled with empty containers, boxes of furniture to build, and bags of compost and soil! I was excited to get the project finished and the weather was in my favour, so I got to work painting and building.
Planting using containers in the garden can be tricky – you need to have containers big enough so the soil doesn’t immediately dry out in hot weather, and a lot of plants need a generous pot for their roots to grow deep or wide enough. Larger containers are of course available, but they can start to get pretty expensive especially if you need more than just one or two and want them to look nice as a garden feature. I decided to get a few of these apple crates that were about £8 each and stain them myself and also line them with weed membrane that we already had for the allotment. It was a bit of extra effort, but I think it saved us a fair amount of money, plus we were able to paint them to fit in with the colours we were already using. I also found these gorgeous old half whiskey barrels that were a bit more expensive at around £35, but we just wanted one or two that would work well for plants that need a lot of root space, and provide a lovely bit of character. For the fence, we decided on a slate grey colour to give the space a cool, relaxed energy, and also a hint of the urban garden vibe. I think it has worked out really well against the dark oak of the decking stain which I also used on the apple crate planters, and the whiskey barrels and bronze effect table.
Once the fences and decking were painted, and the furniture and planters were all in situ, it was down to the finishing touches. With our repurposed apple crates and whiskey barrels, and some scattered terracotta pots to fill in the gaps, we had much more planting space to make the most of. We didn’t work to a colour scheme for our flowering plants per se, but the general idea was to create a calming environment, so we opted for mainly neutrals with some blues and purples. We did of course already have the pink roses which we kept, but that filled our unspoken “quota” for bright colours. Perennial plants are our preference as they not only come back year after year, but they gradually fill out spaces and provide a flowing, relaxed aesthetic, and we have also tried to consider how we were encouraging bees and other wildlife to thrive by choosing plants that they love.
I’ve always wanted a Wisteria, so that was one of the first new plants to go in once we worked out which side of the garden got the most sun and also had the space that this vigorous climber could occupy. We also planted a mixture of geraniums, salvias, roses, and a lovely white lavender amongst other things. The star of the show for me at the moment is our beautiful David Austin rose called “Lichfield Angel” which produces these gorgeous peach-tinted, blowsy double blooms that I just can’t get enough of. I also love the delicate Oreganum “Kent Beauty” which I hadn’t come across before until we saw it in the garden centre. I think they can be quite tender, so we’ll see if it overwinters, but I will thoroughly enjoy it this year nonetheless! Speaking of winter, I wanted to try planting an arrangement designed to flower in the colder months when little else is doing much. I planted together a deep purple-coloured hellebore which I hope will flower when it gets colder, some variegated ivy and a small heather to see whether they work well together. They look lovely as they are now too, so hopefully we will have some colourful elements throughout the year in the garden – fingers crossed at least!
With a few of these plants, support structures are a must. It was soon obvious to us that our beautiful rose needed some sort of support to rest its heavy blooms on otherwise they wouldn’t be seen or ran the risk of breaking off. Then there was our original climbing rose and of course the wisteria to cater for. Instead of choosing the supports solely on their function, I saw this as an opportunity for some decorative elements. This cast-iron effect bell cloche support is the perfect size to fit just inside our whiskey barrel and can support rose blooms at different heights whilst also being a design feature itself.
In the future
I’m interested to see how everything grows and starts to fill out each of the planters. I think there’s going to be a bit of trial and error over the next few seasons to see what works and what doesn’t. It would be nice to get a clematis or other climbing plant to go up the side of the arbor bench, and we’re possibly considering a parasol for the table so that we can enjoy sitting out even if the sun is blazing. One of the whiskey barrels is actually still empty and we’re thinking of getting a dwarf fruit tree of some kind, hopefully an eating cherry if we can find a good one. It would also be really lovely to have some hanging baskets, a few more seasonal pot arrangements like a bulb lasagna for next spring, and find room for some more ways of encouraging wildlife for next year like a bug hotel, bird boxes, more feeders and perhaps a bird bath too.
It might have started out as a fairly lifeless, paved-over and somewhat forsaken place, but I’ve found it quite amazing what you can do with what originally felt so limiting. Containers for plants, accessories for wildlife but also things like lights, and thinking upwards rather than outwards are all great ways of making the most of small spaces, and really bringing them character and life – literally. Now we just need that sunny weather to come back…