Garden makeover: a walled garden transformed by trial and error

This professional looking outdoor space was created by amateur gardeners and is packed with inspiring ideas, from amazing planting to a DIY pathway

A walled town garden with raised bed planted with box balls, hebe, tulips and forget-me-nots. Permanent structure added by varietated pittosporum, grey hebes and green box balls.
(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

Leila and Alex, company directors, have transformed their 50 by 80 foot walled garden into a delightful place to relax, sit and entertain. The aspect is south facing and so the garden gets plenty of sun.

Leila’s space is only a short step through an old gateway into the walled garden, but it seems far away from the outside world. It’s a calm space where bright sunshine filters through a canopy of bronze and green foliage, highlighting an array of spring flowers. 'It was the garden that sold me the house,’ says Leila. Dating from the sixteenth century, the house has been extended over the centuries, and the garden seen many changes. ‘Old houses feel very different to new ones, and their gardens have a special mood,’ she notes.

When the couple first moved in, the garden was well cared for and very traditional, with a framework of mature plants such as the magnolia, a purple-leaved ornamental cherry and wisteria. But overall, the garden design ideas needed a refresh. ‘The first thing I did was to completely change it around, getting rid of the greenhouse and compost heap,’ she explains. ‘It is a small garden, and I have a conservatory where I can sow seeds – I love seeing what's coming up each day.’

The plan for the garden makeover

A walled town garden with a circular patio seating area, raised mixed borders with box, hebe and tulips, and a painted wooden gazebo.

This walled town garden has a raised area for the gazebo

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

Originally the view from the house was of a greenhouse, compost heap and wooden gazebo on the raised, westerly corner, so the space needed to be completely re-organised to create an open outlook as seen from indoors.

Once the greenhouse and compost heap were removed, Leila looked at how to plan the garden design. The gazebo was relocated to the top of the steps, not only creating an alluring view from the house, but also providing a place to sit deep within the garden and enjoy seeing beds and garden borders develop.

Having relocated her gazebo to a raised area, the lower step leading down to the lawn was replaced with a round millstone, and box balls established to each side. The circular shape of the step was then echoed in a patio built from granite setts, where there is now a table and chairs. ‘Friends often ask whether I drew a plan, but I never did,' says Leila. 'I'm very relaxed about the garden, and am quite likely to wake up in the morning, and decide to do something there and then.'

Experimenting with planting

A walled town garden with wooden gazebo, mixed border of tulips and box, and old magnolia tree.

Mixed tulips and a magnolia tree give plenty of spring interest

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

The garden has developed in stages, and along the way Leila readily admits to making mistakes, moving some plants successfully, whilst losing others. ‘I didn't set out to become a gardener,’ she points out. ‘I just love plants, so I've learned through trial and error, and am never afraid to try again when something doesn't work out.’ 

Each year, she has a project, and a couple of years ago she tried out a trellis idea on top of the walls to filter the wind because it can be surprisingly windy in the northerly corner. ‘It hasn't worked though!’

Creating a statement path

A curving pebble path on a weed proof membrane, leading to a small circular patio with table and chairs.

Pebbles were laid on top of a weed proof membrane to create this statement path

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

More recently, she tried out her own pebble garden path idea, and it was a great success. ‘Originally, there was a pathway, but it wasn't delineated, and I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted. So, instead of paying a builder, I built it myself,’ she explains. 'Informal paths tend to curve, enticingly leading the eye towards a focal point or hidden area of the garden.'

First, Laila cleared the ground and laid a weedproof membrane, before arranging the pebbles on top. 'It's really important to eradicate all persistent weeds such as dandelions, and lay a weedproof membrane over levelled ground,' she says. 

'It's also a good idea to choose materials which meld with the planting and harmonize with architecture – obtain samples of pebbles in different colorings and sizes, to lay side-by-side with existing materials.'

Next, on each side she planted a box hedge. ‘At the moment, the plants are little more than twigs and look a bit pathetic, but they will fill out in time.’ Doing the work herself was a great cheap garden idea, costing a lot less than hiring a landscaper.

The path is gradually being softened by plants such as self-seeding forget-me-nots and honesty which, once past their best, she pulls out, scattering the seeds for next year. Welsh poppies also return annually, settling anywhere, whether in sun or shade. ‘I absolutely love the little yellow flowers and for years, I put plug plants in different spots, until some finally took. Now they seed in places where I wouldn't think of putting them.’

Spring blooms to add seasonal color

A spring border planted with Tulips 'Angelique', 'Survivor', 'Maureen', forget-me-nots, box and an acer tree behind.

The planting in this bed includes: Tulips 'Angelique', 'Survivor', 'Maureen', forget-me-nots, box and an acer tree behind

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

Most of Leila’s favorite things in her garden are spring flowering plants. There's wisteria, which she has grown in all her previous gardens, and each autumn she plants lots of different types of tulips which are followed by peonies and bearded irises. 

‘This is not a big garden, but the borders are quite wide and take some filling,’ she explains. So initially, she bought lots of undemanding, vigorous ground cover plants such as hardy geraniums, Japanese anemones and aquilegias. ‘They self-seed and create a lovely haze of nodding heads in spring.’

Coping with the south-facing heat

A contemporary table is made by Tom Faulkner and the garden chairs, Lomos no. 8, are made out of transparent, crystal clear weatherproof plastic.

A contemporary table and chairs sits in the historic walled garden 

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

As this is a south-facing garden, the plot bakes at the height of summer. ‘The automatic irrigation system was installed for this reason,’ explains Leila. The soil has been enriched for many years, but a layer of chalk lies not far beneath the surface, and Leila wonders whether the loss of several acers in the early years is because the roots found it difficult to establish. 

‘Initially, I bought mature plants in huge pots, but after the losses, I started buying smaller plants. Now that I'm more patient, I'm enjoying seeing them grow, and shape them over the years,’ she adds.

Choosing trees for natural shade

A swing seat by Myburgh Design hanging from an ornamental cherry tree.

A swing seat hangs from an ornamental cherry tree for a shady seat

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)

The garden’s plentiful dappled shade and leafy canopy comes from Leila’s love of trees and preference for shade rather than sun. ‘And also for the joy of seeing the sun filtering through the leaves, and the light playing on the lawn,’ she adds. 

Her favorite tree is by the seating area, an unusual, upright Japanese maple, Acer palmatum Dissectum 'Seiryu', which has bright green foliage in spring, turning gold and red in autumn. Another beautiful acer, which is one of the best trees to grow in pots, thrives in a container near the house.

Leila has also planted a golden-leaved, false acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia', which has grown seven metres in a decade, casting shade over a border where summer’s heat was quickly killing off plants. 

More recently, she planted a slower-growing pink acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia 'Hillieri'. The elderly magnolia has long lived in the garden, and originally had lots of low, spreading branches that took up too much space. ‘I agonised about pruning it, but finally took out a branch a year to create a more upright shape, and it is thriving,’ she says.

With her trial and error approach, Leila has successfully created a stunning outdoor space that can be enjoyed in all seasons. 

A walled town garden with curved pebble path leading to a circular patio seating area. Alongside, mixed borders are planted with box, forget-me-nots and tulips: right of path 'Burgundy', left 'Blue Aimable'.

(Image credit: Nicola Stocken)
Nicola Stocken
Nicola Stocken

Nicola Stocken is both photographer and writer, conveying the beauty of gardens and plants through words and pictures that appear in publications all over the world, as well as in greetings cards and calendars. For some 30 years, she has photographed widely throughout the British Isles, meeting the remarkable people behind some of the loveliest gardens, specialist nurseries and unique plant collections.

Her love of plants is second only to that of photographing a garden for the first time, of capturing its different moods as the light shifts from the golden hours of dawn to the deepening pinks of sunset. In her spare time, she plays flute, runs, paddleboards and attempts to control her own garden beside the River Thames.