By Teresa Conway published
Michelle Dawson lives with husband Nick, and their five children in a five-bedroom detached Edwardian house in London. They moved here in October 2018, and the garden was the last area to be renovated.
'We bought this house as a big renovation project,’ says Michelle, ‘We had plans to extend and completely transform the interior, so the garden was way down our list of priorities. We knew we wouldn’t be tackling it properly for ages, but we also couldn’t just leave it as it was.
The couple wanted a characterful space with lots of clever garden design ideas including a roomy eating area, well-planned storage for bikes, easy-to-care-for planting and hard-wearing play space.
‘Within a week of moving in, we’d demolished and cleared away the old garage and laid some rough turf, so the children had somewhere to play outside. That turned out to be a really useful move, as the grass very quickly became mud, and we could see that the ground was just too damp for a real lawn. Over the next 18 months, the space gradually turned into a builder’s yard, piled with scaffolding poles, machinery and building materials as our renovation progressed, but that didn’t stop us from planning the garden transformation.'
The original garden and how it looked before
When the couple moved in the garden was little more than a concrete yard, with no planting to speak of apart from a few pots.
It was definitely a tricky space, as not only was it quite a small strip, but it was also an irregular shape. To add to this the ground sloped down slightly from the house, and there was an imposingly-high brick wall between the family and the neighboring property.
The plan for the garden makeover
The couple browsed Pinterest and magazines for small garden ideas, and they eventually decided on creating two distinct zones. 'One would be a paved patio where we could all eat and relax together, and the other would be for the children to run around and play,' says Michelle.
'I think the best way to get the most out of a small area is to pack a lot in, and make it all really useable,' she adds. 'We wanted the garden to feel like another room in our house, so it had to be fun and visually pleasing as well as super-practical and designed to work for our family.'
Having already seen how disastrous a proper lawn could be, the couple realised that using alternatives to grass was the only sensible option for the play area, so they opted for artificial turf. Over several months, Nick drew up the plan in detail, making sure there was something interesting to look at from every angle.
Laying the groundwork
Once happy with the design, the first stage involved working out the levels for the sloping garden. The eating zone is on the patio, which is reached by two steps down from the house. There’s another small step down from there onto the play area, which then slopes almost unnoticeably towards the back gates.
'It was quite complicated to get it all correct and we measured, checked and measured again to be sure. After that, our builder laid the patio. It was essential to get it perfect so that rainwater doesn’t pool, and Nick and I were happy to leave that job to the experts.'
The couple also had professional help with fitting the artificial grass. 'It sits on layers of hardcore, topped with sand, so water drains away, and it’s been really firmly fixed-down around the edges. After a lot of research we felt it would be worth the expense to get the best-quality artificial grass we could find. It looks and feels realistic, plus it’s robust and low-maintenance.'
A big proportion of the budget went on labor, but it was money well-spent, as the couple knew the garden would get a lot of use, and they didn’t want problems to arise months down the line.
Practical and stylish storage
One of the ‘must-haves’ was user-friendly garden storage ideas for recycling boxes, and the family bikes. 'I didn’t want a conventional shed or anything too functional-looking, so we came up with designs for two brick structures that anchor the space at one end. '
There are racks inside the taller one so bikes and scooters can all be hung tidily. They laid sedum matting on the flat tops of the stores to create green roofs which add texture and soften the brickwork. The tops are slightly angled, so that water naturally drips off the upper one onto the lower one, and then down into a drain at ground level.
Creating an outdoor room
The family wanted to create that all-important outdoor room feel in the dining and seating zone, so they hit on the idea of incorporating an outdoor fireplace. It was originally in the front room of the house, but was no longer needed so it had been sitting outside for a while.
Nick designed the brick chimneypiece around it, making it look like an interior feature. 'We love color and there are lots of green tones indoors, so we painted the surround bright emerald green. It makes another link with the house and just adds a bit of fun.'
The shutter mirrors were put up afterwards, just to complete the look, and reflect a bit more light. The final touch was the solar-powered festoon light ideas. The tall boundary wall came into its own at that point, as they could be positioned really high up above the seating so they look very effective at night.
Greening up with planting
'I love having leafy plants inside my home, so when it came to the garden, I followed a similar pattern,' says Michelle. 'As it’s a small space, I wanted plants with texture and impact, and varieties that would look good all year round with minimal attention. Our choices were partly inspired by holidays in France or Spain, so we’ve got some palms and dwarf olive trees that lend a Mediterranean feel.'
Opting for container gardening ideas gives the couple the flexibility to move things around sometimes. It does limit the size of some plants, but that hasn’t been an issue for the couple, and having only a few beds to weed is the ideal trade-off.
'The whole project took us about two months and we’re really happy with how it’s turned out. I love that the children can run in and out as much as they like without bringing masses of mud and mess indoors. At meal times, they’ll help carry the plates outside to the table and it’s just like having another dining area. We wanted our garden to be about maximum enjoyment with minimal maintenance through the year, and that’s what we’ve got.'
Teresa was part of a team which launched Easy Gardens magazine two years ago and she continues to edit it today. She is also the Gardens Editor on Homes & Gardens, Country Homes & Interiors, Ideal Home and Style At Home, so she is lucky enough to see and write about gardening across all sizes, budgets and abilities. What she is most passionate about when it comes to gardening are the positive effects it has on our mental health to grow and care for plants. Keeping our patches alive with greenery is great for the environment too and help provide food and shelter for wildlife. Finally, she finds it to be such a wonderful opportunity to tap into her creative side and she loves the feeling that she is crafting a space which has a life of its own. Audrey Hepburn summed gardening up perfectly when she said - “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.
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