‘Oh, I thought something between £1500 and £2000.’
This is the point at which the designer has to gently bring the enquirer to an understanding of the realities involved. The bald fact is that having a garden designed is a purely elective expense, and one that is pretty much a luxury. It is easy to see why people think they can get gardens for these sums – plants are not hugely expensive, and you can buy a lot of them for £2000, but this takes no account of the labour involved in creating hard-landscaping, materials, VAT or, at the bottom of the heap of priorities, the designer’s fee. The sum the client has in mind is, undoubtedly, a lot of money, but it is simply insufficient for what they have in mind. It is possible to transform a small garden by spending this amount wisely on plant material, but to create the longed-for ‘room outside’ takes far more in the way of cash.
‘But Alan Titchmarsh used to do it for £500 over a weekend!’ Well, anyone with an understanding of the true cost of things knows that he didn’t.
The new show garden category, ‘Low Cost, High Impact Gardens’ at Hampton Court Flower Show this year is thus to be welcomed – four gardens built to three different budgets give an inkling of what is achievable on the relatively modest, in design terms, budgets of £7000, £10000 and £13000. I know, these are still big sums, but in terms of what it allows you to achieve, they are minimal outlay. A couple of years ago I designed a courtyard garden for a house that cost at least a million pounds but that had a tiny, neglected garden. By careful design it was possible to give the client a beautiful outdoor space for about £14000, of a size that would have cost them a further quarter of a million had it been inside the house. When looked at in this way, the outlay begins to look like not only good value, but essential expenditure if you have the resources to spare. Forget the immense improvements in the way you will live and experience your home – even in terms of the returns on reselling it’s a no-brainer.
But if you are having a garden designed and built, where does all the money go? The expenditure is largely in the creation of the hard landscaping – the paving, decking, pergolas and walls all soak up contractor days and materials, and while it’s not possible to pare down the day-rate of a landscaper, it is possible to make the design faster to implement. This is where it actually pays to engage a designer: savings are there to be made, and a good designer knows how to achieve this. Take time though, to research a designer you have confidence in – I’m a firm believer that good design doesn’t have to be any more expensive than bad.
Rule number 1 – stick to straight lines and right angles. Anything involving curves or odd angles immediately hikes the price, as such features are trickier to set out on the ground and more time-consuming to build.
Rule number 2 – limit the changes in level where possible. Digging out and carting away waste, or making ground up by importing extra material is a luxury where it isn’t strictly necessary.
Rule number 3 – if you have to compromise to achieve a budget, consider changes in materials or creative use of cheap and readily available materials first. The overall layout of the design should be the last thing to be modified, because if the designer has done a good job, this layout will be the optimal solution for the site.
So, back to Hampton Court and the Low Cost gardens. Well, on a day of pouring rain you don’t linger too long on the details, but the first thing that struck me about all of these was that they looked amazing. Show gardens occupy a strange cultural niche, because they always look their best, but these could, at a glance, have stood up to many more expensive gardens. The budgets assume that a garden has boundaries and that the plants bought will probably be smaller versions of those on display, allowed to grow up for a couple of years, but even so, the results are impressive.
'Our First Home, Our First Garden'
In at the lowest price was the garden created by Landform Consultants. ‘Our First Home, Our First Garden’ designed by Nilufer Danis had a sunken seating well (in flagrant contravention of Rule 2, tsk) surrounded by a lovely summer planting in blues and yellows. I can’t imagine any first-time buyers not wanting to create something like this to show off their new pad. The cost of digging out had been cleverly offset by the very creative use of cheap reclaimed scaffolding planks as retaining walls for the seating pit, steps and decking. Gravel, always a good cost-effective choice for a semi-durable surface, formed the floor of the pit, and the budget had even stretched to a shelf/woodstore supporting an outdoor heater. I’d say this definitely provided the template for good, affordable design for a couple setting up home – the planting implied an interest in gardening as a hobby rather than as a mere backdrop to life out-of-doors, and provided a good range of wildlife friendly plants. A couple of semi-mature trees brought height and presence to the planting, and if you are establishing a garden from scratch it’s always worth splashing out on just one big plant like this to give a sense of permanence to the whole.
'Our First Home, Our First Garden'
In the £10000 category Richard Wanless of Twigs Gardens had created ‘A Compromising Situation’. I’m not sure what the title refers to exactly, but the conceit here is that the garden is one in a Victorian terrace, the residents of which can pass through each other’s plots. Though this is a far-from-normal arrangement in my experience, it gave an opportunity to create a seating area secluded from the gravel path, screened by hedges of different heights and a timber arbour. The paths and terrace area were paved in stone, and the inevitable expense of this offset with areas of (cheap) grass. The lie of the path added interest to the design, and a bit of extra width to a seating area. If space and/or budget are limited, finding ways in which necessary pathways can contribute to other areas is a good trick. There was scope in the budget here for a few little ornamental touches – a screen of curling steel reinforcing rods evoked the croziers of new fern leaves, and the risers of the steps were made of rough stone - while this wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for an urban Victorian terrace, it’s an indication of the level of detail it is possible to achieve with this degree of funding. The planting, less expansive than in the first garden, nonetheless achieved a good balance with the other elements of lawn and paving.
'A Compromising Situation'
The first of two gardens in the £13000 category, ‘live outdoors’ by Roger Smith for Garden House Design used very simple shapes – a square deck big enough to put a dining table on, covered with a clever arbour and crisp paving in the path were all surrounded by the type of planting that looks great in an urban setting – a limited palette of plants linked by form and colour, with plenty of softening foliage, bamboo for screening and one or two knock-your-socks-off specimens. In this case the specimens were tree ferns which do look amazing although you need to check your supplier’s credentials if you are investing in these plants – I always worry that they have been uprooted from virgin Tasmanian forests when I see them decorating a courtyard in the UK. This garden had some nice design touches that illustrate my point that good design doesn’t have to be expensive: the step risers were made of three paving slab sections put together – this didn’t mean much until you noticed the uprights of the arbour, made of three laths of timber to each face, or the overhead beams constructed in the same way. It’s this sort of detail that can really pull a design together, giving the garden a coherent feel. The beams were a real designer’s touch – open at the top they acted as channels for planting which spilled over in a curtain – a neat way to soften the structure without using climbers. The budget even ran to a wood-fired oven and a couple of planters.
The final garden was ‘Summer In The Garden’ by Mike Harvey for Arun Landscapes. Another design centred on a seating space, this garden also had a budget of £13000. A Yorkstone crazy-paved terrace with an outdoor chimney stack surrounded by a good mix of shrub and perennial planting created a seating area submerged in vegetation. Again, the overhead plane was defined by timber, treated much more simply in this case, with the presumed-to-exist boundaries rough-cast rendered then painted a vibrant yellow. This is a great way to introduce some drama to a garden for very little outlay, and through your choice of colour can produce just about any mood you wish. The feel here was very much of the Mediterranean – an olive tree and pencil cypresses underplanted with santolina and lavender don’t look at their most natural under leaden skies, but with the sunny yellow walls the whole certainly brightened up a gloomy summer day.
'Summer In The Garden'
So, do these gardens offer a realistic goal for those trying to establish new gardens on a budget? Very definitely – for me the most important aspect in each case was the way in which the design process had been used to minimise unnecessary costs, and I do think this is where it is worth getting design advice. The principle of using cheaper materials to deliver the design is a good one and if you are hands-on with construction you can save thousands of pounds in landscaper fees, but unless you are really confident and experienced, with plenty of free time to devote to your project, it is probably worth stumping up for a professional. A bit of patience allows you to buy smaller plants that will establish quickly and fill the space in a couple of years, but what these gardens really show is that getting the long-term design details correct at the start is the key to a successful garden – practical, good-looking and, most of all, a place you want to be.