How gardens, no matter how small can help offset the stress of life.
As we move optimistically into 2021, we cannot help but look back on 2020 with bewilderment. As far as years go it was a shocker of a roller-coaster; not one of ups and downs – more lurching from left to right, from one catastrophe to another. A global virus the like of which none of us have seen in our lifetime; loss of life, families kept apart for months at a time… and lockdown… many trapped in their homes with little space indoors, let alone outdoors.
Whilst in lockdown through the summer, we often had the kitchen TV on in the background, following whatever latest turn the pandemic was taking. As well as those suffering directly because of the virus, our thoughts went out to those who were struggling under lockdown conditions due to more practical reasons, a big one being the lack of space, and in particular outdoor space – certainly during the uncharacteristically hot summer days.
One of the CPDs I present here at Green-tech on urban greening, touches on this very issue. In a 2019 report by the Office of National Statistics, it states that merely living within 500 metres of green and blue space is estimated to be worth £78 billion to UK homes.
So, whereas most of us have always appreciated the value of having access to outdoor space, I think 2020 has intensified our awareness and appreciation of it.
My wife has a keen interest in the property market, and we were not even a month into lock down, with no appreciation how long it was going to eventually stretch out to, when she pronounced: “this will kill the market for flats or anywhere without outdoor space”. And sure enough, as the housing market came out of lockdown in July, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ residential market survey reported:
- 81% feel there will be an increased demand for gardens or balconies over the next two years.
- 68% say properties with more private and less communal space will be sought after.
- 78% are predicting a fall in demand for properties in blocks of flats.
And Rightmove stated that compared to June 2019, property searches for houses “with garden” had increased by 100%. In January, studio flats were at the top of the list for people looking to rent. However, by May, once lockdown had taken its grip, they didn’t even make the top five.
So, outdoor space is now a key requirement for most people’s homes. It doesn’t need to be particularly big, just enough to sit with your friends and family in the fresh air or sunshine, and it is amazing what you can achieve with a bit of vision and enthusiasm, to transform the most uninspiring yard.
We took on just such a project, thankfully the previous summer. We don’t have a very large garden; to be honest it’s a small yard, typical of Victorian town centre houses. But we use it a lot, and most of the year round. It is south facing, so we enjoy the sun all day long in summer, and we had heaters and parasols for winter. We also had a rather ugly 6ft by 6ft utility room extension, that had seen better days even before we moved in fifteen years ago, and took up nearly a third of our garden space.
Therefore, when the time came to re-do the kitchen, it was a foregone conclusion that we would knock the old utility down and open the back of the house up, making the most of what outside space we had.
We both love plants and trees, believing that they add a softness and calm to otherwise stark, grey spaces. We also wanted an Italianate feel, making the garden an outside room in the truest sense of the word. To give us this seamless transition from in to out, we used the same marble tiles outside, as we did on the kitchen floor, making sure that they lined up as if they were one room. This continuation of floor material helps to create an illusion of space, especially when the bi-fold doors are open.
One great tip with small gardens, is to start by thinking how you view your garden most of the time – you will probably find that you spend most of your time looking out into it from the house, so this is the angle where you want it to look its best from. The next task was how to create some decent planting space.
Previously we’d had very narrow planters set about 200mm in from the back wall, with a railway sleeper capping. The restricted space meant we could only ever plant small shrubs, or place small planters along it. As part of the landscaping, we took this dwarf wall down, and built a new breeze block and rendered facing wall 500mm in, giving us much more planting space to play with.
The base is concrete, so we made two matching permanent planter beds built each side of the gate 550mm high, giving us a soil depth of about 500mm. It is advisable not to use topsoil more than 300mm deep, or it risks going anaerobic. The British Standard topsoil that we produce here at Green-tech however, has a lovely, friable, open texture and has been approved by Tim O’Hare laboratories for use up to 400mm deep, which to us means an extra 30% of good organic growing medium.
At the base we put about 50–100mm of expanded clay granules as a base layer. Usually used as an integral part of our lightweight green roof substrate, these granules are relatively inexpensive, have a neutral pH, and are a handy way of adding drainage at the base of the planter. Next, we added the top-soil mixed with some Terracottem Arbor, that not only gives the plants and trees a nutritional boost during that crucial first establishment year, but also contains hydro-polymers, which retain moisture, releasing it back into the soil for plants to use if the soil dries out.
A common misconception with small gardens is that you need to keep everything small, when in fact quite the opposite is true. I read somewhere the catchy line – “lush but limited” – and this about sums it up. Go for a few bold plants to give that wow factor, with large clusters of two or three different specimens. For your planters, try to keep the same style – fewer but larger.
In many urban areas, fence height is restricted to six feet. To add a little more privacy, plant trees that extend above the fence line, or add a trellis to train climbers along such as Wisteria or Clematis. If you plant a summer and winter flowering variety this will give you interest all year round.
We added semi-mature olive trees along our back fence to go with two that we already had in individual planters. We find olive trees to be incredibly hardy, and they give a wonderful Mediterranean feel. Sadly, we may well see availability of these hardy favourites become scarce due to the spread of the Xyella Fastidiosa disease throughout Italy, France, and Spain. DEFRA has placed heavy import restrictions on olives and other species such as lavender and Rosemary in an attempt to maintain the UK’s plant biosecurity.
Even in a small space, you can still enjoy a water feature, just go for a wall mounted version. Our rather scary goat’s head had been lolling forlornly against the wall for years, but now, properly fixed to the wall, it forms my favourite corner of the garden, as well as providing the relaxing sound of water during the summer days.
Treat your garden like an indoor room, so add cushions or even rugs: maybe find some artwork that will stand the outdoors, such as this metal wall art. Paint your fence a soothing shade rather than just creosote brown, and lastly, don’t forget to incorporate great lighting schemes or heat source for all year evening use.