New House, New Garden 2: Garden Makeover

Here’s the second of my (cough) regular posts on preparing our house and garden for sale. A (cough) short while ago, I wrote about the house Jim and I bought in January 2016, its poor state of repair, its interesting decoration. Just renovating the house would gobble up our allocated budget: new kitchen, new bathroom, new flooring, re-plastering, redecoration and all the rest. And so, as I stressed in the introduction post, the garden budget would need to be tiny, less even.

Our garden makeover strategy was simple:

  • spend as little as possible
  • make it attractive and inviting
  • spend as little as possible
  • make it easy to maintain for non-gardeners but with potential for gardeners
  • spend as little as possible

Creating a garden for a wide range of tastes and differing levels of gardening enthusiasm can be tricky. Obviously, not everybody is a fervent gardener.  Most people are delighted to have an outdoor space for sipping tea or tequila but some have little interest in pruning, digging up potatoes or turning compost heaps. (Yes, reader. Such people do exist). All of the five properties that Jim and I have ‘done-up’ and sold since the late 90s, were bought by young families.  Early on, they became our target market and we acknowledged that for parents with babies or toddlers, gardening is – generally – low on their priority list.


Ours was a nice house but we didn’t buy it with the intention of staying for long. We planned a quickish turn around to get it back on the market within two and a half years before moving to Gloucestershire. Whilst we concentrated most of our energies on the house, we knew that we couldn’t leave the garden until the last moment; not if we wanted something more than just lawn and summer bedding, not if new plants needed time to establish and mature.

New House New Garden

February 2016

I showed you the layout of our garden in the introductory post. This is how it looked when we moved in: a gardening challenge on six levels.  When we’d finished, it would be seven levels.  All those potential falls weren’t ideal for the toddler market but nevertheless, it was to a young family that we sold it in 2018.

New House New Garden

February 2016

Initially, we cut back shrubs, hedges, trees and removed brambles of mythic proportion. We cleared out the clutter that the previous owner had bequeathed us.  If a garden full of rubbish hadn’t deterred us from buying the house, we weren’t banking on the same ruse working twice.

New House New Garden

Jim took leadership of the end of the garden, removing ivy off the shed, replacing rotten timbers and fixing the roof.

New House New Garden (37)

Meanwhile, I started work on the terraces.  This small one, the second after the paved seating area, held weeds, a nice mossy wall and a couple of broken plastic pots.  Moss aside, as a garden terrace it wasn’t working for me.

New House New Garden (49)

I stripped out badly laid and superfluous weed fabric,

New House New Garden (50)

weeded, raked and then I started the fun bit – planting up.  With free plants.  Gardening clients, especially Jim’s Ladies of Alfriston (several women whom Jim gardened for in that village), often asked us to take away sickly or no longer wanted plants.  If salvageable, we potted these up and grew them on until we either found a use for them or gave them away. Because of this crippling inability to throw away viable plants, we had amassed a surprisingly large collection of various sorts.  For this terrace, I selected four pots of a small bamboo, variety unknown.  A couple of years previously, Jim had been asked to dig them up from an Alfriston garden and he assured me it wasn’t invasive. Let’s hope not.  Four bamboos wouldn’t fill the space, but eight would.

New House New Garden

I’ve found that the best method for splitting bamboo is with a hand saw but don’t use your Mum’s best.  She’ll be livid.  Any grit or stones in the compost will blunt or break the teeth.  Just fetch the ancient, rusty saw hanging up in any shed or garage in the land.  It’ll work fine for this job.

New House New Garden

May 2016

The bamboos were pot-bound and yellowing when I planted them

New House New Garden

July 2016

but within a few weeks, they’d greened up and thrown out new shoots.  (The pretty pale-blue bidet and assorted plumbing sundries were a temporary garden feature.  Had you asked, you could have had them for nothing).

New House New Garden (25)

And a year later, the bamboos filled the terrace completely and gave a dancing-in-the-breeze backdrop.  (Believe it or not, the large potted Acer was also Unwanted in Alfriston).

We had two leftover grapevines from our last house and planted these: one to shield the panel fencing on the right

New House New Garden

and a second to grow along the handrail up these steps.  We lifted a couple of paving slabs from the patio to create the vine’s planting hole, which also solved the pooling of water problem I mentioned in the first post.  I trained the vine to grow up to the top balustrade too and eventually cover it – if not during our time in Sussex.

New House New Garden

With terrace number two sorted, let’s move on.  Onwards and upwards, to the steps.  After an initial flight of brick steps, the second flight were of timber risers and more badly laid Mypex (or weed control fabric), half-heartedly sprinkled with gravel.  Why people use Mypex but fail to lay it properly drives me to distraction.  I’ve worked in and visited so many gardens, so many, where flashes or even wide expanses of black plastic are a defining element.  It’s not a good look and I hated how it showed on these steps.  But it was easily remedied by lowering, where necessary, the rubble and soil behind the risers, re-laying the fabric and topping up with two inches of gravel.  (Jim, with a nose for a bargain, bought up all the heavily discounted split or damaged bags of gravel he could find).

New House New Garden

I had plenty of weeding to do as well of course but then that’s garden makeovers for you.  (I have used chemical weedkiller in the past but I don’t anymore).

New House New Garden

I spent several hours over several days working my way, step by step, to the top.

New House New Garden

But it was worth the knee-torture, I think, and at negligible cost (except to my knees).  We spent less than twenty quid on discounted gravel.  I left the odd bulb on the steps because, well just because the odd flower on a step is quite nice, isn’t it?  Then, I wheeled out my jolly interesting collection of five old watering cans (again, mostly throw-outs from our clients’ sheds);

New House New Garden (44)

and followed up with various plant containers.

Moving Plants

These containers, along with an embarrassing number of plants that I kept at The Priory, we took to Gloucestershire in the summer of 2018.  Even though I had already given a large wodge of my collection away, we still filled the above hire van and three carloads with plants.  Might I have too many?

Luckily for us, the garden had well-established shrubs: Forsythia (third photo above); an enormous, and handy for the kitchen, bay tree;

New House New Garden

a fine hibiscus;

New House New Garden (46)

and a rather nice fuchsia.  To widen the access, I’d pruned most of these shrubs quite hard during our first winter or early spring.

New House New Garden

OK, let’s speed on.  Plenty to cover yet.  Next, is terrace number three.  When I started to weed this area, we weren’t sure how we would use it.

New House New Garden

Terrace 3 with terrace 4 on the left

But regardless of what it might become, I merrily weeded and, when I’d finished,  Jim screwed up his face, went a bit red, stuttered and announced an idea.   He does this sometimes.  Relieved that he had thought of a solution and even more relieved that he would execute it, I weeded terrace number four.

New House New Garden (47)

Jim’s idea was hardly revolutionary but decking the terrace would provide a seating platform for evening sunshine. It was also quick, easy and relatively cheap.  I thought it particularly quick and easy as I didn’t have to do it.

New House New Garden (30)

After weeding terrace four, I mulched it with four-inches of bark and planted a dozen Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve

Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve' (2)

alongside more pots, including another client’s unwanted – a large olive tree.

Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve'

This red Acer was also an Unloved in Alfriston.  We were glad to have it.

The simple block of Erysimum was popular with, in no particular order, neighbours, visitors and insects.

Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve'

It flowers through spring, summer and autumn – it even flowers a bit in winter – but does need deadheading.  Even if our house didn’t sell for long months, likely the Erysimum would be flowering.

New House New Garden (7)

The fifth terrace we left as lawn but filled in the sandpit.  We almost made this terrace into a vegetable plot but stuck to our keep-it-simple brief.

New House New Garden (8)

We also left terrace six to lawn, though in a break with its previous tradition, we kept it mown.  I’ll show you the shed and what became the seventh terrace in a sec.

New House New Garden (18)

I’m not going to show you very much of what we did inside the house because that would be weird.  But, whether you’re interested or not, I will share my new found (and quickly forgotten) love of laying quarry tiles.  Self-taught by Youtube, I nervously started at the back of the house in the conservatory.

New House New Garden (19)

After finding my rhythm, I was surprised at how satisfying tiling could be.  Try it.

Quarry Tile Flooring

After I’d finished, I blushed and simpered as Steve, our builder and professional tiler, looked at me in surprise, uttered praise and patted my back.  (Very, very long-term readers of my blog might recognise the rude Ficus from a 2011 post).

New House New Garden (21)

With barely a tiling breather, I whisked through the side passageway

New House New Garden (20)

before, evangelical with tiling zeal, I moved into the dining room.  Had Jim not shut and locked the front door, I suspect I would’ve laid a quarry tile runway out into the front garden and down the street to the church.  I did a lot of tiling in that house and I was chuffed with the result.  And sincerely?  If you need help with quarry tiling your floor, if you need help with working out how many tiles to buy, how to cut the tiles, how much grout/cement you need just ask.  Just ask – someone else.  I no longer have an interest in quarry tiling.

New House New Garden (55)

Anyhow, back to the shed and the rear of the garden.  Jim built several wooden steps leading up to the door.  He commandeered old sweet-chestnut fencing posts from The Priory’s firewood store to build a retaining wall, backfilled and lost the slope.  He also painted the shed.  I vetoed his proposed colour scheme of mauve with large pink spots.

New House New Garden (56)

He weeded the entire area, behind the shed too, planted up with more free plants and deep mulched with bark.  Hell, he even made a rustic bench.

New House New Garden

He’s handy our Jim but if faces on pots aren’t your thing, best confiscate his marker pen.  He also made the potholder from an old plank and pitchfork.  He’s handy our Jim.

New House New Garden (24)

March 2018

Annoyingly, I can’t find a photo of the garden in the summer of 2018 when it was far leafier and dressed for sale with more container plants.  Sorry, but you get the idea.

Neither do I have the complete expenditure for our cheap garden make-over.  But the decking timber, for example, cost £104; roofing felt and paint for the shed, and bark-mulch for the seventh tier was £87.  The only plants we paid for were the Erysimum, which as I wanted relatively big specimens, cost us £60 (reduced to £40 with a voucher).  The entire garden budget was, I guess, no more than £350 – out of a total budget of about twenty-six thousand for the property.  But then this was a very simple garden makeover and – as always – just weeding and clearing made all the difference.  Those just cost time.

New Garden

The garden in Gloucestershire – August 2018

Jim and I have barely started work on our new Gloucestershire garden.  But this time, there’s no rush.  We ain’t moving.

37 thoughts on “New House, New Garden 2: Garden Makeover

  1. Pingback: We Made A Backyard, Half 1 | Earth 365

  2. I was trawling the internet for garden makeovers looking at my dreary new garden and can’t believe my luck stumbling on this! Your garden matured so beautifully and I really love the seating/decking area. It looks amazing and it oozes hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome. To get that much done and keep the pennies in check there had to be some serious effort. It’s great when we get something done ourselves rather than nonchalantly throwing money at it. Not just from a cost perspective too, it just makes us feel better with a sense of accomplishment. Now what we need is a good bit of sun and warmth for the decking…Regards, Terry

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. Congratulations on your successful and inspiring project David and on your new home and garden. I’m in North Carolina in USA. Having bought 3 little pots of Erysimum at my local garden center in late fall, I’m intrigued by your lovely Erysimum feature. I bought mine on a whim with no idea it could be so charming and work through all seasons. The way you’ve used it is so appealing. Happy new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you and Happy New Year to you too. Just a quick word of warning, the Erysimum isn’t keen on prefers alkaline soil. It was very happy in my house’s chalky soil – but less so at The Priory on heavy, slightly acid clay. Also, it isn’t terribly long-lived so take cuttings! Enjoy. D

      Liked by 1 person

  4. At first, while I am reading this article and looking at your house really cluttered and I feel disgusting. But then I fall into loving your house and garden. I want to grow ornamental plants in my own garden. This article inspire me a lot.

    Keep up the good posting, David.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well I would say that’s blooming marvellous. Looks just perfect. I used to have a terraced garden and it was not an easy enterprise. But different levels make these gardens really charming. We are permanent in France now and the good old British mower I ordered arrived and is happily waiting for grass in the garden. The chickens destroyed every blade of grass and I have now moved the critters to our other house. Hopefully in spring the grass will grow and the cylinder mower can start up. I need to catch up on tonnes of gardening. We bought a farmhouse with 2 hectares, so I might be asking you quite a few questions. Have a great Christmas and looking forward to many [cough] of your regular posts !

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, what a transformation. It looks great. The views must have been quite something from up at the shed level. Must have been possible to see over the rooftops from there.
    Re the Ladies of Alfriston – charming to a woman, I am sure, but something delightfully Mapp and Lucia about them by the sound of it. Visions of Mrs A popping up from behind the hedge to press Jim to a piece of her flapjack, Mrs B retaliating with her lemon drizzle and Mrs C weighing in with a slice of Dundee… Tell me it was so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ceri, yes the views were great from the top over the roof to the South Downs. It was one reason why we bought it but it was our second choice after the purchase of the house we really wanted fell through. As for the Ladies, Jim, worrying about an expanding waistline, did ward off a steady train of cake and biscuits but his will was weak! Cake accompanied also by a steady stream of village gossip and intrigue, D


  7. Beautifully done and a real testament to how big swatches of the same plant give a garden real oomph! And the shed… even without the resellability factor I think contrasting the pink hibiscus with the Tiffany box blue shed was the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lauren, thanks. I think blocks of the same plant can be really effective and esp if it’s a long flowering plant. It was a bit of a no-brainer here as, apart from deadheading, the Erysimum can be left untended, D

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I wish you would have kept tiling all the way to my California native garden, I am very inspired by you homemade conservatory! I plant only trees/shrubs/ground plants as tiny 1-4” tall and this also saves money! Watching tiny plants grow (they do grow fast and surpass any large planted tree quickly!) is so satisfying, a heart felt attachment developed in addition to visual beauty. Your thrifty garden is so I inspiring! I’ve worked with heart felt Japanese gardeners and I feel they would admire both of you for your passionate effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Leslie. I had running arguments with The Priory’s owner about tree planting. He always wanted the biggest potted specimens whilst I, like you, favoured smaller. I find smaller get underway quicker too and with less watering! D


  9. Great to see you two breathing new life into another property. The conservatory looks awesome now, and a perfect spot for an almost-outside coffee and cake break.
    Congrats on the new spot! I hope it doesn’t also require a 26K budget… but I suspect it does 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. We were both sad to leave it actually. I particularly wanted to continue training the vine. The bottom terrace was too hot and sunny to sit out in summer and I planned for the vine to form shade over it. Had we stayed, D


  10. Interesting post – I love seeing transformations. I think a purple and pink shed would have been quite an attraction but overall your choice was undoubtedly the best 😊.

    Shame you have lost any inclination to discuss quarry tiling. I have been inspired!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Here you are again! You were badly missed!
    I love the idea with the bamboo, but I’d definitely favour Jim’s colors scheme for the shed! Imagine the hibiscus in full blossom with a mauve/pink highlight at the back of the garden! Not only handy, your Jim, but bold and daring….Smile!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Do … if you can’t live with the vibrancy, you can always paint a quieter layer over. Our colours fade in the sun – my garnet red has gone to a miserable maroon (which bleakly matches the local high school blazers, ick)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Many pros: The work done by Jim! A confident and happy partner in full creative swing! In case of an enjoyable result you get an interesting contribution for your blog and in case of desaster I’m sure your post would be even better (plus a lot of compassionate comments from your readers)!
        Actually, I like the soft, faded colours Jim uses for some of his creatures. Did he ever make anything like a guardian or watchman for one of your gardens?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good point, Diana. Our new shed has full sun all day if not of South African intensity.

          Hi Marcie, he has made a few pieces out of wood and a stone cast of a king’s head that someone lent us. It sits in our garden now. But he usually works in papier mache, so not great for outside. Besides, and great news for him, he is so busy creating for various exhibitions that garden sculptures aren’t really on his radar. Have you seen his Instagram account, jimpilston? D


  12. I so enjoyed reading this. I’m an armchair gardening enthusiast – great imagination and not much else – except that I know it’s a lot of hard, hard work – even the weeding. The work done on the garden terraces is amazing, I can’t begin to imagine the condition of your knees and back.

    Thanks to this post, I might venture out into my garden tomorrow for some much needed garden therapy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Su and thanks for commenting too. After I posted this, it was greeted by a very loud, long silence. The next day I realised that comments were turned off. No idea why, so that was annoying. I turned them on just in time for you to contribute. Thanks for making me feel a little less alone. Good luck with your slope! D


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