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.
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.
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.
Jim took leadership of the end of the garden, removing ivy off the shed, replacing rotten timbers and fixing the roof.
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.
I stripped out badly laid and superfluous weed fabric,
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.
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.
The bamboos were pot-bound and yellowing when I planted them
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).
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
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.
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).
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).
I spent several hours over several days working my way, step by step, to the top.
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);
and followed up with various plant containers.
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;
a fine hibiscus;
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.
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.
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.
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.
After weeding terrace four, I mulched it with four-inches of bark and planted a dozen Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve‘
alongside more pots, including another client’s unwanted – a large olive tree.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After finding my rhythm, I was surprised at how satisfying tiling could be. Try it.
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).
With barely a tiling breather, I whisked through the side passageway
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jim and I have barely started work on our new Gloucestershire garden. But this time, there’s no rush. We ain’t moving.