Sam and Gavin’s garden adventures

So you've moved into a nice new house but the garden is grim. What to do? We say, ask the expert..

Words: Joe Swift

This is just the beginning: in every episode intoGardens will be following Sam and Gavin as they go from being novice gardeners in a brand new and ( I don’t think they will mind my saying this) very messy garden to…well, who knows?

We see this as being like a soap opera which you can follow over the months. There will power tools, rubble, falling trees, craftsmanship, boisterous children and, finally, something very lovely.

We will have a series of experts helping Sam and Gavin out and who better to start with than designer, presenter and Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal winner Joe Swift who will come up with a master plan…

It’s a familiar story

First house, first garden, young family so not much time or money to spare on doing up the garden. But having poured all their spare cash into erecting a glorious glass walled extension Sam (hands full with two children under two) and Gavin (a DJ) now need to cheer up their back garden which was pretty rubbish even before the builders trashed it.

So what do they want

Somewhere for the children to play A nice view Some plants – but nothing too demanding Somewhere to have barbecues and parties

Just the usual then.

What have they got

Neighbours on three sides One large oak (nice, keep it) Some manky old shrubs (lose them) Muddy, rubbish lawn

What else do we need to know?

Virgin gardeners, but willing to learn It’s got to be a long term project (at least a year) – they haven’t got money to splurge out on doing everything immediately Need to consider safety with two toddlers

First things first: how to make small spaces seem bigger

Use the same trick as you would indoors: light materials and tones will reflect available light and make everything seem brighter and bigger. It’ll make your plants look smarter. Increase the depth of field by planting tall and wispy plants just outside the extension.

Blur the boundaries. If you can see all four walls the garden’s going to feel claustrophobic. Climbers, pots, small shrubs and trees distract the eye.

Cheat: Draw the eye along the diagonal – the false long view will make the garden look bigger.

Choose your kit carefully – Buy stuff like furniture, bbq’s and parasols that fit snugly into the space.

How to make the space your own

Work out where you can sit without being seen. If there’s no one that isn’t overlooked you’ll have to plant or place a barrier in the line of sight. Sam and Gavin have got the oak but a covered swing seat might be a nice idea – and popular with Louie and Honor.

Secret hidey holes: A pergola (not as naff as it sounds, especially if you grow a vine or some other jollity over it) or a tree with a wide canopy such as Crataegus prunifolia or the more exotic and evergreen loquat, Eriobtrya japonica are perfect to hide under.

Sail shades or parasols work well to create both privacy and shade too and are easy to take down when not in use. (A bit pricier than trees/vines though). How to get the most out of the garden Get one thing to do two or more jobs: I have a slate paving which my kids like to draw on with chalks and the edge of my pond is at the perfect seating height.

Here comes the sun

Plan the seating so it gets the sun when you’re in the garden. Sam and Gavin like an evening drink so they’re going to want to sit down at bottom right had corner of the garden.

Think big

Skimpy seating areas look mean and stingy especially if you’re going to have friends over. Build a big enough space and bring more chairs out from the kitchen. Sam and Gavin have decking just outside the extension and then a paved area leading from that which would work for parties. The terrace needs to be all one level though to make it seem spacier.

Rule of thumb

Avoid level changes in the middle of terraces as they will seriously restrict how many people you can fit around a table and often give an uneasy feeling that you’re falling off!

Nobody’s got any time any more

I totally get that they’re not going to have much time to garden. But they are eager to learn and are up for a bit of planting and watering. The key is to plan things right. My garden’s chocka with plants but it’s absolutely low maintenance. I have a blitz in the autumn and the spring, with the occasional tweak here and there when I’m pottering about. I rarely water, don’t have to mow, and never stake or spray. (Sam’s nodding at this.)

To get their garden in a state where they can just tweak and prod they’ve got to start with decent soil. Otherwise plants will sulk and look rubbish.

Stuff they can do straight away

Dig plenty of organic matter (a few bags of bought from a garden centre) and this being London they’re going to have to chuck on and dig in another few sacks of sharp sand or grit (garden centre not builders’).

The lawn

To get this lot into shape would mean taking up the turf, digging out the subsoil (to prevent billions of weed seeds germinating) and then looking after it all year round. And even then chances are it would end up being churned up into Bestival style mud by the kids. How does Sam feel about fake grass? Not nasty 70s style Astroturf. These days fake grass is as good as fake tans.

And, finally, the plants

Sam and Gavin are a long, long way away from planting right now so if you want to know how it all pans out do read the follow-up article.