The nine things I did to give my garden a glow-up in two weeks (on a budget)

Lucy Denyer
'I didn't have long and I didn't want to spend too much money,' writes Denyer - Asadour Guzelian

Two years ago, I was the newly proud possessor of my own garden, excitedly exploring the possibilities my little patch had to offer. I couldn’t pass a garden centre without going in, and couldn’t leave one having not spent any money. This time of year was when I enjoyed my garden the most: roses blooming; shrubbery expanding; the possibility of eating outdoors.

I had just bought myself a little garden shed to store my tools when my husband’s job entailed us upping sticks and moving 200 miles away. Our rented home has a garden, yes, but miles in character and aspect from my own beloved patch.

It’s north-facing for a start, as well as being overlooked by the houses around us (I was lucky enough in London to have a south-facing garden that backed onto the wilderness of a train line). Because it’s a rental, the garden has literally nothing growing in it, except weeds. And our new home also happens to be a newbuild, which means the garden is typically shoddy: it’s not flat, the lawn is patchy and the whole thing sits on top of a layer of scree that’s not very far down, which makes it difficult to plant anything. The soil in these parts is clay – heavy at the best of times, but worse after the wet winter we’ve just had.

I spent said winter trying not to look out of the window and completely unmotivated to do any sort of planning or planting. But now that the sun has (finally) poked its head out, I wanted to be able to use my outdoor space at least some of the time. Luckily for me, my landlord was fairly relaxed about any changes.

I didn’t have long and I didn’t want to spend too much money (a bad combination for a would-be gardener), but I was able to effect a fairly swift transformation in just a couple of weeks. By next summer I’ll be on a roll. Here’s what I did.

1. Booked a couple of hours of advice from a professional

I’m not an experienced gardener and didn’t really know where to start, so it made sense to invest some time and money into someone who could help me – which also meant I would save on both down the line. Accordingly, one Friday afternoon the aptly-named Lizzie Tulip came to cast her professional eye around my patch (£200 for a consultation).

“What you want is a simple place that’s inviting,” she correctly surmised, before going on to point out all the terrible things about my garden: the fence that wasn’t straight, the badly laid patio, the undulating surface and the clearly poor drainage.

Denyer paid £200 for a consultation with an expert to get tips on how to breathe new life into her garden
Lucy Denyer paid £200 for a consultation with an expert to get tips on how to breathe new life into her garden - Asadour Guzelian

She suggested the cheapest thing I could do was to get the lawn right by digging it up, levelling the ground and laying new turf to give myself – and my children – a symmetrical and flat garden. This seemed like a lot of work, and frankly not something I particularly wanted to do, so I decided instead to follow her advice about structuring my garden, which made a world of difference.

2. Made a garden plan, and created structure with shrubs and trees

“This garden doesn’t have a journey – it needs some surprise,” was Lizzie’s summation, which meant creating some structure with trees and shrubs to draw the eye, rather than doing what I’d initially planned, which was just to add borders around the edge of the garden (“Don’t plant around the edges; you want to soften the views,” advised Lizzie). I’d already bought one (slightly desultory-looking) little apple tree; Lizzie advised moving this to a sunnier spot, and adding a Malus ‘Evereste’ crab apple at the other side of the garden, which would provide spring blossom and autumn colour, as well as arrest the eye and distract from the fence.

Lucy created structure in the garden using trees and shrubs to draw the eye
Lucy created structure in the garden using trees and shrubs to draw the eye - Asadour Guzelian

I also sought the advice of the gardener Sasha York, and accordingly invested in a small cornus tree to add some extra structure and a focal point to my seating area; all of the trees are small enough to take with me when I go. I planted a physocarpus, a good-sized shrub, at one corner of my patio to both screen some of the garden and create another focal point. With Lizzie’s help, I planned where other things would go: an eating area in a sunny corner that got both morning and evening light; a place to put a bench, and where I would plant some quick-growing sweet peas to add instant summer colour.

Once I worked out that designing a garden was basically like designing a room, things became much easier. “The most important thing is tracing the light – you need a morning coffee spot and a gin-and-tonic bench,” declared Lizzie. Which sounded pretty good to me.

3. Invested in some new garden furniture

While we already had a serviceable outdoor table, barbecues had generally consisted of people standing awkwardly clutching a plate or lounging uncomfortably on the grass as we had nothing in the way of outdoor seating.

Clearly the situation needed to be rectified, so, having relocated my table to its new sunny spot and added a bargain crank parasol from Dunelm (a mere £35), I invested in some classic folding bistro chairs from La Redoute and Habitat – they’re compact, fold flat and have an epoxy finish, which means they’ll be fine stored outside. Evening lounging was catered for by Aldi – its Apaculpo rope-effect chairs are a steal at £26 each: perfect for the patio, which does get a few rays of cocktail-hour sunshine.

Before: Denyer's table didn't not look very appealing for relaxing or eating at
Before: Denyer's table didn't not look very appealing for relaxing or eating at - Asadour Guzelian
After: Denyer has created a welcoming corner with an inviting table, chairs and parasol
After: a welcoming corner with an inviting table, chairs and parasol - Asadour Guzelian

I couldn’t resist splurging a little on Habitat’s 60 Lucinda metal garden bench and chair combination (£185) – the bench creates another focal point and the chair can be added to extend its length, or used separately when we have extra guests round to eat. A generously sized outdoor rug from Ikea finished things off. All I need now is a firepit and we can stay out there for hours.

4. Created an outdoor cooking area

Barbecues are not the world’s most attractive things, and ours had ended up forlornly pushed round the corner of the patio so I didn’t have to see it, leaving my husband lurking grumpily out of sight whenever he took up the tongs to cook: neither aesthetic nor practical.

Food's ready!: The barbecue is easily accessible on the patio and the table beside it is practical
Food's ready!: The barbecue is easily accessible on the patio and the table beside it is practical - Asadour Guzelian

Instead, I rejigged our patio area: I took up six flags from one corner and put turf where they’d been, which not only pulled part of the lawn towards the house (drawing the eye again), but meant I could re-lay some of them at the other end of the patio (from where I pinched the turf) to create a dedicated place for the barbecue to sit. A small outdoor table that had been hanging around with no purpose then became a prep area next to it, and I dug out a small bed on the other side where I planted all my herbs, ready to be plucked and scattered on lamb kebabs or juicy burgers.

5. Planted some speedy shrubs

The edges of my garden were wild with weeds: I considered, but then discarded, the idea of creating a raised border all the way round (I actually started digging but gave up when I realised how heavy and waterlogged the soil was), and decided to add in some quick-growing shrubs that would spread to fill the space instead.

Now I have a pretty pale-green nicotiana in one corner, a mass of catmint in another, and a hebe by my new bench. I’m hoping all will spread mightily and be magnificent by next summer. In case I’ve planted everything in completely the wrong place (likely), I’ve also placed an order with Garden on a Roll: you simply send them the dimensions of your border, say whether it’s sunny or shady and what style of garden you’d like, and they send you the plants, complete with planting plan. An instant garden!

6. Went pot-tastic

Before we left London I had planted all my potted plants into the garden; the empty pots came with me. They were looking very desultory, but filling them made an instant difference: geraniums into one, tons of mint into another, a trio of hostas into another that cheered up the shady spot outside the kitchen door. “For bang for your buck, I would always go for dahlias,” advised Sarah Raven, the Queen of Pots, who says she then adds a tender perennial climber such as thunbergia or rhodochiton to the pot to bring some height – naturally I obeyed and obtained some dahlias forthwith.

Go potty: Planting in pots is not only easy, but means you have the freedom to move the flowers around the garden
Go potty: Planting in pots is not only easy, but means you have the freedom to move the flowers around the garden - Asadour Guzelian

Next on my list is some container-compatible cosmos for my smaller pots, which Raven advised I should spike through with something like an acidanthera to stop the pot looking blobby and dumpy. She also gave me an invaluable tip which saves tons of money on compost: fill about a third of a large pot with the plastic pots that plants come in, before adding a layer of weed membrane, then compost on top. I also added some smaller pots to my various tables: “I use a knackered café table to lift smaller pots so that you can see them – I call it giving plants a stage,” says Raven.

7. Planted lots of annuals

These are great if you’re an impatient gardener (like me): they bring instant colour and joy and fill gaps quickly. My local garden centre sells masses of bedding plants with bulk discounts, so as well as cosmos and pelargoniums in my pots, I planted erigeron and forget-me-nots around my two trees. Next on my list are night-scented stocks to make everything smell beautiful.

8. Painted the fence

All my research suggested that this was the one instantly transforming thing I could do to make my garden look summer-ready. I confess I baulked initially – our fence is very, very long and I am lazy. But there’s no doubt that when I finally roused myself, it really did make a difference.

Add a pop of colour with a lick of paint (just remember to buy enough)
Add a pop of colour with a lick of paint (just remember to buy enough) - Asadour Guzelian

I used Rust-Oleum’s Garden Paint (£36.99 for a 2.5-litre tin) which can just be slapped on (you definitely don’t want to look too closely at my work), and now I have a beautiful soft blue-green fence that feels positively Mediterranean. If painting the fence is on your to-do list, I would strongly advise investing in a decent paint-sprayer, which makes the job much quicker – and paint before you plant.

Also, don’t underestimate the size of your fence: my beautiful blue does not, in fact, stretch all the way around the garden as I ran out of paint.

9. Lit it up

“For me, one of the most important things for a garden is lighting – it allows you to enjoy your garden all year round,” says Sasha York, who keeps her own festoon lights and fairy lights on all the time. A couple of strings of Habitat’s solar festoon lights (£20 for a six-metre length with 20 bulbs) do indeed make everything look a bit more cheery, although I think I need to get some more to stretch all the way around the perimeter. And when my physocarpus gets a bit bigger, I shall be stringing it with fairy lights.


Get your garden ready for barbecue season...

GoodHome Denia Wooden Natural Bench, £95, B&Q; Marina Stripe outdoor rug, £159, Ruggable; Wentworth Garden Window Mirror, £165, Click Style; Terracotta Olive Pot, £115, Crocus
GoodHome Denia Wooden Natural Bench, £95, B&Q; Marina Stripe outdoor rug, £159, Ruggable; Wentworth Garden Window Mirror, £165, Click Style; Terracotta Olive Pot, £115, Crocus

GoodHome Denia Wooden Natural Bench, £95, B&Q; Marina Stripe outdoor rug, £159, Ruggable; Wentworth Garden Window Mirror, £165, Click Style; Terracotta Olive Pot, £115, Crocus

Smart Garden Solarpowered Outdoor Festoon lights, £18, B&Q; Rive Droite drinks trolley, £63, Garden Trading; Outdoor cushion cover, £10, H&M; Terracotta Tassel Parasol, £90, Ella James
Smart Garden Solarpowered Outdoor Festoon lights, £18, B&Q; Rive Droite drinks trolley, £63, Garden Trading; Outdoor cushion cover, £10, H&M; Terracotta Tassel Parasol, £90, Ella James

Smart Garden Solarpowered Outdoor Festoon lights, £18, B&Q; Rive Droite drinks trolley, £63, Garden Trading; Outdoor cushion cover, £10, H&M; Terracotta Tassel Parasol, £90, Ella James

Halmo Kamado Egg BBQ, £399, Asda; Galvanised Hanging Planter 40cm, £25, Dobbies; Potter's Bench, £250, Gardenesque; Rectangular tasselled cushion, £34, H&M
Halmo Kamado Egg BBQ, £399, Asda; Galvanised Hanging Planter 40cm, £25, Dobbies; Potter's Bench, £250, Gardenesque; Rectangular tasselled cushion, £34, H&M

Halmo Kamado Egg BBQ, £399, Asda; Galvanised Hanging Planter 40cm, £25, Dobbies; Potter’s Bench, £250, Gardenesque; Rectangular tasselled cushion, £34, H&M

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