You don't need pots of money to make your garden grow

A snip here and cut there can work wonders for your landscape desires ... and budget, says David Prosser
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The Independent Online

This year's Chelsea Flower Show, due to open in just 10 days, is expected to attract record crowds, as Britain's ongoing love affair with the garden continues. The nation spent £4bn on gardens last year, splashing out on everything from plants to water features. The figure has more than doubled in the past decade, reflecting a growing feeling among homeowners that the garden should be an additional room of the house.

This year's Chelsea Flower Show, due to open in just 10 days, is expected to attract record crowds, as Britain's ongoing love affair with the garden continues. The nation spent £4bn on gardens last year, splashing out on everything from plants to water features. The figure has more than doubled in the past decade, reflecting a growing feeling among homeowners that the garden should be an additional room of the house.

Part of the trend is a boom in demand for landscape gardening services, with some people spending tens of thousands of pounds on their outside space. But most homeowners don't have that kind of money. In which case, there are plenty of ways to end up with professional results in the garden at a fraction of the cost, even if you want to keep up with the latest trends.

DECKING

Jon Vincent, who runs garden design company Flora Gardens ( www.floragardens.co.uk), says the ubiquitous decking so beloved by garden makeover shows, such as Ground Force, is actually a very good-value-for-money purchase. "One of the reasons decking is so popular is that it is very cost-effective compared to stone and paving," he says.

But even here there are ways to keep costs down. Justin Jones, of Justin Jones Landscape and Gardens, says many people don't realise what lies beneath decking. "For 20 square metres of deck, you'll need 60 metres of supporting timber," he says. "If you buy this from a specialist timber merchant, rather than a large high street store, you'll make a big saving."

Decking also has to be built on concrete slabs, so that the whole structure is secure. Garden designers often charge £7 or more for these - you can buy the same slabs for 99p in your local garden store.

PATIOS AND PAVING

"When it comes to decorative stone, we recommend spending as much as you can afford, for two reasons," Jones says. "Firstly, you'll pay the same for labour, however much the stone costs. Also, although you can buy cheap concrete slabs that look like natural stone, it can be a false economy because the finish doesn't last and you may end up having to replace it."

Diarmuid Gavin, the celebrity gardener who has worked on shows such as Gardeners' World and Home Front, says people often spend too much on patios because they make them too large. "Sometimes we get the aspect wrong," he says. "A smaller patio midway down or towards the end of the garden to catch the evening sun when you get home from work will increase your enjoyment of the plot."

If you are buying tiles rather than stones, gardeners recommend specialist tiling shops that import from Spain and Portugal as offering particularly good value.

PLANTS

Vincent says the quickest way for townies to save money on plants is to get out into the country - unless they have access to a cut-price flower market, such as London's Columbia Road, which is open for business on Sunday mornings.

"Get out of town, and you'll find nurseries and garden centres are charging next-to-nothing for plants because they are not faced with big ground rents," Vincent says. "The exceptions are the big stores, such as B&Q and Homebase, which do often sell plants cheaply, but I find their ranges pretty boring and homogeneous."

For a fixed budget, Vincent recommends buying fewer plants at a higher individual cost, rather than many cheaper plants. "It depends on your garden, but a handful of dramatic plants are likely to have much more impact," he says.

Gavin reminds people not to forget about seeds, which are far cheaper than developed plants. "Get all the seed catalogues from Unwins, Fothergills and Suttons, and look at the incredible range of annual plants that can be sown directly into the ground," he says.

Don't forget pots and planters, adds Simon Pyle, the vice-principal of the English Gardening School, which runs courses for amateurs and professionals in London. "If you buy one really expensive planter and a plant to go in it, your money will have a much larger impact," he says. "Large, plain pots are a better bet than small ornate ones and will prove more cost-effective in the end."

WATER FEATURES

They may have been popularised by Charlie Dimmock from Ground Force, but professional designers still believe water can be an excellent focal point for a garden - as long as you're careful not to be naff or over-ambitious.

"It's easy to blow the budget, but think about what you want from the feature," says Jones. "Is it simply meant to make a soothing noise, or to spawn a new eco-climate?" A small water feature incorporating a lined pond, some attractive pebbles and a pump need cost no more than £100, he says.

STATUES/SCULPTURE

Garden centres are full of expensive decorative pieces, from cherub statues to abstract art. But experts say this type of decoration often looks out of place and may soon become unfashionable, leaving you with a white elephant.

Francesca Maurice-Williams, who runs online retailer The Urban Garden ( www.-theurbangarden.co.uk), says recycling is a cheap way to give your garden personality. "If you have a rural garden, for example, recycling old kitchen iron, such as colanders, can work really well," she says. "We also find there is a big demand for recycled chimney pots - you just have to use your imagination."

Gavin believes paintwork may be a better - and cheaper - way to decorate a garden. His top tip? "Go to the greengrocers, buy an aubergine and get it colour matched," he says. "This is the best colour to paint background walls or other features in the garden, as both foliage and flowers look stunning against it."

GARDEN FURNITURE

Jones says this is one area where the DIY chains do offer good value, if you're looking for basic seating and tables. "Otherwise, the internet is an excellent place to source furniture, because many of the best-value-for-money companies offering good-quality pieces are based in the middle of the country," he says.

Another option is to trawl the salvage and reclaim yards, which often sell old garden furniture, particularly ironwork, at reasonable prices. You may have to spend some time cleaning up your purchase, but the savings will make the work worthwhile.

Maurice-Williams warns that gardeners will need to compromise on costs somewhere. "It's harder to find cheap furniture that still looks good," she says. "You may have to make other savings to pay for this bit of the garden."

Insurance to weather the storm

* The green-fingered are particularly at risk from the light-fingered, according to Halifax General Insurance. Halifax's statistics show that spring is the worst time for thefts. David Norton, head of marketing, warns: "Popular items include potted plants, mowers, power tools, furniture, children's play equipment, bikes and outdoor heaters."

* Most home contents insurance policies do cover losses in the garden. Less happily, there may be exclusions - items not properly secured, say, or losses above a certain value. Check your policy and consider extra insurance. Don't undervalue what's in your yard.

* Mark Winlow, managing director of Zurich Personal Insurance, adds: "Sheds and outbuildings are covered up to a certain limit by some home contents policies but we would encourage homeowners to consider adding extended garden cover."

* Bikes in sheds can be particularly vulnerable, and may not be covered to full value by contents insurance. You may have to pay for extra protection.

* Make your garden more secure. Keep gates and shed doors locked. A prickly hedge might be better than a fence.

Casestudy: 'We've saved £18,000 on landscaping'

Heather and Brian Scott moved into their newly-built home just outside Edinburgh last summer. Their house was built on an empty field and although the developers had at least turfed the front of the property, the back garden was no more than a dirt yard.

"We were very keen to transform the garden, so we asked a local designer to give us a quote for our ideas," Heather says. "We were astonished when he said he'd charge us £23,000 to do the things we wanted, even though they were relatively modest - you could build a small bungalow for that price."

The Scotts decided to dispense with the professionals and do all the garden work themselves. The payback for their hard work is a massive saving.

"So far, we've spent about £2,000 putting in a lawn and a summer house," Heather says. "We're going to build two patios either side of the summer house, as well as a path leading down there from our french doors."

The couple also plan to install a central water feature as a focus for the garden, as well as lighting, so that they can use their outside space as much as possible. "I'm going to light the place up like Edinburgh Airport," Heather says.

"We were shocked by the cost of professional gardening services," she add. "By the time we've finished doing the work, we reckon we will have spent about £5,000, which is a fraction of the cost we were quoted - I can't believe labour would have been £18,000."

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