Urban gardener: Designs for living

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Three years ago, when the Gardeners' World presenter Joe Swift told me he was about to launch Modular Garden, a design and build company that took its lead from the TV makeover, I remember being slightly pessimistic about its chances. The public had grown weary of people storming into gardens, ripping the guts out of it and cobbling something together on a tight budget and an even tighter time schedule and occasionally (and this is the incredible bit) without the prior consent or approval of the owner. What those poor people had to put up with for our entertainment is no one's business. I mean they're hardly likely to turn round at the pay-off and say, "Bloody hell! What have you done to my garden you bastards?" Joe and I (together with the talented Ann-Marie Powell) worked on such a series on a new housing estate six years ago when the genre was at its peak of popularity. With no clients to deal with and having to build 15 gardens in 15 days, the whole thing was slightly surreal and we still bear the scars from the sound of cheap decking, flimsy screens and blue gnomes being ripped out.

Yes, the TV garden makeover has had its day, but Modular Garden is going from strength to strength, picking up five gold medals at this year's New Homes Garden Awards. Together with co-founders Nick McMahon and Allon Hoskin, Swift has cleverly used the fundamentals of the garden-makeover phenomenon to promote good design at an affordable price.

The idea was born out of Swift's frustration with the process of designing a garden and the ambiguities when it came to deciding a budget. "The design process can be frustrating for both the designer and the client," he explains. "We like to put the client in control of spec and budget." A laptop presentation of different gardens helps the client understand how different styles work with different houses. Various layouts and planting schemes are also shown, materials and maintenance of the garden are discussed, all of which is assimilated and honed to fit a given budget. The process is not unlike having a new kitchen or bathroom.

"Exactly," says Swift. "People underestimate the value of their garden. We see it as a product. A product that is more affordable." How much exactly? "The starting price is 7,000 plus VAT for the complete package (design, construction and planting), but the average spend is around 11,000 which, compared with a new kitchen or bathroom, is not bad, especially when you think of the value it adds to your property. It's a bit like what Conran did with Habitat making good design accessible."

While they are careful to work with the architecture of the house as opposed to against it, Modular Gardens is unashamedly urban and mostly contemporary, using geometry to define simple but practical solutions for urban living. Needless to say, they carry a particular resonance with new-build properties and, while each project is different, they have a range of five or six styles that can generally be adapted to suit the typical urban space. For developers this allows them to build an attractive garden without costing the earth, making the house more attractive and easier to sell.

Among the garden-design fraternity, the legacy of garden makeovers has been a mixed one. On one hand the entertainment value boosted the previously obscure profession of the garden designer, but on the other it gave misleading information about costs. "We still get clients who think that a garden can be built for a couple of thousand pounds," says Swift, "but by and large people have come round to the idea that if you want something that's going to last, you have to pay for it."

This makes me wonder if, like me, Swift ever has nightmares about the programme we made and is haunted by the sound of gardens being dismantled as the next one is built. But I'm sure Modular Garden has done much to lay that ghost to rest, with the only sound now, I suspect, being that of birdsong, laughter and chinking glasses.