If I could do it all again...

In the first of an occasional series, one homeowner looks back over the pitfalls of designing her garden.
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Carolyn Byrne has completed the refurbishment of her south London garden. Measuring 35ft long by 70ft wide, the garden backs on to Tooting Common, incorporating mature ash trees and a view of the open sky and treetops beyond.


When we bought the house, there was a lot of refurbishment work to be done and the garden had to wait. In the meantime, I did a basic gardening course with the view of sorting out the garden myself. At the end of the course, though, I realised there were still gaps in my knowledge so I enrolled on a second course. Within 10 weeks I had the full picture; I couldn't do the job single-handedly.

A friend put me onto Rebecca Heard who runs a company called Fine Line Garden Design. I had a fairly clear idea of what I was hoping to achieve; it was very important to me that the finished garden blended in with the natural environment of the common. My vision was for a garden overflowing with blossom and scent, along the lines of an urban cottage garden.

To get going, I focused on the far corner where the last rays of sun linger in the evenings; it was here that I saw myself sitting on a swing bench, surrounded by flowers. I bought the swing bench at huge expense and hid it, long before any of the work began, such was my urge to relax.


After initial discussions, Rebecca took photos and went away to produce her drawings, without planting schemes at this stage. Within six weeks, we were ready.

Clearing and digging work started last June, with a team of young, well-muscled sub-contractors who filled two skips with earth and stones. The plans involved paving with York flagstones, surrounding part of the garden with trellis, remaking the steep rockery and improving the soil in all the beds.

We ran cables below the paving in readiness for a lighting scheme. The trellis, built from iroko, was made on site to an unusual pattern to match some existing panels. A large expanse was planned to cover an ugly wall at the side of the garden and also to add height to the fence bordering the common.

The chap who was building the panels had underestimated the time involved and as time wore on he began to skip work. Eventually, he disappeared - to go surfing. The rose columns he abandoned were completed by Cathedral Garden Furniture for half the price of any equivalent catalogue product.

Another less-than-successful outcome was the purchase of hundreds of bags of bargain "sterile" top soil. My surf-mad foreman was very proud of the deal but I now know why it was so cheap - I'm still digging up buttercups in my herbaceous borders.

When landscaping was complete, we began planting. This was where I really felt the benefit of Rebecca's expertise. I set certain parameters; roses and clematis in pink and white, highly scented. Her inspiration and skill has made the garden what it is. In cracks between the flagstones we have planted thyme and lawn chamomile that smell lovely when crushed beneath your feet.

Behind the bench is a row of lavender and Russian sage. I chose a climbing hydrangea to drape around the trunk of the ash; Rebecca's advice to insert a plastic membrane beneath the hydrangea's roots prevented the tree from taking all the water and the climber is flourishing.

The garden incorporates lots of plants that I wouldn't have chosen for myself. The orange Ballerina tulips and the magenta peony tulips are really lovely with the soft lilacs and pinks that I always, rather safely, prefer to choose. Rebecca's subtle combinations are very clever. I had never even noticed the tiny orange centres of the euphorbia, for example, which are highlighted by combination with the orange of the tulips.

The finishing touches came recently with the installation of a string of copper lights on the walls and more lighting on stakes in the flower beds.


£10,000, excluding the plants and the swing bench.


Relaxing on the swing bench, which formed the centrepiece of my vision, is delightful. The bench itself stood up well to a party of 10 teenagers last week, drinking coke, swinging and snogging. As the garden grows up I look forward to brushing my way through a scented jungle, on my way to the swing bench.


I should have planned the project in September 2004 and completed most of the work by the December of that year. Planting could have been done in very early spring, and we wouldn't have had to be without a garden last summer.


Rebecca Heard, Fine Line Garden Design (07950 155662); New Dawn Furniture - solid teak swing bench ( www.newdawnfurniture.co.uk, 01243 375535); Cathedral Garden furniture - rose columns ( www.cathedralgardenfurniture.co.uk, 01915 171700); Adrian Hall Garden Centres - old York flagstones (020-8751 7600).