The path to success

A revamped garden can transform a home, but does the extra effort actually pay off? Rosalind Russell assesses some grand designs
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The Independent Online

If ever there was a property worth leaving home for, Sanquhar House is it. Georgian, set in two acres of gardens more romantic and blossom-filled than the most sentimental Helen Allingham Victorian garden painting, and far - but not too far - from the madding crowd. Dumfries is about as madding as it gets.

And that's exactly what Catriona McLean was looking for when she decided to leave a stressful job and relocate to the Scottish Borders with her then husband, two small children and the nanny. The large house in Tooting, south west London was sold for £298,000 at the top of the market in late 1988, they cleared their mortgage and bought Sanquhar House for £165,000. Catriona wanted the house so badly, they didn't even have a survey done. One look at the graceful arc of the flying stone staircase, flagstone floors and original shutters and she knew it was "home"."It was just weeks before the property bubble burst," she recalls. "The estate agents told us it was almost the last house they sold in Tooting for six months."

The nanny didn't last, and neither did the husband. But Catriona's love affair with Sanquhar House, and its garden, has proved more enduring. Already a keen gardener within the narrow scope of a small London plot, she was unfazed by the scale of the acres she'd taken on.

"The garden was totally bare, apart from the central fountain and low hedges. There was absolutely nothing on the walls and no beds at all. I enrolled at the local agricultural college and did the Royal Horticultural Society course on basic gardening. I bought masses of books, got more out of the library and set about planning my garden."

Almost 17 years later, spring in the walled garden by the River Nith brings promise of towering spears of verbascum, blowsy peonies, lacey clouds of phlox and roses heavy with perfume. There is a herb garden, clematis rambling over old stone walls, carpets of thyme and lavender and raised beds for asparagus. "We made friends quickly and we certainly welcomed being in the country after so many years in London," Catriona recalls. "I am on first name terms in the post office, the butcher is great and when we had a very bad winter and the snow was drifting up the drive blocking us in, the neighbouring farmers came out in atrocious weather to dig us out with the snow plough."

Her new love of gardening also gave Catriona another life-changing idea: she had been to France on holiday with friends and discovered wonderful, huge terracotta pots. "I got some samples brought over and a friend who had a stand at the Chelsea Flower Show put them on his display. It just took off from there."

Now Catriona sources and supplies garden pots for upmarket companies like the General Trading Company in Sloane Square, Harrods and The Chelsea Gardener. And to complete her change in fortunes, last year she married an old family friend who had also decided on a life change. He'd given up life in London in advertising and begun a degree course at Chelsea College of Art. "We had our wedding party in the garden at Sanquhar House, my local hairdresser Jackie (£5 for a good cut and £12.50 for highlights!) closed her salon and all three assistants came, along with the Registrar. It was a very happy local occasion."

Now they have decided to move on. Sanquhar House, with its six bedrooms, studio, 14 ornamental chimneys, 500-bottle capacity wine cellar and 25-year-old black grape vine, is up for sale; offers over £390,000 through Smiths Gore 01387 263066. The children are now grown up and independent and Catriona and new husband Charles are moving to Montpellier in France, where she sources her pottery. "We both feel the need to start a new life, but I'm taking cuttings like mad to take with me!"

So are buyers entranced or put off by a fabulously landscaped garden? It depends on its size, say estate agents. Most people appreciate the work and care that has gone into it, but a few might hesitate, thinking of the time and commitment it will need for maintenance.

"While buyers can be alarmed by exotic-looking plants, we don't usually get a negative reaction," says estate agent James Way, of Knight Frank. The firm is selling a six-bedroom house in Stratford on Avon with a quarter-acre garden, absolutely bursting with plants, including wisteria, camelias, topiary, palms, aliums, irises and ferns. It also has a selection of apple, plum and pear trees. The soil was brought in to provide the right growing conditions for the collections. Only one viewer said he didn't think he could cope with the garden. The house is for sale at £950,000, details from 01789 297735.

The owners of the four flats making up Sunny Gardens, in Hendon, north-west London, wrote to BBC's Homefront in the Garden asking the team to completely redesign their communal garden. Dairmuid Gavin took on the project, coming up with an idea that reflected the sociability of the residents. Taking inspiration from Miami South Beach, he gave the garden a sunken outdoor cinema area. Images are beamed onto an outdoor weatherproof screen, with the controls for the DVD, sound and lighting housed in a pink turret. It can be used year-round. A glass walkway divides the parking area from the garden and is underlit by purple-blue lighting. Now one of the owners is moving on and has asked Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward to find a buyer. His two-bedroom apartment is for sale at £280,000 with share of the freehold. Details from 020-8455 1144.

The buyers of Conygar, an Arts and Crafts-style six-bedroom home in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands will have to be handy with a pair of topiary shears ... or employ a gardener who is. In the landscaped grounds of 1.25 acres is an impressive collection of shrubs and trees clipped into precise shapes, standing to attention around a formal lawn and fountain, framing the front of the house. Elsewhere in the grounds, there are two concealed greenhouses, an orchard and a tennis lawn. With coach house, stable and harness room, it is for sale at £1.3m through Quantrills (0121 354 9229).