Reap the rewards of a garden makeover

Sow the right seeds and your house's value could grow by £20,000, says Sonia Purnell
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The Independent Online

We are a nation obsessed with our gardens. This year we will spend almost £4 billion on plants, paving and garden paraphenalia, twice the amount of just a decade ago.

We are a nation obsessed with our gardens. This year we will spend almost £4 billion on plants, paving and garden paraphenalia, twice the amount of just a decade ago.

With our climate warming up - there are now 10 per cent more hours of sunshine than 30 years ago - we want our gardens, roof terraces or balconies to serve as additional, alfresco rooms and to "decorate" them accordingly.

When we get it right, we can add £20,000 or more to the value of our homes plus instant "saleability", according to research by Bradford & Bingley estate agents. Get it wrong or abandon our gardens to a jungle of rubbish and weeds, and we knock 10 per cent off the value and even risk being unable to sell our home at all.

Of course, it is possible to spend tens of thousands on designing a garden, and installing expensive plants, pots, furniture, lighting and a state-of-the-art barbeque. Many people invest as much money in revamping their patch of earth as they would in a brand new kitchen - and often a lot more. So £25,000 to £30,000 even on a smallish, city garden is not uncommon these days.

Just as there are any number of interior designers for the home, the same now goes for gardens. Designers typically charge from £200 a day to advise on a range of styles. Some will specialise in old-fashioned colour-packed cottage gardens, others offer a minimalist flower-free zone with only the odd hugely expensive architectural plant and interesting sculpture as "accents" - as they say in the trade.

Designers will frequently come up with new ideas or clever tricks to make gardens look bigger, wider, tidier, more dramatic or even just more modern. But the cost of the materials required to create the dream - from paving to plants and pergolas - comes on top of fees and can be painfully high.

People now often spend as much money on their outdoor furniture as they do for the indoors. There are beautiful solid wood chairs, tables and loungers that cost thousands. Terracotta, metal or resin pots will set you back hundreds and specimen plants that come for the same price as a small car. Even paving stones are hugely valuable - with the best York stone or slate often fetching at least £60 a metre (with laying costs about the same).

No wonder then that garden theft has reached record levels - with £20 million of equipment, ornaments, furniture and plants stolen in 2000, the latest figures available. So if you have splashed out, check your insurance covers the garden as well as the house contents. Even well-established plants - such as a large standard rose - can be yanked out of the garden by a determined thief.

But it is not necessary to spend, spend, spend to create a good garden. Fifty pounds and an afternoon's work can go a long way, according to the experts. Invest in a good pair of secateurs, a trowel and an edging tool, and then set to work.

First, dump the rubbish. Second, tackle the lawn. Just creating neat edges instantly transforms a garden, cut the grass if it needs it before digging out the weeds in the flower beds. Freshly dug soil always looks good and takes the eye away from the inadequacies of the plants. Lastly, dig up dead or diseased plants and trim back rampant ones - and then sit back and admire your work.

Simon Pyle, the vice-principal of the English Gardening School, which runs a number of courses for the beginner and professional, says that just another £100 would work miracles.

"Just don't spend it on lots of cheap little plants and a collection of itty-bitty small pots that looks stupid anywhere except in a certain sort of country garden. Buy just one really expensive planter and a plant to go in it and your money will have huge impact," he says.

Large, plain pots that complement rather than fight their surroundings are a better bet than small, ornate ones, the experts agree. "Think big even in small gardens, as otherwise you will look like you are kow-towing to the lack of space. You need to be strong and bold; it will be cost-effective in the end. The trend is definitely for gardens to become smarter with cleaner lines," adds Mr Pyle.

Jon Vincent, a leading garden designer known for his sparing, contemporary style, also advises "quality rather than quantity. I would rather build a garden with just three good plants, than hundreds of bad ones. Avoid plants that have become cliches such as camellias, ceanothus or choisyas, you see them in almost every garden and they're so 1980s garden-centre in style."

Indeed, it is best to decide what plants you would like for your garden by consulting the vast range in books or catalogues rather than visiting good quality nurseries or specialist suppliers. Martin Bain, another highly regarded designer and gardener, buys many of his most interesting and attractive plants from Bosvigo Plants near Truro in Cornwall, which will, as with many leading nurseries, deliver elsewhere in the country.

"Don't just go to B&Q, but visit or send off for the catalogues of these independent, often specialist nurseries. The plants are far more interesting and of a very high quality," he says.

"Yet many of these exotic, dramatic plants are also very good value and you can get expert advice when you're choosing."

Indeed, one of his personal favourites, a luscious dusky pink and very unusual poppy known as "Paddy's Plum" that would raise the tone of any garden, costs just £4.50. Another spectacular plant, a shade-loving reddy ferm with delicate spiral leaves, known as adiartum alenticum japonicum costs £5.80.

Bosvigo has a wide selection of other foliage and flower plants in interesting colours, including a dazzling reddy-black - perfect for that designer look, but it would never be stocked in a DIY shed.

Mr Vincent shares the scorn of practically all his peers for the "dartboard" school of gardening, with individual plants scattered randomly round the garden.

"Keep it simple. If you do go for something cheap and cheerful like a pansy, buy lots of them in the same colour and plant them together for maximum effect. Just scattering them around here and there is pointless."

This simplicity is particularly important in the front garden, which has radically changed from its 1950s heyday when a multi-coloured and complicated display of daisies, marigolds and petunias was often regarded as a statement of the owners' wealth.

Now the fashion is the more uniform the better, with formal, sharply cut hedges of lavender or box particularly popular. These can also hide a multitude of sins (including dustbins) but are costly, particularly if planted when already mature. Even a short box-row can cost £600 - the 21st century version of conspicuous consumption, perhaps.

Another popular option is to gravel over the front garden - a relatively cheap and effective burglar deterrent as anyone approaching the house can be easily heard and one that is obviously low maintenance too.

Indeed, one of the strongest trends in gardening is towards minimum maintenance with many people buying drought- resistant plants, particularly after so many cherished plants were lost in last summer's heatwave.

Herbaceous plants such as delphiniums and lupins are all losing their lustre - as they require the constant watering, deadheading and dividing that few of us have time for.

They are fast being replaced by new species, often from abroad, many admired purely for their foliage rather than their flowers.

"Some of the plants now in vogue, particularly the more exotic, architectural ones, can be prickly and people worry about having them in gardens with children," says Mr Vincent.

"But parents can be over-paranoid these days. You just have to educate your children about plants and they will learn to respect them. Just choose ones that are robust enough to withstand a football and you'll be fine."

Jon Vincent

The English Gardening School 20 7352 4347

Bosvigo Plants 01872-275774

'It's something original without being foolish'

It had troubled her for years. How could she disguise the vegetable patch behind the circular lawn that formed the centrepiece of her London garden without spoiling the sense of openness? And how could she update the garden without going mad for strange stainless-steel structures or plants she didn't really like?

It was not until Kay Ivanovitch, a silversmith originally from America, asked a designer to look at the problem that she finally had an ingenious solution. Jon Vincent suggested something that is almost his trademark - a "wedge hedge", or graduated but crisply-clipped low hedge of, in this case, a box that is simple yet effective.

Sloping at one end, it rises and widens while curling round the lawn to a central gatehouse, but also directs the eye away from the vegetables to the other side of the lawn. On that side, he has planted anasymmetrical lavender hedge, which ends in a group of round standard boxes and a large sculpture of dogs. In front of the vegetables is a straight, low and golden box hedge, which sets off the wedge hedge.

What was once quite dull and old-fashioned, with the lawn going straight up to the path, has been strangely transformed by a hedge that at its peak is no more than half a metre.

The effect has been to outline and emphasise the interesting shape of the lawn and appear to make it bigger, screen the vegetables and create a subtly dramatic focus.

"Jon has brought a gentle modernity to the garden with something that is original without being foolish," Kay says.

The 200 box trees in the 9-metre long wedge hedge cost £3,000, other planting cost about the same and labour was several thousand on top.



* Edge the lawn neatly along paths and beds - this is an old plantsman's trick that produces an instant and dramatic effect.

* Keep it simple. Buy a few choice plants, the best and most expensive you can afford. They will have a far bigger impact than a lot of mediocre, ordinary plants scattered aimlessly round the garden. Look in good quality nurseries and specialist suppliers, and dare to be different in your choice.

* Kill the clutter. Keep paths clear, rubbish out, and tools and dustbins tidied away. Gardens should be smart, clean and lean.


* Don't buy small furniture and pots just because you have a tiny garden. Buy the biggest table you can, with one or two big pots and plants, and the overall effect will be sensational as well as welcoming.

* Don't go for lots of small pots, as this looks untidy and disorganised. One or two big, plain pots will do the job much better and will probably work out much cheaper in the long run.

* Don't just focus on the flowers in your garden. Varied foliage will add structure as well as all-year round interest.

* Don't get a garden gnome. Others may not share your quirky sense of humour