Saturday 21 April 2018

Diarmuid Gavin on how to transform your garden from scratch

Whether you're starting from scratch or starting over, my top tips on planting and design will help you to create the perfect plot, writes Diarmuid Gavin

Photo from The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin, Gill Books
Photo from The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin, Gill Books
Tree garden. Photo from The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin, Gill Books
The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin

Diarmuid Gavin

More of us than ever before have gardens. We come to them at different stages of our lives - the gardens we inhabit now may be smaller than the ones we grew up with, the ones embedded in our memories.

And because gardening involves different disciplines - scientific and artistic - with both local and universal rules applying, it can be difficult to get to grips with our plot. Often in our heads we have a picture of the garden of our dreams; perhaps a beautiful, simple cottage garden, maybe a French baroque statement or a quiet contemporary retreat suitable for growing plants, for eating in and working from. With The Extra Room, I want you to be able to take note of what you have, consider what you'd love and show you steps towards achieving the Eden of your dreams.

Examining what you have

What have you got to begin with? Look afresh at what you are starting with. Is it a garden that you've lived with for many years, one that is in desperate need of reinvention? Or are you brand new to gardening, with a bare plot on a new housing estate which is staring provocatively at you? By making some simple observations such as how, when and where the sun rests in your site and through a bit of digging and examining what your soil is like, you can begin to get to know your garden and gain some understanding of what might work and what won't. On the notepad, draw the plot as a plan - it's possibly a rectangular shape. Now indicate where the house is. Can you make out the orientation? Is it a bright, open sunny spot or does it struggle, only enjoying occasional spells of direct sunlight? Have you made instant decisions about what needs to go? Is there some crazy paving from the 1970s lurking beneath your feet? Or decking from the Noughties, rotting at the edges and mouldy? Do you have a shed that's seen better days? Were the fencing panels painted blue - pristine sky blue when the paint was wet, but now mottled and dirty? And as you walk around, how does it feel underfoot? Do you get the impression that the soil is compacted underneath the lawn? Have moss and weeds invaded? Or is it lush and green? Are there plants in the garden? It can be very good to have something to build on. Are there some trees? Are they attractive to look at or do they block the view? Have they grown too big for their space? Or have they reached the point where they are doing the perfect job in shielding you from the neighbours and them from you? As you gaze around doing your sketching in a relaxed manner, answers will come.

Cubist garden by Diarmuid Gavin, from his book The Extra Room
Cubist garden by Diarmuid Gavin, from his book The Extra Room

Your soil

The foundation of any good garden is its soil. Before you plant a single species in your plot, it's best to know exactly what type of soil you have - acid or alkaline, chalky or boggy, free-draining or clay. Once you analyse your soil, you can find out how to improve it and what species will do best in your soil type. So, let's get down to earth and examine what's in the ground.

What type do you have? If it is crumbly and dark in colour and you can see some earthworms, lucky you - your soil is good. If it is light in colour and very dry, it is more likely to be a sandy soil and will need some treatment. Mediterranean and drought-tolerant plants are best suited to a sandy soil. Clay soil will stick together if you squeeze it and retains water in the winter, which makes it unsuitable for Mediterranean plants like lavender and cistus.

Organic matter is the key to achieving a good soil. As it rots down, organic matter helps to stick the soil particles together in sandy soil. As earthworms digest matter they move through the soil, improving the structure of a heavy clay soil. So, dig in plenty of well-rotted farmyard manure, garden compost and leaf mould. 'Slow-release' additions such as bark and shredded twigs, which can be applied as a mulch and left to rot down every year, will also help. Sand can be added to lighten heavy clay soils.

One of the most important factors of your soil is its measure of acidity or alkalinity. You can get a very simple pH kit from any DIY store to establish this before investing in any plants that won't suit your soil. The ideal soil in which most plants will grow is pH 6.5 to 7. If you have acid soil, there are many beautiful plants that you can grow well, such as rhododendrons, camellias, pieris, heathers and kalmia. However, if you want to grow veg on acid soil, it's well worth adding some lime to sweeten it up a month before you start planting. If you don't have acidic soil and want to grow rhodos and azaleas, do so in pots with ericaceous compost - don't try to make your soil acidic. Matching the right plant to the right soil will produce the best results. Good gardening is keeping things simple and staying realistic.


Our attitude to gardens has changed: through television, climate change and travel, our appetites have broadened. We often wish to create the perfect outdoor haven, a place possibly to enjoy the craft of gardening and one that definitely needs to indulge our desire for outdoor rooms with pools, pavilions, pizza ovens and chimineas, along with wind chimes, mirror-finished obelisks, trampolines and the sometimes obligatory gnomes.

It's a lot when you think about it. And with garden spaces becoming smaller than ever before, we also need to consider those features that are necessary to allow the space to function practically. So, definitely a shed for storing bicycles and the lawnmower. And should every outdoor space house a washing line to help with our ecological responsibilities? To that, add pathways which allow dry access to the back of the garden even in the wintry months. And paved areas to stop for rest, hard standing points which enjoy the sun, and places of shade in which to sit and rest. Or a covered place to keep logs for the stove dry.

Westland Garden Chelsea 2007. Photo from The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin, Gill Books
Westland Garden Chelsea 2007. Photo from The Extra Room by Diarmuid Gavin, Gill Books

Quick tips on planting

• If you can, develop your planting slowly over a number of years. Deal with the backbone plants first - trees, hedging and climbers.

• Plant in autumn or winter when the plants won't be under a huge amount of stress looking for water.

• Develop an online or physical scrapbook.

• Visit gardens that are open to the public. Observe and ask questions and (with the owner's permission, if required) take lots of photos.

• Use the internet as a resource. Sites such as Pinterest or Houzz are invaluable.

• Join a local gardening group.

• Purchase plants at local sales or swap cuttings and information with others who are interested.

• Decide what looks you like and seek a way of developing a scheme that reflects them.

Different planting styles

The art of planting is combining colours, textures and forms to harmonise with the style and essence of the garden that you have in mind. Consider seasonal interest and the way the planting scheme will develop over time.


Combining a palette of plants is one of the most practical solutions in smaller spaces. A mixed planting style provides continuous seasonal interest and creates a successful fusion of medium to large architectural trees and shrubs which create a background structure, shape and form. Focal plants catch the eye in borders or containers while herbaceous plants, bedding and bulbs fill the gaps, adding colour and seasonal lift to the overall scheme.

To create a unified mixed scheme you need a balance of different plant types. This means using both evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants that add occasional sparkle, colour and fragrance, and a selection of flowering bulbs, corms, tubers and annuals. The trick is to orchestrate these plants to achieve a harmonious balance of colour and structure. Start by positioning your structural plants. Allow space for specimens that stand out. Achieve volume with shrubs and fill in gaps with herbaceous plants that will flower at different times, so that your picture is never static. Green is the perfect backdrop, so use lots of that. Exercise restraint by not including too many different plants and make sure to pack in some really exciting and dramatic plants to keep it interesting.


This is a very popular style, flowery and romantic. It's not a low-maintenance option, however, and while herbaceous plants peak in summer, most die down in winter, leaving unappealing bare soil and dead plant material. The secret of success is good soil preparation and skilful planting to achieve an overall informal appearance. The charm of this style is the mix of delightful plants such as peonies, foxglove, lavatera, centranthus, achillea, salvias, verbascum, hollyhock, lavender and nepeta. Roses are an integral part of this scheme, along with climbers such as clematis and honeysuckle. You can also include fruit and veg in the mix or lay a lawn to form a calm contrast. It's a style that works very well with houses built from natural materials.


Well, this is exactly as it sounds, isn't it? To be precise it is a natural-looking style - if actually left to its own devices it will develop thistles, briars and wonderful wild plants. This is a wonderfully effective planting style. It makes use of garden plants but selects them for their freeform nature. Add to this some ornamental grasses and you can imagine a willowy garden full of colour and texture. Immersing yourself in this style brings a sense of wild grasslands to our humble plot. Inherent in this style is working with your garden soil (within reason). It's always good to break up compaction and remove any weeds and stones and using plants that won't need special care once established. Whether it is a dry, rich or damp site, working with the inherent conditions means you won't be relying on the water hose to support plants that would rather be somewhere else.


Trees are very important in gardens and greater landscapes. They provide habitats for numerous other life forms, from mammals to insects. They help create microclimates, reducing the effects of heavy winds or salt carried from the sea in coastal regions. They also help to bind soil, lessening erosion on sloping sites or by rivers and the coast.

Every garden should host trees, no matter how small. We can grow relative delicacies such as oriental maples, which are either very slow growing or not huge at full size. We can grow short-lived trees which last for up to fifty years or, if we have space in our gardens, we have the opportunity to give back to the earth by investing in the future and growing some wonderful large specimens.

If you are planning to use trees in your garden, have a look at the size of your plot. Try to make the correct choice from the word go. Something that you can purchase at a relatively small size, say two metres high, could within a short time be really massive, too big for your plot. So picking the right specimen and avoiding having to hack away at its natural shape, or even to remove it, is best practice.

Trees are one type of garden plant that do need thorough consideration and care while they're establishing. Traditionally trees were planted in their bare root state, when dormant, in the winter months. This allowed for greater ease of transport as the nursery would be moving just the weight of the plant, not the accompanying soil. It's still a valid way to plant and a cost-effective one. If you're planning on planting multiple trees, for instance creating a hedge or even an arboretum (a collection of trees) of some type, plan for some time between mid-November and mid-January and the cost of your stock could be radically reduced. You have to be ready, however, and ensure you are dealing with a specialist nursery that knows how to manage the transportation of the stock, keeping the roots moist under wet sacking.

Take 2

Boxing clever


A young family had commissioned a design for a wonderful passive home in a hilly landscape. While the house benefited from adequate land, both front and back, the south-facing rear garden which adjoined the communal living quarters (kitchen and dining area) was restrictive. The back of the house seemed to be pushed right up against a cliff face - an excavated hill carved out to create the home. On top of this hill was a tennis court and still further up, a level terrace area benefiting from wonderful views of the sea. The challenge was to make this usable, to create adequate spaces on multiple levels for the family to relax, eat, drink and entertain outdoors, while dealing with the five metre-high sheer wall of soil and rock, the remnants of the excavation. The solution developed was to create a series of square and rectangular beds made from either reinforced concrete or block which was rendered in a way that would dribble up the hillside, incorporating small terraces and a hidden series of steps to allow access to the property's highest points. Pushing the land back as far as possible, lessening the dramatic incline of the slope while making use of geometric shape, in the form of planter boxes created intrigue, opened up the area to more light and enabled an aspect that had been dangerous and foreboding to become an invitation to explore.

The process involved making some models of small square and rectangular boxes set on an incline, initially with Lego. As we explored the potential of different configurations, we realised that the necessary steps could become an interesting architectural feature if we added intriguing twists and turns. Having an understanding of what we could plant in these boxes from the outset influenced their layout and size. The family were vibrant, welcoming and excited and so we reflected this with the introduction of vivid colours - hot pinks and yellow - inspired by the Mexican architectural creations of Luis Barragán.

The finished beds were filled mainly with single species blocks of plants - cannas, iris, astilbe, nepeta, hydrangeas, lavender and begonias - with the occasional specimen emerging such as butia capitata (jelly palm), cordyline australis and acer japonicum (Japanese maple).

Adventure land


I got a request from a couple, Anne Marie and Eamonn, who lived in the suburbs and had a garden that needed controlling. They had three young adventurous boys but their garden was dangerous. All appeared normal looking out from the house, there was a flowing lawn and mature trees and shrubs. But as you ventured towards the end of the site, you discovered a precipitous slope leading down to some desolate bog and a river. The other side of the river sloped upwards and was planted with trees. What was required was a design which would be adventurous for the family, something that would draw them out from the house, but something that made the plot safe.

Wandering down the embankment, I was struck by a childlike sense of adventure. I remembered some of my youth, when I idled hours away in the woodlands of a nearby park. I had been fascinated by some jungle-style planting - bamboos, ligularias and ferns - and I took this as my inspiration and set about planning an adventurous woodland garden with a hint of the Australian outback.

The new design centred on the creation of two pavilions. I looked at the tree trunks across the valley and marvelled at how straight they were, shooting towards the sky. To echo this feature I hit on the idea of creating pavilions, one at the end of the main neat garden and the second one stepped down into the undergrowth. Plans were devised that used telegraph poles as structural anchors for a hanging roof. The open pavilions would consist of a wooden terrace and a covering which was inspired by the luscious curve of rope bridges strung over jungle ravines. The two pavilions were connected by some wooden steps and a series of level platforms stepped down the remainder of the bank, leading eventually to a wooden runway which crossed the boggy landscape.

The planting echoed the memories of the childhood park. Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns were planted in the lush undergrowth. Bamboos, hostas, ferns, rodgersias, gunnera and other broad-leaved architectural species created a green tapestry. All of these loved the moisture of the riverside location and overnight put on abundant growth. Inaccessible areas of the slope were planted with creeping ivies and the final flourish was to create a few groves of multi-stemmed birch trees on the upper lawn. This distilled the view of the pavilion and enticed family and visitors out with a sense of excitement.

The key to the success of the scheme was really in the roofline. The curves, which were also reminiscent of a skate park, swept up into the sky and intrigued with their sense of adventure.

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